Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

Flags of our fathers… and our brothers _ 11/10
AvatarReviewed by Brian Wright

Jake Sully: The Sky People have sent us a message. That they can take whatever they want, and no one can stop them. But we will send them a message. You ride out as fast as wings can carry you, you tell the other clans to come, you tell them Toruk Makto calls to them, and you fly now, with me, brothers, sisters, and we will show the Sky People, that they cannot take whatever they want. That this… this is our land!

Written by James Cameron
Directed by James Cameron

Sam Worthington … Jake Sully
Zoe Saldana … Neytiri
Sigourney Weaver … Dr. Grace Augustine
Stephen Lang … Colonel Miles Quaritch
Joel Moore … Norm Spellman
Giovanni Ribisi … Parker Selfridge
Michelle Rodriguez … Trudy Chacon
Laz Alonso … Tsu’tey
Wes Studi … Eytukan
CCH Pounder … Moat

Special viewing note: Yesterday, January 19, 2010, would have been my brother, Forrest’s, 59th birthday. I attended Avatar with my mother partly as remembrance of his noble soul, and it turns out I could not have picked a more Forrest-worthy film… particularly its magical message of love and respect for all living things. Indeed, at several points—notably when the “seeds of Eywa” float like fireflies in the Pandoran night—we felt his presence.

The word avatar means 1) the embodiment of a quality or concept, 2) incarnation of esp. a Hindu deity in human form (from Sanskrit avatarah: ava, down + tarati, he crosses). The combination of the two standard meanings applies to the central plot element in this truly epochal movie. Like a flag, an avatar may be a real thing symbolizing a country and its core ideas. Or the avatar may be a clone in which another’s consciousness is represented.

Plot Brief

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wounded Earth soldier who has been rehabbed in a futuristic VA hospital, yet remains a paraplegic. He learns that his twin brother, Tom, a scientist in a high-level secret corporate-military project, has died. The executives of that project ask Jake to take Tom’s place because of his genetic identity as Tom’s twin. Jake agrees. In the faraway world of Pandora, an Earth expeditionary force run by the Resources Development Corporation (RDC) has established a presence with the purpose of extracting an extremely valuable mineral to solve Earth’s energy crisis. A native humanoid population, the Na’vi, stand in the way. The Avatar Project, that Jake is now part of, is to bond with the Na’vi, learn their ways, and negotiate peaceful access to the mineral deposits.

The head of RDC, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), is the corporate official who makes all fundamental decisions for the expedition. The head of military operations, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and leader of the Avatar Project, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), both report to Selfridge.[1] We learn quickly that Grace’s project is one of discovery and Quaritch’s objective is military conquest. Which will the Slime Poobah Selfridge choose? Duh. Yet the Avatar-Project side of the story provides all the wonder, drama, and romance. Jake’s avatar (JA)—which Jake’s consciousness inhabits via a special mind-meld pod—is finally ready. By accident, JA is stranded in a Na’vi great forest, home to the Omaticaya. He is discovered, later befriended and beloved, by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana); he becomes drawn into their culture, then identifies with their life force. Conflict ensues toward a final showdown.

Inadequate Superlatives…

James Cameron’s Avatar is a masterpiece, not only of cinema, but of literature. The breadth and depth of his conceptions—the symbolism, the insights into the human condition, the tension between machinery and living organisms, the grand vision of a benevolent (yes, natural libertarian) future, not to mention the everlovin’ technology and its execution—are simply overwhelming. They take my breath away. I could not do justice to this magnificent creation with a 100-page treatise, but let me try to sketch a few key impressions.

The Technical Area

My guess is most of the commentary from the film community will focus on the revolutionary technical breakthroughs of Avatar. You can look at the this technical side from two perspectives: the technology infusing the characters’ world and the creative technology of the filmmakers. Both are astounding. As a dedicated futurist—though not a “technopolist“—I can tell you what we see in the movie is readily extrapolated from current capability… from 3D holographic instrumentation panels to cryogenic preservation of bodies waiting for cures.

The world that the scientists like Dr. Grace and associates of our protagonist Corporal Jake Skully inhabit I expect 10-20 years from now will probably be very close to what we will see in General Hospital: The writer/director is a life long science fiction fan, and no doubt the fortune he’s made with his Hollywood creations—chiefly Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Titanic (1997)—assures he has access to any knowledge or capability that interests him. There is no question in my mind that he understands the Singularity, as articulated by Ray Kurzweil.[2]

“Human society and human consciousness are evolving before our eyes in an unprecedented, historic way as we adopt and integrate with our machines. Typically, people don’t know when they’re making history, but we are definitely making history right now… for better or worse.” — Playboy Interview with James Cameron, December 2009

Cameron ratchets up the military tech as well. Remember the scene in Aliens, where Ripley straps herself into a hydraulic loader that magnifies Ripley’s body motions and gives her a couple of effective right hooks at the “Queen Bitch.” Well in Avatar, you have AMP suits, just like Ripley’s loader except they’re 30 feet tall and used as a soldier’s own personal armored walker. The guns, gunships, and other aircraft are straight from the pages of Apocalypse Now on steroids… believable, though insane and hellish.

Then, of course, the contemporary technology used to make the film is a little science fiction film of its own. [On cable these days, you can see a half-hour documentary on the making of Avatar. (And I’m sure when the DVD comes out in, what, five years?, the bonus features will be loaded with that kind of information.)] Cameron and Co. break new ground like there’s no tomorrow:

  • in animation—you will immediately believe the Na’vi (or the humans) are actual living beings captured on film.
  • in 3D—yes, it’s cool, but for me only a marked improvement in my normal viewing experience in a few scenes (the glasses seemed to dim the screen and I constantly noticed their black boundary on my periphery).
  • in special effectsAvatar’s creation of the world of Pandora will leave you sighing ecstatically like a child who has seen his first big fireworks display or experienced the landing, on a nearby twig, of his first rainbowed butterfly.
  • in the destruction of battle—an “AMPed up” combination of the aforementioned Apocalypse Now and War of the Worlds, gives new meaning to “Hell is coming for breakfast” (great combination war movie and antiwar movie).
  • in sound and music—admittedly, being so overwhelmed with the visuals and plot, I wasn’t properly attentive to the score or to the soundtrack in general. But it’s unique and properly unobtrusive, majestic when it needs to be.

And I haven’t even mentioned the bells and whistles that make the avatar universe work so seamlessly. For those who look at technology as a “good” thing, consider that when Jake inhabits his avatar, he’s no longer a paraplegic. Then also realize that, according to Kurzweil and others, full-immersion virtual reality (VR) is probably less than a decade or two away. No, not quite the same potential—the avatars of Avatar are completely real tho separate from the mind-donor body—but one can definitely envision a Matrix kind of artificial world that could mitigate a lot of real suffering… plus think of the whole realm of VR pleasures.[3]

The Human(oid) Element

Not only does James Cameron nail the dark “Soul of the Aggressor State” forever to the “Wall of Inhumanity” (I suppose in this case, the “Wall of Inhumanoid-ity”)—and does so by explicit connection to the modern American engine of wanton martial murder and slaughter for the benefit of fat, sleazy corporate shit-bags—he brings to wondrous life a land and its “people” full of enchantment and exquisite joys. Black and white. I can’t think of a modern work of fiction in which the lines of morality are more clearly drawn. And accomplishes it not by means of the stuff of technology, rather by an epic human(oid) story expressing the ultimate family values.

“Ultimately, audiences don’t give a rat’s ass how a movie is made. When people see the movie, the story will be about the world of the planet Pandora, the creatures on it, the characters—such as the former Marine and amputee [paraplegic] played by Sam Worthington—and the huge conflict between the humans and the inhabitants of Pandora. How does it move you? How emotional is it? It’s pretty damned emotional and dramatic. That said, I think we certainly exceeded our expectations in making these characters feel real.” — Playboy Interview with James Cameron, December 2009

Well put. As I stated above, Avatar is as much great literature as it is great cinema. As with the writer/director team in Dances with Wolves, Cameron has crafted one of the most sensitive treatments of an unspoiled race we are likely to see for some time. The Eastern spirituality shines through, bringing up images of another animated—though wholly computer-generated—sci-fi epic of a decade ago, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Just as Final Fantasy had its Earth Spirit, Gaia, from which we are born and to which we return, the Omaticaya have as their living spirit an Earth Mother, Eywa, from which all comes and is ultimately drawn back within.

Now I’m thinking of the tribute to the Great Spirit in Last of the Mohicans, early in the film as Hawkeye and his brother and father stalk and kill an antelope. I’ve mentioned a few movies in this review that come to mind in with Avatar: Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Final Fantasy, Aliens, Apocalypse Now, The Matrix. There are others. Let’s not forget Starship Troopers, especially the book of that name. I suppose some will look at these associations as amalgamated borrowing, and there could be some basis for that… if the story weren’t so originally conceived and tightly built. [And all writers compose from their experience; what Cameron calls up are key, pertinent parts of those other films.]

Ironically, the Na’vi world Cameron extols as spiritually uplifting is as free of “technology” as its creator (Cameron) is overflowing with it. I put technology in quotes there because I don’t mean to suggest that the Omaticaya lack the tools to flourish in their land of natural magic. On a different note, this movie can stimulate a spirited, healthful social debate on ‘good’ technology vs. ‘bad’ technology that can really make a difference…

Revolutionary Political Impact…

When was the last time you went to a war movie and actually rooted against the American forces? Okay, yes, Dances with Wolves (1990). Good answer. In Avatar, the armies aren’t strictly speaking American… but the Allied Earth Marines seem about as American-military dominated as the so-called Coalition Forces were in Operation Iraqi Freedom. And when the Shinola hits the rotating blades of the gunships, the crowd in our theater erupts in applause.[4]

There is no doubt that James Cameron is sending a message loud and clear to all of humankind: “Have courage. Rise up and defend your humanity and its sacred spirit against the ‘Unspeakable.'” The analogy of that corporate-state Unspeakable: from the extermination of the American Indians, to the wholesale American-‘government’ rape of Vietnam and Southeast Asia, to the worldwide CIA/Pentagon’s late-20th-century killing-and-plunder fields, to the aggression in Iraq/Afghanistan, to ongoing, numerous, less-obvious atrocities (from all modern corporate- or socialist-state origins of any nation) is unmistakable.

Yes, Avatar frames the quintessential left-libertarian message

[Avatar is a dagger to the heart of the MIC[5] and what I call the Kleptocons. It strikes at that emotional-perceptual level; the billions of people who will probably see the movie will come away with this profound feeling of antipathy for anyone who has the same psychological DNA as Parker Selfridge, Miles Quaritch, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, all the members of Congress (except for Ron Paul), or any power person with pond scum flowing through his veins. I’ll write more on it later, augmenting the review. But for the time being, I predict Avatar is not only a game changer in movies, it’s a game changer for Liberty by identifying its priority enemy as our own corporate-state Matrix and inspiring the heroic, human, spiritual, rational-individualist resistance.]

Finally, on the deepest level, Avatar rocks because it identifies with the true patriotism of our colonial founders, and then the people in our families who did fight for liberty… or at least had a reasonable belief they were doing so. Thanks, Father. Thanks, Brother. You are the flags, the real symbols of what war, peace, and life are about, the avatars of our brave free world, our holy land that we shall fight for and win.

Jim Cameron et al, thank you, thank you, thank you!

[1] Selfridge is the name of a very important Air National Guard base in Michigan, named after the first US military officer to die in an aviation incident.

[2] The Singularity is Near: When humans transcend biology, by Ray Kurzweil. The Singularity is essentially a concept created by Kurzweil to denote the point at which “man” and “machine” become complements to each other. For example, consider how computers and the Internet have changed human consciousness.

[3] I know what you’re thinking. If Junior can put on the VR suit and become Johnny Handsome hosted by the high-school cheerleader sleepover, then when’s he going to get his homework done?! Well, I’m not too concerned about VR addiction for a couple of reasons: a) by that time, real reality (RR) will have become as attractive as VR—capabilities, health, beauty, intelligence, prowess, etc.—and it will be real, and b) we’ll have advanced, in general, spiritually to let go of addictive behavior.

[4] There were only a dozen patrons at the matinee we attended; at least half applauded the native Na’vi forces in defending their property, no one clapped for the Sky People.

[5] military industrial complex

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