Sunday, January 31, 2010

Screw Gunships, Bring out the Opium

I finally got around to seeing Avatar. I have to preface by noting I really enjoyed watching this movie. The use of 3-D by James Cameron could really be game changing - it is not a gimmick, but an effective tool. Moreover, the themes are not ridiculous ones, but the approach used in addressing the themes is as in-your-face as the rest of the 3-D action. Not to mention problematically handled, but no one is perfect.

The themes of the movie are interweaving, but still border on escaping Cameron's control. Cameron tries to tackle problems of culture-clash (compound "going native"), racism, technology vs. environment, and other modern perils. Unfortunately, most of these are handled with the kind of alacrity not befitting its running time. Moreover, the themes have been played out in various movies and Avatar does not add much to the conversation. Instead it further abstracts the roots of the metaphor. If you want similar discourse go see Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai, Fear and Trembling, or Terrence Malick's The New World.

The technology versus environment binary is beyond overplayed. Possibly some people really do need the message that raping the environment is probably not the best way to go about living life. Nonetheless, Avatar appears to make the argument that technology is at odds with the lifestyle of the Navi (our pre-industrial counterparts). Of course there are cases of technology being appropriated by either side, science/technology being used for more innocuous purposes such as research, and the protagonist along with his human comrades take advantage of technology to take their place among the Navi. Still the main line of reasoning is upheld throughout the film and affirmed by the protagonist Jake Sully in one of his video logs commenting on how there is nothing we [humans] can give to Navi as a 'carrot' to lead them away from their home. Immediately I recalled a similar statement by a Qing emperor in rebuke to the British (I think this could have been the Qianlong Emperor, but possibly earlier). The lack of said good (outside silver) was replaced later with opium, thus the title. There are no medicines, no trinkets of ours that have value to them. In the end, even nature has an answer for the technological intermediary for Jake's Avatar.

The contradictions are simply at the expense of plot and action - not signaling a deeper meaning. It is of interest though how Sigourney Weaver's character makes parallels between the functions of Pandora and a network of technology. The metaphor may be a simple contrivance by Cameron, but what it really does is start to break down the dichotomy. I will use technology versus nature for convenience sake, but think of the terms loosely. Technology is mimetic of nature, not the other way around. In the same way that nature can appear destructive, so can technology, but in the end nature is indifferent. The common denominator is humankind. Humans can either use technology in a way that coexists with nature and allows a truly higher standard of living or it can be used to undermine our own habitat.

The issue of standard of living brings into question the Navi's role as pre-modern human analogy. To go back to pre-modern mankind's daily life would probably not be as pleasant as linking in to Pterodactyls and copulating under trees that linked us into a Gaia-like entity. I am not sure it would be Hobbesian either though. Humans developed in order to reach a more fulfilling life, technology, economic development among other things is supposed to be getting us there. It can be successful but I think anyone who believes that modernity is without many discontents and possibly 'forgotten' things is sorely misguided. One message that can be taken from the Navi despite their break with the reality we know is that they are advanced. They are responsive, cognizant, and well-adapted to their environment. They are advanced for their way of life and it calls into question how advanced we really think we are despite the span of human history, a blip on the radar. How evolved is it to bite the hand that feeds? On the other hand, what also can be drawn from the Navi is that reminiscence for the pre-modern (or Marxist agrarian) is to dream of a false, reconstructed ideal.

Cameron is already dealing with some big topics, but then adds on a poorly crafted and contradictory critique of militarism, Lt. Dunbar syndrome, and racism. It is tiresome to go into all of them. Instead, I would like to point out some scenes that were powerful nonetheless, and made me wish the movie was consistent with the message throughout. The dialogue where Jake notes his diminishing ability to determine reality from a dream due to his immersion in Navi culture is pretty consistent with reality - even if taken to an extreme. My personal experience of being immersed in different cultures has been similar. It would not be right to go as far as the difference between dreaming and waking, but rather an intuition into how identity is shaped unconsciously. While one does not fully change, it is a reconciliation of the self that is molded. Another particularly powerful scene to me was the interaction Neytiri and human-Jake Sully. While brief, the scene definitely showed the power to overcome the barriers to the Other. Pardon my ability to make something emotionally powerful, pedantically boring.

I will say Avatar is not a movie to find real answers, even though it ends decisively, but it did provoke me to question, even if the questions were ones I have faced before. It is also a fun, engaging film. It is still unfortunate that James Cameron takes a Navajo myth and makes a crafted, enjoyable film with liberal time, space, and money, but thematically offers little new and much repackaged. A great director challenges the audience in a new, enlightening way and I don't think Avatar stacks up. I still recommend going to see it.

No comments:

Post a Comment