Monday, January 4, 2010

Joining the Blue Man Group: James Cameron's Avatar

Certain qualities -- stunning special effects, explosions, a fast-paced story, stars -- may guarantee a strong opening weekend for a movie.  But it takes something extra to propel a film to true market domination, to the level of an "event."  It requires an ability on the part of the filmmaker to tap into the subconscious of the moviegoing public, to understand the paradigms that underlie the way they see the world and somehow render those paradigms onscreen.  A film that succeeds in this way does not necessarily succeed artistically; it doesn't necessarily fail either.  That sort of accomplishment is beside the point.  The point is simply to create something both so spectacular and yet so recognizable that audiences inhabit it as easily as their own dreams.

If America dreams, it dreams James Cameron movies.  And though Avatar may at times seem like the result of too much bad pizza right before bed, it nevertheless speaks to our national preoccupations and desires far more directly than I suspect even its fans would like to admit.  A lot's been written already about the hilariously bad dialogue ("Come to Papa," "let's dance"), the creepy love story ("local tail" has never been used so literally), and the blundering obvious-ness of the characterizations.  For anyone who's seen Titanic, none of this will come as a surprise.  But the thing that's weirdest about Avatar, and in a way, most interesting about it, is what it has to say about nature and technology, and the surprising way those two intersect.

In the film, our protagonist, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic, a Marine injured in combat who's now given a second chance at life when he's called on a mission to the planet Pandora.  Once there, he is to remotely operate an avatar grown from a mixture of extraterrestrial and human DNA that resembles a member of the local alien race of blue humanoids, and thus insinuate himself into their community.  In short order, he experiences the wonders of the forest, becomes enamored with alien culture, and goes through the "fun part" of his tribal initiation to manhood with a local hottie under the glowing tentacles of a ghost tree.  I won't go any deeper into the plot: it's unnecessary, and based on ticket sales you've probably seen it already.

What I will point out is the rather obvious fact that, inherently and from the beginning, Sully's attraction to the new world bears no resemblance to our traditional ideas about a love for nature.  What he is attracted to is, bizarrely, provocatively, unnatural: the opportunity to trade his broken body in for a new one.  By creating a character -- a young disabled veteran -- who indisputably deserves a second chance at fitness and finds it in a body not his own, I'd offer that Cameron is slyly sneaking in an idea, increasingly prevalent in our culture, that flawed bodies (overweight, aging, scarred) do not "represent who we are" -- that, in some way, physical imperfection, not the correcting of it, surgical or otherwise, is what's unnatural.  Part of the fantasy here is not just that Jake Sully gets his legs back; it's that any of us can imagine plopping into a blue body that's like our own, only with longer legs, firmer abs, golden eyes, and arms that swing gracefully from tree to tree.  This is reinforced by the appearance of the two other characters who also go avatar: Sigourney Weaver's character, a tightly wound, middle-aged chain-smoker, seems effortlessly athletic and relaxed in alien form, and Joel Moore as Norm Spellman, her gangly, nerdy sidekick, turns valiant hero when he switches bodies.

I mentioned plastic surgery already.  But there's something else this resembles even more clearly.  When Sully sees his alien for the first time, suspended in an aquarium of what I assume is Blue Dude Amniotic Fluid, and later, when he first entombs himself in a gel-packed pod filled with nerve-grabbing hookups and wires, I found myself thinking of another zeitgeist-courting film of yore: The Matrix.  Released ten years ago, when our dependence on computers was still incomplete, that picture hinged on Keanu's decision to choose the red pill, rejecting a comforting simulacrum for a grittier, grayer-toned reality.  That film was characterized by a deep unease with our still-nascent desire to leave our bodies behind.  Now, in the era of Second Life, Facebook, the iPhone, the Wii, the PS3, and such, where folks -- like me and most everyone else -- spend half their lives in front of a flickering screen, we've become more comfortable with our avatars.  In fact, they're starting to look more like us than our real reflections do.

And the plugged-in quality of Avatar's world goes deeper than just Jake's point of access.  Cameron (and many viewers) may think he's evoking the web of life, but Pandora is closer to another web: the World Wide one.  We're told that the planet's tree roots form a network with more connections than the human brain; data, including sound, is stored in phosphorescent vines.  And the local people walk around with connectors in their ponytails that recall nothing so clearly as USB ports.  They can hook into anything -- horses, dragons, plant life, you name it -- and immediately download and transmit information.  In one of the film's weirdest lines, Sigourney Weaver says that the aliens' attachment to the ghost trees is not "just some pagan ritual"; the trees, she explains, contain actual, scientifically measurable data.  Has America arrived at its atheist moment?  (If so, go team.)  Because this is tantamount to saying that knocking out Google's servers isn't like trashing the Vatican -- it's much much worse.

Part of the reason that, historically, nature has been both appreciated and systematically destroyed is because large parts of it are not immediately useful to us.  Here on Earth, we cannot charge up our cell phones by touching a toadstool or discover our grandma's favorite cookie recipe by licking a tree.  What we can do is look upon nature in wonder, as something outside of ourselves and our direct control (a feeling that can inspire a sublime religious or spiritual perspective), or we can look upon nature practically, as a collection of raw materials to be shaped.  Neither perspective is plausible for the characters who inhabit Avatar.  Pandora is a video game world.  Everything there is already a tool, a toy, a challenge, a sex object, an entertainment system.  To plug in, all you have to do is pick out a skin -- preferably a more attractive version of yourself, and definitely blue.

After watching the movie, I walked out of the theater declaiming on it at some length. 

"I kept thinking one of them was going to get his ponytail cut off," I said.  "Shouldn't they have explored that?  What would happen then?"

"He'd probably just have wandered around forever, looking for a wireless signal," said one of my friends, turning his phone back on.

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