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Avatar Review from a Sci-Fi Eye
Walking out of the IMAX 3D theater at half past midnight on Sunday did not prove to be the most opportune time to process James Cameron's new film. I knew I just experienced something refreshing that left me with a good feeling afterward, but not until I thought through the material again the following afternoon did I find myself more and more admiring the work.
I'm sure you read enough of the Avatar reviews (if not, check out RottenTomatoes, Metacritic, or IMDB) praising the film for its technical achievements and perhaps criticizing its characters and story. I fall somewhat in the middle of these two debates. While I concede to Cameron’s incomparable cinematography and special effects, I feel it represents more a small step forward in the industry than the leaps and bounds that some would suggest. Then again, maybe I just play too many video games and watch too many CG induced action flicks to be really uber impressed. And while I do not think this film hosts the most complex or intriguing plot in cinematic history, neither do many of the great films. I believe Avatar's story to be executed masterfully.
I'm really here to talk about what Avatar means for the Sci-Fi film genre. James Cameron, with Aliens and Terminator, greatly defined Sci-Fi in the 80's and 90's. His brainchild, Avatar, like The Matrix, marks the next progression of the genre as a whole, in both topic and tone. This milestone, above all else, makes Avatar so compelling and thought-provoking and why it truly deserves huge recognition. The special effects and the storyline can take a backseat.
The End of the Cyborg...
the End of the Technological Factor
Film academics wrote much about the dying presence of the cyborg in Sci-Fi. Farewell to the days of the powerful and fearful machine injected (or reversed, human injected) beings of Blade Runner, Robocop, and Terminator. With films like Virtuosity and The Matrix, digital foes in a world of simulation, began to replace their mechanical counterparts. With the advent of Avatar, Cameron flips the genre upside down. The new “in” lies not with the technological, not with the creations of men, but once again, with the natural creations of the universe that should be feared (acid spittin’ Aliens aside).
Even with ships that can travel across the galaxy, with advanced bombs and guns, technology cannot fully control the world of Pandora. Unknown biological phenomena interfere with the ships' equipment, huge elephant like creatures appear impervious to bullets, and a neural network way more advanced then the human brain comprises the planet itself.
The film builds up to an inevitable showdown between the human race, fighting with their automatic machine guns, their flamethrowers, their mech-like suits and ships, and the native Na’vi, fighting on horseback, on top of flying banshee, shooting arrows. The Na’vi’s victory, while logical to the plot, should not be construed as ridiculous. While possessing no real technology, no real battle equivalent to fend off the humans, the Na’vi do own several real advantages in their arsenal. The main one being that they do not fight alone, they fight alongside the planet. Not metaphorically, but literally. Using their own biology and evolution, they can connect to (through cyber-optic like strains beneath their hair) and control other species on Pandora as well as their own body. The Na’vi can even tap into to the planet, which hosts the organic downloads (memories) of previous organisms. In Avatar, instead of technology making up for the short-comings of evolution, evolution kick’s technology’s ass.
In previous Sci-Fi films, humanity commonly fights against technology, against the cyborgs, or superior alien species. Brains and the human spirit helps the Earthlings win in the end.
In Avatar, heart and love, the more primal, instinctual nature of the Na’vi help win over the greed and might of human engineering.
The unifying of all the Na’vi across Pandora, and then of even the ferocious and dangerous species who join the Na’vi, testifies to the power of solidarity over hi-tech prowess. The Na’vi’s love for their people and for their history compels them to fend off the human attacks, with bows and arrows at first, even though they could never win on their own. Scene after scene Neytiri defends her love, the Avatar, Jake, with almost animal passion, guarding his body when he falls, shielding him under attack, protecting him. She loves him too, not for his humanity, but for his encompassment of the Na’vi’s way of life. James Cameron, through a single film, abandons humanity and human advancement. He trades it for evolution and alien tribalism. Throughout the film the audience identifies and sympathizes not with humans, but with the Na’vi. In the end, the humans find themselves heading home, and Jake, the Na’vi’s new hero, becomes completely transferred to his Avatar. Nothing human remains, only alien, only Pandora and all it represents.
What better way to exemplify this break then with half-naked beings taking down ships and mechs with bows and arrows. James Cameron’s message gets thrown right in your face - down with technology, nature reigns supreme. The audience cannot help but accept this result, enjoy, and in fact applaud it in the end. And applaud everyone did, not just the technical masterpiece, but the fulfilling of Avatar’s main premise.
Good-bye Sci-Fi Doom and Gloom
Sci-Fi finds itself haunted by post apocalyptic worlds, themes of dark humanity enslaving androids, enslaving aliens, finally succumbing to its own greed and progression. On the other side of the coin, super intelligent aliens abduct people, mindlessly want to destroy life as we know it, or at the very least, cannot be trusted. Either way, Sci-Fi’s tone usually comes in a depressing and less then hopeful package. Avatar does not and suggests that the future and outer-space host many beautiful worlds and beings waiting to be discovered.
With its lush and tropical landscape, its reptilian population, and the awe-taking, twice as big as a human, Na’vi, Pandora easily shadows the desert worlds of Earth after D-Day. I easily forgot about the horribly scorched and detestable planet in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, or the trash heap of Earth found in Wall-E. The oceans, the rivers, the large planet (not a moon) hovering in the sky, brings out the most beautiful connections to Earth and then some.
The Na’vi as well, simple, tribal. Following traditions and nobility that reminds people of the best aspects of humanity. Here aliens do not hunt and prey on humans, but humans hunt and prey on extraterrestrials. Cameron flips conceptions and poses that the audience wish for the Na’vi, for the aliens, to triumph and win. We choose the lifestyles and world of the Na’vi over that of our own, sucked into the story and the visuals, without ever thinking twice of that decision. Mostly because the Na’vi remind us of the best aspects of ourselves and the humans, the worst. Forget men boldly going where no man has gone before, we don’t want them to come here, to our world, to Pandora. We want the aliens to live on and prosper and let humanity fall to the wayside, its time long cometh.
When Avatar does spawn sequels, which it will (and hopefully they will not also take 10 years to make), then you can bet that we will find ourselves on the side of the Na’vi once more, probably fighting the onslaught and revenge driven humans, and we will be cheering wildly inside as our human brethren get taken down scene after scene, and crying for every life the Na’vi loose in the fight.
Cameron finally asked us to no longer hope for humanity because something grander and more noble, something more closely connected to our own tribal heritage, awaits us on Pandora.
Like so many, I loved the trip, I look forward to my next visit, and I anticipate that many other visits through the universe of Sci-Fi will be much more lively and beautiful, following in with the new precedent Cameron sets with Avatar.
Not that I will not also enjoy the old coat of Sci-Fi arms, but this genre really needed a breath-taking alternative, and Avatar does just that!
Yes, definitely see this film! The story, the music, the visuals, it's all great! =D