by Gary Westfahl
All right; the special effects in James Cameron's Avatar are indeed dazzling, and one can regard the film as ground-breaking in demonstrating, more so than any other recent film I know of, that computer animation can not only hold its own against live-action film but might actually replace it. Yes, 500 million dollars invested in the latest technology does enable a filmmaker to make twelve-foot-high, blue-skinned aliens generated through performance capture just as sympathetic and involving as skilled actors filmed in the ordinary fashion. Still, after filmgoers have emotionally experienced those aliens' agonies of defeat and thrills of victory, some will feel compelled to actually think about the story that has enthralled them for almost three hours, and they are the ones who will feel less inclined to celebrate Cameron's achievement.
Prior to the film's release, the internet buzz was that Avatar was a ripoff of Poul Anderson's classic novelette "Call Me Joe" (1957), and admittedly there are some significant similarities: both stories involve paraplegic men who assume mental control of artificially created alien beings designed to survive on harsh alien planets, decide that they prefer being active aliens to being handicapped humans, and eventually choose to be aliens all of the time. But Anderson's novelette took place on Jupiter, not a distant world named Pandora, and featured a newly created sort of intelligent being introduced to an environment without intelligent life, not an enormous humanoid crafted to resemble, and mingle with, members of an indigenous intelligent species. Thus, even if its basic concept is not entirely original, the film does take it in a different direction. Yet the film also recalls Anderson's work in a broader fashion: one of that author's many talents was filling his alien worlds with memorably distinctive flora and fauna, as indicated by one evocative passage from "The Queen of Air and Darkness" (1971): "Blossoms opened, flamboyance on firethorn trees, steel-flowers rising blue from the brok and rainplant that cloaked all hills, shy whiteness of kiss-me-never down in the dales. Flitteries darted among them on iridescent wings; a crownbuck shook his horns and bugled." Here, although the larger, dinosaur-like creatures that inhabit Pandora are mostly things that we have all seen before, Cameron additionally provides his world with many smaller and subtler forms of bizarre alien life such as tiny purple lizards, floating fluorescent wisps, and spiraling plants that contract into a bulb when touched that represent precisely the sorts of extraterrestrial life that Anderson might have envisioned and described.
Anderson is not the only science fiction writer that this film brings to mind: its larger-than-life warsuits, manipulated by soldiers inside of them, are reminiscent of predecessors ranging from the fighting suits of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) to those in the Gundam Mobile Suit anime series (1979-1980), and a key subplot, depicting how members of the Pandoran race, the Na'vi, form a lifelong mental bond with large flying creatures that they then ride upon, seems lifted right out of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (1968) and its many sequels. Still, the science fiction story that most closely resembles Avatar has to be Ursula K. Le Guin's novella "The Word for World Is Forest" (1972), another epic about a benevolent race of alien beings who happily inhabit dense forests while living in harmony with nature until they are attacked and slaughtered by invading human soldiers who believe that the only good gook is a dead gook. In sum, recalling the old Hollywood axiom that stealing from one source is plagiarism while stealing from several sources is research, one can say that James Cameron's Avatar is well researched. Or, as Cameron might defend himself, quoting one of his platitude-spouting Na'vi, "All energy is borrowed, and someday you have to give it back."
When you follow in the footsteps of giants, though, you may also replicate their mistakes, and this enormous exercise in borrowing-and-giving-it-back is particularly striking in the ways that it echoes both the virtues of Le Guin's story a richly developed alien ecosystem and culture and its major flaw a one-dimensional portrait of an implacably evil military commander which engenders a one-dimensional and unpersuasive message about saintly savages being oppressed by scientifically advanced warriors. The problematic and uncharacteristic didacticism of her story was recognized by Le Guin herself in the "Afterword" she wrote for its original appearance in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), wherein she complained that in creating the story she had been forced by her muse to "moralize," even though "I am not very fond of moralistic tales." Of course, while Le Guin was writing, the still-raging Vietnam War was very much on her mind, and "The Word for World Is Forest," like Avatar itself, invites consideration as a parable about that conflict. Yet emotions that were appropriate in 1972 can seem anachronistic in 2009, and while one might posit that all filmmakers who matured during the Vietnam War must someday deal with that subject in their work, Cameron is entering the game rather late in his career, which makes his state-of-the-art film seem curiously old-fashioned in one respect. Bluntly, a character like Cameron's Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who calls the natives "roaches" and is eventually observed grinning in glee as he kills yet another alien, might have been acceptable thirty years ago, but he must be regarded today as nothing more than an outdated and offensive stereotype; Vietnam was one thing, but whatever else occurred in Iraq, there were no psychopathic American colonels fiercely dedicated to the genocidal slaughter of its citizens. (And a brief reference to "shock and awe" tactics cannot conceal the fact that this film is all about Vietnam and has nothing to do with the Middle East.) One might posit, perhaps, that this film was intended as Cameron's belated apology for Aliens (1986), a film that appeared to glorify all-out war against beings that didn't look like you which might explain why he summoned Sigourney Weaver, the chief alien-killer in that film, to here play Dr. Grace Augustine (whose very name announces graciousness and nobility), a compassionate scientist who opposes military action against the aliens on this world.
As another similarity, Le Guin's story, like Avatar, is moralistic about not only the oppression of native peoples, but thoughtless destruction of the environment as well. In this case, the violent elimination of the aliens on Pandora is primarily motivated by a desire to gain access to rich deposits of a valuable gravity-defying metal (and hey, if you want to demonstrate your complete contempt for scientific plausibility, you might as well call this impossible, McGuffin-like substance "unobtainium"). We are told that in the twenty-second century, humans have already despoiled their own planet "there is no green there" because "they killed their mother" and Earth is later described as a "dying world." The hoped-for happy ending to Avatar is that the human race might be stopped before they can utterly ruin a second planet. If these environmental concerns seem more contemporary than condemnations of the Vietnam War, they are ultimately just as clichéd, and the best commentary on the merits of this theme is provided by Cameron himself: when the alien-inhabiting Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is first being instructed by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in the wise ways of her people so as to earn acceptance into her tribe, he responds to one of her lectures by thinking, "I hope this tree-hugger crap isn't on the final." Soon, however, Sully has swallowed all of her tree-hugger crap hook, line, and sinker, and knowing that "the wealth of the world is all around us," and that there is a "network of energy that flows through all living things," Sully is properly indignant that the human settlers on Pandora would strive to destroy the Na'vi's sacred tree to do some mining, and he joins his adopted people in resisting their efforts.
If these stale sentiments do not seem as offensive as those in the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still (review here), that may simply reflect the fact that Cameron has placed them in a more intriguing setting and chosen actors more talented than Keanu Reeves to deliver them. What is disturbing is that Avatar marries its argument against ravaging one's environment to an argument against scientific progress itself. The film's position could not be clearer: Living off the land in a forest is good; living in a protective metallic shelter filled with scientific devices is bad. Killing animals with a bow and arrow is good; killing them with machine guns is bad. Riding through the air on the backs of pterodactyl-like creatures is good; riding through the air in futuristic helicopters is bad. Using scientific methods to turn you into an alien is bad; hoping that a magical goddess in a tree can perform the same trick is good. The only value of machinery is that, in a pinch, natives are allowed to temporarily employ guns and grenades in order to destroy the people who brought them and restore the planet's preindustrial tranquility. And this has to represent the ultimate irony of Avatar: James Cameron has spent half a billion dollars on the most advanced technology available in order to argue that we all need to abandon advanced technology and return to the simple lifestyles of ancient Native Americans and other noble savages. Well, if that's the way you feel, Mr. Cameron, why don't you abandon filmmaking and go live with the natives in Papua New Guinea, where you could assist them in staging the rituals that help to make their simple lives so much more satisfying than ours?
Cameron also conspicuously stacks the deck in arguing for the benefits of living naturally: when Sully first enters the Pandoran forest, the film acknowledges that nature is filled with both wonderful and terrible things when Sully is almost killed by two gigantic predators and by smaller dog-like animals. However, once the Na'vi resolve to teach Sully about their idyllic lives and benign philosophy, these dangerous animals completely vanish from sight, the forest is re-envisioned as a lush paradise, and the only perils involve the Pandoran habits of running madly along narrow tree branches and leaping across chasms (which would logically result in most natives dying from fatal falls well before they reached adulthood, but hey, this is a movie, and having them move with more reasonable caution would be much less exciting). Then, just when you have entirely forgotten that this wondrous forest was ever home to horrible monsters, all of them abruptly reappear because it's revenge-of-nature time, and now they are the good guys since they are trying to kill humans instead of aliens.
A related irony is that the philosophy being espoused in this movie give up your scientific devices, simplify your lifestyle, find happiness in everything that is natural was once epitomized in the phrase, "Small is beautiful." Yet in Avatar, more often than not, large is beautiful. As if convinced that audiences would only feel they were getting their money's worth if everything was big, big, big, Cameron has focused his creative energies on one enormous construct after another: huge warplanes, towering fighting suits, twelve-foot-high aliens, monstrous trees, dinosaur wannabes, an immense waterfall, huge floating mountains . . . . After a while, your mind becomes numb, these objects no longer impress, and you long for more of the aforementioned little touches of the outré that were observed earlier in the film. Frankly, Cameron should have spent more time on rainplant and flitteries instead of flying tanks and thundering triceratops. (Yet this tendency toward gigantism may also be a subconscious byproduct of undertaking to make an incredibly expensive film that surely represents one of the most mammoth projects in the history of cinema; indeed, so many people contributed to this production that, for the first time I can recall, the closing credits did not place every name on its own line, but crammed related names together into paragraphs. Clearly, it would have taken much too long to list them all in the usual fashion.)
If there is a theme in Avatar which is not entirely threadbare, it lies in the notion that it will someday not only be possible, but even desirable, to give up one's natural identity and assume an artificial identity. Traditional narratives often argue that people should accept who they really are and should not try to be something they are not, as illustrated by stories like the Twilight Zone episode "The Trade-Ins" (1962) and the film Seconds (1966). But here, Jake Sully comes to reject his real life as a partially paralyzed soldier and embraces a new unreal existence as an athletic alien: mentally returning from one experience in the forest to his human base, he says that "Everything is backwards now. Outside is the real world; back here is the dream." Crafting and inhabiting a dream world, then, is being celebrated, not chastised. It might have been more interesting if Avatar had posited that all of the Na'vi, not just a few agents like Jake Sully, were originally created by human scientists as convenient devices to explore a hostile alien world, although they soon went entirely native and were inspired by the new environment to develop their own distinctive culture and beliefs; this would have made the entire race the embodiment of a human dream and might have made the unlikely pleasures of the Pandorans' lives, and their evident mimicking of the practices of pre-technological humans, a bit more palatable.
In addition, the process of profitably reinventing oneself undoubtedly had personal relevance to James Cameron, since Avatar represents his return to feature film directing after a twelve-year hiatus, and there is evidence that he regarded the task as his own rebirth as a new kind of film director. Prior to being formally accepted as a member of the tribe, Jake comments that "Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn a place among the People." I wasn't keeping track of every single date in the small print at the bottom of Jake's video reports, but I believe that Jake's initiation and second "birthday" was exactly, or almost exactly, the two-hundredth anniversary of Cameron's own birthdate of August 16, 1954. And while I would not be enthusiastic about seeing another film like Avatar, Cameron's record as a director indicates that he rarely chooses to repeat himself, and he may be capable of next producing a film that would blend the technological breakthroughs of this one with a more original and meaningful story that is, if Avatar is successful enough to earn him another 500 million dollars to play with.