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Avatar: A Review
Robert Tulip

Avatar, or The Plunder of Pandora, illustrates well the shifts in the American mythic imagination. Using the movie to tell a ‘cowboys and indians’ story, Avatar inverts the tradition of John Ford and John Wayne, putting the indigenous heroes on the side of the angels. In this vision, the natives are magically in touch with the great spirit of the earth, Gaia, while the cowboys of Pandora represent all the sleazy evil of plunder and murder from the demons of Wall Street who rule the Pentagon. The beauty of natural grace, represented by the natural paradise planet of Pandora, meets the evil of material corruption, an earth with high technology but no soul.

The avatar of the movie is a piece of technological wizardry that comes from the side of evil, reflecting the power of technology and ostensibly seeking to justify that technology by providing scientific information about the people subject to the genocidal plans of the mining company. The avatar is a bit like Japanese ‘scientific whaling’, a figleaf to deflect criticism of a purely commercial venture. The mission of the avatar is both to understand the good and to help to destroy it in the name of evil. The tension within this mission forms the central plot dynamic of the movie, how to keep faith with experience – recognizing that good is better than evil - and also with tradition – recognizing that loyalty to constituted authority provides the resources for all activity within the current framework. As a meeting point between two worlds, the scientific avatars are torn in their loyalty, between formal legal duty to evil, and moral duty of conscience for good.

The conflict between law and ethics is a central theme of Avatar. The parable of the movie suggests that when law is maddened with greed and blindness, the moral duty of conscience becomes overwhelming. Picking up current desperate feelings about climate change, Avatar implies that the ethical path must look to the consequences of conduct rather than to the loyalty to state authority embedded in law. As such, it has a romantic anarchistic streak whose serious side deserves analysis.

The theme of the fallen condition of American culture appears not just as the evil colonel and his henchmen, but also with an ironic twist from the 3D glasses, this wonderful innovation in movie-going. The 3D effects enable the repeated scenes running around on narrow branches high above the ground to give the viewer a giddy feeling of vertigo, a fear of falling from a clifftop, looking over the edge and imagining plummeting to death. So the graceful ability of the natural life of Pandora to race about on these tree branches is a parable - having an exceedingly complex social system while avoiding the ever-present risk of fall becomes a visual metaphor for the superiority of indigenous culture over modernity.

Avatar deliberately depicts American wars in Vietnam and Iraq as a symbol of the mad idiocy of military imperialism, the destruction of holiness by brainless jarheads. The movie invites us to ask how any mining wealth could justify the destruction of an ancient wise and harmonious culture, a scene played out still around the world in conflict over land use and resource extraction. I felt that Avatar was offering more than a gesture about the Freeport mine in Indonesia, where American technology has suppressed indigenous resistance to destruction. An echo of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s critique of the Vietnam War, appears first in the arrows clattering against helicopter gunships. With this scene Avatar recalls the breezy confidence of the voyage into the heart of darkness in Vietnam that is jolted by a spear through the heart of the invader.

Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, with his description of the ugliness of imperial conquest of the world, informs Avatar’s narrative theme of a journey into nature to find your soul. So too the ghost of Joseph Campbell, the mythic inspirer of Star Wars and The Matrix, hides beneath the surface throughout Avatar. Campbell’s sense of cosmic battle, good against evil, nature against modernity, and of the cyclic pulse of nature as the soul of grace, informs the value system of the movie.

One of Campbell’s interests is the World Tree Yggdrasil, the three rooted ash holding Valhalla, kingdom of the Gods, in its high branches. Yggdrasil appears in Avatar as the home of the indigenous community. We could say the Christian symbol of the chopping down of Odin’s sacred oak appears as the military conquest of ecological peace by bloodthirsty satanic invaders.

As a morality tale, Avatar appears to suggest that capitalism is irredeemable, even while resting upon capitalist finance and technology to create the wizardry of the film. The morality tale drips with western guilt about the conquest of the world. The message is all about the USA, the heart of the darkness in the world today, the center of evil where they don’t just play, where the multinationals come and take your life away. This apocalyptic sense of the lost emptiness of American imperial culture sends a message of rejection of the values of patriotism and enterprise, in favour of a return to nature.

Avatar is a beautiful dream and myth, resonating with the sorrow of destruction. As a wake up call on the need for a shift to an ecological planetary paradigm it has a major message. Yet, just as Avatar is a capitalist movie, saved by amazing technology, you have to ask whether the magical mythology of nature could ever alone be enough to save humanity, and especially how far this utopian tree world can and should inform current directions. My view is that the mythology of Avatar is good but has big holes, not just the reliance on an American jarhead as hero, but also in the vision of primitive perfection seen through the framework of the spiritually lost technologist. The romance of connection to the cosmos appears in the sensitive wisdom of the sacred trees and in the indigenous ability to connect their nervous system to their animal friends and helpers. How far this romantic magical picture has practical lessons for the world is a conflicted and complex question.

The toppling of the world tree is an archetypal image of the triumph of evil over good. It is worthwhile to explore further the mythology of the world tree Yggdrasil, the holy tree of indigenous wisdom, to see how it informs the morality and cosmology of Avatar. Yggdrasil, from the Norse myth of Valhalla, is also called the Tree of Life, and by that name appears in the first and last books of the Bible, at Genesis 2:9 and Revelation 22:2, as the symbol of lost purity and future grace.

If I may insert a piece of new science here, my studies of astronomy show an interesting correlation between Yggdrasil and the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which formed the boundary of the visible solar system until modern times. Jupiter and Saturn form three intertwined ladders in time as a result of the helix shape of their orbital patterns. These three ladders, with rungs separated by sixty years, can be seen as a model for Yggdrasil as the enveloping frame of terrestrial time. After 540 years, the number of gates of Valhalla, these three ladders of time each have nine rungs, matching the myth of the three rope ladders upon which Odin and Baldur were hung on the world ash tree Yggdrasil, whose three great roots went to the origin of the world. The structure of Yggdrasil is the same as the physical structure of time for the solar system, a model that could well have been known in ancient times as providing the astronomical basis for the myth of the tree of life.

Once you scratch the surface of mythology you can open a Pandora’s Box of surprises. The name of the assaulted indigenous planet Pandora invites us to think what spirits may be released by this movie, and whether the old Greek myth that opening Pandora’s Box brought evil into the world may not be a guilty inversion of an older myth. Perhaps instead the Greek warriors smashed Pandora’s Box to destroy the preceding matrifocal society, and justified their shame by the myth that the box only held evil, except for the redeeming virtue of hope. If the Greek conquerors themselves were more a source of evil for the world, its displacement onto the victim served to hide their own guilt. In similar fashion, many of our myths, for example in the Bible, may stand as corrupted versions in which older authentic identities are concealed. At least the tree of life still features in the Bible, if only as main symbol of the past and future, not the present.

The military forces of Avatar stand as the descendents of the Greeks who vilified Pandora’s Box. This movie seeks to nudge the cultural zeitgeist towards a recognition that nature is the basis of life, that we cannot destroy our planet and find another one, and that care and nurture for our planet is central to sustaining life on earth.



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Sun Jan 24, 2010 5:50 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Avatar
I plan to see Avatar this week so thanks for putting so much time and energy into such a quality review.



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Post Re: Avatar
Thanks for the detailed review. I can't wait to see the movie myself. To the people who have seen it, what do you all think about the criticism that the movie is "Dances With Wolves" in space? What I mean by that is it a white-guilt fantasy? The hero, belonging to the oppressive culture, assimilates into the oppressed culture, sees their humanity and their plight, but then subsequently becomes their savior? Is it still "racist" to imagine oneself as dominating from within rather than from the outside?



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Mon Jan 25, 2010 1:15 pm
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Post Re: Avatar
Trish wrote:
Thanks for the detailed review. I can't wait to see the movie myself. To the people who have seen it, what do you all think about the criticism that the movie is "Dances With Wolves" in space? What I mean by that is it a white-guilt fantasy? The hero, belonging to the oppressive culture, assimilates into the oppressed culture, sees their humanity and their plight, but then subsequently becomes their savior? Is it still "racist" to imagine oneself as dominating from within rather than from the outside?


Hi Trish, these are really good questions. Yes Avatar is a white-guilt fantasy, but then white people have a lot to be guilty about so there is a therapeutic dimension to the modern inversion of the morality of the frontier. By making a US Marine the hero of Avatar, the movie neuters its revolutionary message and wraps it in a package that is acceptable to the mainstream movie goer. This use of the American hero is in fact an intensely racist step, carrying the implicit assumption that only people from the dominant culture are "real". This manœuvre is seen continually in Western history, dating from the ancient Greek condemnation of all foreigners as barbarians (actually meaning those whose language sounded like 'bar bar'). US culture has tended to think that the 50 states are the universe and that foreigners are only real in so far as they relate to Americans. This assumption remains part of the agenda of ensuring that Avatar will play in Peoria.



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Post Re: Avatar
Robert Tulip wrote:
Hi Trish, these are really good questions. Yes Avatar is a white-guilt fantasy, but then white people have a lot to be guilty about so there is a therapeutic dimension to the modern inversion of the morality of the frontier. By making a US Marine the hero of Avatar, the movie neuters its revolutionary message and wraps it in a package that is acceptable to the mainstream movie goer. This use of the American hero is in fact an intensely racist step, carrying the implicit assumption that only people from the dominant culture are "real". This manœuvre is seen continually in Western history, dating from the ancient Greek condemnation of all foreigners as barbarians (actually meaning those whose language sounded like 'bar bar'). US culture has tended to think that the 50 states are the universe and that foreigners are only real in so far as they relate to Americans. This assumption remains part of the agenda of ensuring that Avatar will play in Peoria.


Makes you wonder if the movie would go over the same way if the lead actor were Native American or African American? It's not wrong to empathize with the oppressed culture. It's the knowing what's best for them part that I think is a trap many liberal people (in Hollywood) fall into without realizing it. Seeing blue aliens or Native Americans as having magical connections to the land and elevating them further removes their humanity. What of the problems encountered with pure cultural relativism? What if the oppressed culture sold young girls as child brides to old men or executed people for petty crimes? Are all encounters and influences of a dominant culture bad? The point is I think it's a tired movie theme at this point, but I'm not sure if one (blockbuster) film could sell all this gray area as you said to Peoria.



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Post Re: Avatar
Trish wrote:

Makes you wonder if the movie would go over the same way if the lead actor were Native American or African American? It's not wrong to empathize with the oppressed culture. It's the knowing what's best for them part that I think is a trap many liberal people (in Hollywood) fall into without realizing it. Seeing blue aliens or Native Americans as having magical connections to the land and elevating them further removes their humanity. . . .


This reminds me of another trap which stems from racial stereotypes, the so-called "super dooper magical negro," a mystical minority figure which has rescued many a white protagonist from certain doom.

This is a very interesting article by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu:

http://www.strangehorizons.com/2004/200 ... inga.shtml

An excerpt:
Quote:
I first heard of the Magical Negro from author Steve Barnes during a Clarion East Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop discussion in 2001. He explained that a Magical Negro was a black character—usually depicted as wiser and spiritually deeper than the white protagonist—whose purpose in the plot was to help the protagonist get out of trouble, to help the protagonist realize his own faults and overcome them.

As I sat there listening to Barnes, I realized with dismay what bothered me about several of Stephen King's novels. Several of his greatest works hinge on Magical Negroes and, furthermore, the result was a propagation of racial stereotypes.


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Post Re: Avatar
The white guilt/noble savage theme has been popular (this time around) in the media since the about the time of the film Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman, released around 1970, I believe.

As you say Trish, this can get a little tired. I wouldn’t for a minute minimalize the eventual violent seizure of the new world by Europeans, or other imperialist events. But I think these things can get taken out of context, huge as they were, and this has been the case when it has made for a provocative and money making film or book. A close look at the violence and conflict that runs through history would be enough to put many off their dinner, but unfortunately white societies have not had a monopoly on these behaviors. In the larger context, they were just part of the crowd.

George Monbiot, writer and commentator with the Manchester Guardian, wrote a review of Avatar (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/01 ... l-not-see/) in which he verbally disemboweled western societies for their record in the new world from 1492, which he saw parallels to in the movie. I felt moved to write a response, even though it risked political incorrectness:


Mr. Monbiot, you put forward a point of view that is popular today, and has also waxed and wained in favor over the years. It is the view that says Europeans were savages that essentially messed up a group of ideal societies in the previously undiscovered part of the world after 1492. There have been a number of successful books and movies in recent years that have promoted this belief.

My guess is that the real story is far more complicated, certainly when one considers the huge numbers of people and the centuries long timeline involved. And it is very easy to fall victim to what historians call presentism, or the inadvertent projection of present day values and knowledge on to past individuals and societies. It is only natural to look at things in terms of what we know, but in the past many knew very little, and this must have colored their belief system about the world.

You quote incidents of barbaric atrocities, and they are no doubt true. But barbarity was the unfortunate reality in centuries past. Europeans certainly didn’t reserve these types of behavior for the inhabitants of the new world. Those that politically disagreed with Queen Elizabeth I could find their severed head on a pike outside of parliament. Women thought to be witches could find themselves burnt at the stake. Aboriginal societies were no shrinking violets either in this regard. Aztecs ripped out the hearts of still living prisoners in front of assembled crowds. Societies further north preferred the long slow torture to death of those that came into their hands through conflict.

Today we have some understanding of the nature of conflict, how it arises and the cycles it often follows. Knowledge means the possibility of change, but this was in short supply in the distant past. Looking backwards with the benefit of modern knowledge, one can see the cycles of conflict that started and grew. Sometimes the original meetings of the two groups in question were not all that bad. But with little self-knowledge, and conflicting beliefs, violence became highly probable over time. First nations fell victim to the same cycles as Europeans, and conflict was ongoing across the new world before and during European contact. It is pointless to project backward what we know today, because the past was different, and it is what it is, no matter how offensive we might find it today.

Worldviews could be very simplistic in the past compared to today. Religious or magical explanations abounded. A common theme here was life after death, the thought that one would float up to the clouds for a new existence immediately upon death, or similar arraignment. If truly accepted, it would seems to me that this would drastically alter the value of the life of oneself, and of others.

I think it safe to say that in any given population, there will be a diversity of opinion. Anyone that has had to come to an agreement in a meeting with more than about a half a dozen persons present will likely support this point. Viewpoints towards other peoples and their relation to the environment varied quite a bit on both sides, if we are to believe the written record. I think we have also seen this in the writings that have survived from the past. One of Captain Cook’s crew, for example, wrote in the eighteenth century that he admired the Pacific Islanders he came across, comparing them to the ancient Greeks in culture and learning. The historical record also shows many aboriginals eager for the fruits of industrial society. In Canada there was a long partnership between the Hudson’s Bay Company and many first nations. They were willing to hunt animals, almost to extinction at times, in order to get the products of “modern” society: guns, blankets, tools, whisky, etc. Nature took a back seat to perceived more important things at the time.

Again, we often project back our values about the environment, which is today being squeezed to death, and therefore feels precious. But in the fur trading days, the environment was a given. It seemed endless, and so had less perceived value than those things that were more difficult to obtain, such as the above-mentioned products. Once introduced, many first nations people seized on industrialism with energy and enthusiasm. In the example of the Hudson’s Bay traders, it was the traders who desired an environmental balance, and nature left to itself, in order to keep the supply of animal pelts coming. Over hunting by the aboriginal side was often more the issue, as they became more used to, and desirous of trade items. Times change, perspectives change.

Perspective colors all. Many of those first Europeans in the new world saw aboriginals as savages, yet today it could be said that the Europeans were at least as savage themselves. Yet at the time, differences loomed large from the viewpoint of the observers. If today a far enough advanced entity descended from space and had a look around at us today, they may be appalled at our use of other mammals for food, for example. From their perspective, they might not be a huge difference in respective levels of development between the species. We can only see what we can see at the time, as dysfunctional as this may seem in the future.

Dividing history and peoples into neat packets can make writing a rousing story easier, but may not do justice to a more complex reality.


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Post Re: Avatar
Interesting find geo. There is a similar 'feel' sometimes when you read a story or watch a movie that has a child who can see/interact with ghosts. Both of these dynamics I think play off current prejudices.

For the magical negro, there is some surprise to be found when profound wisdom comes from a black person. This surprise is an indicator of prejudice. It's insulting when people are surprised by something I say that's intelligent, as if they had previously thought I was stupid. The same applies. Using this dynamic in entertainment, it's taken a step further. The wisdom isn't just an overturning of prejudice, but rather something greater, superhuman.

With children, there's the prejudice that their youthful innocence gives them unique perspective. While this may be the case sometimes, the entertainment industry takes it a step further and shows them having such a unique perspective that they can actually interact with ghosts.

I don't think either case is an attempt to propogate prejudice, but rather to piggy back on current societal themes. It's a matter of perspective. You could say the same about the plot of Avatar. The obvious parallel theme is that the imperialist machine consumes more than it should, and individuals are the ones with the moral choices on their shoulders. Yet, after reading Howard Bloom's "Genius of the Beast", such a theme could also be a prejudice.



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Post Re: Avatar
etudiant wrote:
Dividing history and peoples into neat packets can make writing a rousing story easier, but may not do justice to a more complex reality.

Your essay was much appreciated, etudiant. It's a real dilemma, you're right, to avoid sounding blase about the fact of the past's happening, with all its horrible evdents, while trying to maintain a perspective that allows past peoples their ignorances, just as we'll need future people to allow us ours. Also, I frequently make myself uncomfortable when I reflect that were I able to undo any significant aspect of the past, I'd be negating my own existence. I'm here only because things happened exactly the way they did.



Last edited by DWill on Mon Jan 25, 2010 7:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Avatar
I am still reading the other posts on this forum but I had to put a quick two cents in...I find the discussion forming here to be WAY more interesting than the movie itself...so if you judge a movie on the discussion it generates then, well, score, I suppose. but...I really didn't like this movie. It was entertaining and it CGI'd me to death nicely, as expected...but it was none too subtle. Just in case you miss the point somehow they make sure to illustrate it in several hundred ways. I think the message of the movie could have been served up in some other manner. I would have liked to have "thought" through it a little more...
The jellyfish/seed things though, awesome.



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Post Re: Avatar
poohza said:
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The jellyfish/seed things though, awesome.

Yeah, those jellyfish are adorable. Great way to allude to Cameron's nautical documentaries...
I've seen it on Boxing Day (which is Second Christmas Day here, haha :lol: ), and I was impressed. The local newspaper compared the story to Dances With Wolves as well, also to Pocahontas. Truth be told, it's not much of an original story, but the way Cameron has brought it to screen is original. As always, I cried (because I'm a sucker for sad romantic dramas, even though I know it's going to be alright...) but I think part of it was me being overwhelmed by this whole new world literally opening itself in front of my eyes. It's a visual spectacle. Never mind the many plot holes (like where that second Avatar guy went after he returned to the barracks. Last time I saw him he grabbed a gun and erm, left.), it's brilliant and it's new.
I like the way that the Na'vi were so much connected to nature and the 'bad guys' trying to destroy it. Environmental message noted, but it was sent out well, like it was in the Lord of the Rings as well.
I'm rooting for a tell-all documentary on the DVD, which will clarify so much.


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Post Re: Avatar
The missus and I finally got around to seeing Avatar . . . wearing 3D glasses and all. All I can say is wow! Despite the various criticisms I've read, I think the movie is a tremendous cinematic work. The criticisms are valid to a point but perhaps overstated. It is problematic that one of the American jarheads becomes the savior for the Na'vi people, however, I have to say this idea also works pretty well within the context of the story. Cameron has said that the movie is not anti-human and I think what that means is that humans are capable of despicable acts of exploitation and degradation, but they are also compelled towards gentleness and unity with nature, capable of joy and love for and integrally connected to the natural world. The main character, Cpl. Jake Sully, is portrayed with a typical military mindset, unenlightened and arrogant, certainly willing to exploit the resources of the planet, Pandora. There are some brilliant sequences early in the film such as where his first reaction to the floating jellyfish creatures is to smack them like annoying insects, not aware of their spiritual significance. Neytiri, the Na'vi female protagonist is forced to destroy a a pack of attacking wolf-like creatures and is deeply saddened by their unnecessary deaths, a notion which is completely lost on the hapless Jake Sully. But as he learns of the ways of the Na'vi, Sully's spiritual side is awakened and through the course of the movie he becomes much more attuned to the natural world. His later role as savior for the Na'vi people works because he is a human and Na'vi after being immersed into the tribal way of life and his world is opened to new possibilities which his fellow humans cannot see.

Cameron's story is so tight and well-written and integral to the plot. I found it to be a brilliant sci-fi epic story. The military violence comes close to being gratuitous towards the end but certainly not enough to mar the film's finer points and I think the overall message is very positive and cautionary at the same time. The visual effects are stunning. This is definitely one of the better films I've seen in some time.


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Post Re: Avatar
An excellent review of Avatar from the New York Review of Books is at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23726

Quote:
Volume 57, Number 5 · March 25, 2010
The Wizard

By Daniel Mendelsohn
Avatar
a film directed by James Cameron
1.

Two hugely popular "mashups"—homemade videos that humorously juxtapose material from different sources—that are currently making the rounds on the Internet seek to ridicule James Cameron's visually ravishing and ideologically awkward new blockbuster, Avatar. In one, the portentous voice-over from the trailer for Disney's Oscar-winning animated feature Pocahontas (1995) has been seamlessly laid over footage from Avatar, in which, as in Pocahontas, a confrontation between dark-skinned native peoples and white-skinned invaders intent on commercial exploitation is leavened by an intercultural love story. "But though their worlds were very different...their destinies were one," the plummy voice of the narrator intones, interrupted by the sound of a Powhatan saying, "These pale visitors are strange to us!"

The other mashup reverses the joke. Here, dialogue from Avatar—a futuristic fantasy in which a crippled ex-Marine is given a second chance at life on a strange new world called Pandora, and there falls in love with a native girl, a complication that confuses his allegiances—has been just as seamlessly laid over bits of Pocahontas. In one, we see an animated image of Captain John Smith's ship after it makes its fateful landing at Jamestown, while we hear the voice of a character in Avatar—a tough Marine colonel as he welcomes some new recruits to Pandora—sardonically quoting a bit of movie dialogue that has become an iconic expression of all kinds of cultural displacement. "Ladies and gentlemen," he bellows, "you are not in Kansas anymore!" ...



Wed Mar 10, 2010 5:05 am
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