28 December 2009

A Brunch Film Review: AVATAR Part III: The Strange Christian Conservative Case Against the Film

Recently my nemesis Janet Parshall and a conservative Christian (in Janet's world there is no other kind) film reviewer guest attacked James Cameron's Avatar in no uncertain terms. Janet hadn't seen the film of course, and it was hard to say if her reviewer guest had seen it either. Their criticism focused on a trifecta of egregious sins Cameron is imagined to have committed. On this point they were unified: James Cameron has made a thoroughly evil film. The sins?

1. Avatar, at least according to synopses they had possibly, kinda, sorta, maybe read was critical of captialism (click for an example).

2. Avatar supported Gaia worship and was an environmentalist tract. It implied that humans have acted unwisely with Earth. Indeed the film, fundamentalists assert, views humans as evil and a lesser species for such behavior. (do click for one of the most hilarious and medieval approaches to film critique you are likely to see in sometime)

3. Avatar functions as a self-hating critique, allegorical, of US history and as wider critique of humanity. (click at your own risk, one of the more muddle headed and ugly reviews follows)

Even were these criticisms true in their entirety -they are not- many of these reviews fail to address the film on its own merits. Was the story structured well? How was the acting? Was it good, poor or blah? Were the special effects everything that industry insiders said it would be? None of it mattered a whit to the ideological concerns of many Christian Conservative viewers, (with the exception of Todd Hertz at Christianity Today whose who review is thoughtful and complex)seem to have attended to their opinions of the film prior to the business of seeing it. Their only concern about the craftsmanship of the film itself, was the worry that it would be up to Cameron's typical standard and thus a blockbuster. An appropriate worry it would seem as the film made a billion dollars in just twenty-one days.

Before examining the categories of critique, I wonder at the obvious overlap between the morality of the heroes of Cameron's film, the Na'vi, and the scientists and at least two of the mercenaries (Jake Sully and Trudy Chacon)
and the general morality and ethics espoused by most Christians. I'm surprised that the film hasn't sparked dialogue about this obvious overlap instead of ham-handed critique that fails at internal consistency (see the note at the end of this review). Isn't a huge part of the Christian critique of humanity, both fundamentalist and liberal about human moral failings? Isn't it a rebuke of unethical action? Isn't it cheeky in the extreme to castigate someone for something you yourself do even if for slightly different reasons? Clearly among the liberal believing reviewers this is exactly how they approach the film. Fundamentalists (and it appears the Vatican) are ever fearful of tumbling down a slippery slope. If they grant any degree of consensus they must worry that they have ceded some truth to their rivals. This consistent inability to really examine the nuance of their own position and that which they find themselves in opposition renders their critique obviously hypocritical and almost hilariously silly.
Let us look at the conservative worries as I've laid them out.

Is AVATAR critical of capitalism?
What is the general obsession among Christians with capitalism anyway? I don't think that any objective reading of the Bible could possibly support any view that held Jesus was an early free marketeer. Nevertheless, among fundamentalists the Bible inspires a theology that must be accompanied by the op-ed column of the Wallstreet Journal. In the unlikely event that Jesus was anything like his biblical image it is doubtful that he would have been a subscriber to the WSJ, or its philosophy.

However, the conservative attachment to capitalism is not threatened by AVATAR in the slightest unless it also holds that it is okay to deal unethically and immorally toward people with whom you wish to trade, or whose resources you wish to acquire.
The primary economic critique found in the film is of profit at any cost, which seems to be how the Resource Development Administration (RDA) seems to operate.

For whatever reason, the film never explains, unobtanium is incomprehensibly valuable, and the RDA wants to move as much of it off world to Earth as quickly as possible. One Catholic conservative review balked at this contextlessness. Maybe unobtainium cured cancer, or solved the ecological crisis Jake mentions, maybe that is why the RDA is doing what it is doing. As if this would justify the treatement of another people and their world? Quite clearly it doesn't matter what unobtainium does, or is good for on Earth, the problem is the way in which it is acquired. It would be hard to find the capitalist critique since the market on earth is not given any context either. Thoughtless greed is the source of AVATAR's ire.

It should also be noted that AVATAR is not inventing a historically unique situation, unheard of in real human history. Prior to the great strides of organized labor companies and corporations, unregulated, managed to royally screw all kinds of people, both among their workers and among indigenous peoples. A modest look at one's old text books could find mention of company script, of Pinkertons etc. For some reason there is no acknowledgement of this obvious bit of history.

Is AVATAR and environmentalist tract that supports Gaia worship and suggests humans are a lesser species?
To this I am tempted to answer no and move on but that is probably unfair.

Clearly AVATAR is an environmentally sensitive movie. Clearly it fits into something someone might describe as environmentalist. I'm sure Al Gore saw this movie and did not think it was the product of Ben Stein or Bjorn Lombork. It does have an environmental message. The message, to me without counterpoint, is that we really ought to try behaving with more wisdom toward the planet on which we live, and more ethically toward the organisms with which we share the planet.

Janet Parshall was outraged at the film's acceptance of anthropogenic global warming (hereafter AGW), and seemed more or less astounded that anyone could think humans capable of altering the climate at all. "The whole film seems to say that humans are evil!" She, and many other reviewers ignored the smaller scales completely. So put aside whether you accept AGW for a moment and marvel at that omission. On smaller scales, at the level of city, state and country we humans seem to do a bang-up job at polluting, and damaging the environment, endangering or catapulting into extinction other species. On a planet where we have UV alerts because of ozone depletion, red-tide warnings, and where evidence is mounting that humanity may be precipitating a mass extinction that will rival the Cretaceous/Tertiary event it seems dishonest to be completely dismissive of the environmental movement, or its concerns. Humans unarguably are a source of pollution, and precipitate obvious local and dramatic ecological change. We alter, too often negatively, the air, the water quality, and bio-diversity.

Humans have been doing this very thing almost since Lucy. Indeed we aren't even unique in the tendency to push against the environment. Beavers wreak local havoc on area when they move in that affects everything around them, be it plant or animal. The major difference between us and other animals is that through our technology we have managed to break free from many of the constraints environments place on species. The film isn't saying out with humans, it is saying in with greater forsight, wisdom, empathy and ethics among humans as we move forward.

As to whether the film promotes paganesque Gaia worship that seems somewhat preposterous. This concern emerges from the entity Ey'wa, which is some kind of immense neural network, to which every organism on Pandora is capable of communicating however primitively. When the Na'vi communicate with Ey'wa their behavior certainly seems religious. But strictly speaking they are communicating with another intelligent biological entity that has evolved on Pandora and not a god. As Ey'wa isn't a god, but some kind of massive database its powers are limited to Pandora and its goals somewhat mysterious. I certainly saw no worship Gaia message as a viewer of the film, but then I am not burdened by the notion that I must proselytize for a god. Its almost like these reviewers think that upon arrival on Pandora humans should have discovered another species of Christianity to which they could relate.

Science Fiction though has always been a tough slog for Christian Fundamentalists who tend the view the genre as subversive and irreligious at best.

Science fiction takes the reader into a strange world without God. Oh, there might be “a god,” a “force,” but it is definitely not the God of the Bible, and the prominent names in this field are atheists.

(From the Way of Life Fundamental Baptist Information Service)

Is Avatar a self-hating film, that functions as a negative critique of US history?

Pretending that US History is clean and without moral blemish is self-hate, traveling with its sibling, self-deception. To the extent that AVATAR is a commentary on US history and action that probably isn't a bad thing. But to see the film so narrowly, as many US Fundamentalists seem to do is a mistake. This story is older than the European collision with Native America, it is older than the collision of English settlers with Aboriginie. It is even older than the collision of the Maori with Moriori. Asymmetrical conflict between more powerful people and less powerful people is almost a historical constant.

US based fundamentalists would prefer, it seems, to not think about US history too closely. This is because many of them think that its success is based on divine mandate from an omnipotent, omniscient, and, perhaps most importantly, omnibenenovlent God. Early US history certainly does nothing to reveal any of these three qualities, but looking at the rough way US citizens have dealt with others damages, irrevocably any conception of omnibenevolence. I suspect this is the reason for some of extremely vocal, and vitriol laden, responses to the film among some evangelicals. Looking hard at Western history has implications that many Fundamentalists simply do not want to examine. This is particularly the case of that species of conservative that weds correctness of their religious beliefs to their nationalistic pride.

However for all the Christian conservative backlash against the film, it is satisfying to see that the public makes its own decisions about what makes good and entertaining art (another example of this has to be the succes of internet porn, yay markets!). While a certain brand of religious and political leader may be banging away at their particular pulpit the public proceeds to the cineplex anyway. The reasons for its success are simple I think. It is an old story to which everyone, on some level, can relate. We all know what it feels like to to be mistreated, and bullied. The Na'vi, and their human co-conspirators are characters to whom we are immediately sympathetic. Given the polling, it is likely that the environmental message also resonates. The worries of the conservative Christians simply don't matter.
And that is a decidedly good thing.

Note: I began this third installment almost immediately after the release of AVATAR and I simply want to note, between that time and this that there have been several Christian movie review sites that have taken the more introspective and mature approach to AVATAR and film in general. Even where they find disagreement the film is seen as a conversation starter that provokes good and hard questions. Strangely one of these sites has been from Pat Robertson's pal CBN broadcasting. There are others. Kudos to them.

Labels: , , , , ,

23 December 2009

A Brunch Film Review: Avatar Part II: A biologist examines Pandora

If Avatar is a film that works for the viewer, a large part of that will be because of the convincing ecology found on Pandora (easily the most stunning creation in science fiction cinema to date). Unlike many sci-fi world creators, it is hard not to think of George Lucas here, Cameron, and his partners at Weta Workshops, ILM and Stan Winston studios (to name just the three large effects houses involved) have put in the time to properly attempt the creation of an entire ecosystem, as well as a convincing anthropology of its native intelligent lifeform. There is certainly a great deal of biological mystery on Pandora (I don't understand its ecosystem fully for instance) however Pandoran ecology all seems so plausible -no surfeit of ecologically inexplicable giants here thank you very much- that even a well trained biologist shouldn't be required to suspend her disbelief in the service of a rewarding two and half hours. And a film that leaves a biologist (like myself) wondering about the evolutionary history of a make believe world without needing to make allowances, and giving passes, is a film going reward in itself.

Pandora is an Earthlike world, though not so Earthlike that humans can breath without aid. (For a detailed account of why this is click here) It is a warm world, or at least the part dominated by the story is and it orbits a gas giant very much like our own Jupiter. The gas giant is probably too much like our own Jupiter, but I will leave all non-biological observations for the astronomically inclined. Pandora is not quite as large as Earth, but large enough to hold an atmosphere capable of trapping heat.

Avatar takes place in what appears to be forests of high photosynthetic productivity. Pandora may have arctic and temperate biomes, but our story takes place in something very like a rainforest. There is a vertical structure to the system, massive canopy trees, and then below a massive complexity to the understory producers. No doubt the books that discuss the planet for other fans will dwell on the film's spectacular fauna, but the structure of that forest is the first step of anchoring the film in reality. Because the makers gave the forest a convincing and diverse understory, as well as the majestic canaopy for its wide shots the world created has a believeable biological depth. It is the brief, or undetailed glimpses of the epiphytes, and ephemerals, of the small game and the creatures of the undergrowth and detritus that will be the unsung heroes of Avatar.

Another compelling detail is the day, night switch in forest ecology that appears to occur on Pandora. Pandora isn't earth, but like Earth, its ecology is not dominated by the same players at all hours of the day and night. But that is probably where the similarities between the two worlds end. The change in players and signals among the players seems more like a pelagic switch on Pandora. Bioluminescence dominates the Pandoran biota. Does this make much sense biologically? At first, I thought it might be a bit of Weta, or ILM or some effects house demonstrating their coolness (and as such it works magnificently) but upon reflection I've come to a different conclusion. Bioluminesence makes some sense considering Pandora does not orbit its solar system's star like Earth. It orbits a gas giant on an outer orbital track. This would mean somewhat reduced exposure to sunlight, and maybe selective pressures pushed toward more intense visual signalling apparatus. Stephen Jay Gould would probably say I am crafting 'just so stories' but regrettably I'm unable to go to Pandora and prove my hypothesis, so just you quiet down ghost of Stephen Jay Gould. The point is that this weird morphological trait, shared by much of the biota (notably absent in at least two of its alpha predators) makes plausible evolutionary sense. We could probably infer from the prevelance among the biota, that bioluminescence is evolutionarily ancient. I suspect that if Grace Augustine's (Sigourney Weaver) research lab had its own Genome Project it would reveal that bioluminescence was actually lost in the alpha predators but that the ghosts of those genes still exist hidden in their genomes. Here the creators have crafted a scientifically believable ecological backdrop. The time and effort that this must have taken is extreme, and it is richly rewarded on screen.

Taxonomy is important and Cameron and his team have given this some thought as well. The plants are not dwelled on enough to examine their taxonomy, but among the land based vertebrate type animals we see at least two major evolutionary families, tetrapods and hexapods, that is four and six limbed types. Hexapods enjoy greater representation in the Pandoran biota (at least in the region where the film takes place). Is this a split similar to the marsupial/placental split in mammals? It isn't discussed. From an evolutionary perspective this would be a fascinating development (oh the research we could do!). On Earth only one major body plan emerged among big land animals, it has been greatly elaborated on, but all vertebrates are basicaly tetrapods. Not so Pandora. The Na'vi, the indigenous people of Pandora, are notably tetrapods. While potentially very interesting, Pandoran morphology is not discussed in any detail in the film, but remains an interesting point of mystery for the serious science fiction fan. There are substantial differences in morphology among the tetrapods and hexapods though both share at least one organ, even if they differ in limb number. I don't want to go to deeply into detail about what is shared, and what is not, because to do so would be to violate spoiler protocols. I will say that there are no evolutionary barriers to plausiblity to this state of affairs. What is clear is that Pandora is a planet that has produced a fascinating biota, that has had a different evolutionary history than our own.

It probably goes without saying that the ethology of the organisms is also meticulously and plausibly created. I will dwell on only one example, the megafaunal predator called a thanator. This intimidating, hexapod, alpha predator, resembles in many ways the big cats of our own planet, except of course for the extra limbs, and the ten senosry quills, attached to flat chitinous plates. There is something insect-like in the quality of its body. It's teeth and claws resemble material found in the chelicerae of spiders, or the stinger of a scorpian. The color of a thanator, an inky blue-black, also hints at some insect like evolutioanry roots. When we see it for the first time it attempts to attack a young Hammerhead Titanothere. Through this vinette we see more of its behaviors (it is a surprise predator, and has an impressive threat display of rattling plates and quills, pulled back lip flaps that reveal a strange set of gums, and a toothy maw). Also terribly crucial to establishing biological reality, we don't see many of these alpha predators in the landscape (this was probably the crucial ecological "flaw" of Peter Jackson's excellent King Kong). Big predators sit atop an energetic knife edge. That is to say consumers (animals that eat stuff and do not produce their own food like plants) are not terribly efficient at aquiring nutrients from their food stuffs. From the base of the food chain, the plants and other producers, to the top of the food chain, the alpha predators, lots of energy is lost by animals as they consume food. If plant consumer X has only managed to acquire 10% of the energy available it becomes immediately apparent that any animal that eats consumer X will need to be eating a lot of X to stay alive. An ecosystem can only support a few such predators (especially if they are "warm-blooded") in a given area.

All of this behavior has the feel of things I've seen in the field. If you have ever watched a bird in your back yard, a coyote in the wild, or had to have a face to face with a big black bear, found fresh mountain lion scat on the trail you use, or nearly been run down by elk, watching the thanotar, or indeed any of the nature in Avatar will seem like authentic nature watching. From climate, to taxonomy, to evolutioanry history Avatar works as a very convincing bit of science fiction.

There are some animals in Avatar that will seem too much like analogues of Earth creatures, the Direhorse will seem too much like our own horses, the Viperwolves to obviously like wild dogs found on Earth and so on through much of Pandora's fauna and flora. I suspect that would be one of the major objections for the avid science fiction fan. It is an echo of the old complaint, "Why so many humanoids?" that science fiction fans have been offering for decades. It is an important objection but one that I think evolutionary theory allows us to dispense with, at least in the broad strokes, as we watch Avatar.

Stephen Jay Gould rather famously put the problem as follows,

"But if I could rerun the tape of life from the origin of unicellular organisms, what odds would you give me on the reevolution of this complex and contingent insect-flower system? Would we see anything like either insects or flowers in the rerun? Would terrestrial life originate at all? Would we get mobile creatures that we could call animals? Fine-scale predictability only arises when you are already 99 percent of the way toward a particular result -- and the establishment of this 99 percent lies firmly in the domain of unrepeatable contingency."

The notion of historical contingency set ideas about progress in evolution on their ears. There was a tendency among both lay people and many working biologists to think of evolutionary processes as an inexorable march toward humanity. It was a kind of recapitulation, in natural terms, of the idea of the Scala Naturae but without all the angels, or a god. Gould thought his ideas about contingency were fairly radical, but his ideas were often not quite as revolutionary as he made them out to be in his less reserved moments. That isn't to say that contingency is unimportant, clearly accidents of history play huge roles in evolutionary history. Allow me to point out an obvious accident that was a massive biotic regime changer. If, Sixty-five million years ago, a large astroid had managed to slide by Earth, you and I are not here to have this little electronic exchange of ideas. No earth shaking astroid impact in the Yucatan Peninsula, means no age of mammals, and no age of mammals means no humans. Likely it would mean 65 million more years of dinosaurs engaging in the business of being dinosaurs. Contingency is important.

But so is convergence, which Gould simply neglected in his analysis (as does Michael Shermer, Gould's most staunch defender on the point of contingency). The philosopher of evolutionary biology/psychology Dan Dennett, and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins have been most articulate in their (mild) critique of Gould's Radical Contingency. But what is convergence in evolutionary biology? Or to put the question as it may be framed in the reader's mind, "what is convergent evolution and how, Mr. Blogger Fanboy, can it help us see the creatures of Pandora as plausible products of evolutionary processes?"

Convergent evolution is a process whereby organisms only distantly related, in evolutionary terms, exhibit similar morphology, or behaviors because their lineages have been exposed to similar selective pressures. That is to say organisms take on similar traits and come to look like one another because they evolved in either similar environments or engaged in a similar ecology. Below is perhaps my favorite example of evolutionary convergence. This looks like a wild dog. It is not.

This is a marsupial, now very likely extinct, that not only looks like a dog but acts like a dog. The similarities between old world canids and the thylacine exist only because they are the products of similar selective pressures. Evolutionary convergence is not at all uncommon. Another text book example is the form of fish, ichtyosaurs and dolphins. All are only distantly related, but all have converged on a similar form because they evolved in a similar environment. Convergent features are something Dan Dennett has referred to as a "good move" or "forced move" in animal evolution. That is to say certain strategies, forms and structures evolve again and again (not precisely copied mind you and bearing the stamp of contingency) because selective processes favor their discovery. Even the rudimentary stages, it appears, of these evolutionary "good moves" offer such advantages, that selection favors elaboration of the trait, strategy, or behavior.

Eyes have evolved independently on Earth at least forty times. They are not identical, but certainly they are identifiably "eyes." Fin like structures have also evolved dozens of times independently. Insulation, endothermy, parental care, pack hunting, complex problem solving intelligence, chemical warfare have all evolved independently several times on Earth. It is the phenomena of convergence in evolutionary processes that makes the flora and fauna of Pandora more than mildly plausible. The animals have the stamp of their evolutionary history all over them. They are not identical to their earthly analogs, but represent another iteration of a "good evolutionary move." Both contingency and convergence are satisfied.

To return to Gould's famous question, would we be here if we could rewind the tape of life to its unicellular beginnings? If by we Gould means big brained mammalian primates, with opposable thumbs, limited body hair, and a penchant for sweets, then the answer is an obvious no. But if by we he means an intelligent, technology using species then the answer is-given enough time- probably yes. Intelligence, like fins, insulation, and wings, is a good evolutionary move that has been hit upon again, and again by evolutionary processes. So if the presence of horse like things bothers you as you watch Avatar think about contingency, but also convergence and maybe that will resolve your dilema.

The AVATAR program hinges on the genetic hybrid avatar bodies, which are clones of their human "drivers," mixed with DNA of the Na'vi. There is an implication here, wholly unexplored by the film, of quite a bit of extreme genetic similarity between Earth and Pandoran life forms. This is harder to explain. Two hypotheses come to mind, and I will leave it you to essay others.

The first is that our genetic code isn't particularly difficult to make. That is to say, given the right chemical environment, early self-replicating molecules will hit upon nucleic acids regularly. DNA/RNA are simply the most stable of the alternatives. If this is so, we can expect this mechanism of heredity (DNA, RNA)commonly wherever we find life- given a certain set of evironmental conditions.

The second hypothesis belongs to Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, and is referred to as panspermia. This hypothesis predicts that the origin of life is exceedingly rare, but several forms of that life (unicellular) will be extremely hardy and able to survive interstellar travel (provided it is suitably sheltered) in astroids or comets. These bacteria like organisms find themselves blasted out into space during extreme volcanic eruptions, or impact events and then go on to seed other worlds with life. If this is the case the DNA/RNA mechanism might also be somewhat common in our galaxy as these unicellular space travelers would make planet fall and seed evolutionary processes on different worlds. If you think this is far fetched, there are chunks of Mars that have landed on Earth after being ejected by some phenomena. There is even some evidence that at least one of those Martian bits experienced ancient Martian life. So the mechanism isn't implausible. However there is little evidence for it.

As for the great biological mystery (I will not spoil) at the heart of Pandora, I have no explanation. Is it plausible? I don't know. Possible, but contingency would predict the Pandoran system to be rare I think. But I am not bothered. I will remember Orgel's Second Rule (remember to place tongue in cheek) when thinking about it...."Evolution is cleverer than you are."

Labels: , , , , , , ,

19 December 2009

Avatar: A brunch movie review Part I

James Cameron's Avatar

The best of science fiction causes us to look back on ourselves even as it takes us to far off stars, future times, and alternate universes. It explores the common themes of humanity in the best traditions of mythology. Avatar is part of that long tradition. Cameron’s return to fantasy and action cinema is not light and he has pulled out all the stops in an effort to draw us into one of the most extraordinary worlds ever brought to the screen.

Avatar tells an old, and not particularly original story, but it tells it well and with passion and also because it intends to tell this old story we the viewers do not mind. I at least didn’t mind. If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s fascinating Guns, Germs and Steel you will already know the general outline of the story, as it has played out several times in our own neck of the galactic woods, on our own world altogether too often. The premise, if the previews have not entirely explained the thrust of the story, is this. An indigenous population of hunter gatherers has met a technologically superior population, and the former find themselves on land exceedingly valuable to the latter. Humans call the world Pandora and on it, there exists Unobtainium which sells for millions per kilo. What it is used for we are never really told. What we do know is that there is a corporation with resources, and mandates, and men and women with guns that want to acquire the element. The element's uses and worth are insignificant to toll the Corporation is willing to inflict to get Unobtainium. So James Cameron wisely doesn't waste any exposition on an explanation. All the story requires is the element's worth, and group able and willing to acquire this element by whatever means necessary. Above all this is the story of the Na'vi who live on the land, and it also the story of their world, Pandora.

The corporation funds a lab, run by well meaning scientists, to learn about the Na’vi. Their goals are not the same. The scientists, anthropologists, and biologists create the AVATAR program to comfortably and less obtrusively interact with the Na'vi. Here a human “driver” has his consciousness linked to a human alien hybrid body, an Avatar, that can then interact with the world of Pandora, and its native peoples. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her team are simply interested in understanding the Na’vi, and facilitating a peaceful resolution to the conflict of interests between the Na’vi, and the Corporation (and I suppose addressing broader human concerns). The Corporation is interested in using the Avatar program as a source of tactical information. If there was any sincere interest in working toward a peaceful resolution with the Na’vi by the Corporation it was minimal at best.

Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), paraplegic veteran offered a chance to join the AVATAR program. It is through his character that we experience and “see” Pandora. To say that Jake is ideally suited for only one aspect of the AVATAR program would be to understate things. He is a Marine, and feels the pull of the military chain of command. He is swayed by the swagger Col. Miles Quaritch (played to muscle bound perfection by Stephan Lang) and by his promise to see that the corporation fixes his legs. The appeal to Sully, I suppose, is that the Colonel doesn’t see a cripple in a wheel chair, but a marine who can complete the mission. What the Colonel’s problem with the Na’vi and the planet are I leave to you the reader to assess.

I am not revealing or spoiling anything by telling you that Jake rejects the military objective and finds himself so immersed in the Na’vi and the planet Pandora that he feels more allegiance to them, and the researchers who love both than he is to the mission objectives of the Corporation and its team of mercenaries (they are not it appears active military but former soldiers simply fighting for a paycheck). And while the spectacle of the fight we all know is coming is indeed amazing in every respect, for my money, my favorite moments of this film will be Jake experiencing Pandora, its people, its flora and fauna. This must take up fully a third or more of the film. Cameron is a master story teller (even though he can be clunky with dialogue) who understands pace better than almost other crafter of action films. And here he must have been tempted to rush, to drive a relentless pace to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats. Whatever the case may be, his instincts were perfect. Cameron eschews the music backed montage and takes all the time he needs. Pandora seems like a real place, feels like a real place, and Jake’s reactions to Pandora, and the Na’vi are as real, and human as you can imagine. About that I will not say more, it is surprising and genuine and best discovered by the viewer.

James Cameron has said that the film is a cross between Pochahontas and Fern Gully. That is probably fair. But it also has elements of Dances With Wolves that I don’t think he would begrudge for me pointing out. That the film functions as a critique of humanity is of course obvious. And that obviousness is probably the only serious distraction of the entire film. As such there is a minor but noticable thinness to Quaritch, and the corporation villains. Given the message (and an admirable and timely one at that) I’m not sure that it was an avoidable distraction. But maybe that is as Cameron intended. Our treatment of our own environment, and the treatment that various powerful cultures have dealt to technologically inferior cultures gnaws constantly at the viewer, even as the film stuns you with the beauty (though the portrait of nature is honest) of an alien world. Maybe gnaws is too strong a word, but the germ of the idea is there, and it will likely be with the viewer as they leave the theater and the credits roll up the screen.

James Cameron‘s Avatar is certainly one of this year’s crowning cinematic achievements. It is certainly, to date, James Cameron’s finest movie.

This is part one of an intended three part review of the film, Avatar. The second part will look at the film from the view point of an evolutionary biologist. And the third part will tackle the odd criticisms coming from the neo and theo con critics (none of which have yet seen the film though have been offering damning words of, uh...damnation).

Labels: ,

16 December 2009

Does it make you feel more or less stress knowing how many otherwise sane people are looking forward to the end of the World.

People are insane, or at the very least mildly to majorly delusional. There is nothing really to say that isn't said more eloquently by the catastrophic level delusion on display in the following trailer. I do wish all the liberal theologians who complain about atheists mischaracterizing all the nuance, and metaphor found in these holy books would address the major source of our concern more directly.