Burned at the StakeNew York City, 1741 Worse than the Salem Witch Trials were the reactive trials and horrid executions of slaves in New York…
Avatar takes us on an exciting ride that changes our sense of self, scale, and loyalty. We soar up into tree branches and down into the roots as if we’re insects in the forest. Who are we in the larger communities of life?
We think of Pandora’s Box as releasing all the troubles of the world, but that’s a perversion of the original myth. In the pre-patriarchal version, Pandora’s Box contained the goods of a natural world. We were similarly tricked out of Eden. We ate of a supposed god-like ‘knowledge’ only to lose connection with our genitals, each other, our garden, and our God. Yet Eden is in us even as we are in it.
On Avatar’s Pandora, Eden starts fighting back. Fierce dog-like animals we feared become our rescuers. We love and rescue those we were to exploit and attack. Our sense of identity and scale are upended in Avatar, opening us to our own wild beauty. What are the children to think, especially regarding two usually hidden issues: near nudity and disobedient rebellion?
The tall, lythe Na’vi are an idealized cross between cats and humans. Proud, free, trim, nimble, and strong, they’re lovely, and we quickly get used to their minimal garments, often seeing their slim butts and small breasts. None are ashamed. I’m glad the kids seeing the movie get to see healthy-looking, nearly nude creatures, without blame or shame ever being an issue.
Also, controversial and beneficial, is the sympathy viewers develop for these distant aliens. The first 3-D effect to make me jump was of a gas bomb lobbed at the native Na’vi by an invading earthling soldier – but coming straight at my face! My flinch makes me identify with the Na’vi, and I wonder just who is an enemy and who is a hero. Who is “us” and who is “them,” and why would we side with those soldiers who turn traitors on their commanders and comrades to defend alien innocents? I’m surprised and relieved that such a provocative stance is planted in the soul of this very popular movie, but dismayed that unnecessary violence is resolved by resorting to even more violence.
We’re used to rah-rah macho cheering for “our” soldiers, no matter who they attack or why or to what result. Prior to Avatar’s start, a well-produced, exciting ad for the National Guard ran, showing men and women mostly going after some non-defined “bad guys” and only rarely helping out in a natural disaster. Missing from this slick sell-job were any images of drudgery, degradation, or more importantly, sickened soulfulness due to having to kill or be killed by foreigners who are merely defending themselves from unjust, unkind, unwise invasion, occupation, and robbery. Too often, decent young women and men, just trying to do a good thing for their country find themselves attacking someone else’s, too late regretting the mayhem that both sides get caught in.
Avatar presents a rare balance to our incessant military recruitment propaganda. Big money and big power from earth want the military to run the Na’vi off to take the unobtanium under their towering sacred tree. I kept hoping earth’s insider, marine Jake Sully, would find a negotiated agreement between the Pandorians and the mining corporation. Negotiations never really start, and earth’s army invades with their guns, bombs, and napalm. It’s “Shock and Awe” forcing “cooperation” as imperialism expands. Tragic. I winced, for it seemed like Vietnam and Iraq again, massive force rained down on mostly hapless people barely able to flee or fight. In war and fiction, we dehumanize the enemy so that we can gleefully destroy them. Here, the enemy is hippy-like natives and the exotic creatures they ally with. We like them, don’t want them killed, and we almost cheer when a few insider humans disobey orders to turn their guns on their own.
But this too seems wrong. That’s “our” guys they’re shooting and throwing out of the airplanes. They’re just grunts following orders. True, they’re lobbing firebombs on the innocent, which we feel is wrong, but is it right to kill our own? When all manner of protest mattered nothing to our government during Vietnam, fragging (soldiers shooting their officers) caught their notice and the war quickly ended. Despicable? Yes, as despicable as napalm from on high. Commanders needed fodder, not ferment, obedience, not conscience. When soldiers see past orders to care for those they were to kill, wars are harder to safely wage. We don’t need a violent revolution in our military or country; we need justice and nobility that match our ideals and hearts, so we don’t have to either slaughter innocents or turn on our own.
In movies, we sometimes glimpse emerging trends. Cameron’s Avatar places a spectacle before our eyes portending a deep and decent shift in our values and natures. We yearn for Eden and will defend it if need be. We can live beautifully and nobly in nature without obeying orders that violate either others or ourselves. That our children see near nudity and rebellion is a good thing.
Byron Bradley Carrier
(Written in 2009, I hadn’t posted this review until trying to respond to Rev. Marc Gafni’s upcoming review (2022) of the new Avatar: The Way of Water. I haven’t yet seen the new movie but will, and if so-moved, will add to this review.)
Avatar 2 – the Way of Water
Do see the second Avatar – the Way of Water – if only to be reminded of spectacular beauty, astonishing movie-making, and visions of Eden.
The world James Cameron (and crew, numbering perhaps a thousand) makes is impressive and innovative. His hardware devices, like tall walking robots, helicopter airplanes, mesh housing, and underwater scooters, seem feasible. His plant and animal imaginations are delicate and beautiful. Perhaps on some distant planet life has evolved similar creatures. Fish flit in colorful synchrony. Bird lizards fly in the background to scenes. All parts of the screen are involved. We are taken into an artistic phantasmagoria.
Especially touching to me was the nuance of facial gestures and the friendliness of the Na’vi family and their cousin friends. These blue and green creatures seem idealized humans. Their conflicts and challenges seem dramatically familiar to our human ones.
It got challenging to keep the various characters straight. The near-look-alike Na’vi were both protagonists and antagonists. For whom am I cheering in the flurry of the battles? Are the scientists just inept and ignored, or do they help save the Edenic world?
Once again though, it is all a setup for a big battle. Why is war our entertainment? Other dramatic arks could have concluded the marvelous setup of creatures and devices. I felt worn down by the big fight rather than elevated by the artistry and storytelling. Do all big-budget movies have to culminate in massive violence?
Fortunately, The Way of Water at least champions besting the imperialist murderers by usually peaceful savages. It’s a bit too contrived when mothers riding flying lizards can shoot a hefty arrow right through bullet-proof glass to get the bad guys right in the heart – with every shot – but at least the heartless invaders and whalers get their due. Oh well, it’s fantasy.
The near nudity I also liked in the first Avatar continues in the second, and it’s never an issue. It’s ordinary – like our bodies are (if trimmer and more lythe than we actually are).
We aren’t as trim, lythe, honorable, brave, and adept as these likable creatures, but at least we’re starting to pick the right side of the familiar invasions. Columbus Day has become Indigenous People’s Day. Plus, we’ve largely stopped killing whales for our reading lights.
What could Eden become if we were to love it – around us, between us, and within us?
(So, I’ve added this second part of the review (2022) even if the Reverend Marc hadn’t read the first. I credit him for acknowledging it on his zoom and his intending to read it. I suspect my narrow focus fits his larger view. Oh well, I’m only known to you, my five readers, you, and the many more who might eventually like what I have to say and how I say it. Rescuing and restoring Eden is the biggest story humans can write. We’re the ones generating the art, technology, ecology, and lifestyle.)