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[personal profile] lennan
So, I saw this movie Sunday since I was kicked out of the house for 3 hours while people looked at it (yeah, I'm being deliberately coy in case people who “shouldn't be reading this” are reading it). So with this unprecedented amount of free time, I went to the movies, which I haven't done...in a very long time. I think the last time I went to the theaters was in the UK to watch Narnia? Or the last LOTR movie? Has is seriously been that long? But anyways.

I watched the 3-D version of this movie, and I went into this with low expectations (as in my expectations were: pretty graphics that would make me think "ooh pretty" and "hey, I want one of those" and yay world-building because I'm a sucker for world-building, as well as biologically impossible animal life and a weird planet). I did not expect to be disappointed in this and was not disappointed in this respect. I will be honest and say I am glad that I wasn’t disappointed. The graphics were very beautiful and you can never go wrong with me when you make creatures that look like pterosaurs, even if their skulls are more like fish-heads than dinosaur skulls. They were colorful (does that mean that they're poisonous?) Really, I could go on endlessly on the graphics and the prettiness, but most important, the very fact that I didn't immediately think "haha, totally computer generated" is a major plus.

3-D is interesting. This was my first experience with it and unfortunately, I wasn't all that impressed. It was kind of weird instead of mind-blowing...it was sort of like looking through a moving View Master , like the one that I had when I was kid, where I could look at pictures of Oregon scenery and California sea lion beaches, like Sea Lion Cave (yay google images). That image of that cave of sea lions is burned in my memory, I looked at that image so much. I thought that picture was so beautiful, and hence thought nature was so cool. Tangent aside, the 3-D aspect of the movie made the images look really weird because it isn't truly 3-D, at least not the way that we experience it in the real world and I, being the brat that I am, noticed this immediately. Yeah, I'm the asshole that thought watching a movie in 3-D was akin to looking through an '80s View Master for 2 hours and 40 minutes. Obviously, I am setting my standards to a ridiculous height. Oops. It also didn't help that throughout half the movie I was suffering from vertigo because I didn't know where to look, so to speak (at least that’s my theory). It wasn't until I started to focus on the most unblurry thing in front of me (like a character speaking) that it stopped, which was all well and good, since the second half was the more exciting part (in action terms) anyway. I couldn’t enjoy the world-building/character bonding of the first half, which may have been a bonus, since I’d probably roll my eyes a lot at the silly we-are-the-world view of the natural world. I told my mom about the vertigo and she said it was probably because I don’t have perfect vision. I don't know if that's the case or if first timers are always a little off kilter thanks to not knowing how it works.

You may have noticed that so far I really haven't mentioned anything about the story. Pretty much because I was so aware that the story was going to be less than stellar at best, I really wasn't expecting to have my mind blown. Phrases like "Dances with Wolves with Night-Elves" and "Fern Gully in Space” are probably very accurate one sentence descriptions of the movie. I think I'm leaning more towards "Alien Fern Gully" now that I've seen the film. I make it a bad habit to spoil myself before jumping in and spending money on something, so I was very aware of things that would make me squirm with how kind of wrong certain aspects of it were. Probably because of this, I didn't squirm as much. Low expectations made for better entertainment for me. I don’t know if this gets me fail points or not, though. The story was a simple “good v. evil” type of story with many very unsubtle messages. Seriously, it was simple, not deceptively simple as some Amazon reviewer said. No, it's really a simple colonists against the natives story where one of the colonists becomes the Natives' messiah by "going back to nature". I have a feeling that it's very simplicity is what worked in the movie's favor and made it extremely popular. At the very least it's entertaining on a superficial level. But, I hope that I wasn't the only one in the theater thinking about how ironic it was that a movie where the baddest of the bad guys was a military man had as one of its first ads a melodramatic heroic National Guard Recruitment Ad.

The movie itself was (and here is where I'll probably offend someone, somewhere) pretty much a bizarre unholy mix of white man's burden and when (white) man "goes native", he will become closer to nature. Because apparently, if you are "native", which may as well read as the brown man in this case, you are automatically "one with nature". For one, that's patently untrue, even animists aren't really all that "close to nature" and for all of the Native Americans’ nature-centric religions and spirituality, I kind of find it hard to swallow that they're somehow intrinsically "closer to nature" because, well, people are people after all. And I would have to question what does being close to nature mean? More like an animal? There are problems with that line of thinking, which if you really thought about it may make you think twice before cavalierly lauding someone being "close to nature". And secondly, it's kind of ignoring the fact that "less civilized" people actually do have legitimate civilizations rivaling ours in organization (like oh the Mayans before they collapsed, certain African civilizations, and oh, well, China, which has some pretty good longevity to it, off the top of my head), if you have to have something similar to "modern Western civilization". It’s pretty arrogant to assume that just because it doesn’t look like the West that it’s “primitive” and therefore “closer to nature”. It begs the question of what about ancient pre-Christian Europe, were they closer to nature, too? And I'm not talking about the sanitized neo-Pagan ideals of pre-Christian peoples. If you use the word "sophisticated" to mean Western 21st Century technology, I think you're really narrowing the definition of "civilized" down to a really silly dichotomy of hi-tech and low-tech societies. I have a feeling that civilizations are a wee bit more complicated than that. Besides, I have to wonder how “civilized” we are when for all of our technology and innovation we still have the same sort of problems that plagued humanity throughout the ages, like how getting better health care is still pretty stratified to the richest get the best and the poorest may get better than say 100 years ago, but no where near the best of the best. Or distribution of wealth. I guess it just brings things back to well, people are just people, after all. But bear in mind, that I am no expert on the subject of sociology and anthropology, I was only a literature student. But still I really have to wonder about this type of mentality towards low technology societies since it creates problems of idealism on both sides.

However, for all that this movie may as well been a cowboys and Injuns movie where the Injuns win, it was a little better than "Dances with Wolves" where the main dude gets with "native" woman who wasn't really all that native anyway, Jake Sully does literally go native and gets with the native woman. I found that sadly amusing. Again, the issue is why is it that the Native “Other” is supposedly closer to nature and that by shedding technology, man is able to access that? It really creates a lot of problems with the native populations because it's as if Cameron is implying that such societies are inherently incapable of finding their own solution to a problem. That they're detrimentally conservative in their societies' schema until someone from the outside comes in to assimilate their viewpoint and work from his own understanding of his own people. Why can't the Natives come to understand the functioning of the invading people and work them? Why do they have to be so static? It dehumanizes the natives/the aliens, which undermines what was meant to be the point, which I am assuming was the opposite. It's very discomforting to see that Native populations are so helpless that they can't save themselves because it's so insidious while passing off as innocuous. Really, I understand the point of why it "had to be done", if there wasn't a sympathetic outsider coming in, it would be hard for the viewer to relate, but considering how allegorical it comes off as in regards to American history, you'd think that a person who was trying to be sympathetic to the invaded would think a little bit more about what he's unintentionally saying about a group of people. I say unintentional because I really doubt that Cameron was thinking anything except that he was doing good. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are a number of unsubtle messages in the movie that can be bullet pointed as the following:

*Health care (in general and the crappy state of care for Veterans in particular)
*The Economy

And probably some others I missed. I honestly can't bring myself to say it's anti-military because the military element in it was sort of conglomerated into Imperialism, which somehow morphed into "the white colonizers" TM. This part, I admit, was the most bizarre part and I will get to it because it was so freaking weird for me. Basically, what it summed up as being (as my brother stated after watching the film) a "liberal white man's wet dream fantasy" where he saves the world and exoticizes the Other (being woman and "native" both in this case) and, in a fine moment of having his cake and eating it, becomes the Other by casting off his icky human-ness. Or is that whiteness? I’m really not sure, any more. Also, like [personal profile] canis_m noted, why are natives and the so-called noble savages always like animals? Here, it's pretty literal, with the hissing, the animal posturing, and literal bestial appearance. I mean why can't we have more urbane animal-like natives like the ones in Terinu if they have to look like animals? Or better yet, instead of having the “primitive” natives be based off of Native Americans and the like, why not base them off of the ancient Celts or something if they have to "primitive"? And have the black man save them. Or better yet, why not just have Neytiri save her people? All right, that was just facetious, but I think it's a point. The possibilities are endless, especially since no matter how alien the alien, they're still meant to represent us, as (I think) Le Guin once said.

To be completely honest, I can't really say I'm offended by Cameron's aliens being tall blue cat-people, since I like cats and the color blue (the other way to my heart is kitties, no joke). I can't help it. I really like kitties. D= Also, he made their tails switch about unconsciously and, and yeah. My weakness. I’ll just stop, now. But the key here, I think, is that this bizarre attitude towards the non-Western is mainly a liberal tendency among, dare I say it, white people. I suppose you can make of it as you will. This thought process relies on a lot of Western misconception of what "native" populations are: often they're less people than they are the perceptions of the native peoples' ideals by the outsiders. Yes, I understand that to some people this will be coming off as overly sensitive, but my main problem is that natives or non-Westerners are most often portrayed as the Noble Savage or some other variant, which really doesn't exist. When are they going to be just people? I’m less offended than I’m really bothered by it.

It also leads to a lot of problems, namely when you start in on themes like the anti-capitalism slant, because what, do these people just not trade anything? Is there no commerce anywhere? Native Americans traded with each other and with white settlers. Even isolated tribes in the Amazon will occasionally trade with outsiders, so it's hard to believe that these natives will be all socialist, non-capitalist, non-greedy creatures. Are they really that small of a population? But small groups of people trade with outsiders as well. The invading people have nothing to offer the Na'vi but English? ...Seriously? Are the Na'vi really that far apart from each other that they don’t get into wars (even Toruk Makto suggest that the Tribes don’t fight each other but rather some outside threat, the question is what is that threat)? Where do they get their beads for instance? Does the world just magically provide them with all of their pretty decorations? I get that Pandora is fecund and filled with pretty bioluminescent plant life and neat-o complete-o fauna, but are you trying to tell me they can get all their stuff within their home range? Or is it because they're all USB linked to Eywa that they don't need commerce because they don’t desire anything? Then why do they have decorative clothing? If this wasn't a PG-13 movie, I'm guessing they would probably go mostly naked, I mean those necklaces are more to look decorative than to hid boobs. Do they really not desire anything outside of their own experience? Are they really that incurious? A real big problem is that neither side really wants to know why the other thinks the way they do. And when people are forced to understand, it becomes Jake and the scientists who have to understand, which is all well and good, but making a human connection is about mutual understanding. There’s not much of that going on in this movie, it’s more like you understand us or die. It’s certainly a bizarre reversal, to say the least, but it’s no less troubling than if it were the historical way these situations turn out. I respect that Cameron has a lot of care for his creations, but there's a lot of idealizing going on and I'm not so sure it's the good kind. It's because of things like this, which is why when I do my own world building I take great care in not making the peoples some kind of bizarre caricature of certain brands of idealism. So I might be hyper-sensitive to this sort of thing and it might be why I’m picking apart Cameron’s world-building so hard. It hits close to home.* D=

The environmentalist slant was also heavy handed, what with the destroyed planet, et al. If the Earth were really in that dire a shape, why are humans still alive on it? And how many people in total are there? I love nature, I mean really, when the Greenpeace people stopped by the house when I was six or seven and talked about dolphins dying in tuna nets, it made me very sad. I really hate seeing endangered species go extinct: the baiji's demise made me depressed, the National Geographic story on Anson Wong made me livid with rage, and, for Pete's sake, thinking about the fact that people wouldn't be able to enjoy even the thought of an animal's existence on this planet when I was seven or eight made me want to cry. But really loving nature, reading about it, and trying to learn about it made me understand something very fundamental about it. Life is very good at surviving. Nature will win against pitiful human endeavors. Every single devastating natural disaster should be a testament to this ability. This is because Nature is non-sentient, uncaring, and the creatures whose lives populate the earth are filled with the instinctive will to survive. Honestly, I have no worries about the Earth “surviving”. Judging by past history, the Earth is really good at replenishing itself even if that life is completely different. Add this to after reading Edward O. Wilson’s short article on biodiversity in one cubic foot of space and how important those life forms are for the health of an environment such as soil, I really have to wonder. I have to wonder if the movie’s Earth was really as dead as Avatar claims, wouldn’t people be having a tremendously hard time surviving? Which means less people? Which means more ecological succession? I have to admit I am suspicious of doomsday attitude towards human destruction of the environment, since usually what it should mean is the end of the human status quo, not the Earth as a whole. I don’t think that understanding that the Earth just might not be affected permanently by us means we shouldn’t care, on the contrary, I think it really only benefits us unless we feel the masochistic need to test our ability to adapt to a radically and rapidly changing environment. I just find it very hard to buy that if the Earth is really as bad off as it is that the hinted at power structure would even hold, even though I know that the point is to make a point about taking care of the earth.

Not to mention, the whole every life on Pandora is connected neurologically to one another? Yeah. I think I outgrew that kind of sentimentalized view of Nature in high school. Seriously, when the animals all stampeded against the military and Neytiri was howling about how Eywa answered Jake, I was thinking to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding me” (actually it was “you got to be shitting me” but whatever). And I have a fondness for interconnected and bonded life forms, I grew up reading those god-awful Pern novels…. Damn those Pern novels. It’s just that the Nature I know, the enormous, scary, beautiful, uncaring Nature is not the sentimentalized mentally interconnected benevolent Mother Nature of Pandora. To me, in many ways, the scary, heartless Nature is the more beautiful.

Anti-Imperialism is another big one in the movie and it sort of goes hand in hand with anti-capitalism. I am not a die-hard advocate and pom-pom cheerleader of unbridled capitalism. Sure, I like capitalism by default: it gives me great things like the ability to buy whatever books I want, clothes I want, art supplies, among other things. I will never deny this. It would be mind-numbingly idiotic if I did. So, yeah, while I have a problem with big-business (which in many ways is sort of like big government with a different name and agenda), I don’t think you win points by making business look like monsters. I suppose I’ll give Cameron kudos for making the CEO wring his hands helplessly and show some sort of indecision about killing people. But I really don’t know how I feel about that. It makes me uncomfortable. In fact, everything about that slant made me uncomfortable. And it's really hard to explain why. I also have to wonder, what the hell sort of stupid investment is taking a space ship out several light-years for a damn rock. Like a Discovery story said, “Even if such a crystal existed -- perhaps only forged under tremendous pressures deep inside a super-Earth -- it would not be extractable. Even if it was, the chemistry would be easier to synthesize on Earth rather than building an interstellar Exxon Valdez to haul it between stars. Freight costs alone would kill any possibility of this material being commercially viable”. I think that’s a valid point, because no matter how much you can earn off of this, that type of cost will outweigh its viability, add to that the other problem: if it costs such a ridiculous price and is rare, then the only people who can afford it are the enormously wealthy. What's the point in investing it? Considering how few those are in real life, I think that Pandora and her hostile natives are less of a worry than angry mobs of citizens with nothing left to lose destabilizing home turf, thus destabilizing the economy. And the military, which are made up of human beings, are only going to be able to take this for so long. Which leads me back to the question, “how many people are there on planet earth anyway?” Especially if it’s a massive dead grey thing; where are the people being supported; they have to eat, they have to dispose of waste, and they have to have energy to keep warm and air to breathe. Are they just all slaves or something? Seriously, judging by how unevenly wealth is distributed among modern countries, never mind people, who is even able to pay for this endeavor? Why isn’t the company funding this bankrupt from flushing trillions of dollars of cash down the drain to freight a freaking wonder rock?

But actually, the whole big business enterprise of this thing is really just to showcase the anti-imperialist message (I’ve nothing against anti-Imperialism, BTW). What I found really weird was how initially it was set up as Humankind v. Alienkind, but then turned into Imperialist white folks against the natives read brown people. It was pretty amazing how the before battle brief in which we see all the military girls and boys, we had a really find rainbow of human kind. But when we get into the battle scenes, suddenly the colors all disappeared (unless I really missed them in the melee) and suddenly it became White Man v. Natives (who are suspiciously closely modeled after non-Native American conceptions and misconceptions of Native Americans culture). It was weird. It was as if I was supposed to be distracted by that prior scene. It didn’t help that the one prominent military defector was a Latina chick. This sort of reinforced my perception that this was some kind of allegory of white man versus brown people, more specifically white manifest destiny man versus the red man. If you’re going for the humans v. aliens slant as a code for humankind as a whole against another, and say this publicly; what’s being show isn’t exactly jiving with what’s being told. I really don’t know what to think about that without making a total ass of myself, outside of thinking that we really need to drop the whole Native trope, especially when they’re supposed to be pretty much code word for brown people as seen through the lens of what white people think brown people should be. Which is what’s happening even if Cameron is trying state otherwise. Although, I would have to say that if the Natives were modeled after a “primitive” European population, the same thing would happen, only it probably wouldn’t have the convenient one-with-nature attitude going with it. Also, I find it ironic that Cameron claims the story is about understanding one another and then have that movie with that theme end with the aliens kicking out almost everyone. So where’s the understanding? Again, there’s nothing mutual here. And I think that’s the problem; there’s no mutual understanding. It’s the Self and the Other. Us and Them. Become Us or you will be kicked out with Them.

Most of the military was faceless; in fact, I think Quaritch pretty much stood in for the evils of military. He was certainly a caricature of…something, but I’m not really too sure of what. Arrogant white imperialist? “Christian” man conquering over Nature? Tyrant? Maybe my thought process is tempered by Arakawa’s military in FMA, but I don’t think I’ve seen that type of caricature of an army man. Or do I really live under a rock and really missed something? I mean I’ve seen incompetent and stupefying hard-headedness all the time, but this was a new breed of stereotype for me. Quaritch would have made a great dictator, to be honest. Completely uncompromising, determined to win because he couldn’t lose (seriously, who freaking holds their breath just to get in some shots at the traitors, that’s pretty hard-core; you gotta give him credit for determination for attempting to get the job done, even though he was a total asshole), and firmly convinced he was right. And he probably had a chip on his shoulder the moment he got that damn scar across his face. Seriously, I can’t help but think that there was a load of personal vendetta in that character. Worse still, he was in charge and may as well have been the spokesperson for all of the military's philosophy. At least Fuhrer Bradley hates all humans while at the same time sort of quasi-admiring them. There's not even recognition, which makes for an awful generalization. And I say this one who is no Hawk by any means. I…doubt that the military is really that extreme, unless by military, Cameron means military dictatorship.

Some pluses in the film were the fact that there were some awesome female characters, like the Chopper Chick (Trudy Chacón, I like to call her Chopper Chick, I'm sorry). Why did she have to die, man? Neytiri killing Quaritch was pretty stellar as well. Nothing like a bad ass chick killing the threat to her home (and mate, I guess). The not so impressive part was despite the supposedly egalitarian nature of these people, what was with all the patriarchal lingo? Was it supposed to be a patriarchy or egalitarian? I really couldn’t figure that one out. And why are native cultures always warrior cultures? And when Jake gathered all the Tribes, it really seemed like Cameron forgot that living creatures are not cars. Or the Tribes really aren’t that far away from each other after all? Also, apparently Cameron also ships a couple where the woman calls the man “stupid” a lot and smacks him upside the head, in the beginning. But you know what I wondered, when they had the mating scene? Since they did make mention that part of “becoming a man” was taking a woman, Cameron isn’t suggesting that the Na’vi are all virgins until they’re mated for life, is he? I may be horribly wrong and this might be pointing out how some flaw of mine, but I was seriously wondering this. Because if that’s what’s being implied…that’s kind of…wrong. In that so not only are the Na’vi closer to nature than human beings, they’re also better at being upholding what may as well be Western morals? I really hope that I’m over-thinking that, because that makes me squirm a lot.

I think I liked Avatar better when I really didn’t think about what the story was trying to do and went in for the pretty graphics, because there are just many things that bother me. Even without the problems with the basis of the conflict, this story is really just a simple story that’s been done over and over again, except dressed up in different clothing. I certainly enjoyed the experience of watching the film; it was nostalgic in that it evoked the same sort of response when I watched LOTR. Simple awe at the artistry of the cinematography. But I didn’t really come away from it with much more than that type of nostalgic sense of “wow, that was an awesomely built world and it was pretty”.

*I still haven’t figured out if this is my world-building tendencies kicking in or if it’s because over-analysis is something of a hobby of mine. I can’t help it, it’s so much freaking fun (for me).
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