Monday, January 4, 2010

Questioning the Tribe - Avatar reviewed by Santiago Ramos

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Questioning the Tribe

DIR, SCR James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang.

Reviewed by Santiago Ramos

I thought I was being clever when I started describing the plot of Avatar to my friends with a mathematical expression: “Pocahontas + The Air Up There + (Apocalypto – the cool sets).” But then, unprompted by me, a friend described the film as “Fern Gully + Dances With Wolves,” and a few days after that, I overheard a lady in a bookstore describe it as “Pocahontas + Dances With Wolves.” So I wasn’t original, but apparently neither was James Cameron.

However, I can forgive Cameron for recycling clichés because the main idea behind the film is interesting despite them. The screenplay will not win any awards (at least, it shouldn’t), but the central story idea, even if it’s been “done” before, remains compelling: the notion of transplanting a modern, rootless protagonist into a prehistoric, traditional, religious culture. This idea is present in all of the movies mentioned above (except perhaps Apocalypto), but Avatar makes the most poignant expression of it out of all of them.

The rootless modern protagonist is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine. His disability is not as enervating, perhaps, as his inner, searching hollowness. The only quotable line in the film will probably not be quoted much, but Worthington says it well: “My cup is empty.”

Jake utters those lines to the head of the Na’vi, the native civilization inhabiting the moon Pandora, which orbits the distant planet of Polyphemus. Earthlings (“Sky People” to the Na’vi) have traveled to this moon and have begun to mine it for a valuable material called “unobtanium.” The human military, headed by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), think little of the Na’vi and everything of unobtanium; they are willing to destroy the Na’vi’s central dwelling place, the vast, city-like Hometree, because equally vast amounts of unobtanium are located beneath it. Nicer humans are found among the scientists, led by the botanist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who leads a team tasked with learning the ways of the Na’vi. Stuck with conflicting loyalties between both camps is Jake, who assumes an avatar and enters the life of the Na’vi.

The avatar is the central plot device: through some mechanical contraption, a human consciousness can be transported onto a Na’vi-human hybrid down on the surface of Pandora. Jake does this and, losing his way one late evening in Pandora (I am avoiding spoilers like minefields), encounters the beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the Na’vi who will eventually be ordered by her people to show Jake their ways and beliefs. Jake learns what she has to teach, and his cup becomes filled. Most significantly, he learns to revere Eywa, the mother goddess in some way immanent in nature. All of the species on Pandora are connected to each other and ultimately to Eywa. Eventually, Jake will defend the Na’vi against the human conquerors, and he will fall in love—and mate—with Neytiri. Jake has gone native; his avatar self will become his true self.

Rootless moderns thus become seduced by a prehistoric, pre-technological, tribal, still-enchanted culture. This is a reasonable attraction: who doesn’t want to live in a world where wonder is still our daily bread, and live a life which is in harmony with its own condition—a life where questions do not agitate our souls, where we don’t worry about aging, about heartbreak, about death? Albert Camus wrote, “Man is the only animal who refuses to be what he is,” and while I would add “apparently” between “he” and “is”, the line is useful in describing Jake’s attraction to the Na’vi. We want a life which we do not have to rebel against because it satisfies us completely.

But the Na’vi civilization is brittle. It is not only the military conquest of Hometree that would disrupt Na’vi life. The disruptions lie inchoate, and will sprout with time. Jake might be tired of questioning, but the Na’vi have not yet begun to question—they have not yet entered history, have yet to be exiled from the Garden. Dr. Augustine does not claim that Eywa is truly divine, but that Pandora is a flourishing ecosystem of interconnected animal and plant life more complex than the human brain, which hitherto had been the most complex known structure in the universe. But complexity does not sustain wonder once divinity has been lost. One day, the Na’vi will question Eywa, and history will begin for them. They too will become human.

Moreover, Jake himself introduces a taste for individuality that was previously unknown to the Na’vi. Neytiri begins the film betrothed to another, but she chooses Jake instead. The repercussions of this choice for the Na’vi are something Cameron could have explored in depth.

Our dissatisfaction with our current state, our nostalgia for a place which is in harmony with our hearts, won’t find an answer among a prehistoric people who have not asked the questions we have asked, and who have not become aware of the importance of the individual “I,” independent of the tribe and of a pantheistic deity. Our questions are not the problem; they are the starting point.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.