30 December 2009

Watching Avatar

We took the kids (aged 10 and 13), to see the new 3D movie, Avatar. It was a long movie, so we took plenty of  food aswell.

 Spoilers follow: Even the ending is discussed!

There were many things to enjoy about the movie. For one thing, it didn't explain things the self evident stuff: in the opening scene, when people are floating around obviously in low-g, no one had to say, 'hey, we're in low-g and we're floating around.' Similarly, I didn't notice anyone mentioning the kind of air on Pandora (I may have been rummaging for chips or something while any exposition took place) but it became pretty obvious that Humans couldn't go outside without their masks on. No one said anything, it was just something you had to watch for. In short, for once an SF film made good use of its visual modality.

Similarly, the floating mountains were not explained. Floating mountains, or islands, are one of those really specky things that turn up in stories sometimes, but they have problems. For one thing, the question arises as to why they float, and if it's because there is no gravity, then why do they have atmospheres and plants and why are the humans able to walk on them once they land there? Avatar gets around these questions by not explaining them. There is an implication that their nature is connected to the resources which have brought the Humans to Pandora to mine in the first place, but that's all. This means that there is not enough information to disagree with and the story can keep moving in a satisfactory 'Boy's Own Adventure' sort of way. In short, it seemed to me that the floating mountains of Pandora floated because they were being pushed up by some sort of magnetic reaction. They have an up and down because they are within Pandora's gravity, and they are covered in plants, which are breaking them down, because weeds get in everywhere.

As to the storyline, it's about colonialism and the inability of the invaders to see anything other than the resources they are after. In this case, the military is there to support a mining operation. The mining operation needs to mine on the very spot that is most sacred to the natives. That sounds like such a convenient coincidence that one forgets that it's actually logical since the power that connects the living things of the planet is connected to the resource that the miners are there to dig for.

The plotline is about a Human who has lost the use of legs. Instead, he is given the opportunity to join a team of anthropologists who 'drive' avatars as part of their research into the natives of Pandora. The avatars artificially grown Pandoran bodies which the researchers can 'drive' in order to interact and learn about the natives. Without the minds of the drivers, the bodies slump into a coma.

Naturally, our hero meets and falls in love with a Pandoran female and has to decide to help her people. Later, my saner half said he thought the plot reminded him of some cowboy movie or other where a cowboy falls in love with an Indian woman. 'Broken Arrow', I told him. Yeah, that was it.The thing that kept tickling the back of my mind, though, was the idea of the world tree. That seemed familiar. As near as I can guess, it was probably James Blish, and it may have been A Case of Conscience, but I could be wrong.

Still, recalling that title brings to mind the question of why, although Avatar was so stunning to watch, I didn't find myself still dwelling in it and worrying about it days, or even hours later. It was a great place for a picnic, and will probably make a wonderful computer game, but it didn't cut deep.

The reason it didn't go deep is probably because the bad guys were bad and no one's conscience was really involved. The mining rep argues that the mining must go ahead regardless of the consequences to the natives. The attitude seems plausible because, after all, the rep lives in a world of profit motives and the loss of sensibility is something that his race has long since had to suck up. Only the measurable matters, and money is the most important measurable thing to the company shareholders. So his line is plausible. Still, something is missing.

In the end, it is mentioned that the world of the Humans is dying. If this had been mentioned earlier, there might have been more turmoil in the story. Instead of good guys versus bad, even mad guys - the colonel in control of the army on Pandora seems over eager to destroy things - there could have been more moral choices: "Is my life so important that it is worth destroying yours?" "Is there a better solution whereby we all get to survive?" Instead of going mad, we could have seen the colonel suffering through the agony of being pulled in one direction by the pressures of the mining company and his duty to his fellow humans, and in another by the researchers and the possibility of a different solution by the natives. Then, if the plot still demanded that he go mad, at least that would have been understandable.

Avatar is a visually stunning piece of escapist entertainment. Go enjoy it.

Morva Shepley

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