Thursday, January 07, 2010

Avatar (2009)

Like many of his admirers, I have been waiting for James Cameron’s Avatar for the last 10 years. I was not aware of any of Cameron’s films before I watched Titanic (1997)—the international smash-hit that became miraculously popular even in countries such as India and China. The only exception was the 1994 terrorism drama—True Lies, that precociously confirmed my fear that after the fall of communism, it was global terrorism that was going to be the American empire’s next bogeyman.

Remember, this was way before 9/11. But I knew that the global managers of perception and culture will replace the red terror with green terror. Every state, as the political theory goes, whose soul is locked in the monster of military-industrial complex, needs an enemy to keep its artificial unity intact. So, one or another kind of terror has to be perennially invented (before you create a hero, you have to create a monster—that is one of the rules of script writing).

So, when a precocious and visionary filmmaker like Cameron announces a venture like Avatar, one’s ears are pricked. I was hungry for any information on this sci-fi film’s progress: Cameron is working on the design of a new camera that can capture the kind of motion he wants to film, he is scouting locations in New Zealand, he is working with Peter Jackson’s special effects team, and so on. The news kept rolling in, whetting my appetite. Meanwhile, I watched some of the earlier ‘alien-themed’ films by Cameron.

When finally Cameron’s labour of love hit the screens and created another big bang box office history, I had to watch it.

Watching Avatar, I have the feeling that the spectre of global terrorism will be over in the next few years. By the end of this phase, the world will be completely globalised and integrated (and in need of a new form of energy). Then the global empire (not just American, mind you) will need a new enemy—it has to come from outer space. The last few decades of Hollywood films (Star Wars, E.T., Aliens) by the trinity of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron have prepared us to face the next phase of terror.

Colonisation as the perennial human quest

In Avatar, Cameron has turned the focus of this terror inwards: he shows us a mirror in which we, the humans, are the terror for the lives of other planets. If human history is the history of finding and conquering the next frontier, the progress of civilisation as a process of perennial colonisation, then, as in the myth, we are doomed like Sisyphus to bear the stone of colonisation and conquest without an end. Since our greed is boundless, so our fate is to meet a violent end.

After colonising our own, humans move out to colonise the creatures of Pandora in this 21st century myth by Cameron. Some see it as a left wing propaganda, taking it as an allegory for the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan: US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan (for their oil and poppy fields respectively), destroyed its cities and killed people in these countries. Daisy cutters, education, English—the gifts of the colonisers—have been mentioned in the film. The allusions are unmistakable.

But what is unsettling for me is this: a leftist film attacking greedy businessmen and the government army doing their businessmen masters’ bidding (government armies fighting as if they were mercenaries) coming from an ultra-right Hollywood’s studio (Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox in this case). I don’t think Murdoch’s studio is behind this film for any ideological reasons but this being a James Cameron film, it means huge profits on the box office.

Despite its performance on the box office, the context of heroism shown in this movie troubles me—that one has to turn against one’s own people (the greedy human race here) to protect innocent people (Navis of Pandora, a moon of the planet of Polyphemus, some 4.3 light years from Earth) only under extraordinary circumstances. The Navis become the target of the greedy humans because they happen to sit atop a rich source of highly sought-after fuel source, unobtanium. The massive military build up, the huge piles of explosives and bombs, a trigger happy Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the intentions of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi)—don’t they all signal to the scientific team (Dr. Grace Augustine, Norm Spellman, Dr. Max Patel and Jake Sully) that they are not on a morally noble mission?

What is disturbing in this film’s moral setup is the implication that rising against injustice is a superhuman task, something only for the consideration of extraordinary heroes and messiahs—this may not be Cameron’s intention but I am afraid lazy interpretations are far too common now among dumbed-down audiences. What about the sense of shame and anger against injustice and the everyday heroism that is required of us to qualify as humans? It is one of the tragedies of our civilisation that we have lost our moral compass—and for our material needs (a fresh pair of legs for the protagonist, the paraplegic ex-marine Jack Sully, played by Sam Worthington), we lose sight of universal values of truth and justice. Jack, using an artificially developed body of a Navi, made from a Navi and his own DNAs, is deployed for a mission to learn about the dwellers of Pandora. It is only when he falls in love with a Navi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) that his moral compass is reversed.

They have destroyed their mother (Earth) and now these sky people have come to destroy you, tells Jack to Neytiri. Cameron establishes our human greed beyond doubt in the film.

But to the credit of the geeks in the film, when the push comes to a shove, they are the guys who try to save Pandora from the destructive earthlings. Jack and the scientific team led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) comes to the rescue of the Navi’s, the team includes a retired marine pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) who changes side during a violent engagement, giving us a different view of the military term, friendly fire. I didn’t sign up for this, she says when she cuts her allegiance from the marauding gang of sky fighters.

How it feels to betray your own race, asks Colonel Miles Quaritch before meeting his end. Jack does not respond to him but he knows that in a moral dilemma, one has to oppose the aggressor.

A world of rich imaginations

While Pandora’s creatures show the rich imagination of Cameron and his team, one is only temporarily surprised. The creatures are not breathtaking (3D effect might be dazzling though) as we movie-goers have seen so many of those moments that we are reminded of other films while watching the sequences of this film: there are Alice in Wonderland moments (plants growing small at a touch), Jurassic Park moments, Lord of the Rings moments, Apocalypto moments, and so on. I was also reminded of a story from the Quran when a bunch of birds (Mountain Banshees) destroy dozens of fighter planes.

In the Quranic tale, tiny birds (Ababeel) destroy the great armies of Sultan Abraha. According to the Quranic surat Surah Al-Feel (The Elephant), Sultan Abraha’s armies, mounted on huge elephants, came to attack the K’aba (the cube-shaped structure revered by Muslims, considered to be Allah’s house, facing which Muslims all over the world pray). With baked clay stones, the little birds defeat the army of elephants.

The resemblance is striking: Just like the Tree of Souls, where the Navi’s God Eyra resides, is situated upon a great store of unobtanium, Kaba too is supposed to be sitting atop a huge energy field. The Navis pray by chanting mantras, which sound like a mixture of ayats, shlokas and African voodoo incantations.

Then there are colourful and bright trees and vegetation that remind me of the descriptions in one of Urdu’s earliest novels, Firdaus-e-Bareen by Abdul Haleen Sharar.

Pandora as a network

Technologically, what is most interesting in Avatar is Cameron’s imagination of the Pandora world. In Pandora’s ecology, all plants and creatures are interlinked like a network. The Navis can connect with their ancestors through the Tree of Souls, and upload and download their memories—we are told by Dr. Augustine.

The Navis and Pandora’s creatures, like the Mountain Banshee, Toruk, and Direhourse, all need to be connected to work with each other. For example, one has to connect his neural queue to the animal’s antennae to mount it.

Also interesting is the Navi’s concept of energy: whatever you take from the planet, you borrow it. One day you have to give it back to the planet, says Neytiri.

For me, it is this multi-layered narrative of the film, and not just its visual effects, that make it a post-modern epic. As many commentators have noted, the film can prove to be a pioneer of a new era of ‘spectacle cinema’ as opposed to the human scale drama suitable for home and portable screen watching.

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