Monday, August 23, 2010

I'll have an Avatar with a Twist


If you want to see a grown man with tears in his eyes, go to the theater with me sometime when a film involves a cavalry charge. I don't know what it is about them, but they get me every time. They don't have to be banners-waving, bugles-blowing, reenactments of the second movement of the William Tell Overture (the theme from The Lone Ranger), either. Randy Quaid to the rescue in Independence Day will do the trick. In a moment of dire need when hope has gone south and all seems lost, the appearance of help on the horizon turns me into a blubbering mass of cheering.

And that's what happened last evening while watching Avatar for the first time and the animals entered the fray, the cry of hammer-headed rhinoceros-like creatures taking the place of trumpets. I know, I should have seen it on the big screen -- you definitely got that right. But, as usual, I had my head buried in the books and before I realized what was happening, Avatar had departed for DVD parts unknown. I wasn't disappointed, however, and you can be sure I'll have a ticket for the August 27, 2010 release of the director's cut in theaters.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Avatar is more than a science fiction flick and certainly more than a morality tale about environmental degradation. It's what I like to call a transformation film. The lead character, Jake Sulley, is a paraplegic former Marine who has been recruited to take his late twin brother's place in an experiment involving avatars on the distant planetary moon, Pandora. Self-described as a drunk and regarded as an intellectual liability by the rest of the scientific team, through the intermediate agency of his avatar, he is exposed to the Na'vi, the native humanoid inhabitants of Pandora.

In the course of learning their way of life, he undergoes the process of initiation that every young hunter-warrior must, in order to become an adult member of their society. Not surprisingly, and reminiscent of John J. Dunbar in Dances With Wolves, Sulley gradually experiences his connection with his former life grow tenuous as he begins to come into his own under the influence of the community.

Sulley's paraplegia, his inability to receive sensory information through his lower extremities, symbolizes the way he and the other sky-people, as they are called, are disconnected from the life of the planet beneath their feet. Preoccupied with mining its resources, they are numb to anything else. Whenever Sulley "returns" to his disabled body, it is a poignant reminder of loss. In contrast, when "in" his avatar, he is free, not only physically, but also emotionally, allowing him to form intimate connections with others and develop his own sense of spirituality.

I suppose some might accuse director James Cameron of a lack of subtlety, creating a film with parallels to Native Peoples in this country. But in a twist of fate, Avatar has the "Indians" winning and the "White Man" sent packing. Not everyone liked that when the film was released, despite its popularity, but it does no harm to play with history and consider alternative endings. As a matter of fact, it might even help us reflect on our actions and become more adept at acting with the future in mind. Now, wouldn't that be a real twist?


(Creative Commons image of Avatar iPhone Wallpaper by xploitme via Flickr)

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