Say what you will about James Cameron, the director of two of the top grossing films of all time, “Titanic” and this season’s hit, “Avatar.” He has got his finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist.
I went to see “Avatar” with some degree of skepticism, and I would like to have disliked it. I am not “King of the World” Cameron’s biggest fan, but I will concede that he made one heck of a visually arresting 3-D movie.
Plumbing it for philosophical depth however, is another matter. A 1970s parody of the “Desiderata” had the cynically memorable line: “A walk through the ocean of most people’s souls would scarcely get your feet wet.” Likewise, sloshing through the philosophy of “Avatar” won’t even get your ankles damp.
The story is primarily a retelling of Disney’s “Pocahontas,” with a bit of the cartoon movie “FernGully” and smidges of “Jurassic Park” and “Dances with Wolves.”
A profit-obsessed corporation with some sort of military backing is mining the rare mineral Unobtainium on the moon of Pandora, a lush tropical Eden peopled by 10-foot blue creatures called the Na’vi. The Na’vi are like American Indians, except way cooler. As in “Pocahontas,” there is a wise tree that is connected to all of life, and the Na’vi are in tune with it. When they kill things, they apologize, at least if the thing they kill is not two-legged.
So you can see where this is going, and I can stop here and pretty much let you write the rest of the script. Cameron adds the floating mountains and the huge war machines and the flying creatures, but you know the story line: Bad guys threaten nature and see genocide as collateral damage.
Jake Scully, a crippled Marine (since he is crippled, we can like him) controls an Avatar, a manufactured being that is the product of his DNA mixed with Na’vi DNA.
Scully is initially a good soldier, but love, beauty and the ways of the Na’vi have him go rogue, and thanks to his military training, he is able to mobilize the natives and thwart the corporation.
It is Geronimo’s Fantasy, when the Indians win and the cowboys and the cavalry are not just routed, but expelled from paradise. Now the Na’vi can continue in the old ways, fighting with other tribes, fending off incredible beasts and communing with the Mother Tree.
“Avatar” is, finally, a technically accomplished eco-action flick. But its financial success suggests it has touched a deeper nerve. News reports say some fans are almost suicidally depressed because they can’t live on Pandora.
This hints at part of the film’s allure: It is the 21st century’s first major utopian fantasy, and it says something about our spiritual hungers. Indeed, this is a very self-consciously spiritual movie. It spends a fair amount of time introducing us to the Na’vi religion.
The Na’vi religion is one of unity and understanding, signified by the rather interesting way that ponytail nerve endings establish connections between man and beast, a kind of USB port to the soul.
The English author E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect.” In a world more materially blessed than any in history, a world where half a billion dollars can be spent to make one movie, we are feeling profoundly disconnected — from nature, from each other, from anything bigger than ourselves. Cameron gets this, and he’s making a fortune.
But avatars are pretend versions of us, and such fantasies of connectedness still aren’t real, no matter the digital craft. This is the failure of pornography, of Internet sites like “Second Life,” and of “Avatar.” As Shakespeare said first, the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.