Friday, December 18, 2009

The Aliens Are Us! -- Reflections on "Avatar"

There was a Twilight Zone episode called "The Invaders." An old woman, living in a cabin, hears noises and discovers there are these little people invading her home. She puts up a fight and manages to vanquish the intruders. The twist of the story, though, is that at the end when she looks at their spaceship, she sees a symbol for the U.S. Air Force.

Oh my God! The aliens are us!

Alien films over the history of movies have fallen into one of two categories. 1) The aliens are coming to kill us (Independence Day, War of the Worlds), or 2) the aliens are coming to save us (The Day the Earth Stood Still). Only a couple films have bucked this trend. Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial are two of the most important alien films, providing the important human element of discovery. Most alien films, by contrast, involve alien races superior to our own, with technology we can't begin to fathom. Usually, we measly earthlings are the underdogs as we fight for survival. Most of these alien flicks are just expressions of our own personal fears of being destroyed by forces outside of our control; we automatically assume if there were aliens that they'd be hellbent on taking over our planet, just as the Spanish Conquistadors assumed the ancient Incans and Mayans were going to destroy Catholicism, or how Americans assumed the Africans would try to kill us because they Movies about alien invasion are more or less hate films disguised as mindless popcorn entertainment; they do more to reveal our own violent tendencies than anything else.

James Cameron, who directed a couple of the best sci-fi films of all-time (Aliens, The Terminator), must have been thinking the same thing when he wrote the screenplay for his new epic, Avatar. No doubt he was looking at the wars our planet is suffering through -- political, environmental, cultural -- and realized that we would treat any other alien species exactly the same way. After all, violence is the Human Way.

Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine, who finds himself in the epicenter of a war between us and them. The "them" in question are the Na'vi, an alien species populating the planet Pandora. Pandora has a vast supply of a valuable mineral we want (why? The movie never tells), but the Na'vi stand in our way. So, we do what we do best -- try to kick their collective asses.

Jake joins the "Avatar" program to take the place of his dead brother. The program, headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), creates for each member an avatar which looks exactly like a member of the Na'vi. While in a special pod, the member embodies his/her avatar and interacts with the Na'vi directly. Jake is supposed to make contact with the Na'vi and learn about their culture, but the military leader, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), has other plans. The Col. assigns Jake to infiltrate the enemy camp to gather intel for a future attack.

James Cameron takes the traditional alien invasion story and flips it on its ear to do a more thorough examination of our motivations and interests. In this story, we humans are the invaders. We are the ones vying for global domination. We have the advanced technology, and we're not afraid to use it.

Cameron didn't want to paint all of humanity as bad, though, giving us a few characters who revolt, and several more who are horrified by the Colonel's behavior, but are too scared to resist. It's a surprisingly realistic representation of humanity. We are not all evil, and some of us have great intentions, but unfortunately the one with the biggest gun wins. What does that say about us, huh?

The triumph of this film is in the creation of the Na'vi culture, though. As Jake gets involved, he becomes entrenched in the customs of the people he is supposed to spy upon. And it is a rich culture, developed through language, community, and faith. They are a connected people, to each other and to the planet which communicates to them through the souls of every living organism. Avatar is a long film, clocking in at 160 minutes, but it's worth it just to immerse ourselves in this rich, textured world. If only the humans would have done the same, right? (Of course, then there'd be no movie, just nearly three hours of tribal blue people praying.)

Most people are going to focus on the remarkable special effects, especially the use of 3-D, and rightfully so. Avatar is a technical achievement, and should easily sweep the Oscar's technical categories. Cameron innovated a new camera specifically for this film, so this work is definitely ground breaking. But what sets this movie apart from others like it is that the special effects do not get in the way of the story; they enhance it. The Na'vi are CGI creations, yet here they are living and breathing creations. The planet's environment is so rich and lush that I believed it was real (if only for a few hours). At first I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all, but as the film continued, I forgot it was all mostly computer generated.

Critics of the film may spend their words addressing the environmental/imperialism themes. There is no doubt this film is preachy. It points its finger at big business and opportunistic governments for the devastation of the planet. The connection the Na'vi share with the earth is very close to pagan earth worship, so that will no doubt be called into question, too. I usually despise preachy movies, but its hard to dislike Avatar. You can sense the passion of James Cameron in telling this story. You root for the good guys, hate the bad guys, and get all excited over the fight scenes. It may not be as metaphorically compelling as The Lord of the Rings, but Avatar is still a good movie.

Maybe I just like the most profound theme of the story, though. We are the aliens, and look out universe because we're coming to get'cha!

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