An Avatar in Hindu mythology is the manifestation of a devi, a deity. Famous avatars include Krishna, Rama and Kalki. Rama is the slender blue one with the bow and arrows. He is the seventh avatar of Vishnu (the maintainer), depicted as an ideal man and perfect human.

The story goes that Rama lived in exile in the forest for fourteen years, with his wife Sita. She is kidnapped by Ravana, the monarch of Lanka. Rama must search for her. He fights a war against Ravana’s army, involving weapons of mass destruction. He defeats Ravana and frees Sita. He returns home from exile to be crowned Emperor. Their victorious return is celebrated in Diwali, the festival of lights. This is all worth bearing in mind.

Rama and Sita

Pandora

In James Cameron’s first directed film since 1997’s Titanic, combat-disabled Marine Jack Sully (Aussie Sam Worthington) is persuaded by a private mining company to take a mission to the jungle moon Pandora, to inhabit his dead twin’s avatar in order to get close to an alien species called the Na’vi, to gain their trust and report on them.

To enter an avatar your mind is downloaded into an artificially-grown alien body. Luckily for Jake the Na’vi aren’t tentacle-faced slugs but tall, slender and beautiful humanoids, albeit blue and taily. They are strong, athletic, noble and graceful beings. It turns out becoming one of them is lots of fun. Jake gets to learn to run, jump and fall like the Na’vi do, all the while feeding reports back to his paramilitary paymasters.

Manifest Destiny

Jake and Neytiri

Not tentacle-faced slugs

But this jaunt gives him more than just intelligence information. It lets him appreciate and begin to stick up for the native culture. It gives him an experiential empathy, a way to see them (‘I see you’). Jake’s mind is still human, but that’s ok since the Na’vi think quite similarly to us, and many even have learnt English. Heck, they also do romance the same way as us, although they only know the English word ‘mating’.

Jake realises his destiny is to fight against his blood and for what is right. He finds that the beauty and wisdom in the Na’vi culture is more precious than the Unobtainium mineral for which the corporation are eager to strip-mine the jungle. He falls in love with a Na’vi princess- Neytiri, played by Dominican/ Puerto Rican-American Zoe Saldana, fresh from her turn as Uhura in Star Trek. It falls to Jake to dream that one day their children will not be judged on the basis of the colour of their skin, and let’s just say he doesn’t organise a petition to shoo off the miners.

Stretched SmuSmurfrfs

Although the Na’vi look like stretched Smurfs, they are a beguiling and charming people. They don’t wear those white caps. Actually their community is a little like the Smurf Village. But underneath their Earth-sky blue skin, they are direct, assertive and tribal. Neytiri rolls her eyes and grumbles when she’s asked to take Jake under her wing. Visually, when the animators draw the shadows on the Na’vi limbs darkly enough, they look great. The augmented reality and performance capture systems built to portray the Na’vi are exciting landmarks in visual effect technology.

The Na’vi language has the flavour of Maori and other Polynesian tongues. Cameron hired a linguistics professor, Paul Frommer, to develop the language from his own base of about thirty words, and the end result has some unusual technical features that will interest grammar geeks.

Pocahontas Now

Is the story Fern Gully meets Apocalypse Now? Pretty much. The gritty mechanics of the military-industrial complex clash with the pan-spiritual energy of the people. Staging a fight between a primitive tribe and an Imperial military force on a jungle moon recalls the forest moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi, where Ewoks overwhelm Stormtroopers. The Romeo and Juliet romance of Pocahontas and John Smith and the conscience-conflict of Dances with Wolves are key reference points. In a neat flip from Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi sequel Aliens, the Marines are now the predatory force and the aliens are the ones struggling to survive.

The initial fractious contact Jake has with Neytiri is interestingly-scripted, as is their later falling-out. Yet while they are an item the conversation strangely drops off. It would’ve been emotionally stronger if their relationship could be seen to be growing through talk as well as shared action. Actually, all the relationships in the film bar one or two could have done with being more complex. The early antagonism between Jake and Dr Grace Augustine is great. Everything else about the story was fairly straightforward and as expected, with no twists or surprises. The script is fine overall but not that quotable.

War Games

Sci-fi is never really about the future; it’s about the present. Shock and Awe in Iraq, and 9/11 are referenced. But the story of Avatar is a universal one of communicating with and growing to understand people from another culture. It speaks of white Colonial wrongdoing in Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas. Its theme is the pitting of technology, profit and industry against simplicity, wisdom and harmony with nature. It throws a Molotov cocktail at cultural imperialism, sticking up two blue fingers at the corporate blemishing of Developing World sanctuaries. It has some prescient things to say about our struggles over resources, a kind of conflict which will only increase in the twenty-first century.

The story touches the tantalising ideas of limb prosthesis; out-of-body experiences; incarnation. The franchise is perfect for gaming; indeed, it could be said to be about gaming. The process of slipping into a super-humanoid body to explore and learn and fight is the immersive experience of MMPORG. In the online realm, an avatar is an object or image that forms a computer user’s alter ego, ie a virtual representation of the user.

Hallelujah

Praise: the ecosystem Cameron has imagined as the setting for his parable is richly-furnished, thoughtfully-detailed and creatively-sustained. He has cherry-picked the oddest and coolest bits of Earth’s natural world, and re-mixed them into a hippy David Attenborough wonderland. Mosses glow iridescent where Na’vi footsteps touch them. Ethereal seeds drift down like airy jellyfish. The vertigo felt from the edges of the floating Hallelujah mountains is supreme, nicely highlighted by the subtle 3D. These granite marvels were drawn from Mount Huang in Hunan province, China. There are wow moments aplenty. Like the underwater shots in Finding Nemo, the strange beauty of nature in all its biodiversity is showcased to stunning effect.

Small quibbles: the Papyrus font they’ve chosen for the titles looks cheap and the Leona Lewis song over the closing credits doesn’t fit. My graphic designer brother was especially horrified by the font. Although the 3D used for the film is jaw-dropping, historically significant and wisely-deployed, it will lose much of its visual impact on the small screen for DVD, until the boffins make 3D work for us at home.

Incarnation

Jake’s character is a bit like Jesus in some ways; in other ways not. He appears among them from an unknown realm, clothing himself with their flesh, taking on their very appearance. Early on he is told, ‘You are like a baby!’ He submits to learning to live on their planet as one of them. They are not that interested thank you very much in where he is from and what the sky-people have to offer. Jake must earn the inhabitants’ trust and lead them to freedom.

However, whereas Jesus came to redeem sin-infected people, Jake is the one who needs redeeming, along with all the other small white and black people. Jake has not come from heavenly purity; he has been co-opted by industrial corruption. It is the Na’vi who are the innocent ones, the children of an otherworldly Eden. They are shocked at the evil in men’s hearts, and the incarnated Jake must reorient his life principles.

Resurrection

Kudos to Cameron for portraying a hero who is (at least in his human form) disabled. There are woefully few disabled protagonists on the big screen. However, in Avatar Jake’s real empowerment comes from adopting a new body rather than learning to overcome the limitations of his old one. Something more profound could have been said about disability but that wasn’t really Cameron’s concern. He wanted to amplify the significance for Jake of taking on a new body; not simply one that was longer and bluer, but one whose legs actually worked.

You could say that Jake’s assuming of a new body has resonances with the New Testament idea of ‘glorified’ resurrected bodies: ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’ (1 Corinthians 15)

The future

Avatar is ripe for a sequel/prequel, and in fact plenty was saved for one. I was hoping the big climax would involve some floating mountain crag-leaping, but will have to wait for the next instalment to find that. There are great arches of stone which resemble ruins of a past civilisation, though were probably intended to be natural. What with flying Ikran, other Na’vi clans, the prospect of other human institutions arriving on Pandora and the few good humans staying behind, there is huge scope to explore this world.

I’d like to hear a bit more about the philosophy of inhabiting your avatar, in the same way the Wachowski brothers’ script lightly explored the philosophy of plugging a human mind into the Matrix. I’m curious about the Na’vi spirituality- their connection to their deity Eywa. I wish there had been more about the early interaction between humans and Na’vi. You can see that key to Avatar’s success, it’s got me saying I want ‘more, more, more’. Now, that’s outstanding.

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