Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar in Science Fiction Perspective

My wife and I just came back from Avatar in iMax-3D. I guess I'm partial to any stories about Alpha Centauri - my second novel, Borrowed Tides, is about a one-way trip there, and Pandora in Avatar is a moon thriving with life around a gas giant planet circling Alpha Centauri A - but I think Avatar sets the gold standard for sheer beauty, visual imagery, and excitement in a science fiction or fantasy movie, standards previously held by the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings sagas. The attention to botanic detail, and for that matter all the beings, sentient and nearly so on  Pandora, was a breathtaking sight to behold.

Avatar's story has a lot in common with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, too. Good people or beings, in tune with nature, beset by a cruel, military force bent on taming, and if not, destroying the gentler souls. Indeed, many of the best battle scenes in Avatar come right out of Star Wars, and the single star fighters taking on huger cruisers, and Lord of the Rings, with Frodo and allies fighting the bruisers and monsters hurled against them by the evil lords, and the good beings all rallying in the end. There are echoes of Harry Potter as well as Lord of the Rings, too, with heroes flying great winged creatures, and of Terminator, with killing machines which also recall what the Empire used to attack the Ewoks in Star Wars.

In Star Wars, humans are pretty much equally distributed between heroes and villains, and the same is true of magical beings in Lord of the Rings. In Avatar, the humans are mostly bad, and the in-tune alien Navi on Pandora are all good.

This has led some critics to characterize the movie as an attack on humanity, and, because the ugliest Marines in the movie all have American accents, as an attack on America and American values. If this is so, it would be an attack on America in the 19th century, when Americans of European descent subjugated and wiped out most of the Native Americans on behalf of our selfish commercial interests. In that sense, Avatar was in many ways more like a Western, a cowboy and Indian movie, than a science fiction story - though the two genres are closely related. But seeing as how America in the 20th and 21st centuries has for the most part only gone to war when first attacked, or in attempt to preempt an attack, rightly or wrongly foreseen, the bad guys in Avatar bear little resemblance to us, and certainly not much to our current, professed ideals.

The most original part of the story concerned humans taking alien form, itself a science fiction chestnut in many a story, novel, and Star Trek episode. In fact, the story told in Avatar seemed more like an extended Star Trek episode than any of the individual Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movies. The human dynamics were also reminiscent of Star Trek, with Jake (the human hero) disobeying orders much like Kirk, and also falling in love with an alien.

But the women in Avatar were stronger than the women in Star Trek, and the heroine reminded me of Padme in Star Wars, especially when she literally lent a hand to killing the vicious Marine colonel. Speaking of Marines, that aspect of Avatar was reminiscent of Starship Troopers, though in that movie our Marines were all good guys, fighting marauding tank-sized and bigger bugs that attacked humanity.

So, all in all, James Cameron's Avatar was a splendidly rendered, multi-derivative science fiction movie - well worth seeing, in iMax-3D if you can, if your eyes and soul delight in visual magic, and/or if you just like science fiction. And, hey, Lost fans - you'll love seeing Ana Lucia in action again.

6-min podcast review of Avatar

*Note added January 17, 2009:  Delighted that Avatar just won the Golden Globe!

**Note added January 18, 2009:  See The Planets of Alpha Centauri: The Hunt for Pandora for a good summary of current attempts to find real worlds there. 

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