Is James Cameron a Traitor to his Own Species?

 Let me get one thing straight, before I commence my rant for today: Avatar is one of the best things to happen to the science fictional world in years.  It’s raised the credibility of the genre in the movie theatres - after all those Harry Potters and Hobbits in Pursuit of Rings movies and other fantasy epics of recent years. It’s got the world excited about aliens and space exploration. And it’s at the vanguard of a whole new generation of incredibly exciting and visually extraordinary blockbusters.  To cap it all, James Cameron is a director I admire enormously.

But he is, as I say, a traitor to his own species.

And he’s also made a film that in my view – despite breaking all box office records, and although it’s  pretty damned good – isn’t THAT good, or that special.  It’s fun, it’s certainly beautiful, the ending is exciting.  But I don’t really ‘get’ what’s so revolutionary about the 3D effects. Compared to Up, it’s no big deal; that movie set the bar for CGI 3D movie spectacle and Avatar comes nowhere near it.

Nor do I think the film is as visually extraordinary as everyone claims. The scenery and action scenes are marvellous, but it all lacks imagination. How come the aliens are blue, but the trees are made of bark and the leaves are GREEN? It could all be, well, much more alien. 

There’s nothing in this film to compare with Predator, perhaps the most visually spectacular SF film ever made. Director John McTiernan and cinematographer Donald McAlpine created a movie that is both a nail-biting kick-ass actioner, and a piece of modern art – by which I mean that every time we switch to Predator-POV the screen becomes filled with colours as vivid as a Kandinsky. 

But Predator plays a cleverer game.  It isn’t just about the scenery, it’s built around mythic concepts – chiefly, Arnie as the mud-coated (think woad-coated Celt) warrior going mano a mano with an alien.  The explosion scenes in that movie, too, are astonishing – visions of a Dantesque Hell on Earth.

Avatar, by contrast, has blue gazelle-like creatures running through what looks like the Amazon rainforest. Sweet – but not astonishing.

But that’s just my opinion – which in view of the box office triumph of the film, shouldn’t be taken too seriously (and, indeed, won’t be).  There’s no doubt that SOMETHING extraordinary is happening with this film to make it such a phenomenon.  And the media coverage in the press has been awesome. 

Online, too, Avatar has been covered extensively, and I’ve been taking a peek at some of the comments to be found out in cyberspace. There have been rave reviews, like this one in the Hollywood Reporter.     Fantasy SF Blog revealed that Cameron’s volcanic temper eclipses that of our our British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (once you’ve clicked the link, scroll down to ‘James Cameron, Benevolent Tyrant’.) John Scalzi got pretty much what he was expecting, and (unlike me!) felt no moral outrage at the ‘noble savage’ strand. Ann Wilkes’ Cherokee blood boiled at the way the natives were treated, and she loved the story. Revolution SF drew attention to the alarming phenomenon of Avatar fans who feel like committing suicide because they can’t live on the planet of the Na’vi. SF Gospel made some very smart points about the movie’s provable theology, and asks – would it be okay to kill the Na’vi if they DIDN’T have a provable God?

And the definitive review came from Richard Morgan. (He said it was ‘Very pretty.’)

But my final take on Cameron’s masterwork is, as I say: TRAITOR!

I’m referring of course to the second part of the film when (SPOILER ALERT! BUT I THINK THIS HAS ALL BEEN GIVEN AWAY IN TRAILERS) our hero dons the body of a blue-skinned alien and goes to war against the humans.

Think about it. Our main character is human! We are human. And yet we’re being asked to root against our own species, in favour of the aliens?

It’s not as if this is a minor spat between alien and human. It’s a brutal war.  Dozens and dozens of human beings die horribly, and we are invited to cheer.  Almost as many aliens die in the carnage, and we are clearly meant to be sad as each of them perishes.

This defies all the rules of rooting. You root for you own team, not the opposition. As a Welshman, even of the non-sporting variety, I am obliged to root for Wales every time there’s  Wales v. England rugby match. If I cheered on the English, I would be surgically de-Taffed.

The disloyalty to humankind comes, of course, cloaked in liberal good intentions.  The Na’vi are, you see, noble savages; they are metaphorical of the Native Americans and the Australian aboriginals and all the other Stone Age tribes who have been wretchedly treated by invaders from Europe.  And the movie manages to function simultaneously as a) a shoot-’em-up kickass action movie and b) as an ecological hymn to the glories of the nature, and the crapness of being an evil corporation that wants to destroy the rainforest and doesn’t care how many natives die in the process.

Well, I’m all in favour of hating those who pillage the natural world; and I certainly don’t condone the way the Native Americans or the aboriginals were treated.  So at one level, I’m certainly on Cameron’s side.

But on other hand – per-lease! Couldn’t the morality be a little more subtle?  The guy from the corporation virtually slavers with evil, his treatment of the Na’vi is both incompetent and buffoonish, and there’s a complete absence of moral ambiguity.  Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) and Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and a couple of others are good;  all the Na’vi are good; but all the soldiers and the horrible white capitalists who run the mining corporation are all utterly and irredeemably evil.

This kind of black & white morality is forgiveable, of course, in an action movie where you don’t look for rich characterisation and moral subtlety.  But in a movie that proclaims itself to be a moral force for good – well, maybe the script could have had just a LITTLE more work done on it. 

But that’s not my gripe. My gripe is – what’s so bad about humans? I mean – I’m human,  my friends are human:  all the people I like and  admire,  alive and dead, are human. Humans are – well, what can I say? We’re not SO very bad.

But in science fiction, we get a bad press, as the ignoble history of colonialism gets writ into stories set among the stars.  And Avatar is for me part of this syndrome – of neglecting the virtues and glories of humankind. 

And the chief virtue and glory of  humankind is – we’re not all jocks. We’re not all heavily bicepped, macho monsters who are so obsessed with gadgets and weapons of war that we lose sight of the finer things in life – like Nature, and art, and being nice to each other.  In fact, none of the people I know are like that.  All MY friends are weedy, cowardly, bookish, kind, and, well,  nice.

But in Cameron’s parallel universe, all humans are either soldiers or cruel capitalists (admittedly Signourney Weaver is a scientist and there are a couple of other scientists helping Jake Sully fight his good war – but these characters don’t really have much character.)

Contrast this with the weedy science graduate geek played by Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, cursed with a wisecracking dad, and always banging on about scientific things. A broad caricature yes – but there’s hope for humanity if there are a few of THESE entertainingly anal-retentive guys about.

Avatar would, in my view, been a richer and better film if there’d been more diversity among the characters, and less idealisation of the Na’vi.  They are supposed to be like the Native Americans – but they aren’t, not really. The Native Americans were a Stone Age tribe with a flair for war, especially of the sneaky variety;  as I recall from my past reading, ambush was considered by many tribes to be a worthy way of attacking an opponent. And, once confronted by an invasion of white-skins, the Native Americans proved themselves to be adaptable and savage; they learned to ride horses, they learned to shoot guns, they even copied the invaders’ trick of scalping their enemy.

All of which makes the Native Americans REAL, and flawed, and complex, as opposed to the holier-than-thou Na’vi, who can’t kill another creature without an act of gaian communion.

Cameron over-eggs it all in other words; the Na’vi are so perfect that I hate them. They don’t even LOOK like real aliens; they have the wide-eyed blank-faced look of characters in a manga comic.  For all the much vaunted brilliance of the CGI, I never forgot for a moment that I was watching blue simulations.  Indeed, in some ways I felt these aliens felt less ‘real’ than the animatronic aliens in Farscape.

Of course, I freely concede that in my own novels I don’t shirk from making the humans the bad guys -  it makes for a better story that way.    But I think we shouldn’t forget to celebrate the best of humanity – the geekiness, the wit, the camaraderie, the cleverness, and the heart-bursting loyal love of which humans are capable. 

Admittedly, Jake DOES fall in love, with the girl alien Neytiri, who IS quite pretty in an eerie ‘she looks like a blue Bambi, is he really going to do it with a deer?’ kind of a way.  But he’s a pretty dull character in other respects; we root for him because he’s the hero, not because he’s all that interesting.

A sequel to Avatar is being planned, I gather; I’d love to think that it involves a spaceship full of Jewish comedians who are airlifted down to teach the Na’vi the skills they clearly lack; self deprecation, grumbling, and the cruel taunting of the afflictions of others.  Not to mention, cake!

For my part, living on the planet of the Na’vi would be like living in the English countryside: beautiful, spiritually uplifting, and BORING.  I’d rather live in New York and eat bagels and pastrami with the aforesaid Jewish comedians, and indulge in daily rituals of sarcasm and ironic hyperbole. 

That’s what it is to be human.

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