Smells Like Butterflies

January 3, 2010

If the movie Avatar doesn’t introduce a new wave of Anorexic Blue Man chic, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. “Long, skinny, and four-fingered” has my money for the fashion vogue of the new millennium. Expect trash-bins full of severed pinkies arriving at a teen fan-base near you. Want a little bang for your buck? Buy stock in laundry detergent and black lights.

All kidding aside, the movie really is a sight to behold. It’s certainly worthy of praise as one of the most engrossing sci-fi pictures I’ve seen in a long time. Among other things, it shifts special effects expectations to a new level. The imagery is surreal. The colors are vibrant. The scope is mind-boggling. The reality is virtual.

To put it differently, this ain’t your pappy’s 3D. It’s a whole new experience in holy shit.

Even still, I couldn’t help feeling that the mythology of the movie was drawn a bit too much from yesterday’s environmental movement. The story, in a nutshell — and I don’t think I’m giving anything away, but if you are worried about spoilers, stop reading now…

Here, I’ll even give you a standard screamer…SPOILER ALERT!!!

Better? Not that there’s anything to spoil. You know the story before it even begins.

As I was saying, the story, in a nutshell, is that an exceedingly-advanced post-post-industrial space military — the “sky people,” otherwise known as you and me, compadre — has discovered this fantabulous planet called somethingorother. The name is immaterial. This new planet — Pandora, yes, that’s it — is replete with all sorts of wonderful things, including biological, geological, and physical anomalies, like floating mountains and shit, all torn straight out of the mind of someone’s bioluminescent Robitussin fantasy.

To complicate matters, the alien life-forms on Pandora are nuisances to the militarized peeps of earth, who see on Pandora nothing but an aggravating rat’s nest of moving blue objects refusing to evacuate their big-ass tree-house. Not a big deal, normally, except that their exceptionally large treehouse sits atop a mother lode of extremely valuable rocks. These rocks are so valuable, matter of fact, because they are nearly un-ob-tainable, kinda like gold, or coal, or oil, or diamonds, or hell, whatever jewels lie the mountain called monkey…except that they’re even more unobtainable than that.

At any rate, these rocks are only nearly unobtainable, since they can actually be obtained with a little bit of cunning, a heap of money, and loads of weapons. The militarized folk — or earthlings, dude — will just mow these alien motherfuckers down to get what they want, which are the aforementioned immensely valuable, yet nearly unobtainable, rocks. And, just like you and me with crew-cuts, they are hell bent on blowing everything to smithereens to get their little slice of heaven. Will Pandora fulfill its promise as a box of woe for the visiting earth marauders? Or will the unobtainable rock of Obama spring eternal?

I’m sure you know the rest. It doesn’t end well. Lots of crying and heartache, all wrapped up in a symphony of Apocalypse Now meets Peter Pan. Only thing missing is a ticking crocodile and the Ride of the Valkyries.

Did I mention that all of the aliens have USB connections in their pony tails?

Apart from the fact that the movie is wicked cool, it is also rich with heavy-handed cliché. The head military aggressor, Captain Kilgore — I forget his name — channels the Bush Doctrine in a way that would give Charlie Gibson a year of Palinogasms. There’s nothing wrong with domestic cultural references in an interplanetary fantasy movie, mind you, but I prefer my social critique a little more subtle, thank you very much.

None of that, unfortunately, was what I came here to say. What I came here to say was that the mythology of the movie is interesting insofar as it is a wee bit out of date.

I’m cool with mythology, and I do love me my science fiction, but Avatar offers a kind of pseudo-primitivistic pantheism, not unlike that held by the creative folk who conducted the social experiment of pooping in bags for two years in order to keep our attention focused on the trees. (How the hell did she do that? Where did she go to the… ah…I see.)

Turns out that in Avatar it is precisely this conflict between the spiritual tree-hugger versus the militarized rock worshipper that has been wrecking worlds since the dawn of napalm. Only in this world, it’s not crazy that the tree huggers hug their trees, because they all have Medusa-like USB cords in their hair and they actually do commune with nature. (Speaking of which, how awesome that Perseus is returning this summer?)

Seems to me that all of this discussion is a return to a discussion that we were having fifteen years ago; and one that, IMHO, was not terribly productive.

Hard to say whether this will result in another round of enchanting environmental discourse — no, we don’t all speak with the trees — but I’m fairly sure I’ll get an earful of it when I tune in to my environmental ethics classes next week. Question is, does this mythological narrative resonate anymore, now that the core environmental problem seems to have shifted from that of a militarized greed machine after some store of precious metals, to instead focus the potential of our collective undoing at our own hands? That’s a totally different story, and I’ve gotta wonder how this fits with that. I’m genuinely curious about this.

Thoughts anyone? Apologies for the spoilers.


  1. I too enjoyed the visuals. However, I felt like Cameron had obviously been reading 80s and 90s environmental tracts. For example, he had digested his Lovelockian Gaia hypothesis and focused his attention on tropical deforestation. It continues the “get back to Nature”/noble savage mythology which I find particularly unhelpful. Fun to watch but intellectually empty.

    cheers, jay

  2. Yeah, that was my feeling too.

  3. Yes, intellectually empty. How sad. I really wanted to love it.

  4. I too am catching up with blogs in the New year, which includes this post. I saw the movie a few days ago, wrote up a similar post here: http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2010/01/09/avatars-cardboard-cutouts/

    Bottom line, if I want to get all New Age gushy over stuff like this, I’d much prefer to watch Billy Jack whup some ignorant red neck ass for the 20th time.

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