Wednesday, December 30, 2009

James Cameron's Avatar

Go see it.

The critical response that I have read tend to say it is a good, perhaps great film, with a rather pedestrian story. Comparisons have been made to Dances With Wolves, among other films.

I think most people writing in the mainstream press have missed two direct literary influences; Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Word For World Is Forest and those of Frank Herbert's WorShip(Destination:Void) series. The more complex cultural treatment of colonialisation by Le Guin disappears in Avatar. For one, Le Guin's natives are not the statuesque Nav'i from Cameron's film. In The Word For World Is Forest the Astheans are small and green and spend long periods in a dream state, which angers the humans enslaving them. They are appealing like Ewoks from the Star Wars series- not the "noble savage" archetype that it seems Cameron and his audience more easily embrace. A more recent example of a post-colonial archetype of alien are the "prawns" from District 9. These aliens are generally not attractive or easily understood by the humans in the film. I hope Cameron can insert a more equivocal and nuanced treatment of an alien culture and it's response to colonialisation into the sequels to Avatar.

Frank Herbert's imaginary world of Pandora is far more strange and frightening than the jungle world presented in Cameron's film. That is not to say that Cameron's Pandora is not a fully conceived, plausible planet. It is truly strange and beautiful, and worth paying extra to see in Imax 3-D. Cameron's imagination has conceived a planet that a person might well want to live in, despite it's dangers. However, Herbert's world is truly strange because it is imagined as a place humans would not want to live in. His characters, after all, are hijacked there. Herbert's Pandora is inimical to human life and disturbing to human senses.

Therein lies the difficulty of translating these works to the cinema. An audience must face an unpleasant visual experience to realise Herbert's Pandora and faces the even more difficult challenge of facing a very different psychology on the part of Le Guin's Athsheans, her humanoid natives from The Word For World Is Forest.

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster