Sunday, April 25, 2010


I finally got around to seeing Avatar. In a film like this, the plot is secondary. Not that Avatar couldn’t benefit from a better plot. But, of course, the plot is largely an excuse to explore Cameron’s stimulated fantasy world.

1.Cameron is one of these multiculturalists who doesn’t really care about other cultures. The result is a patronizing patois of disparate elements which he cut-and-pasted from various cultures.

To take one example, the Na’vi exhibit a Jainist reverence for all living things. Yet the Na’vi are clearly a warrior culture.

2.Cameron is a nature-lover as only an urbanite can be a nature-lover. Nature in the loving gaze of a city slicker. It’s easy to idolize nature if you don’t have to live off the land. Back-to-nature from the comfort of a Bel Air mansion. A deceptively domesticated wilderness–at the end of a handheld remote.

3. Some Christian movie reviewers interpret Pandora as a new Eden. However, Pandora is very different from Eden. Unlike the Garden of Eden, the Pandoran forest is full of dangerous animals. And the Na’vi form a fierce warrior tribe.

4.I’ve read about some moviegoers who were so entranced by Cameron’s simulated fantasy world that they undergo withdrawal symptoms when they have to return to the real world. Here I’ll make a few observations:

i) Since the real world is a fallen world, it is obviously less then ideal. So it’s only natural to hanker for something better.

ii) Cameron’s imaginary world is, indeed, a kaleidoscope of awesome visuals–as it was meant to be. And it creates the illusion of inexhaustible depth. But is it more beautiful than the real world?

The basic reason that Pandora makes such wonderful eye candy is that Cameron isn’t constrained by physics. He can cherry-pick all the prettiest scenes on earth and throw them together in glorious incoherence. Pandora is basically a rainforest. But at night he makes it look like a seascape with weightless, phosphorescent, underwater creatures. That’s a lovely effect, but it’s lovely in part because it’s physically impossible–like some of Escher’s optical illusions.

Or we have the floating mountains, which defy gravity. Sky-borne mountains with cascading waterfalls which have no source of water. Water that magically appears out of nowhere to wow the viewer.

So Pandora is a celluloid dreamscape. In Pandora, things are surreally beautiful because they’ve been emancipated from functional necessities. Nothing has to work. It’s all a waxy surface, with nothing under the hood.

But in our world, the real world, natural beauty is functional beauty. A large part of natural beauty lies in the subtle feats of engineering. Both micro and macroengineering. Everything thing has to work, and what is more, everything has to work with everything else.

Consider the flight of a bird. Or a flock of birds in formation flight. That’s a beauty to behold, but the beauty goes beyond mere visuals. It’s a marvel of engineering.

iii) It’s also interesting to compare Cameron’s ideal world with the ideal world in Rev 20-22. The new world in Revelation combines the new Eden with the New Jerusalem. It isn’t strictly urban or strictly rural. Rather, it combines the best of town and country. Both urban design and garden design in one grand package.

iv) And this goes to a paradoxical contrast between a secular view of nature and a Christian view of nature.

In one sense, an atheist has a higher view of nature, for nature represents the apex. There’s nothing above and beyond the natural world. So nature takes the place of God. Faux environmentalists like Cameron view “unspoiled” nature as the ideal.

In another sense, a Christian has a higher view of nature, for nature is not the aimless byproduct of a mindless process, but the handiwork of God.

At the same time, there’s also a sense in which God has left some room for improvement. Nature supplies the raw materials for human cultivation. We tame nature. Harness nature.

A wilderness is not a garden. A landscape garden can be more pleasing than nature in the wild. Not to mention such cultural artifacts as art, music, dance, literature, and architecture.

Indeed, Pandora is a form of landscape engineering. A view of nature that does not and cannot exist in a state of nature. Nothing could be more artificial than Cameron’s computer simulated paean to natural beauty. A hitech stage set, richly furnished with handsome, nonfunctional stage props.

v) Pandora is a sensational, alien world–but a limitation to that aesthetic experience is that once the spectacle becomes familiar, the extraordinary becomes ordinary. Our first impressions were the best impressions. The most intense. Over time it ceases to evoke the same awestruck feelings. It may even become a little dull. If everything is big, then bigness might as well be small.

Human beings need a certain variety. Discovery and continuity.


  1. Thanks, Steve! Fantastic film criticism. :-)

  2. Although you mentioned that the (flimsy) story was mainly an excuse for the visuals, I think it was what kept me from liking the movie very much. It was such a tired rendition of the "Evilcorp vs. the hippies" template that I couldn't muster much interest in it.

  3. Good angle on the movie. Grade A effects. Grade B plot and suspension of disbelief factor.

    In a way I'm kind of glad the capacity to elicit a suspension of disbelief is so low. I was angered by the movie early on because I'm a "former" Marine and the portrayal of the space-borne Marines was close to slander. There was a time when the US military could be equated to what we see in the movie as the conquest of the west drove the indigenous Americans out of their lands and confined them to reservations made of some of the poorest land on the continent.

    Aside from that, the intent was clear: portray military action of today as being subject to the American oil companies alleged exploitation of the Middle East - or Alaska.