Seeing AVATAR

“Did you like AVATAR?” my friends ask when I tell them I finally saw it, the blockbuster James Cameron 3-D film. How could I not? I’m “green” to the core, an environmentalist, and my favorite Bible story as a child was always Eden.

The film let me disappear for several hours into a digital fantasy chock full of exotic wilderness, deep kinship with the rest of creation, and a fight for preservation. It let me leave behind the real world, a place where sustainability, if it’s going to work, will have to be business friendly.

The last film that really hit me like AVATAR was STAR WARS, which was released in 1977. That was near the end of the Cold War, and STAR WARS featured a full-tilt galactic battle between the Empire and Republic. STAR WARS was all about power and succession, and the battle scenes reminded viewers of the triumphs of World War II and old westerns.

STAR WARS was a hit back then because it comforted us at the same time it entertained. We knew that Luke Skywalker would triumph in the end and good would prevail over evil.The setting of STAR WARS was vast (the universe) and, like AVATAR, the themes were familiar to those who have read the Bible and Shakespeare.

But there were differences. In STAR WARS, nature was a backdrop for action and reflection, but it was never the main focus of the film.

Unlike George Lucas, James Cameron has centered his action on nature. He’s digitally created a lush pre-modern world and focused his story there. In AVATAR Cameron’s setting trumps plot, character, even the themes.

There is no problem yet with global warming on Pandora because they’ve had no Industrial Revolution. The indigenous people, the Na’vi, are a pre-agricultural hunting and gathering tribe, so the population is nicely distributed between the forests and the seashore. There are no anti-zoning zealots yet, no private property partisans, no real estate magnates in this world where all land is held in common, and in trust.

Pandora is a more-than-human world, with not even a hint that humanoids might be the be-all and end-all of their particular evolution. For the Na’vi homelands are sacred. They aren’t a “resource” to be put to “wise use.”

On Pandora the wisest species is a tree. John Muir, American’s early 20th Century preservationist prophet would like what he sees on Pandora. The Na’vi homeland is like Muir Woods on steroids.

When I left the theater I was a little stunned. Did I really have to go back into my world and leave Cameron’s behind? Couldn’t I stay on Pandora where I watched the Na’vi hold greed and exploitation at bay for two hours and forty minutes against the relentless rush of a modernity I knew all to well?

But we all know what happens with Edens. Cameron will probably create sequels to his Pandoran triumph of good greens over the bad military-industrial complex.

Maybe he’ll write a script where industrial tourism arrives from Earth and the Na’vi become raft guides on all their endless free-flowing rivers. Maybe Pandora will become a galactic Costa Rica in AVATAR II?

Or maybe AVATAR III will feature a starship of earth missionaries arriving and a subtle battle will ensure for the souls of the Na’vi. The missionaries will not cut down the sacred Tree of Souls, but merely replace it with another idea of divinity, a book, and a creed.

AVATAR is good entertainment, but I’m not so naive as to think the past can triumph over the future. We go to the movies and then we come home. We might dream of Pandora, but live in the real world.

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