My take on Avatar

This year’s “How can you not watch it” movie is Avatar. But ticket non-availability meant I only watched it last weekend. Even for that I need to thank my iPhone GV app, as I could book it earlier than anyone else.

I must say it lived up to (or even exceeded) my expectations. It was a visual feast and a great experience.

I’m not going to delve into the story or what was/wasn’t good. There are enough people doing that! Instead let me just give you my take on the story/plot/thoughts conveyed.

It’s a story with a philosophical underpinning. Not the most original (it reminded me of Pocahontas), but a serviceable story. Its message is that a life close to nature is the best. It makes the best use of resources, preserves harmony, and is better for the long-term success of a species. The same message was conveyed in this scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.

The earthlings have killed their planet and exhausted all its resources due to a life that deviated from nature as far as possible, whereas the Na’vi occupants of Pandora live in perfect harmony with nature. This characterization of the Na’vi inhabitants was based on the Noble Savage Theory by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that a life less touched by technology and its evils was the best. He claimed that man reached his peak when he had cultivated values like family, filial piety, tribe, homeland and loyalty, but before he had become a master of technology.

Another thing that struck me about James Cameron’s portrayal of the Na’vi was their concept of loyalty. The giant birds are loyal to their rider for life. When Jake gets back on Pandora after the first round of the war is over, his long-forgotten giant bird swoops down to pick him up. After the sex scene, Neytiri tells Jake, “We have mated for life”. This is different from the decadent world Jake came from, where multiple partners were commonplace. It was James Cameron’s message that a civilization which humans regarded as “hostile natives” can have a better value system than the technologically advanced humans.

One of the most appealing things about the movie was how the animals were similar to earth animals but also somehow different. The “this looks like a rhinoceros, but wait a minute, it’s blue and it has big ears” feeling somehow appeals to us. It invokes a sense of wonder, like a biologist who discovers a new species of penguin with lights on its head and a shark-like fin. If a human-like species is known as a humanoid (as the Na’vi are described), then Avatar was also full of rhinoids, horsoids, birdoids, leopardoids and jellyfishoids.

In a lot of science fiction movies, people with even a cursory understanding of science know that several things are unscientific. But everything in Avatar was consistent with science. If you look at the pack of leopard-like animals which attack Jake shortly after the rhinoid attack, they move in packs exactly as wolves would. Their manoeuvres, their positioning, their teamwork, everything is consistent with how pack-based earth animals operate.

The language of the Na’vi was also scientifically created. Just like the language Klingon was created for the Star Trek (tidbit: the Hamlet was translated into Klingon), linguistic consultant Paul Frommer created a new language for the Na’vi. He created syntactical rules and over a thousand new words for the language. No wonder it didn’t sound like rubbish, but sounded like a real language. A lot of insight went into how the language should sound. Since the Na’vi were a peace-loving community, the language was musical and mellifluous. Klingon on the other hand was rough and rasping.

James Cameron says he crafted a few scenes deliberately for the sequel. We can guess which ones they are. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) “dies”, but her “soul” goes to Eywa. There must be a reason for that. I’m sure she’ll come back in the sequel. Also for the sequel, the humans are not exterminated and can always come back. A larger army and better technology can give them a better chance of success next time round.

I’ll definitely look forward to a sequel. It will be another visual feast, and I’m just hoping that James Cameron will have surprises in store.