Monday, January 4, 2010


Since I discovered dinosaurs at age 8, it has been a lifelong fantasy of mine to travel back a hundred million years or so and explore the fauna and flora of a bygone era. Being a fantasy, I can have it on my own terms. I would be safely contained inside an invisible glass orb which hovered about as my mind’s desire directed it. If a stegosaurus drank at a waterhole a mile away, I would zoom over to it, silently. I would move in close enough to see the water reflected in its eye. I would listen to the exhalations between each sucking intake of water. I would reach out and feel the moist breath on my skin. A few minutes later I might be soaring with pterodactyls, or thundering across a grassland with a megatherium.

The new film Avatar brought me closer to living that fantasy than ever before. The film is set on another planet — lush with rainforest vegetation — where evolution has taken its own path to life forms no less splendid than those on Earth. We witness the wonderful turns Darwinian natural selection can take when organisms are subjected to different survival pressures through millennia. In addition to many intriguing plants, we meet up close at least a dozen vertebrate and invertebrate animal species. All are exquisitely rendered. The skin of the flying lizards is supple and vibrantly colored, and their four-winged layout as convincing as it is radical. Several of the land-bound beasts run and leap not on four but six legs, and they appear no less efficient for it. The domesticated equine-like beasts ridden by the natives breathe through a series of openings running up each side of the neck, reminiscent of an octopus’s siphons or the spiracles traversing a locust’s abdomen.

The film’s hero, Jake Sully, faces many perils and surprises as his avatar stumbles through this moist, tropical alien terrain. We glide voyeuristically alongside, taking in the visual majesty with the secure knowledge that nothing can harm us. So real is the scenery (enhanced by 3-D technology) that I found myself fully tensed, muscles primed for fight or flight, with each step Sully takes over a moss-covered log or under a massive fern frond.

Thankfully, there is a message to go with the entertainment value of this stunning visual feast. The story-line builds to a violent confrontation between the planet’s nature-loving Na’vi tribe, and an expedition of avaricious humans from whom the Na’vi are trying to protect their sacred homeland. One would have to be asleep not to draw parallels with the might-makes-right, colonial persecution and exploitation of native peoples (and animals) and their shrinking habitats on our own planet.

My enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by scenes of brutality towards animals by the Na’vi themselves, who hunt with arrows and kill for meat. The contrast between humans and Na’vis would have been more profound and poignant had the latter been shown to be animal-friendly to the point of not eating them. Also, there is a predictable emphasis on snarling, menacing animals bent on killing to eat. This is, after all, a Hollywood production. Still, one can hope that the film’s pro-environment message reaches audiences far and wide. After all, a film is just a fantasy, but it might provide inspiration and guidance for dealing with humankind’s real world shortcomings.


At December 11, 2010 at 10:57 AM , Blogger Voyager said...

Yeah, that was exactly my problem with the movie too. I was disappointed that despite them trying to portray the natives as peaceful and "one with nature" and all, they also needed to show them hunting for food (which is still killing, no matter how much they "honored" their victims).
I mean, hello? Everyone knows it's not necessary to eat meat, so why not have these otherwise intelligent and extremely civilized beings abstain from it?
Heck, a lot of people here on Earth do just that!
~Dave Bernazani


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