Re: Two Views of “Avatar” (New York Review of Science Fiction, April, 2010 #260)
Yes, the whole kit-and-caboodle of “Avatar” is lifted from various SF tropes, as both authors aptly demonstrate. But for all of that, “Avatar” is a unique cinematic experience that does, indeed, evoke the sense of wonder that is at the heart of the SF experience. While Darrell Schweitzer rather pooh-poohs Cameron’s manifold clichés and none too subtly trivializes the Big Ideas evoked, it is all too easy for a jaded cynic to reduce “Avatar” to "Dances With Wolves" in Space. But even if it is, so what? Few if any of my high school students have seen the Costner film (released before they were born), so for them “Avatar” was a breathtakingly original movie with a moral lesson.
It is no secret that western industrial society has lost its primordial connection to Nature. The virtue of Cameron’s film is that this very idea is brilliantly evoked. We are a part of the Web of Life, and this is one important lesson at the heart of the film. A lesson, by the way, that young people (and not only young people) desperately need to learn. The evil Corporation that is willing to commit ecocide (not to mention genocide) to support its bottom line is playing out across this Planet every day. Was Cameron being trite by promoting the notion that there are higher values than economics? Or by suggesting that machines can turn human beings into drones? Or by dramatizing the idea that ‘progress’ comes at the cost of indigenous people’s lives?
It is all too easy to look at the surface tropes of “Avatar” and bemoan its lack of originality. But the deeper themes that this movie explores are not trite clichés. They are the real world nexus of politics, economics, corporate greed and exploitation, and the alarming rise of corporate mercenary forces.
Ultimately, “Avatar” was uplifting because Life overcame Death, the Gaiean biosphere overcame the corporate machine that would destroy it, and because ‘people’ triumphed over prejudice and madness. Lessons that neither I nor my students relegate to the trivial.