Avatar’s End

(many spoilers in this post, if you haven’t seen Avatar yet)

Sometimes  a story just goes wrong.  The author sets it all up just right – and then somehow the whole thing falls apart.  That’s how I feel about James Cameron’s Avatar.  Its a stunning movie.  The richly detailed landscapes and lovely Aliens draw one deeply inside the world of Pandora.  And apart from the glorious visuals, there is a tragic heart to the story that makes you want to watch it to the end, even though you know that it cannot end well.

I’m struggling to articulate why one would feel drawn to tragedy.  Is it simply the affirmation of facing your fear? Maybe that is why I felt so let down by the way that Avatar plays out.  Instead of facing up to the inevitable tragedy of its story line, we get a day dream fairy tale ending.

I felt the same about WALL-E .  That was a truly dark story.  A robot survives on the castaway waste of humanity and falls in love with another robot.  Our sympathy for this little machine forms the emotional core of the film.  He has such a fragile grasp on happiness.   — (Spoiler coming up)–  At the end of the movie, the inevitable happens.  Machine like,  he loses his memory, and with his memory goes everything he gained including his love for EVA.  For a moment, we stare into the abyss of our deepest fears.  We recognised  how fragile memory, personality and love can be.  Oops and then he gets it all back and they live happily ever after.  Maybe not.

As my brother states in on this (and other issues around Avatar) in his blog post at “the subtle knife”:

For a fictional victory to be psychologically true, for it to be resonant and satisfying,  something must be lost. Frodo has to lose his living connection to Middle-Earth; Will has to lose Lyra;  Ged has to give up his power.  If nothing is lost, the prize offered by the story will be a hollow clanging shell.

I’m thinking of Jake Sully’s intense joy in his avatar body.  We are constantly aware that this magical experience cannot last – he has to return back into his stunted body.  We share his pleasure in discovering Pandora but the thought is always there. “What the hell are you doing? How can this possibly work out?”  And then – oops!  It does.

In playing with alternate endings, I thought of two other stories.  First – Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Dune has a lot in common with Avatar.  The planet as a hostile entity –  Pandora seething with dangerous life forms, and Dune on the other side of the spectrum – an arid desert almost devoid of life.

The Pandoran Na’vi find their counterpart in the Fremen of Dune – and share many of the Noble Savage stereotypes.

Dune has Paul Atreides, the colonist intruder who undergoes savage initiation to become a Fremen saviour  – Avatar has Jake Sully, the marine who undergoes trials and initiation to become a true Na’vi.

Pandora has the mineral “unobtanium” (!) which causes strife between the greedy humans and the peaceful Na’vi.  Dune has the mysterious spice, which is mined by the warlike and oppressive corporation despite the wishes of the Fremen.

But in Dune, Paul Atreides has to give up his humanity to gain the power he needs.  To become the Fremen saviour, he has to sacrifice his own identity and any chance of love and happiness.  He does this to avert the religious war he foresees in which the Fremen drive a murderous jihad across the galaxies.  And here is another difference – the noble savages of Dune were perfectly capable of seizing the technology of their oppressors without losing any of their integrity.

A Sandworm and Fremen on Dune: Image by Eduardo Pena

And think about Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Once again, there are many similarities. The most obvious – and the magical heart of this story – is the vision of the untouched, intricate, glowing world of the Deer God’s forest.  Here is a far more convincing depiction the balance of nature, from the delicate nurturing beauty of the ferns and animals, to the ravening wolves, to the inevitable death and decay that must be part of the circle of life.

The Forest Spirit walks in Princess Mononke:

The ethereal, deadly forest spirit  must be killed, and while its death is mourned, Ashitaka and San are left behind in a world diminished by their loss.  But it is nevertheless  the world in which they belong, and we sense their joy in home-coming.

Incidentally, this death of the forest spirit has its echoes in Hell Boy, The Golden Army where Hell Boy has to kill the last of the  forest spirits.  This creature looks eerily similar to the one in Princess Mononoke, and in its dying, creates a positively Pandoran landscape as its ferny body decays amid the cars and buildings.

I’m not sure how Avatar should have ended.  And there are many other troubling aspects, as Andries points out. I found it a profoundly disturbing movie – and yet, I loved it.  There is a true story deep inside it.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. andries du toit
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 12:01:45

    There is a true story deep inside it, but it does not tell the story. Exactly.

    I think two very interesting things are going on in Avatar. Firstly, ‘archetypally’, it is a fairy tale; a tale about the visit to the magic garden. It is an old story that has been told many times… Pandora is Lothlorien, is Narnia, etc etc etc.

    The other thing that is going on, besides the magic garden, is politics – and more specifically, colonialism and imperialism. One of the key things that SF seems to be very good at doing is finding ways to talk about, tell stories about, make sense of, colonial encounters. In these stories of ships from elsewhere and meetings with strange Others, we are rewriting and re-thinking this very central aspect of our own history. Le Guin’s books are an example; and so is Dune (although Pandora is more le-Guin-ish, because it has anthropologists).

    I think one of the interesting things about Avatar is the way it brings together these two streams. And I think the movie’s unconscious and dishonest political agenda is one of the reasons why it has to ‘pollute’ the other stream as well, and bludgeon the story into having a happy ending…

  2. charles
    Feb 20, 2010 @ 12:36:41

    Just regards the fairy tale ending… I thought the tragedy was still intact. They fought off a small advance mining operation. The humans would most certainly return to annihilate them entirely; both in retaliation and because of the unobtainium (spice is such a cooler concept!). Its like a South American tribe beating off the first of Columbus’s ships; a hollow victory.

  3. mashadutoit
    Feb 20, 2010 @ 12:40:07

    Yes, of course its a hollow victory – and you can tell its hollow because if you knock on it, you can hear a echoing sound – “Sequel! Sequel!”

    Seriously though, I did like this movie, but the ending is far too “Star Wars”. The hollowness of the victory is only apparent if you think about it – its not suggested in any way. That could have been a cool ending. “We’ll be back!”

  4. Savyra Meyer
    Jun 15, 2010 @ 15:34:54

    Wow! Your blog and your brother’s are a treasure trove. Have subscribed to both.

  5. mashadutoit
    Jun 15, 2010 @ 15:39:21

    Thanks Savyra. It’s about time that my brother does another blog post…

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