Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar: Film Review

At one point during the movie Avatar, I tried to brush away a fly but then realized that it was on the movie screen. This is what 3D graphics can do, and, I must say, the result is quite impressive. So are the shots of the flora and fauna of Pandora, the setting of James Cameron's new space-adventure/Cooperian-romance movie set sometime in the twenty-second century. One can always expect Cameron to outdo himself with all technical dimensions (pun intended) of the work; if only he had someone else to write his screenplays.

Anyone who follows popular culture may have recognized that Avatar has gotten outstanding reviews from most major publications: Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The New Yorker. But, in what Ross Douthat has referred to as a revolt of the fan-boys and nerds, there has been some blow-back on the internet. This is because, in spite of the film's technical depth, its characters and themes are as shallow as a water drop on oak.

The protagonist is a perfect example of this shallowness: His name is Jake Scully (given the film's ardent pantheism, something like Emerson Spinoza might have been more appropriate) and, apparently, he is a former marine. We don't know much about his service (or even if he was good at it), but the lifestyle appears to die harder than his legs do--in his human body, he's confined to a wheelchair (and, yes, if you're wondering, his skinny legs look more convincing than anything else in the movie). The only back story that Cameron provides is that Scully had a scientist brother who died at some point and that, at one point or another, he was in Venezuela (do I detect a Stone-ism here?)

Perhaps Cameron would object that he does not too overly-humanize the, well, human characters because they represent the assumed Military Industrial Complex of the Robber Barons, Corp. The problem is that when he introduces the indigenous tribe, they aren't really much more distinctive. Scully's attraction to them is predictable (after all, this movie was made after Dances with Wolves and A Man Called Horse) but also incomprehensible, given that there is nothing intriguing--or even attractive--about them. Their platitudinous speech is ridden with cliches one might expect from any Hollywood picture. However, they are unrealistic on a deeper level than their silly dialogue and cat ears would suggest. (They also have a tail, but that's not the strangest thing.)

What is least believable about the tribe is the love that all of them have for nature; this seems much more reflective of the tastes of the bourgeoisie bohemian producer of this piece than any indigenous tribe that has existed in any place in history. Love of nature is a product of urbanization; for those who depend on nature and constantly struggle against its darker side for survival, fear is the default position (and rightly so); it is true that nature yields plentifully, but it does not do so for humanity. To conceptualize of nature--as the Na'vi tribe in the movie does--as a maternal goddess is simply absurd.

To say that nature is cruel is, as Stephen J. Gould has pointed out, somewhat quaint, given that it occupies an entirely different wavelength of moral order; nature is neither cruel nor kind, but comfortably amoral and diverse (though, as Darwin argued in the Origins of the Species, it tends to be fairly intolerant of diversity within species--perhaps the reason why all of Cameron's Na'vi look pretty much the same.) Nature being what it is, humanity is almost a perfect corollary to it for, unlike nature, men progress by devolution rather evolution: the sword is made by the man who can't lift a stone, the bow by a man who can't wield a sword, the rifle by a man who can't pull a bow string and the nuclear weapon by the man who can't shoot straight. Nature is beautiful, as long as it is contained within the consciousness but the humanity which Cameron purges by the end of the film provide, by merit of being fully human, the only compass by which anyone's actions in the film could be gauged as moral or immoral.

Naturally, the most lasting feature of the film will not be these themes but rather the new technology that went into its production and created a fly so real that (as I noted at the beginning of this essay) I tried to brush it away. What can be said for this? Mainstream critics have already said it all so I will only add that I hope that filmmakers of equal technical talent as that of James Cameron and greater storytelling ability will, like that carrion fly I waved at, tear off some slice of inspiration from this production which may be tasty but also as dead as the carcasses which ultimately turn to nothing but a naked skull and rib cage.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Of Communitarians and Christians

Patrick Deneen at Georgetown University has a piece arguing that George Bailey (of It's a Wonderful Life fame) is not so heroic after all; that he is actually the destroyer of Bedford Falls. Here's a revealing highlight:

"Attempting to comprehend what has happened, and refusing to believe Clarence’s explanations, George attempts to retrace his steps. He recalls that this awful transformation first occurred when he was at Martini’s bar, and decides to seek out Martini at home. Martini, in the first reality, is one of the beneficiaries of George’s assistance when he is able to purchase a home in Bailey Park; however, in the alternate reality without George, of course the subdivision is never built. Still refusing to believe what has transpired, George makes his way through the forest where Bailey Park would have been, but instead ends in front of the town’s old cemetery outside town. Facing the old gravestones, Clarence asks, “Are you sure Martini’s house is here?” George is dumbfounded: “Yes, it should be.” George confirms a horrific suspicion: Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of unspeakable sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors. George Bailey’s vision of a modern America eliminates his links with his forebears, covers up the evidence of death, supplies people instead with private retreats of secluded isolation, and all at the expense of an intimate community, in life and in death."

You can find the rest on Front Porch Republic if you like. My response to this was "Let the dead bury the dead". Do you agree? Sub-question: Is Prof. Deneen's communitarian-ism reconcilable with Christianity, which is a fundamentally cosmopolitan religion?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

On Immortality and Selfishness

Here's an interesting paradox: Today, there exist several institutions not unlike the Immortality Institute; the purpose of these organizations is to reverse aging and, by doing so, gain the benefits of religion without any of the devotion. The curious thing is this: if everyone on the planet were to live 1000+ years, how would we ever make room (quite literally) for such things as procreation? Are we immortals to halt population growth all together? No doubt the CEO of the Immortality Institute would answer in the affirmative, at least until we have developed the necessary technologies to allow us to colonize other planets (that is, if living in a five-hundred-year-old body doesn't sterilize all of us.) And leaving aside this problem, other issues emerge: putting the breaks on aging won't save those in developing countries from epidemics or those of us in developed countries from car accidents. The effect that it would have--it seems to me--is to make us much more paranoid about health, work, diet, etc. ("Artificial sweetener can cause cancer, ya know.") My point is, much as we dislike mortality, shedding it will not create utopia; humans--or at least humans who live beneath the floor of heaven--may be selfish, but not nearly as selfish as they would be were they (tentatively) immortal.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The President's New Afghanistan Policy

I finally got around to watching at least part of the speech at West Point in which President Obama announced his new Afghanistan policy. I had already, to some degree, formed an opinion before watching it, so I'll just lay out my thoughts on the matter: Do I support his Afghanistan policy? Yes. I don't find the timeline to be particularly tasteful (considering that Al Qaeda and the Taliban could lie low until the United States begins to withdraw), but President Obama knew that a surge in Afghanistan of any sort would be controversial with his party's far-left wing. He did it anyway. I think that's something that we can all admire. This doesn't mean that I have any intension of becoming an Obama supporter; I still disagree with him on 90% of the major issues, and, even though the surge plan is the most courageous decision, I can only pray that it is also the best one. That being said, this might make for an interesting chapter should anyone ever decide to write Profiles in Courage 2.