Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar and Star Trek

Have you seen the movie Avatar?

Beautiful special effects and all the women, as a friend pointed out, are strong characters. Cameron understands powerful women and almost always--maybe always--does a good job portraying them.

But the film is thin, thin, thin in terms of story. Noble savages living at one with nature and the nature goddesses on an alien planet are saved from a rapacious military-industrial-complex Earth invasion by a strong, good white man. I was reminded of 1985's time travel movie, Back to the Future, in which WASPy white Michael J. Fox "gives" rock 'n' roll to a black band ... and as I watched the swaying aliens praying to the goddesses, I thought: 1930s Tarzan movies.

I was also reminded of a Star Trek episode from 1968 in which Captain Kirk is hit on the head and loses his memory while on a planet populated by aliens who are very much like Native Americans (we find out later that a master race has seeded these simple natives throughout the galaxy; hence the similarities.) Anyway, the driven organization man-- Kirk --embraces the simple life and falls in love with the chief's daughter, Miramanee. The natives take him for a god when he uses mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive a young boy who has drowned. Because of his status, he's able to marry Miramanee. Well, things end badly, as you might imagine .. but what struck me was how much better this mediocre Star Trek episode was than Avatar.

The Star Trek episode was better because Kirk has an articulated inner struggle, and in this episode, as in others, he's embracing a gentler, happier, non-striving life, which he wants but would never seek while serving as captain of a starship. You believe in the anguish of his conflicting desires and root for him as he, temporarily, achieves his suppressed goal of domestic bliss. Even while he's suffering amnesia, Kirk is experiencing inner conflict, dreaming anxiously of the "great lodge in the stars" and feeling he should be there. In Avatar's hero, you have none of that. The hero seems entirely unconflicted about throwing his lot in with the nature-loving aliens. All through the movie, I kept saying to myself--perhaps the Quaker in me coming out--don't you see you are killing HUMANS? Wouldn't making that choice be a natural vehicle for some kind of questioning, anguish or self-doubt? Wouldn't you be at least a little torn between your own species and aliens? Wouldn't there be at least a little concern over being a Benedict Arnold?

Additionally, the Star Trek episode, with a few camera shots, shows us the jealousy and torment of the man who is displaced by Kirk in Miramanee's affections, setting up the conflict that will come to a head at the end of the episode. This man is a real character and you can't help but feel his pain, just as you can't help but have an uncomfortable sense that Captain Kirk is trodding roughshod into other people's lives. In Avatar, there's also a jealous displaced alien, but you don't feel his pain in any realized way. He's just another obstacle in our hero's path--a thing.

So what is the point of this? That it takes soul more than money to create art? Did you like Avatar?


Hystery said...

Bless you a hundred thousand times for discussing both Star Trek and Avatar in the same post! LOL

I liked Avatar for its beauty and because the environmentalist in me loved the cathartic energy of seeing militaristic polluters getting their asses handed to them.

But as a pacifist, I deplored the violence and the lack of agony displayed when the lives of the "enemy" were lost. How did they get to that point in the first place? Were there no humans on Earth who could exercise authority or influence over the mercenaries and capitalists? Was there really no way for the indigenous people to express themselves apart from physical attack? But I suppose committees,diplomacy, interfaith work, protests, boycotts, and educational programs make for a pretty boring movie. And sadly, in real life, a lack of care,communication, and caution often leaves people in downward spirals of violence. Hardly something to celebrate.

Diane said...

Hi Hystery,

I was thinking of you. You gave me the courage to write about Star Trek. And it is too bad that negotiations are so much less thrilling than spectacular explosions.