As an initial post, and as part of my ongoing research into Hollywood auteurs, I address one of the many criticisms against James Cameron’s Avatar. Described disparagingly as Dances With Smurfs and FernGully with more money, I offer a counter argument to demonstrate how Avatar works aesthetically and philosophically, because rather than despite its apparent deficiencies in plot and character.
While there are resemblances between Avatar and FernGully: The Last Rainforest, they are superficial at best and there are crucial differences between the two. An easy one is the source of the enemy. In FernGully there is a malevolent entity that takes control of the machines, whereas in Avatar it is very explicitly human (read: capitalist) greed that is the enemy, there is no displacement.
While both narratives involve the hero renouncing his misguided ways, Jake Sully undergoes a more radical transformation than Zak Young – indeed Zak does not really transform at all. He realises the error of his ways, but ultimately goes back to where he came from, a wiser version of the same man. Jake however completely rejects his race and culture (read: Western capitalism) because it is morally bankrupt, evil and flat out wrong. There is no going back, he must become something completely new (or old?) and better.
Jake’s transformation speaks of the film’s overall message of environmental and human philosophy: a radical change is needed. It is not enough to simply point out to wrongdoers that what they are doing is harmful, a fundamental re-evaluation of values and philosophy is needed. FernGully makes no such challenge to the viewer, simply presenting the message that “conservation is important”, whereas Avatar is more confrontational and, it seems, discomfiting.
While the depth of the message can be obscured in Avatar‘s extraordinary visuals, it is not lost, nor is it dis-credited by the film’s existence as a commercial product. Few who have seen Avatar seem to have missed the environmental message, though there also seem to be few who take it seriously, largely because of the commercial status. But Avatar‘s message is not as crude as “Give up your life and go and live with nature in the woods”, it is a philosophical challenge to the viewer to look harder at their own life. The threat depicted in Avatar is less to the natural environment than to ourselves: we must learn to engage with our environment, as part of our care for it, to save ourselves (this is more obvious in the extended version in which the opening scenes present Earth, that looks a lot like Earth in Blade Runner).
The film’s message is conveyed through its visual aesthetic, making the CG landscapes, performance capture and 3D intrinsic to its meaning. The film’s emphasis upon “seeing” (a common theme throughout Cameron’s oeuvre) is directed at the viewer, and made all the stronger through the new cinema technologies. Through its groundbreaking visual aesthetic (and assault), the film presents the viewer with a rediscovery of seeing cinema, seeing film, seeing the world.
The challenging message meets its apex at the conclusion. Jake becomes fully one of the People, leaving his/our ruined human form behind (I have heard the anti-disabled arguments, which neglect what Jake’s body represents: our own damaged existence). Moreover, the film’s finale features the hugely important look out of the screen at the viewer: a direct, challenging gaze. From the environmentalist perspective, the look says “Over to you”. The philosophical challenge is deeper, the film saying to the viewer “I see you”, and asking what we see. Will we look upon ourselves, and learn from what we see? Will we perform the same reverse-anthropology that Jake does, or simply dismiss what we saw as a bunch of empty CGI?
Now, does FernGully do that?