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The Last of the Mohicans in Space

By skepticlawyer

Well, finally managed to drag myself off to see James Cameron’s Avatar, which — it’s fair to say — divides people. In the red corner (US political colour configuration), we have Miranda Devine irritated at untoward greeniness, while in the blue corner we have this selection of links over at Hoyden About Town. Other (slightly) sideways takes are available at Hot Air and the Von Mises Institute. I’ll return to the latter in due course.

Now, having seen it, I think parties on all sides of politics need to remember that Tropes Are Not Bad. As tropes go, Avatar is a version of The Last of the Mohicans, a venerable trope, although there is also a great deal of the Hero with a Thousand Faces, of which ‘Last of the Mohicans’ is but a subtrope. Alas, we are probably stuck with variations on that theme for reasons as old as biology.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s my take.

Good Stuff

The special effects are amazing. Really. I’ve got enough background in design and graphics to notice things that are this well done. The 3D is attractive without being invasive (only once is there a gun shoved at the viewer in such a way as to say, hellooo, we can do 3D, natch). The film catches incidental things beautifully — the wonder of flight, gravity that actually works (unlike King Kong, which always seemed to ‘stick’ in crucial places — usually when someone/thing was bouncing up and down).

Someone has also gone to some trouble to produce an alien culture that isn’t a variation on a Western theme, insofar as it’s possible to do so. The Na’vi language is a real language (this linguist spotted that it was properly inflected, for example). They are also a shame culture, and strange enough to be a bit disturbing (although the joke about 10 foot tall smurfs is not going to go away any time soon).

The planet’s biology — with one, glaring exception — is a beautiful carboniferous playground full of luminescent strangeness. Alas, however, the six-limbed, four-eyed creatures that provide the body plans for the planet’s mammalian biology are betrayed by humanoids with two eyes and four limbs, when — as Athena Andreadis points out — they should look rather like Hindu Goddesses. Ah well, it seems science fiction these days is piled high with You Fail Biology Forever.

Finally, it’s nice to see a future without FTL travel, as it’s so unlikely ever to happen. Instead, people spend six-odd years snap frozen in a much slower moving ship. The military technology is also believably extrapolated from what we have now.

Bad Stuff

In order:

1. A plot that’s as old as silent movies. I have less of an issue with this; Cameron had to make that massive budget back somehow. If you watch it, be prepared for some creaky stuff, otherwise known as ‘old hat’. This is all expertly criticized from both right and left perspectives in the links above.

2. All pagans are cool. Look, there’s a strong case to be made that monotheism has been a tower of fail for humanity (with the exception of the Jews, who own the monotheism patent and have a genuine right to be pissed off with the mutant versions derived from their intellectual property). That doesn’t mean paganism is all sweetness and light, however. Pagans start wars. Pagans can be vicious. Pagans often have/had social rules that would make your hair stand on end. Cool Mother Goddesses do not make up for this. A civilization recognizably pagan (in ways that make sense when playing the comparative religion game with classical antiquity) still hunts whales. [/classicist off]

3. The 3D gives quite a few people migraines, especially people who already have glasses and have to stick the 3D glasses over the top of their regular glasses. I don’t know whether it’s just this movie or all 3D movies, but it’s worth pointing out.

4. Unobtainium. About 40% of the cinema broke up when this word was uttered. Whether they’d seen The Core or not remains speculative, but, well, yeah…

Take home messages

As long as you remember that Tropes Are Not Bad (see above), then there are some take home messages in this film that don’t fit anywhere on the conventional political spectrum, along with a good bunch that do (see above once again). The best of these came up courtesy a review published by the Von Mises Institute, which I’ve excerpted below. I don’t agree with all of it, but it shows — when someone does wheel out one of the great Joseph Campbell heroic tropes — that the rest of us can project almost anything onto what we see:

And the “corporation” here is basically a mini-state, or an arm of a state–it has an army going around killing and destroying (Lester Hunt makes this point here). In fact, in the review of the leftish Mark Kermode of the BBC, he just calls the bad guys the military; even he is not taken in by the corporate facade. And the libertarian hosts of Free Talk Live (12/19/09 episode) get it right too: the plot is about property rights. In particular, the property rights of the Na’vi, in an established tree-city that they have clearly homesteaded. The Na’vi are not just some uncivilized savages as some curmudgeonly reviewers imply; they live they way they do because of the wondrous bounty of their strange world and some unique features it has–which, again, I can say little of without spoiling, but suffice to say it’s grounded in reality and extrapolative science fiction, not some quasi-mystical nonsense. They even have a sophisticated homesteading technique worked out for ownership of the wild, pterodactyl-like creatures known as Banshee or ikran. In addition, the main Na’vi character, Neytiri, although she is betrothed to another Na’vi, is permitted to change her mind and choose someone else–respect for individual choice and autonomy.

I think it’s good to be reminded that nicking other peoples’ property isn’t very nice, when you come down to it (Robert Nozick’s ‘justice in acquisition’, anyone?). Oh, and the neurally wired plaits are tres cool, especially when one character discovers that playing with it feels nice, and is warned to stop it, or he’ll go blind (all of which makes perfect sense in the later sex scene).

29 Comments

  1. Posted January 5, 2010 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Apparently the South Park treatment is called Dances with Smurfs. I’m just off to look for it…

  2. Posted January 5, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Not quite sure about that ‘the Navi should not be humanoid’ argument. On earth, there are some creatures – ants, spiders, octopoids – with eight limbs. There are some – insects – with six limbs. Some – mammals, etc – have four limbs. Then again, the limbs in some mammals have developed so that legs and arms are very different – humans, kangaroos, etc.

    So why shouldn’t a similar biological variety be reflected in the world of the Navi?

    Anyway, I know this is just a rather thin justification for an alien that human audiences could sympathise with. But come to think of it, weren’t there some odd monkeys with two arms and four hands about a quarter of the way through the film? And doesn’t that maybe imply an evolutionary path which the Navi have followed?

    And I wonder if some biologists may argue that it’s quite conceivable for the Navi to be similar to humans in this respect, because they have to be able to manipulate and use tools: hence, they have to have arms which are distinct from legs, and developed hands on those arms.

    On the ‘bad stuff’ ledger, I think Cameron is the sort of guy who does unoriginal plots well. He thinks iconically – I mean, Terminator bears a very very close similarity to that old sf paradox/story about the man who goes back in time to kill his own mother. For some reason this seems to work better in film. Not sure why. Might have to think about it.

  3. John H.
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    And I wonder if some biologists may argue that it’s quite conceivable for the Navi to be similar to humans in this respect, because they have to be able to manipulate and use tools: hence, they have to have arms which are distinct from legs, and developed hands on those arms.

    Look up “constructal theory” it argues that there are very real constraints on evolutionary processes which is why convergent evolution is so common. Hence in any world in this universe at least the emergence of life may very well follow similiar dynamics to those on earth.

  4. Jason Soon
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Nice take by Mises you pointed out. Some right wingers hate environmentalism so much they miss the obvious. We’re talking about a crony capitalist army probably granted a State monopoly taking another sentient race’s property rights by force.

  5. Jason Soon
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    actually another parallel occured to me.

    Imagine if JS Mill was an action figure who turned against his employer the East India company after falling in love with an Indian princess.

  6. Posted January 5, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    The right-wing/libertarian interpretation of the film is interesting. Not sure about it myself – Cameron does have some obvious left-wing pointers in the film – the quote about ‘fighting terror with terror’, for instance, by the creepy army commander.

    No ideological interpretation really does it justice, though. The political pointers in the film give it obvious relevance to the present but they’re open to a lot of interpretations.

    And Cameron’s a more subtle filmmaker than people give him credit for. There are a lot of ambiguous moments/signs that could have several meanings. eg, the word ‘Navi’. Could be translated as -

    Short for ‘Navaho’
    Anagram for ‘vain’.
    Short for ‘naive’.

    Same with a number of other elements in the film, including the recapitulation of old Cameron tropes – the battle between the army commander (in a robot) with the Navi (on a leopard) recalling the climactic battle in Aliens; Sigourney Weaver’s character – a kind of gentle-scientist version of Ripley – and so on.

  7. John H.
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    with the exception of the Jews, who own the monotheism patent and have a genuine right to be pissed off with the mutant versions derived from their intellectual property

    An Egyptian religion dating to 13th BC has first dibs on monotheism. It died out. Aton. Not that the Jews were that monotheistic, there appears to have been some fast and loose “corrections” to the OT texts, thereby eliminating any suggestion of polytheism. A careful reading of some OT texts though suggests that polytheism was kicking around the Israeli camp for many centuries. Have a read of “The Evolution of God”. Good stuff and caused me to rethink many issues about the emergence of religion and monotheism in particular.

  8. Posted January 5, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Jason: I thought the East India parallels were blindingly obvious even without the Mises Institute review. I do agree with TimT that Cameron does old tropes very well. Try to do stuff like that in a novel and, well, it’s just twee.

    DEM and I were talking about the Egyptian version of monotheism last night, and as Akhenaten tried to outlaw rival religions, it seems the ‘monopolistic’ aspects of monotheism were there early and hard. It also suggests that the Jews gazumped the Egyptians down at the patents’ office…

    And another thing: invading other peoples’ countries/cities/planets/what have you is a big no-no in many strains of libertarian philosophy — Antiwar.com is run by libertarians, not lefties.

  9. su
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    This review suggests an alternative name for the mineral -”plotadvancium” : ) And the author points our some WTF’s about the wheelchair and other odd scientific/tech holes.

    I haven’t seen it but I’m enjoying all the commentary.

  10. Posted January 6, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    A plot that’s as old as silent movies.
    .
    Nooooooo. From Jim Cameron? The author of the eloquent and original script for Titanic?
    .
    JACK: Rose!
    ROSE: Jack!
    JACK: Rose!
    ROSE: Jack!
    JACK: Rose!
    ROSE: Jack!
    JACK: Rose!
    ROSE: Jack!
    JACK: Rose!
    ROSE: Jack!
    JACK: Rose!
    ROSE: Jack!
    .
    etc.. :)

  11. Posted January 6, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Hence in any world in this universe at least the emergence of life may very well follow similiar dynamics to those on earth.
    .
    You’re just saying that ’cause you wanna marry that foxy Vulcan from Enterprise.

  12. Posted January 6, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Or the beagle…

  13. Posted January 6, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Over at BusinessPundit someone has taken a precis of Disney’s Pocohontas, crossing out proper names and scribbling in ones from Cameron’s Avatar.

    Haven’t seen the movie (no real interest until it maybe comes to free-to-air), so I wonder if any readers who /have/ think it’s a fair comparison (with lack of contrast)

  14. Posted January 6, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Just had to let a bunch of people out of the spammer — apologies for this, I’m only intermittently on the internets.

  15. melaleuca
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I thought Gran Torino was the pick of 2009. Who would’ve thought Clint Eastwood would develop into such a great director.

    I’ll watch Avatar when it comes out on DVD as it doesn’t sound that interesting.

  16. Patrick
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    I agree with Mel.

  17. Posted January 8, 2010 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    One suspects that ‘get off my lawn’ will be as iconic in the future as ‘go ahead punk, make my day’.

  18. Jason Soon
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    I concur with Mel on Gran Torino. I have to add that the racial jokes and banter in that movie were also hilarious in an almost cathartic kind of way.

  19. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    I have not yet seen Avatar however I did like Gran Torino. In particular I liked what it had to say about the distinction between racism and bigotry. Eastwood plays a racist (a sexist racist) who is anything but a bigot. I particularily like the scene in the barber shop when he is teaching the young lad about how men should talk to each other. It is a lesson in the need to understand context.

  20. Posted January 8, 2010 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Gran Torino was a very, very good film, in part because it somehow managed to undo Dirty Harry at the same time as revisiting the trope. Eastwood is a stunning director.

  21. Patrick
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Talk about revisiting a trope – if Clint Eastwood has a weak point, it is that he’s been making the same film for a long time now. OTOH, he got it pretty right with Million Dollar Baby and absolutely dead to rights with Gran Torino.

    It looks like he has found a slightly new formula with Invictus, though – can’t wait!!

  22. ken n
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I have a question.
    I have not seen a film in a theatre in about 20 years.
    Just on planes and DVDs.
    Not sure why, perhaps something to do with loss of control of the storytelling – I want to say “Yes, OK, I get that bit, Get on with it…”
    With books I can read slowly of fast depending on how interesting a page is.
    So, the question: Is Avatar worth me breaking the drought (or falling off the wagon)?
    If not, is thee anything among current releases?
    Or should play Casablanca and The Third Man and The Big Sleep again?

  23. Posted January 10, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Or should play Casablanca and The Third Man and The Big Sleep again?
    .
    Haven’t seen it. But if Avatar is as good as them I’ll eat my shoes with mustard.

  24. Posted January 10, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    the racial jokes and banter in that movie were also hilarious in an almost cathartic kind of way.
    .
    Thing the PC crew never understand is that ethnic humour is quite often cathartic. It eases tensions rather than creating them. And genuine bigots have a different style of racial humour that gives their black hearts away.

  25. Posted January 10, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Patrick, as you’re a rugby aficionado (I’m betting you actually watched the game in question) I’d be interested in publishing a review of Invictus from you. Drop me a line using the email address on our donations page if you’re interested.

  26. Jason Soon
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    I saw a trailer for Invictus. Morgan Freeman looked uncanny in that, had Mandela down pat. I’d watch the movie just for him and to hear Matt Damon do his Afrikaner accent

  27. Pedro
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Your shoes are safe Adrien. The movie is not that bad, but it is clunky and a bit embarrassing. The scriptwriter was not as bad as George Lucas, but he put in a manful dig all the same.

  28. Posted January 12, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Surely Avatar is not Last of the Mohicans in space, for Mohicans had the sophistication to have bad Indians. And The Filthy Critic has the funniest review of Avatar I have read so far.

    Yes on Gran Torino as the film of 2009, for all the reasons people say. But Eastwood has been a great director for some time: just watch Letters from Iwo Jima: the finest war film I have seen.

  29. see below
    Posted January 15, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    In favour of the property rights interpretation, apparently that is exactly how the Chinese (or at least some of them) have seen the film – as an exact parallel to their own frequent forcible evictions, eg:

    The humans actually failed to successfully evict and demolish [the aliens]?,” one blogger wrote. “Truly embarrassing. Why didn’t they send China’s chengguan [security guards] there?

One Trackback

  1. By Around the blogs Mon 11th « catallaxy files on January 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    [...] Lawyer on Avatar. As long as you remember that Tropes Are Not Bad (see above), then there are some take home [...]

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