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Another selva oscura.

januari 26, 2010

Writing a review of Cameron’s Avatar this late is perhaps unnecessary, but having seen the movie and read a number of reviews and discussions, there are still some comments that seem to be worth making.

Apart from the obvious opinions about 3D, there seem to be two major points that reviwers and debaters alike make with considerable vigour regardless of whether they are pro or con. The first issue is whether Cameron has created an original plot or not, the second, whether the plot and the film’s ”message” is banal or not. Basically, nearly every sf afficionado appears to be able to rattle off a number of stories which Cameron has used, to a greater or lesser extent, in cobbling together the script; there’s no denying that echoes from a great number of well-known and unknown sf stories have influenced the Avatar plot (the Locus reviewer, Gary Westfahl, lists a great number of them and others are added in the comments to his online review). Even without having seen it, I thought it sounded like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ”The Word for World Is Forest” and seeing it, I felt I was right. But that is neither here nor there: of course we can find similarities. The themes of the film are not new, nor are the plot patterns. This does not necessarily prove that Cameron has borrowed from any particular source, only that he has found similar solutions to problems which, sadly, are as relevant today as they were decades ago. A combination of disregard for the natural environment and the indigenous population can be found in too many stories to mention, and still, we do precious little to address the issue.

(Here, I am sorely tempted to preach about consumer responsibility, but I also know that such sermons have had little effect over the decades. Also, I am hardly without blame.)

Which brings us to whether the film is banal or not. In a way, it is. The message is clear; the good and bad guys have arrows pointing them out. The story develops in a predictable manner. And, as many have pointed out, the many loans that have been identified (if, indeed, they are conscious loans) are cobbled together in a rather clumsy fashion – which is probably why they are so easily detectable and tend to upset those who see them. On the other hand, borrowing from earlier works or even using them as (partial) templates is neither new nor a sign of bad writing – even if the precursors can be identified. Westside Story derives from Romeo and Juliet derives from Tristan and Iseault. The Lord of the Rings drags in stuff from Beowulf, Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Faerie Queene, and Arturian legends in general (remember Aragorn, the guy who becomes king by having the right sword?). In fact, more fantasy and sf stories than I care to count have used that particular set of tales. Yet, few Tolkienistas are upset by his borrowing.

A case in point seems to be that I’ve yet to see someone complaining about (or even pointing out) how part of the structure in Avatar is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. But think about it: Jake’s story is divided in the same way as the Dante character in the Comedy: he walks in a selva oscura,

a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth. (Canto I)

There, he encounters three wild animals. In Dante’s case, they are a panther, a lion, and a she-wolf; Jake’s encounters are more exotic and more fearsome, but they are hardly coincidences. Next comes the meeting with the guide (Vergil/Neytiri) – in the Comedy he is sent by the beloved Beatrice, who takes over the guiding once Purgatory is all but done. In many ways, it makes more sense to have the guide figure turn into the beloved, as in Cameron’s film – and Jake has to suffer the Hell of becoming a na’vi and the Purgatory of fighting Quaritch before entering Paradise in his na’vi body.

Of course it is not a perfect match – I would have been disappointed if it were – but it does point to a key point in the story. Jake may be considered to be re-born at any number of points, but he leaves the dark forest, the selva oscura only once: when Neytiri extinguishes his torch. Until then, Jake has treated Pandora’s forest as a Terran forest, where fire is needed to bring light. Extinguishing the light, paradoxically, means finding the light. The bioluminescence lights up the dark forest, bringing light to his darkness. That is when his path to Paradise begins – by leaving the forest.

It is a Hellish path to walk, because Jake (like much of the audience) fail to remember that this is not a forest on Earth. Along with the bioluminescence, it is characterised by lower gravity. Cameron mentions this only in passing in the beginning, but it permeates the plot, with its many ”impossible” falls and enormous plants (not to mention flying mountains). Other details also tend to go unnoticed (many of my friends failed to see, or at least reflect on, the fact that Pandora was a moon to an enormous planet, and what this implied for the day-night cycle as well as nighttime darkness). So while the message may be clear and the plot straight-forward, Avatar follows a long tradition of fantasy and sf – genres in which the setting is as important as characters and plot – in its careful construction a beautiful, exotic setting which in its details give the impression of being as thought-through as the best of sf worlds.

Now in 3D.

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