Alexandra Lange | Essays

Annotated Avatar

It seemed half my extensive family had gone to Avatar last week, and half those who went were planning to return to see it in 3D. Meaning that, without Twitter, I can tell the film has legs. The dialogue is terrible (half the scenes in the action-heavy latter third could be subtitled “Whoo-hoo!”), the plot creaky (seriously, “unobtanium”!?), but the visual effects were wonderful. For those alone I was happy to pay $12 and I pray for some all-botanical YouTube version soon. For the ladies.

But Avatar is itself a hack, James Cameron is less auteur, more sci fi magpie. I have seen a few slideshows online picking apart the action (including Vulture’s FX comparison) but nothing picking apart the less recent or more sideways sourcing. With the help of my husband and a scuba-certified friend, we decided to start a list. Additions welcome.

1. Many of those spectacular botanicals were not quite such a surprise to those who, like my friend, have done dives around the world. A short list of underwater ancestors for Pandora’s flora would include the Christmas tree worm (the retractable whorl-like plant Jake turns into Whack-A-Mole); crinoids or feather-stars (the empathic “hairs” embedded in the Na’vi braids); young flying helmut gurnard (the pterodactyl-like creatures young braves must tame); moon jellyfish or hydromedusae (the floating seeds of Eywa). And the sand on some beaches in the Maldives is phosphorescent, lighting up beneath your feet like the lichens on the branches and rocks the Na’vi run across. Cameron, as noted in his recent New Yorker profile, is a scuba practitioner, and mined the aliens/sea creatures overlap in the must-despised The Abyss.

2. The tree-as-planet, an idea thoroughly described by Ursula K. LeGuin in her 1971 short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” (title from the famous Marvell poem).

The branches, the epiphytic growths, the roots with those nodal junctures between individuals: they must all be capable of transmitting electrochemical impulses. There are no individual plants, then, properly speaking. Even the pollen is part of the linkage, no doubt, a sort of windborne setience, connecting overseas.

3. Miyazaki. The Japanese animator can do as much with drawings as Cameron with CGI, and was there first (in Princess Mononoke, Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) with a military stampede of wild beasts, a goddess-tree and the magical floating mountains (see image above).

4. Mary Jemison, Indian Captive. Others have noted the triteness of the outsider captured by native tribe, learns the language, defends the tribe against his own people plot (Dances With Wolves being the leading reference). But I immediately thought of this true story with a similar plot, sexes reversed, that I checked out of the library dozens of times as a child. Something about the terror, and then the science fiction-like descriptions of life among the Seneca really captured my imagination, and it seems, Cameron’s. He switches the sexes, much as he switches Wes Studi, an actor I totally identify with Last of the Mohicans, from bad guy to good.

5. Sigourney Weaver, a self-conscious nod to Cameron’s own oeuvre. It was obviously his desire to return us to his first triumph, but also a little melancholic to see her young again, a la Ripley, as an avatar. For a man who consistently casts, and marries, Amazons of her ilk, it seems a little too much like manufacturing your own fifth wife.

6. The first and hence the scariest fight: Jake versus the Pandorized saber-tooth tiger. I know I have seen this in a movie before, with more fur flying, but I can’t think where.

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