The Guv and I just watched Avatar for the first time, and I'm left with a whole ton of emotion plus one overwhelming word: WOW. I mean, really, WOW. The Oscars should give James Cameron a "Ruler of All things Cinematic" award. I doubt anyone will ever make a movie that prolific ever again. It was like "An Inconvenient Truth" if Al Gore weren't so stiff, boring and had an imagination with a Phish concert and some special drugs effects mixed in -- and yet, Avatar is still so much better!
If you haven't seen Avatar, the basic plot is this: The main character, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic Marine who, after his identical twin brother the scientist dies, is trained to take over his brother's mission to the faraway planet of Pandora. The mission in progress is that of a corporation mining precious materials. His brother's role (now Jake Sully's) is the operation of an avatar that looks Na'vi among the Na'vi people, Pandora's natives. The scientific hope is to build understanding so that the Na'vi will be less resistant when the American corporation spearheading the mission removes precious materials from their land. The corporate figurehead running the mission is smarmy but not quite as despicable as the Marine running the military unit that would just as soon kill all of the natives to ease access to the product. Things get complicated when Jake Sully's avatar falls in love with a native girl, and he finds himself in the middle of a battle of corporate greed versus a native people that he loves and their land. The cast is all-star: Sam Worthington (who was on the brink of homelessness before being cast) plays Jake Sully, and Zoe Saldana plays Neytiri, his love interest. What would a sci-fi movie be without Sigourney Weaver, who plays Dr. Grace Augustine, the avatar mission's lead scientist? Stephen Lang plays Colonel Miles Quaritch, the despicable head of the military occupying Pandora, and Giovanni Ribisi plays the corporate figurehead, Parker Selfridge. (Side note: I thought Ribisi's casting was the weakest part of the movie, as he's not a believable leader, being short among other things -- but I also think that was part of the point, to make him weak against his military leader and Sigourney Weaver. Still, that's the one part of the movie I thought could've been cast better.) There are a host of others in smaller roles who also play great parts, and that's one of the most special things about this movie: most of the actors are people I don't readily recognize, and I think that helps to sell the story of this as a "different" film. Sigourney Weaver is legendary, of course, but the movie is definitely not all about her; the unknown Sam Worthington magnificently playing the character of Jake Sully is what really makes the film.
In any event, as my daughter, Petunia (age almost-10), watched the movie also, we had some follow-up discussions on the movie's message. Petunia always has been my nature-lover, and she had a lot of defensive thoughts about the Na'vi people and those "greedy miners" who try to exploit their land. While the message of the movie wasn't overt, it's clear that my kid picked up on the conflict of material wants/money-making schemes versus the destruction of the earth (and, in the movie's case, its people). We've talked about this a lot lately when it comes to shopping for our food. Living in NorCal, we have access to some fantastic farmer's markets, and we patronize them each weekend. I've shared with my kids why we try to buy local, organic produce and why large corporations' farming practices (like Monsanto and the others highlighted in Food Inc.) aren't in the best interest of protecting our earth. Having grown up on a farm in rural West Virginia, I feel a particular defensiveness about from where our food comes. (Specifically, I don't think it needs to come from genetic modification and pesticide-laden, over-controlled land.) Family farmers aren't in it for the money, just like, in the Avatar movie, Jake Sully didn't end up working for the corporation's interests but, rather, chose the land. The message of Avatar -- a connectedness between people and their land -- is a universal one. To my great sadness, though, it's not one that my kids are hearing much about in school. While my kids' schools compost and recycle, it varies teacher-to-teacher how much they learn about why these things are important. I think educators fear being charged with "indoctrination" (after all -- for shame! -- some people don't believe in global warming!) -- but I'd rather they be charged with "responsibility." During "Earth Week" at school, kids are asked to walk/bike, and there's a family picnic (no-waste lunches encouraged!) -- but, to me, those are the same old baby-steps. I'd rather see something like the "Cool the Earth" program brought into the school. I could go on and on about this subject (heck, I could -- and probably will -- blog about it for years!), but suffice it to say that I feel like it falls to me to teach my kids environmentalism. I take that seriously, for they are the future, after all.
With regard to kids, I feared that Petunia might be too young for Avatar, but it was fine for her (a fourth-grader); there are a few references to mating, but nothing about the movie or the mating is overtly sexual. There's a bit of swearing, but, ahem, that doesn't bother my kids. The reason for the PG-13 rating is most likely the battle scene at the end of the movie, in which people die. (You can click here for IMDB's Parental Guide if you want more specifics.)
One last thought about this movie, which has nothing to do with the environment, but, rather with people: watching this movie soon after Arizona's new immigration law took effect -- a law with which I strongly disagree -- made me think of another message of the movie. When Jake Sully becomes his avatar (he slips into a machine in which he's brain-linked to his blue Na'vi), he's walking a fine line between being one of "us" and one of "them." He comes into the movie a paraplegic Marine, and he ends it as much Na'vi as a non-Na'vi could be, having come to understand that the Na'vi are a people of value, too -- and one with which he identifies more than he ever did with his prior life. It's the old "walk a mile in their shoes" message... When we do that, we come to understand that we're not so different in our value systems after all; we just might go about the process of attaining our best life a little differently. Bringing this back to Arizona, I agree wholeheartedly that immigrants to this country should be legal and documented; but, until we make that process more simple, especially among those border states, I think Arizona needs to remember a few things: how many businesses and farms rely on cheap labor in addition to how that cheap labor is often fleeing a life that's more impoverished and difficult than many Americans can imagine. Walk a mile in an illegal immigrant's shoes, and you don't see anyone smiling and dancing that they've pulled one over on the American government. Often, you see families still struggling, but struggling in a place where, at least, their kids have a chance at a better life. This used to be the land of "give me your tired and your poor," and now it's "give me cheap labor but I don't want to be responsible for other baggage like kids and healthcare." Well, it's not that simple, is it? We're all people who have an interconnectedness and mutual need; fences and laws are obstacles, not solutions. Arizona needs to figure out a different way, just like Jake Sully did in Avatar. Maybe they have; maybe the U.S. government finally will change immigration policy now that Arizona has made it look so bad. Otherwise, like in Avatar, they're fighting a senseless war in which people will die for no reason. What a tragedy.
To sum up, I highly recommend this movie -- definitely one of my favorites ever, and one I'll watch again and again. As a bonus, when you purchase this film, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment and the Earth Day Network have teamed up to plant 1,000,000 trees worldwide in celebration of the April 22nd release of the film. Purchasers of the movie receive an online access code that can be used to adopt a tree and chart its location and progress. Now that's some good work following up a fantastic movie! (The picture below is of James Cameron and others planting a tree on the Fox lot. Nice!)
* I received a complimentary copy of Avatar from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. I did not commit to reviewing the movie favorably; the writing and opinions above are mine alone. Other than the movie, I received no compensation for this review. I want to thank Fox for the opportunity to do this review; I enjoyed it immensely.