James Cameron is a visionary director, which is not to say Avatar was a flawless movie as much as I loved it. We use the word “visionary” because it’s not “sight”- “vision” was defined in the old days to mean a “sense of sight”, or the ability to see into the supernatural. To see the supernatural, one must see and understand the meaning behind the sight; the word “vision” may come from the Sanskrit veda- meaning “I know.”
Cameron does two things that are visionary. First, he foresees the future trend in movies, inspired by the VFX of his time, and risks over $300M on this vision inspired from what Peter Jackson’s Gollum hinted at- a complete replacement of the human actor’s physical self, yet a vessel for magnifying its performance, crafted into a movie where the virtual characters are more real than the real ones.
Secondly, in doing so, Cameron is not just having us see his vision, but teaching us moral lessons in seeing our world in a whole new way through the filter of his creation. Now, I grant you that the execution was a bit ham-handed, with villains more cartoony than the virtual actors, plot clichés by the pound, and eye-rolling predictability. But in the same way I love Luc Besson’s work, that’s the charm, that bravado of motion picture, not film. We’re here to see a moving picture of something real, not a medium called film. This is entertainment, not art. …
So when his characters say to each other the Na’vi phrase of “I see you”, meaning not superficial sight but seeing deeply into someone, in other words it’s “vision,” and his characters of made of it and filled with it. From the great tree whose spiraling innards evoke the DNA of our existence, to the neural connections of the trees that allude to the Gaia hypothesis of sentient planets, one can’t help but feel how alive their virtual planet is. When we leave the theater and enter our cars, sit in front of our computers to read dry blog posts like this, we lose that feeling quickly, and that’s what Cameron wants to drag us kicking and screaming away from.
Now I’ve been very reluctant to jump at every thump of the global warming bandwagon, but this is the way to do it, not by cowering to rationalized human fear tactics from Al Gore, but to develop a true sensitivity to a world (hopefully ours) and to understand. His wild-eyed giants don’t depend on their eyes to understand, but use their tendrils to connect directly their holy tree. The message is that the purpose in life is to thrive along with the whimsy of nature. As Neytiri tells Jake, “All energy is only borrowed… You have to give it back.” We are constantly in states of recycled energy, as spirits, plants, animals, or people. These connections are literally important to survival, such as for riding an alien horse or choosing a Banshee.
The movie is called Avatar because that is what we become as we watch, experiencing Jake’s adventure vicariously. The word “avatar” also comes from Sanskrit, ava– “down” + tarati “(he) crosses over.” To cross over to Cameron’s world, one must have “vision” as a sense, just as Jake does not “see” Neytiri’s world until his makeshift torch is put out.
Jake’s name comes from Jacob, the “supplanter” (same as Jack as I’ve mentioned in my Bioshock article). I find it interesting his last name is Sully, to “dirty”. It’s intentionally ambiguous- who does he ultimately supplant, and is he dirtying himself by mingling with savages, or becoming one with nature? I get lots of comments about reading too much into names, so let me just put it this way:
- Dr. Grace Augustine = voice of good, “grace” for her sensitive beauty, “Augustine” as a holy name which is ironic for a scientist, who in the movie discovers spirituality. St. Augustine was the saint who premised the City of God , arguing that it is the spirituality of Christianity, and not its earthly politics, that ultimately triumphs.
- Miles Quartich = military-sounding name evoking an arduous life (Miles) and Quartich evoking words like “quarry” and “quarrel”
- Parker Selfridge = greedy corporate head, last name evokes “selfish”
We are fortunate that VFX has evolved to the point where we can do this believably. And while I’m split on Cameron’s films, loving some and hating others, I have to appreciate his vision that after all the magic has been made and money has been spent, some of us will have learned the sense of sight, and his borrowed energy will be recycled in our actions. We may become heroic avatars for his Avatar.