Sunday, April 3, 2011

You Are Not in Kansas Anymore

I mentioned in earlier posts that I had been doing fieldwork recently in a remote location (think jungle, mosquitoes, scorpions, bucket latrines, no refrigeration, no TV or internet).  Spending time in a tropical forest and away from "civilization" is an experience that simultaneously makes one appreciate the variety and abundance of life on our planet as well as the comforts that we in developed countries tend to take for granted.  A single hectare of tropical forest may contain hundreds, even thousands, of species of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. Walking through the forest and stopping in front of a massive old tree, I was reminded of the movie, Avatar.

If you've been following this blog, you've read my previous review of Avatar and sexism in movies by James Cameron. I was pretty critical in those reviews, but there's another aspect of Avatar that I've wanted to explore.

In the months after the release of Avatar, a number of people began posting comments on various forums about how the movie affected them.  Some said it changed their lives and how they view the world. Others became sad or depressed, presumably because their lives did not live up to the fantasy world created in the movie. Some posters even stated that they'd contemplated suicide (it's hard to tell if these are real or fabricated statements). Although a lot of those who had strong reactions to the movie were very young and impressionable, some were adults.  Their words indicated that they yearn for the life of the Na'vi, the imaginary indigenous people of Avatar.  The depressed are being advised to shed modern conveniences that harm the environment and to live "closer to nature".  That way, they can take an active role in creating their own world (instead of sulking in a dark room in front of the TV or computer).

In case you haven't seen the movie, the Na'vi live close to Nature; they are 10 foot tall, blue, cat-like humanoids with "bones reinforced with carbon fiber", and have coming-of-age rituals in which the inductee acquires a flying dragon, which becomes their steed for life.  At the beginning of the movie, we see that life on Pandora is quite dangerous. The evil antagonist, Colonel Quaritch, eloquently describes the situation to new recruits:

"You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact every second of every day. If there is a Hell, you might wanna go there for some R & R after a tour on Pandora. Out there beyond that fence every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes."

This message is driven home as Jake Sully, the human protagonist, is almost killed four times during his first day in the jungles of Pandora.  He survives, of course, to become one of the Na'vi, fall in love with a Na'vi princess, and ultimately shed his paralyzed human body for a new, Na'vi-like avatar body.  Later brushes with death are presented as exciting adventures, which only add to the fantasy of a perfect world. The movie experience thus yields a sense of adventure, wonder, and happy endings and never hints at reality.

Perhaps it's for the best.

Real life in the gritty, parasite-infested tropical forest is somewhat less pleasant than one would guess from watching Avatar. Most people I know would not last two minutes in the bush before they would run screaming back to air conditioning, iced drinks, bug-free manicured lawns, entertainment on demand, and all the other trappings of civilization.

What movies like Avatar do accomplish is to get young people excited about nature and about preserving the natural world.

On the one hand, I'm sad that it takes a fantasy world (patterned after the Amazon rain forest) to make people care about the only world we know that has life--Earth.  On the other hand, I'm glad that people are moved by the environmental message.  I'm with Cameron in believing that people don't get motivated by just talking or reading about Nature.  They need to vicariously experience it without all the danger and discomfort. People are especially affected by stories that touch them emotionally.

And Avatar accomplishes this.  

The technological breakthroughs that allowed the creation of a believable world populated by fantasy creatures are quite simply amazing.  The reactions to the movie reveal how effective such a story-telling approach is...especially with generations who never knew a world before CGI.

One might wonder if such fantasies simply set young people up for disillusionment.  However, I recall being excited and fascinated by the original Star Trek TV series. My imagination was fired up about what life might be like on other worlds and whether I might one day travel to those worlds and study the life found there.  And Star Trek had very clunky special effects; even I thought they were corny at the time. Nevertheless, the series influenced a generation of young viewers. Even though our original, idealistic expectations about space travel were never realized, some of us succeeded in achieving our dreams of becoming a different type of explorer--a scientist.

With its incredible special effects, Avatar may have a profound impact on the current generation.  

Avatar's success in this regard also has a message for those of us who are concerned about attracting young people (especially girls) to science.  People pay attention to compelling stories that 1) they can understand, 2) are memorable, and 3) affect them emotionally.  I'll bet young fans of Avatar can answer correctly more questions about the ecology of Pandora than about our Earth.  What do you think?   

Photo Credit: Avatar, 20th Century Fox; AnotherBigDamnTree, DrDoyenne

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