Wednesday, January 6, 2010

AVATAR: Regardless of the politics, the moral premise is true.

Director/Writer: James Cameron

There have been numerous articles about AVATAR's political bent.

I'm politically conservative, and the bias in AVATAR was more than obvious. The movie was filled with political over generalizations that would make me shutter as a storyteller.  But, the movie is true. No, I don't think it was true politically, but it was true morally. And it is the moral truth of a story that is at the fundamental heart of connecting with audiences. I loved AVATAR for that reason..well, okay, I'm also a sci fi buff and the special effects were wonderfully convincing. Loved those transparent computer screens and pads.

But, regardless of whether or not you embrace Cameron's political bias, AVATAR is true at the level of the moral premise, which can be expressed like this:
Greed, abuse and disrespect for life and creation
leads to dread and destruction; 
but generosity, kindness and respect for life 
leads to hope and progress. 

To the extent that European settlers came to North America and "conquered" the land out of greed, abuse and disrespect for life, they could expect some dread and destruction as a result. And to the extent that the Indians were greedy, abusive, and disrespected the life of the new comers, they, in turn, could likewise expect some some dread and destruction.  But to the extent that either side respected the other, progress and hope would be the result and there are numerous stories on both sides that indicate such.

The same can be said of both sides in the various wars we've been part of of as a country, as well as the current Mid-East conflicts. Both liberals and conservatives are, at times, guilty of greed and abuse by disrespecting the other side and refusing to seek truth together, and both liberal and conservatives are, at times, seeking truth in a respectful and cooperative venture with wonderful progress benefiting all of mankind as the result. But the moral premise of AVATAR is true, regardless, in all of our lives -- it's a natural law of the universe.


I took "liberal" notes during my first exposure to the film, and I could write a lot about it if I had the time. But for now let me point out Jake's Moment of Grace... that moment 1/2 way thorugh the movie where the protagonist makes a major shift in thinking about whether to accept or reject the truth of the moral premise. By my stopwatch the story portion of the movie is 2 hours 34 minutes long. That means, if Cameron followed a natural story plan, the main character must come to some realization that shifts his motivation at about 1 hour 17 minutes.

According to my notes, in the minutes leading up to that point, Jake is led to and chooses a dragon as his own. And with Neytiri he has a wonderful time riding the skies of Pandora as he literally makes connection with what is true about Pandora. It's a mind opening experience for him. And then he's back in his real world, and one of the first things he says, in a daze is: "Theirs in the true world. In here is the dream." My notes claim that comment comes at 1 hour 17 minutes.

From that moment on Jake begins to see Pandora and the Na'vi differently.

Ah, I could go on. The movie is expertly structured. Jake's outward goal is to do something that allows him to have his legs back, and thus the Avatar gives him that freedom and joy of being whole again. Right after Jake's MOG, just described, the evil Colonel Quaritch pays him a visit, and perhaps sensing Jake's recent embrace of the Na'vi way of looking at things, the Colonel offers him his real legs back. But there's another way for Jake to realize his goal, as the movie reveals.

My suggestion is to look past the political slant of the movie and enjoy it's true moral premise. It's a great ride, and further reinforces my contention that the best movies are longer than 2 hours. Pam and I both thought the time just flew by.


Akemi said...

Beside politics, I saw the conflict in terms of myth/religion and male and female.

With the sky father of christian or a Muslim religion to the earth mother of earlier societies. Which in turn again mirrors the European invasion of the Americas.

The movie however didn't mirror what actually happened with such invasions: Romans conquering Britain or Britain & Spain conquering the Americas with the religion of sky father at their backs.

I felt the movie sought to bring together what may/could have happened if the earth religions where able to fight back or deal with the conquerors on their own terms.

In terms of male and female with ofcourse represented by the main characters. It dealt with both sexes equally, with each having the ability to save each other. But also felt it had a slant in which the female character was able to teach the male character which represented sky father, to be more connected to his surroundings.

George said...

You've pointed out in your book the distinction between theme and "message". Theme is universal and relevant to everyone, while message refers to a specific situation or group of people. It seems Avatar carries a message that reflects Cameron's view and criticism on specific political issues, but at the same time it's the universal theme that makes it a touching story with broad relevance and resonance.

Stan Williams said...

George, just to clarify a bit about how I use terms in the book. "Theme" is one half of a moral premise statement. A theme might be: "Greed leads to isolation." Where the moral premise statement might be: "Greed leads to isolation; but generosity leads to community." The term "message" (in the book) refers to political type statements that are layered on top of the theme and/or moral premise. For example using the above MP statement as a starting point, a political message might be "All for-profit corporations, because they profit from greed, are evil." The latter is not universal, but the theme and moral premise statement (as you point out) are universal.

In AVATAR Cameron consistently applies true moral premises. His layered on political messages are "armies and corporations are motivated by imperialism and greed." Clearly in AVATAR the antagonist characters are greedy and to the extreme, and have no respect for the natives or their cultural values. Of course all armies and all corporations are not motivated by such things, but some have been if we are to believe the historical accounts.

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Anonymous said...

Hi there, I'm only a beginner, learning about the moral premise from your book. I'm still trying to figure out when it is ok to have more than one virture/value pair in a single MP statement. For instance, according to this post, Avatar has 3 value/vice pairs (vices generosity/greed, kindness/abuse and respect/disrespect. Is my understand that a story should be about one virtue/value pair incorrect?

Stan Williams said...

Anonymous: You asked: Avatar seems to have three vice/virtue pairs: greed/generosity, abuse/kindness, and disrespect/respect. "Is my understand that a story should be about one virtue/value pair incorrect?"

There is actually only one set of values here, but the terms are synonyms of each other, which express different aspects of the selfish/selfless values dipole. You could say that the single pair is greed v. generosity, but that greed is broadly defined by being greedy or generous with your time, attitude and respect. Thus, disrespect is the greedy side of appreciating others, and respect is the generous side of appreciating others, especially if the other is not like me or doesn't agree with me.

Multiple value pairs only work in a story when they are similar. The best stories (in my observations) are about a general or universal value dipole or nicomachean value scale (see blog).

An advanced view of how this works can be found in my review of THE KIT RUNNER. Make sure to expand the posting and scroll down to the section on Character Arcs

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my question re the MP statement for Avatar. After reading your post for the Kite runner, it does indeed makes a lot of sense to me now. That post also opened my eyes to the idea od Values and subvalues. Thank you very much again!