Avatar: Archetypal, Cliche’ or Both?

Those of use who spend a lot of time online think of an “avatar” as a digital representation of yourself, such as you might use in a virtual world or social networking site. That definition certainly makes sense for the movie of the same name, where the characters take on an “alien” persona in order to interact with the indigenous people on a foreign planet. The Free Online Dictionary also defines the word avatar as “an embodiment, as of a quality or concept; an archetype.” And it is that definition of the word that struck me so hard during the movie that I found myself in tears halfway through.

The basic premise of the movie Avatar is that the “alien” planet is being mined for a highly-sought-after mineral and that the indigenous population is getting in the way. Yes, it’s somewhat cliche’ (and eerily close in plot to the kids’ film, Fern Gully, and – so I hear – Dances with Wolves). What wasn’t cliche’, at least for me, was the absolute horror I felt watching it unfold on a giant screen in 3-D.

There is a scene in Avatar [skip ahead to avoid possible spoilers] where the miners attack the forest home of one of the tribes. After having decimated a grove of sacred trees using their bulldozers, the miners decide to take a more aggressive route to their end goal. They attack the massive tree-dwelling with bombs and fire and all the munitions they can muster.  [end spoiler] I was so disturbed by their zealous attack that I had to close my eyes. It wasn’t the fear and sadness of the tribe, or the smoke billowing into the air, or any other drama unfolding on the screen. What made me so uncomfortable was the truth of it all. It was the knowledge that humans are not only capable of that level of destruction, but often revel in it. And it was the simple fact that we have perpetrated acts even more horrible. The reason that the plot seemed so familiar was because it’s an archetypal storyline. That’s the scariest part of all – this disregard for life and liberty in pursuit of wealth and material goods is a recurring thread in human history. The darkest part of all? It was entirely believable that this could still be taking place 150 years in the future.

I may have been the only sap in the room of 500 with tears in my eyes and an overwhelming desire to flee from the theater, but I was so upset that I had trouble answering the question of whether or not I enjoyed the movie. The fact is that, had I not been there with my husband and friends, I would have left. If I had been watching at home, I would have turned it off. It was simply too disturbing to watch. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who loved Avatar and think I’m reading too much into it. But it’s in my nature to read into things and to look under the surface. And I certainly won’t apologize for believing that we could all be a lot kinder to one another.

James Cameron put together a gorgeous film with an important, if not cliche’ message (how sad to that we need to repeat this particular message enough to make it cliche’). Did he intend for it to invoke such an extreme response? I’m not sure. But I can tell you one thing for sure… if my husband wants to watch it again, he’s on his own. This movie has traumatized me enough.

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