Pandora, Alderaan, Caprica: The Many Faces of Earth

I’m writing this as a blizzard comes down outside my house and I figured its as good a time as any to write out the last of my movie posts. It will come as no surprise that I have seen James Cameron’s latest blockbuster Avatar, and like most viewers I was blown away by the 3D special effects and just how it transformed the movie experience. I’m also not surprised to hear that a sequel is already in the works.

That being said, at some point I heard some reviewer or the other (probably from Entertainment Weekly) pose the following question: Is Avatar a bigger movie than Star Wars?

It is a hard question to answer. First off are we comparing the first Star Wars movie (the one we know now as Episode IV, A New Hope) or are we comparing the whole series? Are we doing an overall comparison or just a technology to technology comparison? That is are we looking at how transformative the technology in Avatar is to the movie industry in the same vein as how path breaking the technology from a galaxy far, far, away was to special effects? If that’s the case then Avatar has only been out a few short weeks so can we really tell what its impact is, or is it simply amazing since it is the first to truly use 3D technology for the entire movie?

I’ve discussed this with a bunch of friends, some of whom see it as transformative only in the fifteen minutes of fame sense—that is, until the next 3D spectacular film comes out. Others, including me, see a story that pales in the face of even a surface scrutiny, especially sine the plot is reflective of Dances with Wolves and Disney’s Pocahontas put together.

But all of that has been talked about ad nauseum. My favorite thing about science-fiction, and one of the particular aspects of Avatar that I liked the most was the world-building. That is the creation of whole new cultures and histories that are, really, based on actual histories and stories from our world. True, many of them carry the same trophes (all knowing mystical energy that can be felt by a specific group of people), or try and successfully pull their own twists to a previously created tale (the recent Battlestar Galactica).

To some extent we see this process with historical fiction. That which looks at events like the Civil War and asks the infamous “what if” questions to create a new world that is still grounded in reality. Science Fiction, on the other hand, takes that question a step further, masking the harder questions in the cloak of something magical and mystical.

Avatar to some seemed a loose metaphor on our dependence on oil (unobtanium), while Star Wars has clear elements derived from Hitler’s Germany. One of my favorite things about the latest iteration of Battlestar Galactica is how it takes what we as a culture finds abhorrent (suicide bombings) and puts the good guys, the humans in the position of resorting to that violence, and for a moment, just one sliver of a moment you find yourself seeing the world through their eyes. BSG had no qualms about beating us over the head with their historical references, and analogies to the present and in the end just made me think.

It also might be said that these narratives are about the search for Utopia in the face of chaos. Looking for perfection when our own world seems to be rife with environmental destruction and political mistrust. I know one thing though—I think movies and stories like Avatar and Star Wars, and television shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica give us a change in perspective and ultimately let us take a step towards understanding what makes us human.

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