Alienness and Strangeitude
Back in January 2010 the pressure to see Avatar was so great that the few lone holdouts like myself were starting to worry James Cameron and the House Un-American Activities were going to blacklist us all and somehow deport us. Now that passions have cooled and the hype has died down a bit, I thought it a good time to catch up with the film and see what it was all about. Watching it on a tiny laptop screen probably isn’t as ideal as the fifteen-dollar IMAX experience, but if the movie was any good to begin with, it should hold up regardless of the format, right?
I was disappointed, though not so much by the set of one-dimensional characters or the fact that the actors, even the usually capable Sigourney Weaver, fail to bring any soul to them. Nor was it the story that irritated me, though it was so obvious and simpleminded that calling it an allegory makes Cameron’s screenplay sound far more literary than it deserves. No, what really bothered me was the world of Pandora and its alien inhabitants.
The glowing jungles look pretty garish and unrealistic, at least without the benefit of 3-D, while the Na’Vi are far from the striking creations I’d been led to expect. They’re bi-pedal humanoids with four limbs, two eyes, a nose and mouth, distinguishable from the human cast merely by the fact that they’re blue and kind of tall. They even speak English. Perhaps the most imaginative thing about them is their weird hair-do, which is also, apparently, a sexual organ and which continues the trend begun by the Jedi Knights in everybody’s least favorite Star Wars movie The Phantom Menace of unfortunate sci-fi pony-tails. The other aliens of Pandora don’t hold up to much scrutiny, either. There are some animals that sort of look like tigers, but instead of four legs they have six. The Na’Vi ride creatures that look like horses, but instead of four legs they have six. And so on. Your hyperactive nephew could come up with something more imaginative.
This lack of anything particularly startling about _Avatar_’s alien world became all the more apparent for me when I read “Out of the Silent Planet”, the first in C.S. Lewis’ celebrated Space Trilogy. Ransom, a man from Earth, is taken to a strange planet called Malacandra, where he encounters all manner of alien creatures and struggles with the preconceived notions about life that he’s brought from his home planet. It’s a fairly straightforward story but one that’s masterfully written, with Lewis not only defying Ransom’s expectations but the reader’s as well. There’s a beautiful passage early on where Lewis describes Ransom’s trip in his spaceship:
The Earth’s disk was nowhere to be seen; the stars, thick as daisies on an uncut lawn, reigned perpetually with no cloud, no moon, no sunrise to dispute their sway. . . . He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come?
Ransom finds the universe to be very different from what he’d guessed, and Lewis’ writing is so evocative you really feel what it might be like to leave the Earth’s atmosphere for the first time and venture out into space. When Ransom finally arrives on Malacandra he finds a world so different from his own—filled with strange plants soaring high into the sky and thin, needle-like mountains that seem like they should topple over at any moment but due to the planet’s low gravity remain standing—that Ransom’s brain can barely even register what his eyes are seeing. It’s this disorienting quality of the exotic that Lewis nails perfectly. The endless parade of iridescent flora and fauna in Avatar didn’t do much for me except add to that already interminable running time.
When Ransom first encounters the hross, one of Malacandra’s intelligent alien races, he has a hard time even accepting it as a sentient being:
The huge seal-like creature seated beside him became unbearably ominous. It seemed friendly; but it was very big, very black and he knew nothing at all about it. . . .The rationality of the hross tempted you to think of it as a man. . . . A man seven feet high, with a snaky body, covered, face and all, with thick black animal hair, and whiskered like a cat. But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have—glossy coat, liquid eye, sweet breath and whitest teeth—and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason. Nothing could be more disgusting than the one impression; nothing more delightful than the other. It all depended on the point of view.
Lewis’s style is so clear and precise—where Avatar’s was muddled— that you’re not only able to picture these creatures, but imagine what it might be like—emotionally, psychologically—to encounter an alien for the very first time. What exactly would you think of something so different from yourself? When Ransom discovers there are three other sentient alien races on Malacandra, one of which is nearly invisible to the human eye, he can barely even comprehend it. How, he wonders, can four different intelligent species coexist on this planet when man, the dominant race on Earth, can’t even get along? By the end of the book he’s realized that this planet which once seemed so primitive is, in fact, far more sophisticated than his own—a message that might seem a bit familiar to those who sat through all eleven hours of Avatar, and one that’s accomplished without any weirdo pony-tail sex whatsoever.
Like the best science-fiction, “Out of the Silent Planet” never takes the elements of the genre for granted. Spaceships, aliens, strange worlds, all of these things feel not only real but new, as if Lewis were the first person to ever write about them. Avatar felt overly familiar. But is it fair to expect a movie to be as nuanced as a novel?
District 9 did an excellent job with a similar story of mankind struggling to accept an alien race as equal—without any of the cartoon villainy of Avatar. The aliens looked so alien you could almost understand the deplorable behavior of the characters. The racism didn’t feel like a mere plot device, but a real, complex issue to be confronted. How James Cameron’s movie became the huge hit that it did, when other bloated, didactic sci-fi epics have failed – Waterworld, Battlefield Earth – I don’t know. I worry that we’ve become too accustomed to goofy-looking extraterrestrials interacting with bad actors on the big screen, be it the Na’Vi and the blank-eyed guy from Terminator: Salvation or Jar Jar Binks and most of the cast of The Phantom Menace. The alien hardly feels alien anymore.