Science Matters: Avatar offers loads of fun with a green message

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

One thing I enjoy about the holiday season is having time to go to movies. For more than 40 years, I’ve been involved in making television programs to educate people about science and the natural world. But people watch television in a desultory way, often interrupted by the need to help children with homework, let the dog out, or go to the fridge for a beer or to the bathroom for a break. So we tune in and out, often forgetting whether we got a memorable factoid from The Nature of Things or Grey’s Anatomy.

Movie audiences are different than those in TV land. For one thing, people have to make an effort to go to a theatre. They must then pay to watch, and once they start, they have to focus on the film. There are no commercial breaks. So the impact of watching movies is far greater than the impact of television viewing.

Years ago, while camping on the Serengeti in Africa with my family, I was astonished to meet three young Chinese-Americans, who, as I could see by their clothing alone, were clearly not seasoned campers. I asked what made them want to come and experience the wilderness. Their answer amazed me: "Because we saw The Lion King."

So even an animated film had such a powerful impact that these urbanites were motivated to set off on a wilderness adventure. For me, Dances with Wolves was a monumental experience, as it presented North American aboriginal people and their values in a way that was a big departure from the usual Hollywood stereotypes.

Which brings me to the latest movie blockbuster, James Cameron’s Avatar. Some reports claim that Mr. Cameron has wanted to do an environmental film since he was 14 years old. I don’t know whether that story is apocryphal or not, but I do think he’s produced an incredible film.

Of course, the 3-D effects are dramatic and charming, but the best part is that Mr. Cameron has created a world that is instantly compelling and believable, which is what good fairy tales do. The indigenous inhabitants of Pandora are clearly alien but not so profoundly different that we can’t identify with them.

All of the issues on this world are clearly the same as those on Earth when Europeans first contacted the indigenous people of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. The invaders perceive the natives as ignorant, superstitious, and cultureless beings with far less worth than their own. When the Earthlings learn that an ancient, immense tree that is a sacred home to the native Na’vi sits on a priceless resource, nothing is going to stop them from exploiting it.

The movie is over the top, as most fairy tales are, with its conflict between the good guys (the Na’vi and a few Earthlings) and bad guys (the rest of the Earth people), but it’s a rip-snorter of an adventure when the good guys fight back with flying reptiles (I’d give my right arm to have one of them!), six-legged horses, and a host of other ferocious "beasts". I won’t give away the ending, but I can say that I left the theatre very satisfied.

Right-wing commentators in the U.S. and Canada have been apoplectic in their condemnation of Avatar. They say it is anti-American, depicts soldiers and corporations negatively, is anti-Christian, promotes paganism, and on and on. One of the more amusing comments came from someone who wrote a letter to the Calgary Herald, claiming that "This movie will be the undoing of our children. They will soon turn into a hive-mind of radical environmentalism – puppets of their master, David Suzuki."

Talk about confusing fiction and reality!

One U.S. "family" movie-review site says Avatar "has an abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes goddess worship and the destruction of the human race."

Of course, this anger is in reaction to the clear analogy of Na’vis with North American natives – the way they’ve been exploited and the ignorance of the oppressors about the interconnectedness of everything in nature.

Sure, the movie has a great ecological message, but overall it’s just a lot of fun. Please go and see it if you haven’t already. I’m going to watch it again – and again!

Science Matters is published by The David Suzuki Foundation and has been re-syndicated with permission on thegreenpages.ca network since 2000.

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