Experience a body-swapping space journey with Jake Sully, a soldier turned into a field scientist on an alien planet in James Cameron's Avatar (2009); the genre melting-pot of this award-winning film comments upon empathy, humility, exploration, and exploitation of natural resources. Avatar is set on the alien world of Pandora which is inhabited by the Na’vi tribe; this tribe is looked at as inferior and primitive when compared to humans. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has arrived to link to a human/Na’vi hybrid that will be used to allow him to freely move about on planet Pandora. The humans have come to Pandora to mine for the highly coveted natural resource, unobtanium. In the year 2154, man has depleted all of Earth's natural resources and has traveled to Pandora to gather unobtanium to defeat Earth's energy crisis. The corporations will make tons of money with the collection of unobtanium and are therefore going to great lengths to get it. They must infiltrate the Na'vi tribe and mine directly under their hometree. Cameron's Avatar creates empathy for both an alien indigenous people and their sacred land; close analysis of basic components of cinematography such as lighting and camera movements reveals the theme of empathy as well as Cameron's auteurism. The Na'vi interpret the world and nature much different that the humans do, and throughout the film, one can see the vast differences in their respect for the land and its' creatures; respect that humans often lack. A Na'vi tribe member, Neytiri (Zoe Salanda) interacts with Jake and teaches him empathy and respect for the world around you. This evolution of the main character Jake is a central focus of the film and is evident from beginning to end.
Sully's empathetic transformation begins as we are introduced to the jungle of Pandora for the first time. The camera movements used by Cameron are specific and evoke emotion from the audience. The opening scene begins with the camera moving in a crane-like motion as it ascends from the clouds down to the jungles in Pandora. As the camera moves in a crane motion, the audience feels as if they are flying into the quietness and stillness of this seemingly endless jungle. Right off the bat, one can tell that this setting is mystical and otherworldly; evoking curiosity and peaking interest already.
Once you fly into the trees of the jungle, the screen flashes black suddenly. This leaves the audience with a brief unsettled feeling. A low-key lit screen is revealed with an extreme close-up of a man’s eye. The use of an extreme close up allows for isolation of the man’s eye at very close range and also leads the audience to feel physically close to the man. The use of this extreme close up to begin the film is an intelligent choice as it allows for reading of his emotions at this exact moment. Although the audience does not know what is exactly happening, however, one can feel the tension and uncertainty as the man begins to blink many times and look around feverishly. This portrays the feeling of shock and confusion.
The camera pans out to a regular close up. We havent yet been introduced to the Na'vi tribe or the Pandora in general, however, Jake as his human-self is already giving off the blue coloring of the Na'vi; tricking us to see him as a Na'vi even at the beginning of the film.
The camera pans out little by little, now at a close up, revealing the man slowly. The camera work in the film frequently uses such empathetic movement of this kind, moving from eyes to a fuller image of the character presented. Here we are introduced to the protagonist, Jake Sully, by first meeting his eyes. Shot by shot the audience begins to see more of the background and more of this man in a box.
A shot from the shoulder up shows Sully waking up even more and now at a medium shot. The claustrophobia of Sully's capsule is relieved for viewers by Sully's sedated self and the medium shot, helping us see the wider spaces opening up to his awakening. One would think that waking up in a box would cause panic, however, the close angle allows the audience to notice his calm body language. He sees floating water droplets as the camera looks down and shifts Sully’s face out of focus. Finally, the progression comes a close with a final medium shot of Sully as he exits the now identified cryo chamber in space. The camera pan reveals uncountable cryo-capsules, raising the question for the audience: Why this man, at this time?
We are beginning to understand why Sully was chosen to come to this alien planet as he is matched with his Na’vi/human avatar. He begins his journey, finds an empathetic evolution, as he must learn to live with the Na'vi tribe and decide whether to pledge his allegiance to them or the humans. When in the camp the camera movements are smooth and often flat. This portrays the lack of enthusiasm, curiosity, and wonder that is fairly prevalent in the jungle with the Na’vi tribe. When in the jungle, the camera movements demonstrate immense depth, are motivated as they follow Jake, Neytiri, and other characters as they explore the wondrous jungle that is surrounding them. Although many of these camera movements have the visual feel of a Steadicam system, Cameron frequently opted for handheld movements to create more subtle, intentional control over the shots. The shots vary from low-angle shots, eye-level shots, bird’s eye views and more (Sikov, 2009). The varying format and angles of each shot within the scenes in the jungle comment upon its complexity and depth. By utilizing a multitude of angles, Cameron allows the audience to feel as if they are walking in the jungle with the characters. It creates a 3D effect allowing every angle of the jungle to be explored by the viewers. This adds to the overwhelming realism that Cameron often employs in his films, which will be discussed later.
Cameron's directing styles and realism is seen in is choice of camera system as well. Cameron shot Avatar using a Fusion Camera System “a digital 3D apparatus co-developed by Cameron…It used stereoscopic lenses—two separate lenses on the same horizontal plane—to mimic the vision on two human eyes” (New York Film Academy, 2014). The use of this lens creates the effect of the simple, normal vision of an outsider looking in. Since cinema trades in our adopting a point-of-view (POV) presented by the artists involved, here we are invited frequently to adopt a God's eye point of view, acting as judge and jury as we adjudicate the "case" of these encounters between humans and Na'vi.
The point of view of the main protagonist, Sully, is adopted constantly throughout the film. Point of view is a film angle that shows what a character is looking at in the first person. This angle allows the director to emphasize the important emotions of the new world, Pandora. It can also shed light on a new perspective, for example Jake Sully. When Neytiri is introducing Jake to her "Ikran" the point of view is often from Jake. This is done intentionally to capture the beauty of Neytiri and majestic bond she has with her Ikran. By utilizing Jakes point of view throughout the film, Cameron allows the shots to carry emotions and sheds light on Jake's altering perspective of the Na'vi people.
Cameron emphasizes light is a key characteristic of everything Pandoran throughout the film. He successfully uses light to demonstrate the relationship of the Na’vi tribe and the jungle. At night, the bioluminescent jungle is the main source of lighting for the Na’vi people. The bioluminescent lighting that is casted by the ground, the trees, the animals all light the way for the Na’vi tribe when they would otherwise be surrounded by darkness. This source of light reflects the relationship that the tribe has with the land. The Na’vi tribe is filled with respect, empathy, and spirituality when interacting with the jungle, and in turn, the jungle provides them with light. The humans are presented in three types: (1) military might, (2) economic exploitation, and (3) scientific curiosity. The first two groups cannot relate to Pandora's bioluminescence with wonder and delight, as the scientists and Sully do. Rather, they bypass it in search of control and access to unobtanium.
An example that emphasizes Sully's transformation from a military might to an empathetic Na'vi tribe member is Sully and Neytiri's first interaction. Jake is stranded in the unfamiliar and haunting jungle. He is surrounded with darkness and threatening animal noises, helping the viewers to identify with his fear of a new environment through the use if diegetic sounds. This eerie quietness with the use of only one sound allows the audience to notice that the natural world of Pandora is void of all technological sounds; here, there are just animal sounds, water flowing, tribes yelling, and natural sounds. Jake wanders to find and kill the creates he hears stalking him in the jungle; this shows Jake's lack of empathy in the beginning of his journey. Right now, the only light source he has is a torch he has fashioned from a tree branch and a portion of his shirt. The jungle and Jake have not formed a reciprocal relationship filled with grace and empathy yet; as demonstrated by his harsh actions towards the jungle and the animals who live in here. In turn, the jungle does not provide him with light as it does when Neytiri arrives. She saves Jake from the jungle creatures, and she throws his torch into water. When she does this suddenly the jungle starts to light up. Every step she takes is illuminated with bioluminescent lighting arising from the ground and the plants begin to bubble with light.
The use of light and camera movements only highlight the many parabolic themes found throughout Avatar. "Parables, paradoxes, hyperboles, and extreme commandments all disorient only to reorient us. But what is reoriented in us? and in what direction? I would say that what is reoriented by these extreme sayings is less our will than imagination. Our will is our capacity to follow without hesitation that once-chosen way, to obey without resistance the once-known law." (Ricoeur, 281). As Paul Ricoeur says in "The Logic of Jesus, the Logic of God" in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, "our imagination is the power to open us to new possibilities, to discover another way of seeing, or acceding to a new rule in receiving the instruction of the exception" (281). Throughout the duration of Avatar there are many examples of parabolic elements that align with this quote.
Cameron calls upon many “types” to tell a compelling story to force worldwide audiences to meditate on Pandora and the human interactions he imagines take place in this mythical space. The business executives mad with greed and shareholder “reasonability” are created by Cameron in this film to demonstrate a severe lack empathy for others around them and the world they live on; as they are attempting to destroy the tribes home to save Earth, which they have already destroyed. They seem to have no morality surrounding the idea of destroying the Na’vi’s home. The driving factor that is fueling their rampage is greed. The natural mineral unobtanium is worth a large sum of money when sold on Earth, and the corporate men and military forces seem to think that this sum of money warrants them tearing up the Na’vi’s land, further highlighting the “type” of business executive mad with greed. The head of the operation, Parker (Giovanni Ribisi) is quoted often throughout the film referring to the Na’vi tribe as “savages who are threatening their whole operation” when, in reality, the Na’vi tribe are just trying to carry on with their lives in their home (Avatar, 2009).
However, not all characters in the film are mad with greed. One can watch Jake go through an evolution as he is reoriented and now driven by empathy rather than greed; unlike his human counterparts. He can be thought of as an average Joe seeking meaning. His capacity to follow the norm of the humans on Pandora, and destroy the so-called "savages," is now gone. He is introduced to a new possibility of life, filled with spirituality and peace; and Sully discovers a new image of the a Na'vi tribe, he now sees them as his family. If the other characters employed empathy and attempted to understand how the Na’vi tribe felt watching their sacred land ripped out in front of them, they would have found a diplomatic way to live amongst one another on Pandora. The parabolic elements and various character types created by Cameron in this film comment upon reorientation away from the one-chosen way into rehabilitation, and also the greed driven mind filled with no limits to achieve the goal, money.
Pope Francis comments on the exploitation of nature and humans lack of empathy towards our life sustaining planet in Laudato Si. He says, "many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems" (Laudato Si, 145)
Money, alongside power, are sought out by numerous characters throughout the film. Characters, such as Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), often exhaust these vital resources, with no remorse, and aid in the disappearance of cultures and lifestyles. Colonel Quaritch demonstrates an extreme lack of empathy for the Na’vi tribe, as he remorselessly destroys their home tree and other sacred resources that allow for them to thrive and live. The lack of reorientation seen in the character allows for the audience to see how the Colonel is incapable to discover a new way of seeing the world. He sees to Na'vi tribe as evil and the humans as good. There is no acceding of new rules or interpretations once he interacts with the Na'vi whatsoever. Towards the end of the film, he is featured in an aircraft getting ready to send bombs down into the Na’vi home tree. In this process, he knows fairly well that hundreds of Na’vi members will be killed, however, he unapologetically goes ahead with the operation anyways. Colonel Quaritch proceeds to burn the jungle to the ground and kill many Na’vi men, women and children. After doing so he says, “That’s good work people, first rounds on me tonight. Let’s boogie” (Avatar, 2009). This quote in particular demonstrates the character type that Cameron imposes on this character: the military personnel gone too muscular. This lack of remorse and lack of empathy is seen throughout the film with a lack of evolution and reorientation in characters like Colonel Quaritch. He sees himself as indestructible and is constantly ruthless and uncaring for the world he is in or the tribe that inhabits it.
While Colonel Quaritch may not experience an evolution or reorientation in the film; Sully certainly experiences an empathetic transformation that is highlighted by this film's plot structure. and is able to The plot structure, or the ordering and structuring of the narrative (Sikov, 2009), allows the audience to watch a compelling story that highlights numerous literary themes and allows for a dramatic evolution of the main character, Jake. There is a multiple plot structure found throughout the film. First, is the identity crisis of Jake. Jake, is introduced flying in a spaceship to Pandora to take his previously deceased brothers’ spot in a laboratory operation. One quickly sees that Jake is a living with paraplegia and navigates human life in a wheelchair. Jake is introduced as an ex-marine, so the audience can deduct that he obtained this injury in the field and has not lived with it his whole life. This introduction of Jake sets the stage for his struggle of identity in the plot line. When Jake finally is paired with his Na’vi hybrid avatar, he regains the use of his legs again. He is able to walk, run, leap, and jump; few actions he has not been able to do in years.
While Jake bounces between being a human and not using his legs, and being a Na’vi and having full use of them, the audience watches him struggle to find his true identity. Along with the use of his legs the plot structure surrounding Jake’s evolution unravels as well. Once Jake and Neytiri meet, Jake is slowly introduced to the spiritual and graceful way of the Na’vi tribe. As he bounces back and forth between the human world and the Na’vi world, he struggles to find where he truly belongs.
Spirituality is reimagined by Cameron on the planet of Pandora and is a driving factor in Jake's evolution. "Here, the indigenous Na’vi live in a lush rainforest whose network of trees, flora, and fauna, it turns out, form a cognitive network mythically named Eywa" (White, 2018). The Na'vi have a means of "plugging directly into" Eywa, and even directly coupling, not only with one another, but other creatures, too. The relationships are imagined to be directly and intimately organic in the way they are to meld and co-identify. They pray and look for guidance from Ewya, similar to how we look to God to answer our prayers. The Na'vi tribe find spiritual guidance from the tree of voices and the tree of life. These trees provide the Na'vi tribe with a connection to their ancestors and those who have come before them. They are able to gain wisdom and knowledge from Ewya and their ancestors who live on. The passage below demonstrates the spiritual connection between man and nature; it mirrors the relationship between the Na'vi tribe and their God-like spirit, Ewya. The reciprocal relationship is highlighted as the people care for the land and "the land serve as medicine for the nations"
Revelation 22:1-2: "Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of its street. On either side of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the trees serve as medicine for the nations."
Along with this, a quote from Daniel White, "The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. This larger Mind is comparable to God" (249). This emphasizes the overarching message of the Na'vi tribe and that of Eywa. They value the tribe as a whole, not just the individual mind. Eywa can be thought of as the "larger Mind" that supports the Na'vi tribe in their endeavors. It watches over them and provides guidance when they are in need. When Neytiri tries to run from Jake after they first encounter one another, Ewya sends her a sign and bathes Jake in mystical floating flowers to signal that he will be an important person for the tribe in the near future. Eywa is a spiritual force that comforts the Na'vi tribe and gives them a sense of protection and direction through prayer and connection.
The other plot line seen throughout the film is the war between the Na’vi tribe and the humans. All the Na’vi people want to do is protect their sacred land. The humans intend to ruthlessly destroy their sacred trees and lands whether the Na’vi cooperate or not. The back and forth between Colonel Quaritch and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) demonstrates the constant battle between diplomatic peace and total destruction. As the plot unfolds, the audience can see that the Na’vi tribe will not go quietly. Jake finally discovers his place, in the Na’vi tribe, and leads them to war with the humans. They fight brutally and only one winner emerges, the Na’vi. The resolution of this battle allows the audience to feel content and as if the good guys have come out on top. This also comments upon the exploitation of nature and empathy as well. The Na’vi tribe did not have to let the humans return home safely and alive, but they did, demonstrating their unprecedented empathy for others. As well, the tribe respects nature and has a connection with the jungle, and in turn, the jungle helped them to become victorious in the battle.
There are many different genres of film, as most general film-goers know. Some examples of genres are comedies, westerns, musicals, film noir, and, Cameron’s most known genre, science fiction (Sikov, 2009). Cameron often stuck to directing science fiction films as he was able to let his auteuristic style show; he regularly highlighted many worldview issues through his various films such as empathy and the exploitation of natural resources.
There are many directing trademarks that mark the structure and style of a James Cameron film. First, anyone watching a Cameron film will be able to comment on the incredible imagination that develops the plot and captivates the audience (Perno, 2017). This can be seen in many of his science fiction films, such as Avatar, to maximize the realism behind them. This is an aspect of his flare that draws me to most of his films. Once you begin watching a Cameron film, you cannot stop until you are forced to at the end, completed captivated by the beautiful imagery he offers up. Again, and again, Cameron whisks us off to planets beyond our own imagination, or down into the depths of the endless jungle.
An auteuristic consistency that can be found in most of his films, Cameron focuses on heroic female leads (Perno, 2017). This is evident as a true stylistic aspect of film as he comments upon a worldview vision of the way that men and women deal with one another (Sikov, 2009). A strong example of this is Neytiri in the film Avatar. Neytiri shows Jake how to live as one with the land, and how to have empathy and respect for what is right. She leads the tribe in the war against the humans and demonstrates strength and leadership unlike anoy other. Another common stylistic signature that draws me and other audience members to watch Cameron films is his comment upon the exploitation of natural resources, a theme prevalent all through this film.
A common quote heard in all of his film is a character ordering another one to “Go! Go! Go!” (Good, 1970). This is seen in Avatar when Jake is warning the Na’vi tribe to flee into the jungle to avoid the bombs that will descend upon them shortly. Lastly, in the past the studio system that produced mass production films often employed the same actors and actresses in various films (Sikov, 2009). Cameron often used actors and actresses in multiple films over and over again, examples Sigourney Weaver who is featured in several of his films, including Avatar (Good, 1970). All of these stylistic signatures are what allow James Cameron to direct top-grossing and blockbuster films over and over again and what draws me to his particular set of films.
Winning academy Awards for best visual effects, best cinematography, and best production design; golden Globes for best motion picture and best director; and critics’ choice movie award for best action movie; and becoming the second highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar has set the stage for an incredible journey. Cameron's Avatar creates empathy for both an alien indigenous people and their sacred land; close analysis of basic components of cinematography such as lighting and camera movements reveals the theme of empathy as well as Cameron's auteurism. The film Avatar features numerous parabolic elements as well that reorient the audience to their "capacity to follow without hesitation that once-chosen way, to obey without resistance the once-known law" (Ricouer, 281). The characters in the film utilize their imagination to find new possibilities and stray from the human-way. Jake shows us that there is more than one way to see things, as he is introduced to a whole new point of view by Neytiri and the Na'vi tribe. He grows to stray from the exploitation and cold nature of his human peers, and accepts the empathic respecting way of the Na'vi. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis tells us, “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected… We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (Laudato Si, 138-139). This spiritual quote sums up the relationship between the Na’vi tribe and the jungle; as well Jake's empathetic transformation throughout the film. They all respect, empathize, and are as one with the jungle and in turn the jungle provides them with light and life.