On Sunday night I finally saw Avatar. I think I was one of the last people in New York City to do so. I saw it on the Imax at Lincoln Square. I can’t imagine what it would be like on a regular screen or without the 3D, but I’m sure it pales in comparison — just the sheer scale and immersiveness of the experience were dazzling.
There’s so much to say about the joy of this experience, (and also where it fell short), but the most compelling aspect for me is the world James Cameron has created in Pandora. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt a little bummed to be back in the real world after the film was over, and found the transition from sacred trees to streets a little jarring. It’s a transition from a joyful world to a mundane one, from a place filled with magic and wonder to a city that feels dull and sublunary by comparison. And the difference is all in the aesthetics.
Cameron takes a seemingly ordinary rainforest (already a lush, joyful environment) and imbues it with light, movement, and magic. Everything native to Pandora glows: the trees, the seeds, the mosses, the waters — even the animals. The peculiar luminosity is celestial; the lichens become like a carpet of stars, the tree of life like a cluster of comets. (It kills me, by the way, that I can’t get still images to illustrate these things — evidently the Avatar PR machine is more interested in gunships and battles than the beauty of the setting. Did I miss something? Or wasn’t that just the whole point of the movie?)
Anyway, bioluminescence has long been a source of wonder here on Earth, whether in fireflies or glowworm caves or tropical bays of phosphorescent plankton. But in our world, it’s a rare pleasure, one that many people never experience firsthand. Cameron has taken this joy and scaled it up, creating a world ablaze with ethereal light. Pandora’s light is magical because of its inexplicable beauty — like the earthly bioluminescence it emulates, it operates through chemical light-making processes that seem mystical in contrast to the logical workings of electricity — like a hidden flow of energy.
“A hidden flow of energy” is Cameron’s actual explanation for the bioluminescence in the film. The scientists in the film state that the organisms function like a neural network, all connected to each other symbiotically. This connectedness is another joyful theme, since joy is very much about unity, coming together, and inclusiveness. The aesthetic illustration of this is the bond formed when the Na’vi encounter certain other organisms — the animals they ride to hunt, their mates, or the tree of life. The fusion of the illuminated tendrils calls to mind a kind of neural embrace, where disparate elements craving contact find each other and communicate wordlessly.
These energy flows are magical, and they manifest in other ways besides communication and light. The mountains of Pandora float in midair, like karst formations reflected in still water, and are described to be constantly moving. Creatures float as well. The seeds of the tree of life drift like glowing white-violet jellyfish, giving the impression that Pandora’s atmosphere is rich with this energy, changing its density at will from the thinness of air to the thickness of water. And of course, in the end, (spoiler alert) it’s a mysterious energy flow from the tree of life that saves our hero and Pandora itself.
It’s not just the behavior of organisms, but also their forms that display joyful aesthetics. Cameron uses the lushness of the rainforest, amplified in scale and density, to create a sense of vitality and renewal. He uses lots of spiral and circular forms, such as the small creature that spins on its fan-like wing (a living whirlygig), or the giant spiral-shaped plant that retreats into itself when exposed to touch (no doubt inspired in behavior by the real-world touch-sensitive mimosa). Swooping curves rule in Pandora, whether it’s chalice-like flowers, dangling curls of vines, or the delicate tendrils of the Eywa seeds. Cameron’s artists also play with scale, making some things giant, like the beautiful broad leaves the break the Na’vi’s fall as the leap from the sky, and other things tiny, like the seeds or the spinning creature. All of these are recurring aesthetic motifs in joyful things, both natural and manmade.
Ultimately, it’s these aesthetics of joy that make the Na’vi’s world so mesmerizing, and make us feel that this place is valuable and desperately worth saving. The aesthetics of magic and renewal give an impression that there is salvation for us in this place, not in the (clumsily-named) mineral unobtainium, but in the mystical goodness that underpins such manifest joy. For me, these aesthetics of delight in Pandora’s design do far more than the clunky dialogue and heavy-handed plot to suggest the moral. All of these wonders were inspired by things in our own world. Cameron has said he was inspired to create a bioluminscent Pandora by his experiences night-diving. The rainforest, though perhaps not as fantastical, is still a lush world rich with undiscovered species. Many of the animals on Pandora are hybrids of familiar organisms, like fearsome land-mammal with the rhino body and the hammerhead shark face, which call out these remarkable features — no less remarkable for the fact they occur separately in our world. And science lately is filled with new discoveries about the ways that flora and fauna communicate with each other chemically, much like Pandora’s hidden energy flow.
The more I think about Pandora, the more I think about the beauty of the world that inspired it, which is really the point here. Yes, the technology is a great leap forward, and yes, the 3D experience is revolutionary. But in 5 years this will be common, in 15 it will be primitive. I think the artistic achievement is much greater than the technical one, and more lasting, in the way it abstracts our world away from us, and filters it through a joyful lens, allowing us to discover its rare pleasures anew. Though at first it seems our world is at a disconnect from the magic of Pandora, actually, our world is filled with Pandoran moments, (or Pandora is just an amplification of earthly moments). What is joyful in Pandora is what makes it worth saving, and a good illustration of what makes our own world worth saving too.