2016 Best Fantasy and Sci-Fi picks  0

What where your favourite fantasy and science-fiction books and movies for 2015?  Here are a few of mine.

Star Wars 7 The Force Awakens

ReyForceAwakensReviewx300With all the hype and the long wait since the release of the last trilogy, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one.  My daughter and I saw it together on our trip to Melbourne in December after a day of looking at art galleries, graffiti lanes and traveling on the trams.

 

Star Wars 7, directed by J J Abrams, takes up the story twenty or more years after the end of Return of the Jedi. A new dark force, the First Order and dark user of the force, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), are out to destroy the Republic. Hans Solo and the Resistance are searching for a map fragment which will reveal location of the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker.

 

The movie was fast-paced, with lots of explosions, crashes and fire-fights.  Favourite characters Hans Solo, Chewbacca, Princess (now General) Leia, C3PO, A2D2 all make an appearance and new characters such as Finn (a reformed Storm Trooper) (John Boyega), Rey (an orphan left behind her family on  desert planet of Jaku with an affinity to the force) (Daisy Ridley), the droid BB-8, Maz Kanata and Kylo Ren (the dark ‘jedi’) who works for the mysterious Supreme Leader of the First Order, Snoke.  The plot echoes the past movies with a shocking (though not unpredictable) twist at the end.

 

We enjoyed the movie. For my son (who saw it with his father), it was ‘the best one yet.’ There was enough excitement, special effects, humour and emotion to keep us on the edge of our seats.  I love the fact that Finn is a person of colour and that Rey is a woman though, for some, this seems to encourage making the emo and conflicted Kylo Ren as the a dark anti-hero despite his terrible nature of his deeds. There are some obvious plot holes and many things left unexplained (how did the First Order arise and gain such devastating power so quickly, who is Snoke, why was Rey abandoned by her family and what is her connection to Luke, why did Luke walk out on the Republic and Resistance (even if his efforts to train more Jedi had disastrously failed)? No doubt some of these things will be revealed in the next couple of movies.

 

However, the more I think of it, the more I wish that The Force Awakens had deviated more from a recycling of old plot themes and scenarios. I guess it remains to be seen if the next two movies are more adventurous and more ready to risk alienating die-hard fans.

Mocking Jay Part 2

This final film from the Hunger Games trilogy, in which the Rebellion makes a final assault on the Capitol of Panem. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the face of the resistance but, against orders, she teams up with her closest friends, including Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Finnick (Sam Claflin) to take out President Snow.

 

Again, I watched this movie with my daughter and thoroughly enjoyed it. It does verge on horror in a number of scenes, but the violence is not glorified. The movie stays faithful to the book and, in some ways, surpasses it. I can remember being very disappointed with the end of Mocking Jay (the book) for a couple of reasons, especially with regard to Prim – but also the death of a number of characters. I’ve had a number of years to think about why Suzanne Collins chose to end the book the way she did and I concluded that what happens to Prim was a necessary motivator for Katnis’ final actions and her realization that tyranny and the misuse of power was not the sole prerogative of Snow. Even so, (as I discuss here) it would be refreshing to see more peaceful and diplomatic means as a way of resolving problems. And while this may seem unrealistic – it can be done without necessarily spoiling the climatic thrill – as, for instance, in How to Train Your Dragon.  Not to quibble though, this was a fantastic movie.

 

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Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning (2005) by Neil Gaiman is a collection of short stories of fantasy, sci-fiction and horror. Some are quite brief and others are longer. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book with it’s effortless prose, great characterizations and storytelling. Gaiman has a quirky view of life in which danger and retribution lurks in unlikely corners. I’ve reviewed it more thoroughly here.

Anansi Boys

I enjoyed Trigger Warning so much, I went looking for another Gaiman book and came across Anansi Boys (2006).  This book has an unlikely hero in Fat Charlie, and touch of romance, and great twist at the end and draws from Caribbean mythology. It was fun read and I really must read more Neil Gaiman. Again I reviewed it here.

Fly by Night

As I loved Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass (2012), I was delighted to discover Fly by Night (2006). Like A Face Like Glass, this is also a Young Adult fantasy novel with a young teen protagonist combined with an intricate and fascinating, almost Baroque world and a complicated and inspired plot. Mosca Mye (named after the common house fly by her absent minded and erudite father) has to flee her village in the company of her goose, Saracen, and the dubious and smooth tongued Eponymous Clent. On arriving at Mandelion, they find themselves in the middle of intrigue, murder and an escalating feud between the Stationer’s Guild and the Locksmiths. This is a book about freedom of thought. And while I found it’s zealous Birdcatcher villains almost predictable in motivation (see a fuller review here), I still enjoyed the twists and turns, idiosyncratic characters and world building. Certainly, there is a need for tolerance and the freedom to discuss and contest different positions and values in a world where opposing points of view are often howled down or ridiculed in social media storm.

 

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Femme

Femme (2014) by Delia Strange is the first book published in the Wanderer of Worlds series (and multiverse). Kaley  has won a scholarship to the almost Utopian paradise of Femme, a matriarchal society in which men are slaves. Kaley is excited about pursing her future tech studies but finds it hard to adjust to the mores and expectations of this rich and beautiful world, especially when she is assigned a personal slave. The world-building in Femme is rich, multi-layered and delicious. There is an underlying romantic tension and social dissonance that gradually builds up a climax and a realistic (and satisfying) conclusion. By turning social stereotypes and traditional gender roles upside down, Femme makes one think.  I reviewed it here.

 

That’s the first 6 of my 12 picks for 2016.  I’ll continue with the next six in the next post.

I’d love you to tell me, have you watched or read any of these spec fic pieces? What did you think of them? What are your best reads and views for 2016.

 

Jeanette

Cross-post to Jeanette O’Hagan Writes.

Hunger Games  2

Hunger Games

 

HungerGamesIn less than a month, on 20 November 2013, Catching Fire Part 1 will be hitting the cinemas – just in time for the summer holidays. This film adaptation of the second book of the extremely popular Hunger Games trilogy is eagerly awaited by many avid fans – young adult or otherwise.

 

In 2012, I was introduced to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games through the enthralling film adaptation (by director Gary Ross) of the first book. Like many others, I soon acquired the three books and devoured them – as did my teenage daughter. The books are pacey, with an intense and interesting plot, great characterization and intriguing setting. They are very hard to put down and even harder to forget.

 

Set in the dystopian totalitarian world of Panem in the near future, both film and books open on the day of the Reaping for the 74th Hunger Games. After defeating the rebellious thirteen districts of Panem, the decadent Capitol had decreed that every year two teenagers (12-18 years old) chosen by lot from each district, one female and one male, must fight each other in a specially modified natural arena until one lone victor remains.

 

The event is extensively televised, highly orchestrated and attracts avid fans in the Capitol, the ultimate reality TV show. In the poverty stricken District Twelve, 16 year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her 12 year old sister. Katniss is whisked away into a new world of experiences. She must contend with the uncertain motives of her fellow tribute from 12, Peeter Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the drunk and unruly mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the effete Capitol born team who “prep” her for the games, the enhanced dangers of the rugged arena habitat and ultimately with the other tributes whose aim is to kill her before she kills them. She must capitalise on her skills, form alliances and play up to the cameras to gain potentially life-saving sponsorship. In addition to the physical dangers, Katniss struggles with remaining true to herself while playing a part, grieving losses and not knowing who to trust and who the real enemy is.

 

Ross does a skilled job of converting 450 pages of first person present tense narrative into the medium of a 142 minute film while keeping true to the books theme and character driven plot. The film is visually splendid, well casted and acted, emotionally charged with a surprising, cliff-hanger ending.

 

As I watched this film I was split between being swept away by the gripping story, a likeable and strong heroine, beautiful cinematography, poignant moments, the dramatic ending – and being profoundly disturbed. The subsequent books are full of violent conflict though the focus moves way the enforced killings between teens to fomenting of rebellion against the unjust totalitarian state.

 

Both books and films have their champions and their detractors. And while, by it’s very visual and immediate nature, the film is at times more graphic than the books, at other times it shortens or glosses over violent scenes in the original (as in the final scene in the arena). How the movies Mocking Jay 1 & 2 and Catching Fire portray this is yet to be seen.

 

Hunger Games raises profound and difficult questions. It highlights injustice and inequality while showing that there are no easy or safe answers in working towards a just society. Hunger Games alludes to the misuse of media in modern materialistic societies, the gross inequities between the rich exploitative Capitol on the poor, oppressed districts reflective of global north-south divide of our own time and depicts teenagers killing each other for the entertainment of a decadent society.

 

Yet at two levels I found both books and film disturbing. Firstly, because violence and intimidation are the only repertoire ever considered on all sides in the conflict. And while there may be instances when violence is the only answer (though some would debate this) it should surely always be the very last option embraced. And secondly, in the process of challenging the distortions of reality TV, the very format of the a highly entertaining film placed me as viewer into the voyeuristic position it appeared to critique.

 

For me, the question left unanswered was does Hunger Games leave us outraged and motivated to change or at least resist perceived injustice and to askew violence or does it leave us hungering … for more entertaining celluloid brutality …“as lives are broken to fuel the fires of mammon, As the earth is stripped, and nations impoverished, as fugitives from danger are incarcerated, and young girls – and boys – starve and expose themselves in the halls of plenty to conform to a celluloid image.” (Cry My Beloved Country by Jeanette O’Hagan)

 

Jeanette O’Hagan

 

Other reviews you might enjoy:

 

For younger readers/viewers:

How Do You Train a Dragon?

The Belt of Deltora

 

For older readers/viewers

The Heart of an Ironman

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Children of Hurin

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The Belt of Deltora  3

I recently started reading The Deltora Series to my pre-teen daughter.  Coincidently, while Lief, Barda and Jasmine started searching for the second gem in the book, the Anime cartoon series of Deltora Quest began screening on the Carton Network.  Soon our family was engrossed in their adventures both on the screen and in the pages of the book.

In Deltora Quest, 16 year old Lief is entrusted by his blacksmith father and gentle mother with the quest to find the missing seven gems from the belt of Deltora and then to give the restored belt to the rightful wielder, the hidden heir of Adin.  In ages past, Adin, a simple blacksmith of the populous city of Del had, inspired by a dream, crafted the belt and sought out each of the warring tribes in the land of Dragons.  Only when all seven tribes had given up their precious talisman to complete the belt had the inexorable invasion forces of the evil Shadow Lord been driven back into the Shadowlands.  For years Adin and his heirs guarded the land of Deltora against the enemy’s malice and cunning, but gradually Adin’s heirs had stopped wearing the protective belt and lost contact with Deltora’s people.  These kings and queens had allowed their lives to be hemmed in by complicated traditions codified in the Rule.  Finally, in the reign of the last King Endon, the belt had been broken and the seven gems scattered across the land allowing the Shadow Lord to invade and put Deltora under his cruel grip.  Only when the belt is once again completed with the seven tribal gems (Diamond, Emerald, Lapis Lazuli, Topaz, Opal, Ruby and Amethyst) and worn by Adin’s true heir can this evil menace be driven from the land.

Lief is aided by his friends Barda (a former palace guard and family friend) and Jasmine (a wild girl who grew up in the fearsome Forests of Silence with only her raven Cree and small, furry Filli for company).  Together they face the multiple dangers of the Shadow Lord’s grey guards, shape shifting Ols and other servants of the Shadow Lord, hostile tribes, various dangers of the road, complicated traps and the fearsome guardians of the gems to complete their quest.  They are helped in their task by their loyalty and friendship to each other, by unexpected friends met on the road, providential circumstances and the power of the gems as they are added to the Belt. Deltora’s Quest is a classic tale of a few good people struggling against almost undefeatable, overwhelming evil.  The Shadow Lord is more than a ruthless dictator, more than human (whatever his origins), the very personification of evil – a brooding, powerful, malicious presence whose enmity and numerous plans for evil remains unabated for millennia.  Yet each of the tribes of Deltora’s beautiful gem has unique abilities that joined with all the others is able to defeat or at least evict this evil from the land.  However, it seems more than the gems are at play for on more than one occasion lucky coincidence – or the providence of an unseen power – enables the heroes to overcome impossible situations.  Who or what this good power is, the counterpart of the Shadow Lord, remains undefined – perhaps it is the Land itself or maybe an unnamed Creator of the world.

Emily Rodda (penname of award winning Australian author) has a lucid narrative style and a captivating formula of friendship, adventure, betrayal, fearsome monsters, intriguing puzzles, plot twists, escalating drama and final exciting finale.  Throughout the book, the values of friendship, loyalty, truthfulness and courage are developed.  And while the gems each help in their turn, it is only when all the Deltora’s disparate tribes are prepared to put their differences and past animosities behind them and to work together in friendship that the truly malicious and deceptive power of the Shadow Lord is defeated.  She reminds us of the importance of unity in the midst of diversity.  It is through spreading distrust, lies and by deliberately distancing Adin’s heirs from their people, that the Shadow Lord is able to destroy the belt and scatter the gems almost beyond recovery.  On the other hand, it is only as Lief and his companions learn to trust each other and appreciate their different strengths and viewpoints that they can succeed at their quest.  Moreover, it is as the disparate tribes of Deltora are prepared to put aside their differences and work together (first when Adin completes the belt and then when Lief confronts the Shadow Lord) that Deltora is able to be strong and free. Rodda also reminds us of the importance of holding on to what truly matters, the source of life rather than life-strangling and meaningless traditions.  Adin’s heirs allow themselves to be lulled in a false sense of security, to be separated from the true power that protects them and their land (the Belt of Deltora ).  They allow an arbitrary and complicated set of codified traditions, the Rule, to control their actions and lives and to replace the Book on the Belt’s qualities and powers until they become no more than hapless puppet rulers.

Rodda’s heroic tale highlights more than character development and friendship.  It explores the values that hold nations with many diverse communities and cultures together.  Diversity has the potential to tear nations apart when distrust, discrimination and division is allowed to grow (we only have to think of recent and age-old ethnic strife and genocide in countries like Rwanda or Bosnia).  And as Lief discovers, a distrust and even hostility towards those different from us is almost innate to the human heart. However, an acceptance and inclusion of difference can in fact strengthen and enrich a nation as can (arguably) be seen in modern multicultural nations like Rodda’s Australia or the USA.  Nevertheless, inclusion of difference and diversity can only work if a core unity, a common acceptance of certain values and vision is upheld and protected such as the acceptance of the value of each person, at least broad accord on common aims and agreement on constructive ways to resolve differences (as enshrined in the legal and political systems).  We might do well to ask what is the source of such life giving values and vision and how they might be sustained.  Where does such values, aims and agreement spring from?  As the heirs of Adin discovered, when we lose touch with the source we may continue to go through the motions for several generations before our  impoverishment of vision is discovered.

Emily Rodda has written a charming, gripping tale that children find entertaining and involving.  While in my mind at least, it deals with larger moral issues and hints at intriguing solutions, these are unobtrusively part of the fabric of the storyline.  My daughter overcame her marked reluctance to read on her own in her avid desire to find out what was going to happen next and she eagerly devoured the sequels (Deltora  Quest II & III) and Rodda’s Rondo series.  The story can be read either in eight separate volumes (as originally written) or the combined Volume.  The anime cartoon series is more or less faithful to the books with one or two significant changes in the plot though (in my mind) lack something of their charm with less scope to explore the motivations and mental angst of the companions.  Both books and cartoon series depict horrific monsters which may be inappropriate for younger children.  I would recommend this book for children 9-15 though parents and the young at heart of all ages will enjoy its plot twists and winning formula.

Emily Rodda, Deltora Quest, Gosford: Scholastic Press, 2000 / 2006

Jenny

Similar reviews:

How To Train a Dragon

Happily Ever After: Shrek 4

Happily Ever After: Shrek 4  0

Recently I once again ventured with my children into the realm of 3D movies to see the latest Shrek offering.  My 8 year old daughter, being a Shrek fan, was keen to go.  My 4 year old son threatened mutiny all the way to the cinema.   This time round he did not poke out the lens of the 3D glasses – mainly because he had lost them before we had even settled into our seats.   But despite the minor dramas at the start, we all thoroughly enjoyed this movie though no doubt for different reasons and at different levels.

Like the last 2 sequels, the story begins where most fairy tales finish – in the “they lived happily ever after”.  Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), with their cute and boisterous year old triplets, are comfortably ensconced in Shrek’s old home in the Swamp.  At first Shrek is happy but as idyllic day follows day, the predictability, responsibilities, and expectations of family life begin to crowd out its simple joys.  The lack of privacy and personal intrusion that result from being a prime tourist attraction only compounds the problem.

Things come to a climatic head on the day of the triplets’ first birthday party.  The demands of being the host, the antics of well meaning but interfering friends, Fiona’s rapid fire directions and the final straw of the persistent requests of an obnoxious boy for Shrek to “roar” like a trained circus performer results in an angry outburst.  In the more private fiery confrontation with Fiona that follows Shrek blurts out “I wish things were how they were before I rescued you.”  He watches the hurt, anger and bafflement in her eyes before she turns away from him to return to the party.  Angry with himself and frustrated at how things are, he stomps off home.

The rift provides a perfect opportunity for Rumplestiltskin (Walt Dohm)  – who had seen the whole thing while rifling amongst the rubbish bins.  Craftily arranging an encounter with Shrek, Rumple persuades him to sign one of his infamous contracts, to exchange a day of freedom from family responsibilities in which Shrek can be a real ogre again in return for a day in his childhood – a day he would not remember, when he was but a mindless infant, a day that surely Shrek would never miss.  And so it at first appears.  Shrek revels in being the terror of the all and sundry – until he realises that there something drastically wrong with the world.  For this is a parallel world in which Rumple with the help of his witch cronies rules as a tyrant, in which donkey (Eddie Murphy) does not know him, in which he and Fiona have never met and in which his own future is under the gravest threat.  The only way to save both the future and the past is for Shrek and Fiona to fall in love all over again – something that only happens as he begins to see things from her point of view.

This fourth movie as funny and original as the others – with the characters we have grown to love and laugh at as well as some new ones.   While the ending is never really in doubt, there are some ingenious twists and turns to get there.  The 3D presentation enhances the film, particularly the flying scenes, without getting in the way of the story which is carried by the characters, plot and humour.

Once again, the usual fairy tale clichés and platitudes are turned upside down.   In this case, the myth (often perpetuated in Hollywood) debunked is that once the hero and heroine have overcome all obstacles to prove their true love, they live happily ever after.  In each of the sequels, Fiona and Shrek continue to face challenges in their relationship after their initial (unconventional) fairy tale union.  In this movie Shrek’s love for Fiona is being smothered by the reality of the responsibilities and tensions of being a husband, father and responsible member of the community.  Feelings of love and romance fade as Shrek longs nostalgically for the old days when his life was simple, he had no responsibilities and he was taken seriously.  It is only when he realises that he will lose it all that he realises how important the love of his wife, children – even irritating friends like donkey – are to him.

It is not just romance novels that push the idea that once we find “true love” – the one, true, perfect match meant for us alone – we will live happily ever after.  We may not admit it, but we often believe that heady feeling of romance will last forever.  And when it begins to fade, the things that first attracted us to our partner begin to annoy and frustrate us.  We begin to wonder if we have made a grave mistake.  Suddenly, the grass starts looking much greener next door.  Surely, we think, moving out and moving on will solve all.

Forever After reminds us that true love – a love that lasts – is not something that falls from the sky.  While romantic feelings often come and go, lasting relationships require work and commitment.  True love flourishes when we deeply care for and respect our partner for who they are (not for what we wish they might be), when we remain committed to them despite the bumps in the road, when we work at clear, loving and truthful communication and when we make time to rekindle the romance in the midst of the other demands of life.  Our partner may not be perfect – our image of Prince (or Princess) Charming – but neither are we.  True love may not fall out of the heavens, but it is truly heavenly – for it is God who shows us what true love is.

As Paul of Tarsus concludes in his beautifulpoem to love:

True love  “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Forever After is a great movie to take the kids along to – they will love the humour and crazy situations Shrek, Fiona, Donkey, Puss in Boots and the others find themselves in.  Yet in many ways it speaks more to the mums and dads who may have lost sight of themselves and their partners amidst the multiple demands of family life.

Jenny

The Heart of Iron Man 2  0

It was with some degree of anticipation that I recently went to see Paramount’s Iron Man 2 .  I had enjoyed seeing the first film a couple of years ago – it was quirky, fresh, entertaining with some good special effects and action scenes.  For many movie goers the second film lived up to their expectations, but I must confess to mixed feelings about it this time round.

Iron Man 2 opens 6 months after the events of the last film.  Tony Stark, billionaire weapons industrialist has revealed himself to the world as the superhero Iron Man and has brokered world peace.  While Tony basks in the spotlight, different forces are marshalling against him both from outside and from within.   In the USA there is a growing pressure for him to surrender his Ironman suits to the US military, spearheaded by Senator Stem and encouraged by his ruthless rival, Justin Hammer (of Hammer industries).  Meanwhile, brilliant Russian physicist Ivan Vanko uses arc technology to transform himself into Whiplash in an obsessive desire to exact revenge on Stark for his father’s deportation, years in Siberia, poverty and recent death.  After a spectacular show down in Circuit de Monaco between Vanco and Stark, Hammer busts Vanco out of jail in order to secure his services so that Hammer industries can outbid Stark Industries in developing ironman type suits for the US military.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark is affected by the increasing Pallidum toxicity from the arc device implanted in his chest.  This device not only powers his suits but protects his heart from inoperable shrapnel, thus keeping him alive.  Stark’s behaviour, always idiosyncratic and quirky, becomes increasingly erratic, impulsive and risky, as he tells no one of his impending death.  His erratic behaviour increasingly alienates his closest associates, Pepper Pots and “Rhodey” Rhodes, and provides an opening for the shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D agents.  Events are thus sent in motion that culminated in the obligatory spectacular climax of the film.

Once again, Robert Downey Jr engagingly brings Tony Stark to life while Mickey Rourke provides a convincing portrayal of brooding, intimidating evil as Ivan Vanco.   Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Pots),  Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes) and Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer) give more than adequate performances in their supporting roles.  Overall the film works, though as I said, I had some mixed reactions to it.  On the negative side, early scenes of Stark’s narcissistic basking in the crazed adulation that comes his way for single handedly bringing about world peace grated.  The film also dragged at the beginning as all the complex story threads were being established (including the lead-in to the planned Avengers movies as well as Iron Man III  ), only to be succeeded for me by a surprisingly uncomfortable sense of impending doom as the multitude of threats to Tony began to stack up.  On the positive side, by the Monaco race scene the narrative began to speed up and the special effects in this particular sequence were spectacular and definitely worth waiting for.  The final climactic events, while perhaps predictable, were sufficiently satisfying including the lightly humorous romantic scene long deferred from the previous movie.  By the end of the movie, I was satisfied.

Yet after all the dust had settled I was left wondering what it had all been about.  What is it about Tony Stark that makes him a superhero worth barracking for and, perhaps, identifying with?  As I pondered this I began to see parallels with three other famous movie characters.

At first, I was struck by the obvious parallels between another comic book billionaire, playboy industrialist who achieves his superhero status though his brilliant and innovative application of technology (rather than from innate or genetically altered abilities).  I discovered that these similarities between Bruce Wayne/Batman (DC comics) and Tony Stark/Ironman (Marvel Comics) have been noted at least since the closely timed release of the first Iron Man film and Batman Begins in 2008.  Yet Tony Stark is not your typical superhero.  It is not just that he is more flippant than the angst ridden Wayne.  True, Stark is not ruthlessly amoral like his arch-enemies Whiplash and Justin Hammer.  He does care about his friends and country (if in a somewhat self-focused way) and he does not kill innocent bystanders to achieve his goals.  Yet Stark makes no broad motherhood statements (fighting for justice, truth and the American way for instance – except some vague and almost facetious statements about protecting the future for our progeny), he is not too concerned about what responsibilities his super powers might demand of him and has no qualms about using his new found fame to stroke his personal ego.

A second parallel was deliberately drawn.  Original writer of comic book series, Stan Lee stated that he moulded Stark on Howard Hughes – a real life eccentric, playboy, industrialist billionaire at the innovative edge of movie making and aviation.  And the parallels are certainly there – especially in the senate enquiry proceedings.  Though I must admit that I found Aviator a far more satisfying film in its exploration of the tragic ironies and tensions of a man seemingly with it all – good looks, genius, riches, fame, power, indomitable will and unlimited sexual partners – who wrestles with a overwhelming and seemingly inexorable condition (mental illness rather than heavy metal toxicity and a threatened heart).   In Ironman 2, Tony comes straight to the senate inquiry from the opening of the Stark Industries Expo were he has been greeted like a rock or movie super star while Hughes has, with great mental effect, pulled himself out of weeks of self imposed isolation and descent into neuroticism, to (like Stark) turn the tables on his detractors with biting humour, a uncanny grasp of the situation and a cucumber cool aplomb.  And for all Hughes’ brilliance, wealth and power, (unlike Stark) there is no genie in the bottle, no voice from the past, no incredible scientific discovery that can in the end save him.

And then again, I wonder, tongue in cheek, whether there may also be similarities between Iron man and Tinman from The Wizard of Oz.   Does the powerful, unbreakable, outer metal shell house an aching emptiness, an absent (or in Tony’s case broken) heart that needs filling or mending?  Neither Stark or Hughes have fathered children which they might acknowledge as their own.  In Aviator, Hughes’ father is a literally absent figure while in Ironman 2, Tony’s father is figuratively absent or distant during his childhood.  In a revealing scene, Stark doubts that his busy and preoccupied father, had any great opinion of or love for his son.   As he watches a movie clip from the past his father speaks directly to him, giving him the solution to his insolvable problem.  It is only as Tony is brought to the very edge of his mortality and his debt to the past that he can begin to acknowledge his feelings and attachments to others such as Pepper and Rhodey.

So which is he – superhero, alpha male struggling with his inevitable humanity or tinman in search of a heart?  In a world in which superpowers, amoral multinational corporations and suicidal terrorists and extremists seem to control world events while ordinary people are relegated to the sidelines, it is satisfying to believe one maverick individual can transform himself into a superhero and make all the difference.  And the fact that he seems to have it all, makes it even more satisfying to imagine ourselves in his Iron suit though we know that is the stuff daydreams are made of.  On the other hand, we can also identify with his struggle against detractors, jealous rivals and his own mortality.  Like phoenix and Howard Hughes (for a time), he rises from the ashes to snatch victory from seeming defeat which gives us hope that we might do the same, despite what the future may hold.  But quintessentially, Tony Stark embodies at least one form of 21st century, secular “man” with his easy use of and great dependence on technology, his narcisstic enjoyment of material pleasures of the now, his refusal to make a pretence of moral seriousness or ideals, his troubled and tenuous connection to his past and his friends and supporters.  Having the freedom to pursue happiness on his own terms, to make himself in his own image, unfettered by the past, he finds himself lost, adrift and struggling to find meaning and purpose.

There is one other parallel that springs to my mind – one who instead of inventing and constructing his “super” powers, lays them and his high position aside in order to identify with our lives full of joys, triumphs, struggles, pains, and challenges.  Without flinching, he faces the worst that death could do though that, of course, is not the end of the story.  This is a story too that gives hope – not that we can overcome all the super powers, opposition and stuff life throws at us by some technological marvellous iron suit – but that in his dying, death and evil was defeated and new full  life offered to anyone willing to take it.

But then after all, I have more than likely read far too much into a movie that is meant to entertain and thrill.  And despite the slow start, in this it was largely successful.  Had it kept me engaged and breathless with exciting twists and turns from the very beginning I might never have wondered what it was all about.  For me, it is Tony Stark’s very flaws, his humanity – engagingly and humorously portrayed – that makes this movie more than a mere combination of special effects and a fairly predictable thriller.

Jenny

For a humerous look at the parallels between Batman and Iron man checkout:

 

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Children of Hurin

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The Heart of Ironman 2

It was with some degree of anticipation that I recently went to see Ironman 2 (http://ironmanmovie.marvel.com/) .I had enjoyed seeing the first film a couple of years ago – it was quirky, fresh, entertaining with some good special effects and action scenes.For many movie goers the second film lived up to their expectations, but I must confess to mixed feelings about it this time round.

Ironman II opens 6 months after the events of the last film.Tony Stark, billionaire weapons industrialist has revealed himself to the world as the superhero Ironman and has brokered world peace.While Tony basks in the spotlight, different forces are marshalling against him both from outside and from within.In the USA there is a growing pressure for him to surrender his Ironman suits to the US military, spearheaded by Senator Stem and encouraged by his ruthless rival, Justin Hammer (of Hammer industries).Meanwhile, brilliant Russian physicist Vanko uses arc technology to transform himself into Whiplash in an obsessive desire to exact revenge on Stark for his father’s deportation, years in Siberia, poverty and recent death.After a spectacular show down in Circuit de Monaco between Vanco and Stark, Hammer busts Vanco out of jail in order to secure his services so that Hammer industries can outbid Stark Industries in developing ironman type suits for the US military.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark is affected by the increasing Pallidum toxicity from the arc device implanted in his chest.This device not only powers his suits but protects his heart from inoperable shrapnel, thus keeping him alive.Stark’s behaviour, always idiosyncratic and quirky, becomes increasingly erratic, impulsive and risky, as he tells no one of his impending death.His erratic behaviour increasingly alienates his closest associates, Pepper Pots and “Rhodey” Rhodes, and provides an opening for the shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D agents.Events are thus sent in motion that culminated in the obligatory spectacular climax of the film.

Once again, Robert Downey Jr engagingly brings Tony Stark to life while Mickey Rourke provides a convincing portrayal of brooding, intimidating evil as Ivan Vanco.Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Pots) and Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes) both give more than adequate performances in their supporting roles.Overall the film works, though as I said, I had some mixed reactions to it.On the negative side, early scenes of Stark’s narcissistic basking in the crazed adulation that comes his way for single handedly bringing about world peace grated somewhat (perhaps an Aussie cultural thing). Then also, the film dragged at the beginning as all the complex story threads were being established (including the lead-in to the planned Avengers movies as well as Ironman IIIhttp://actionfilmscomedies.suite101.com/article.cfm/iron-man-2–avengers-initiative), only to be succeeded for me by a surprisingly uncomfortable sense of impending doom as the multitude of threats to Tony began to stack up.On the positive side, by the Monaco race scene the narrative began to speed up and the special effects in this particular sequence were spectacular and definitely worth waiting for.The final climactic events, while perhaps predictable, were sufficiently satisfying including the lightly humorous romantic scene long deferred from the previous movie.By the end of the movie, I was satisfied.

Yet after all the dust had settled I was left wondering what it had all been about.What is it about Tony Stark that makes him a superhero worth barracking for and, perhaps, identifying with?As I pondered this I began to see parallels with three other famous movie characters.

At first, I was struck by the obvious parallels between another comic book billionaire, playboy industrialist who achieves his superhero status though his brilliant and innovative application of technology (rather than from innate or genetically altered abilities).I discovered that these similarities between Bruce Wayne/Batman (DC comics) and Tony Stark/Ironman (Marvel Comics) have been noted at least since the closely timed release of the first Ironman film and Batman Begins in 2008.Yet Tony Stark is not your typical superhero.It is not just that he is more flippant than the angst ridden Wayne.True, Stark is not ruthlessly amoral like his arch-enemies Whiplash and Justin Hammer.He does care about his friends and country (if in a somewhat self-focused way) and he does not kill innocent bystanders to achieve his goals. Yet Stark makes no broad motherhood statements (fighting for justice, truth and the American way for instance – except some vague and almost facetious statements about protecting the future for our progeny), he is not too concerned about what responsibilities his super powers might demand of him and has no qualms about using his new found fame to stroke his personal ego.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlLeCu63HCA

A second parallel was deliberately drawn.Original writer of comic book series, Stan Lee stated that he moulded Stark on Howard Hughes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Man#Publication_history – a real life eccentric, playboy, industrialist billionaire at the innovative edge of movie making and aviation.And the parallels are certainly there – especially in the senate enquiry proceedings.Though I must admit that I found Aviator http://www.warnervideo.com/theaviatordvd/ a far more satisfying film in its exploration of the tragic ironies and tensions of a man seemingly with it all – good looks, genius, riches, fame, power, indomitable will and unlimited sexual partners – who wrestles with a overwhelming and seemingly inexorable condition (mental illness rather than heavy metal toxicity and a threatened heart).In Ironman, Tony comes straight to the senate inquiry from the opening of the Stark Industries Expo were he has been greeted like a rock or movie super star while Hughes has, with great mental effect, pulled himself out of weeks of self imposed isolation and descent into neuroticism, to (like Stark) turn the tables on his detractors with biting humour, a uncanny grasp of the situation and a cucumber cool aplomb.And for all Hughes’ brilliance, wealth and power, (unlike Stark) there is no genie in the bottle, no voice from the past, no incredible scientific discovery that can in the end save him.

And then again, I wonder, tongue in cheek, whether there may also be similarities between Ironman and Tinman from The Wizard of Oz.Does the powerful, unbreakable, outer metal shell house an aching emptiness, an absent (or in Tony’s case broken) heart that needs filling or mending?Neither Stark or Hughes have fathered children which they might acknowledge as their own.In Aviator, Hughes’ father is a literally absent figure while in Ironman II, Tony’s father is figuratively absent or distant.In a revealing scene, Stark doubts that his busy and preoccupied father, had any great opinion of or love for his son.As he watches a movie clip from the past his father speaks directly to him, giving him the solution to his insolvable problem.It is only as Tony is brought to the very edge of his mortality and his debt to the past that he can begin to acknowledge his feelings and attachments to others such as Pepper and Rhodey.

So which is he – superhero, alpha male struggling with his inevitable humanity or tinman in search of a heart?In a world in which superpowers, amoral multinational corporations and suicidal terrorists and extremists seem to control world events while ordinary people are relegated to the sidelines, it is satisfying to believe one maverick individual can transform himself into a superhero and make all the difference.And the fact that he seems to have it all, makes it even more satisfying to imagine ourselves in his Iron suit though we know that is the stuff daydreams are made of.On the other hand, we can also identify with his struggle against detractors, jealous rivals and his own mortality.Like phoenix and Howard Hughes (for a time), he rises from the ashes to snatch victory from seeming defeat which gives us hope that we might do the same, despite what the future may hold.But quintessentially, Tony Stark embodies at least one form of 21st century, secular “man” with his easy use of and great dependence on technology, his narcisstic enjoyment of material pleasures of the now, his refusal to make a pretence of moral seriousness or ideals, his troubled and tenuous connection to his past and his friends and supporters.Having the freedom to pursue happiness on his own terms, to make himself in his own image, unfettered by the past, he finds himself lost, adrift and struggling to find meaning and purpose.

There is one other parallel that springs to my mind – one who instead of inventing and constructing his “super” powers, lays them and his high position aside in order to identify with our lives full of joys, triumphs, struggles, pains, and challenges.Without flinching, he faces the worst that death could do though that, of course, is not the end of the story.This is a story too that gives hope – not that we can overcome all the super powers, opposition and stuff life throws at us by some technological marvellous iron suit – but that in his dying, death and evil was defeated and new life offered to anyone willing to take it.

But then after all, I have more than likely read far too much into a movie that is meant to entertain and thrill.And despite the slow start, in this it was largely successful.Had it kept me engaged and breathless with exciting twists and turns from the very beginning I might never have wondered what it was all about. For me, it is Tony Stark’s very flaws, his humanity – engagingly and humorously portrayed – that makes this movie more than a mere combination of special effects and a fairly predictable thriller.

Jenny

How do you train a dragon?  1

I took my children (4 & 10) to Dreamworks  How to Train Your Dragon 3D last week and enjoyed it thoroughly.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  At that point I hadn’t read any of the books but the title was intriguing and I love dragons so off we trooped.

The movie opened with a dark, night-time, fiery battle between the Vikings of Berk and their numerous dragon foes – setting the scene for the rest of the fast-paced movie.  Hiccup – the weedy, inventive son of the massive Stoick, chief of the Hooligan tribe, wants to get in on the dragon fighting action.  However, his father wishes to protect his un-Viking-like and accident prone only son from danger.  Using one of his clever inventions, Hiccup manages to entangle a legendary Night Fury, one of the most mysterious and devastating of the many  highly dangerous varieties of dragons on the Isle of Berk.  The problem is that no one else notices before he manages to cause his usual accidental mayhem.   Next day Hiccup tracks down the injured dragon.  Tangled in his net, the Night Fury is at his mercy yet he finds himself unable to kill it.  Hiccup makes friends with the dragon, whom he calls Toothless.  Even as Hiccup is finally allowed to join the dragon fighting initiate training, his knowledge of dragons deepens through his interactions with Toothless.  He begins to realise that all that the Vikings know about dragons is fundamentally wrong.  Meanwhile, his father sets off with the fleet to find the secret nest to eliminate the dragon threat once for all.  Events are set in train that inexorably lead up to the dramatic almost cosmic conclusion of the film that pits father against son, Vikings against the dragons, and everyone against the gigantic (sea) dragon the size of the mountain and with an insatiable appetite.  The 3D element adds to the viewing experience without being intrusive.  The gentle drift on ash seemingly over the audience during the final scenes of the movie was particularly poignant.

No doubt, readers of the book will have realised that the movie has made major changes to the original story written by Cressida Cowell.  The majority of the Hooligan tribe’s characters are indeed present – Hiccup, Stoick, Gobber the Belch,  though notably Hiccup’s mother is dead and the tough, smart, beautiful Astrid (who bears strong resemblance to Camicaze of the later books) has been added.   Hiccup’s struggle to find acceptance and respect with his tough Viking tribe, his peers and his father and his introduction of creative, new ways to deals with dragons is still present though dramatically changed.  The movie is less whimsical, more serious, stark and dramatic. In many ways, the movie is reminiscent of Chicken Little both in father-son dynamics (the big, successful father who is disappointed in his small, inventive son and never seems to listen) and in its dramatic encounter with an “alien” species.   The setting is both like and unlike the book – the boggy and isolated Isle of Berk – though the other tribes have been jettisoned for the movie and the relationship between the Vikings and the dragon is significantly different (for in the book the Vikings already tame dragons basically through intimidation – whereas Hiccups learns to speak their language).  In other words, the film has all the trademarks of Hollywood, dramatic action, epic battles with impossible odds, romantic interest and a streamlining of characters, situations and settings.  Both book and movie make the points that while a son (or daughter presumably) may not follow in his father’s footsteps, he may still  make a name for himself and that intelligence, diplomacy, compassion and friendship may be a more effective approach in conflict with outsiders than brute force.   The first point – that parents need to beware of imposing their own desires and dreams on their children is certainly true though a frequent theme in children’s movies.  That the alien and hostile enemy may in fact have common interests and needs to our own that can be appealed to is indeed refreshing.  Hollywood so often seems to divide aliens into either friendly, innocent beings vulnerable to the machinations of  power or money hungry humans (see Avatar or the classic ET for instance) or hostile, unreasonable and power or resource hungry monsters that need to be mercelessly anihlated (for instance Monsters versus Aliens 3D, Independence Day, War of the Worlds and countless others.)  Such simplistic and one-sided characterisations glosses over the uncomfortable reality that humanity, indeed each human being including those on “our” side,  has both the capcity for good and evil.

I found both the movie and the books entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable though in different ways.  As for my children, my 4-year old son was bored (after poking out the eye piece of his 3D glasses) and my daughter (10 going on 15) thought it was “okay but a bit young for her.”  However, my friends’ three boys (aged 9-14) thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I would recommend How to Train Your Dragon 3D for kids between the ages of 6-12, though it may particularly appeal to boys.  The movie is rated PG for action, scary images and mild language.

Jenny

Dreamworks Animations, How to Train Your Dragon 3D, PG

Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon, Hodder Children’s Books, London: 2010 (originally released 2003)

The Children of Húrin  0

I was caught by surprise the other day as, as I finished reading J R R Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin, tears began streaming down my face for several minutes. It surprised me … because I don’t normally cry at movies or while reading books. Yet this tale of a family caught up in tragedy unexpectedly moved me beyond words.

The Children of Húrin is indeed a heartrending tale of the doomed Túrin Turambar, son of Húrin and his hapless sister Nienor. Edited by Christopher Tolkien long after his father’s death, this was one of the three stand alone stories that J R R Tolkien identified from within the larger work of the Silmarillion (the other two being the tales of Beren and Luthien and of the Fall of Gondolin: p10-12). Thus it is embedded within that vast saga that tells of the creation of Arda (“Earth”) by Eru Iluvatar and the Valar , the journey of the Eldar (the high elves) to the Blessed Isles in the West, and the fate of the Noldor exiled to Beleriand (the western portion of Middle Earth) in rebellious pursuit of the stolen Silmarils, their long struggle against the evil spirit Melkor Morgoth, the fall of their magnificent kingdoms, and the final of defeat of Morgoth that sank most of Beleriand beneath the waves. These events occurred in the Elder days long before those related in the more well-known Lord of the Rings.

Caught up in the struggles and dooms of the Elven folk, the story of Húrin’s children is a very human tale of noble purpose, love, pride, deception, betrayal, loss and failure. Húrin is Lord of Dor-lomin, head of one of the three human houses loyal to the Elves. His son Túrin was born 9 years after the devastating Battle of Sudden Flame when the brooding power of Morgoth overwhelmed the Elvish cordon that had hemmed the Dark Lord in for long centuries. When Túrin was but 9 years old, King Maedhros, son of Feanor gathered together the majority of the exiled Noldor, loyal human houses and certain dwarvish clans against Morgoth’s encroaching power but overconfidence, treachery, and Morgoth’s ever devious strategies turned initial victory into devastating defeat. In the midst of this disaster, Húrin and his brother Huor and their forces fought bravely beside Turgon, King of Gondolin, eventually urging the Elvish King to escape back to his hidden realm while they covered his retreat. Fighting fiercely to win their way back to their homes, Huor was killed and, eventually the only man left standing, Húrin was taken alive and brought before Morgoth. Morgoth, a power beyond the making of the world, bent his mighty will to break Húrin. Yet Húrin boldly counted his arguments, denying his claims to Lordship. As punishment for his proud defiance, Morgoth cursed all Húrin’s offspring and then he bound him to a rock to see that doom unfold – through Morgoth’s own ever deceitful vision. The Children of Húrin narrates the working out of this doom.

Thus this dark, grim tale unfolds as the choices of Húrin’s intelligent, strong, proud, pessimistic wife, his noble, generous, proud son and his strong willed, loyal daughter (born after her father failed to return from the Battle of Unnumbered Tears) all weave an inexorable tale that ends in death and sorrow. It draws a number of elements from the Norse story of Sigmund (adapted by Wagner in the Twilight of the Gods). It is a tale that strongly reminds me of the great Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex and Prometheus, or Shakespearean tragedies such as King Lear and Romeo and Juliet in which fate (as with the Greeks) and the character flaws of good people (as with Shakespeare) intertwine to produce a bitter end.

In my mind the tragedy is two-fold. Firstly, in that the brave, selfless, loyal act of Húrin – in protecting his Elvish benefactor and friend and in defying the truly evil and overwhelming power of Morgoth – should be rewarded with the destruction of his family and ultimately the downfall of the Elvish king who had sheltered him as a youth and whom he had loved and served.

And secondly, the inexorable doom – Morgoth’s malice and deceit that entangles the fate of Húrin’s chidren – brings destruction to all Túrin touches and ultimately to all three of the great Elvish realms of Beleriand. The tragedy is heightened, not lessened, by the fact that Túrin is not an evil man. Rather, he is brave, intelligent, a great warrior and leader, capable of loyal friendship, pity for others, magnanimity and love though also prone to act rashly and violently when angered. And while he ever trusts to his own strength and wisdom, often ignoring the counsel of others and underestimating the power and cunning of Morgoth, he does again and again lift the hearts and hopes of men and elves, inspiring them to act boldly, courageously and powerfully against the encroaching evil. Throughout his troubled life, Túrin moves from place to place, taking to himself new names in the attempt to escape his doom but never turning back in humility to the very actions and people that could have saved him. Thus the weight of the past and Túrin’s proud, even arrogant, spirit that fears to submit to the grace of others, as well as the proud, stubborn, and at times fey spirit expressed in reckless acts of love and loyalty of his mother and sister allow the malicious lies of Morgoth and his servants to wreck havoc. And as all the woven threads come together, Túrin’s last brave victorious act against seemingly insurmountable odds is turned to bitterness and ashes.

That such noble, good people and actions should be so rewarded goes against the grain and certainly doesn’t give us the expected Hollywood ending where good ultimately triumphs over evil whatever the odds. Of course, such endings do occur in minor key in the Silmarillion and, in a more major key, in the Lord of the Rings but there is no silver lining for this family, no redeeming fruit that might give some meaning to their sad fate. Standing on its own, this story seems to express an almost nihilistic vision in which humans struggle against the odds to find meaning and happiness in an indifferent or indeed hostile world, pitted against cosmic forces they have no hope of defeating.

Yet I am convinced that this would be a grave misreading both of the story as it stands alone and (as Tolkien wrote it) as a story set within a much larger story. For it does indeed have a strong unshakable sense of good (bravery, loyalty, love, compassion, beauty) and evil (malice, deceit, greed, jealousy, corruption, above all pride). It also acknowledges forces and meanings that transcend existence on Middle Earth both in the explicit, obvious presence and power of the fallen Spirit Morgoth and in the distant, faint echoes of the Valar (in whose company, Melkor Morgoth had once been counted) who indeed sends messengers that Túrin ignores. Moreover, there are hints throughout the story that the futures of Húrin and his children (and wife) could have been different if they had chosen humility over pride or had refused to trust Morgoth’s twisted version of events.

Despite the prevalence of modern and post-modern worldviews that pervade Western society, the feeling that we live in a moral universe indeed seems hard to shake. For Tolkien, influenced by his Catholic Christian faith, this is no accident nor is it the creation of human imagination.  Rather it points  to a transcendent creator Being who can still be acknowledged by those who live in exile. Even so, it is a world in which good people can suffer through no fault of their own. Life in exile can be full of tragedy in part inherited, in part due to the malice of others and in part due to the paths we choose to take.  In acting rashly, in the prideful rejection of the help and counsel of others and (for Túrin especially) in the drive to irrevocably break away from and avoid friends and allies when conflict and difficulties arise, this good and noble family take paths that lead to darkness and despair.

If you are after a light, entertaining read then this is definitely not the book for you. I found it a gripping read, hard going at times, but thought provoking, very moving even disturbing, and surprisingly cathartic. More accessible and immediate than the Silmarillion, I would recommend this book to Tolkien fans who wish to delve deeper into the history of Middle Earth as well as those who love fantasy and enjoy a challenging read that will leave you thinking for days afterwards.

Jenny

J R R Tolkien, The Children of Húrin; edited by Christopher Tolkien; Illustrated by Alan Lee; HarperCollins: London, 2007

Avatar  0

At the Academy Awards on March 7, James Cameron’s block buster film Avatar was pipped at the post for best film 2009 by his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigalow’s small scale Iraq war film The Hurt Locker.  Last December I went  to see Avatar 3D.  To be honest, when it first came out it didn’t really grab me as a “must-see” movie but then a couple of friends started raving about it and we ended up going to see it.  While I was curious about the 3D aspect, I was cautious also from early experiences with that medium.

It didn’t take long to be totally drawn into the movies and I was just blown away.  The sheer visual beauty of Pandora  enhanced by the three dimensional presentation, as well as a gripping, emotional, challenging and moving story all sweep me off my feet.  There was plenty of action to keep the story moving but neither the action nor the innovative and spectacular special effects got in the way of the story.  Indeed, unlike many spectacular special effect sci-fi movies, this one had three dimensional characters and believable plot development.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this movie was nominated for best picture at the Oscars (Academy Awards).

(In a re-enactment of recent earth history) Pandora is an alien moon rich with a earth saving resource much coveted by humans 150 years in the future who have almost completely depleted and spoiled their own planet.  A big corporation (RDA) has moved in with the help of ex-military mercenaries to harvest the rich rewards.  There is only one problem; the area with the richest resources is inhabited by 10 feet tall, blue, intelligent, humanoid aliens.  The Na’vi live as hunter gatherers and in tune with their (for humans) wild and deadly environment.   And the Na’vi have no intention of moving away from the area where the giant home tree grows.  In an effort to move the indigenous population, scientist  Dr Grace Augustine  (Sigourney Weaver) and her team have been enlisted to befriend the Na’vi and persuade them to move.  Grace overcomes the hostile environment to live among the people by growing genetically altered Na’vi-human hybrids which can be mentally “inhabited” by the scientists through the use of a coffin like machine.  Initially this approach had been promising but recently the chief of the people had banned the “dream walkers” (Na’vi-human hybrids) from living among his people.

It is into this world of conflict that former marine, now paraplegic Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) is thrown.  His more erudite, scientifically inclined identical twin brother had been part of the program.  However, he was tragically killed just before he was to link with his avatar.   Jake, with no scientific credentials to his name, is persuaded to take his place.  On his first expedition in his (or rather his brother’s) avatar, Jake is separated from the party and is lost.  No human or avatar has ever survived staying outside over night before, but Jake manages it.  He meets up with Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldana), a young Na’vi woman.  She introduces him to the tribe and is charged with teaching him the ways of the people.

As the only person allowed to live among the tribe, Jake becomes the nexus of the various conflicts, both internal and external, of the film.  With his former experience and loyalty to the army, his growing relationships with the scientists including the acerbic Grace, and especially his immersion into Na’vi life and culture and attraction to the beautiful, firey, strong Ney’tiri Jake increasingly feels the conflict between loyalty to the earth powers that seek to exploit Pandora at almost any cost and growing attraction of the communal and spiritual values of the people of Pandora.  Moreover, he increasingly feels the joy and tension of not only being able to walk but to do physical feats of great daring within his powerful , deft avatar body.  Each return to his broken human body becomes more difficult.  As events rush to a climax Jake and his scientific colleagues are forced to choose sides.

In some ways, this movie is Matrix meets Dances With Wolves with dashes of Wall-E thrown in.  It’s unmistakable theme is the clash of modern, cooperate, profit-driven life that reduces all values to the monetary and whose cooperate imperialism has little regard to the destruction of the natural environment and or the way of life, and even lives, of the indigenous people who live there.  The movie celebrates love, relationship, community, selfless sacrifice, living in harmony with the environment and spirituality that looks for help and comfort from past generations as well as trans-human mystical powers. Thus, Ney’tiri takes Jake to the Tree of Souls and explains that here the people can hear the voices of past Na’vi for they have been taken up into the tree on their deaths.  Indeed, the people, the animals and the plants of Pandora are connected through some kind of neural-like fibres.   And the people believe that guiding and protecting all is Eywa.  RDA Cooperate boss Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and head of military operations Colonel Miles Quaritch (Steven Lang) dismiss this as mere native superstition – to their cost.

The spirituality of Avatar is popular modern spirituality that draws heavily on eastern and indigenous spirituality.   The emphasis on communal relationship and identity, of the strong identification and unity with the natural world, apparent worship of nature, a feminine “deity” who appears to be more a manifestation and personification of the natural world all seem to point this way.

Yet, I can read much that is in harmony with the great biblical story at the heart of Christian belief.  Though Pandora is not a world without violence and internal conflict, the Na’vi are largely presented as an unfallen people living in harmony with their environment, each other and Eywa.  This is in many ways a picture of Eden in which Yahweh creates a world of unsurpassing loveliness and in which the first humans live in harmony with their environment, each other and their creator.   Yahweh pronounces his creation as good and appoints the first human pair as caretakers of this beautiful world.  Thus in Hebrew thought the natural world as God’s creation has value and is to be celebrated, unlike most eastern (and indeed ancient Greek thought) in which the physical world is often seen as a deceptive illusion so that true spirituality entails a distancing from the world.

The entry of evil into this unfallen world in both Pandora and the biblical Earth causes conflict, manipulation, the desire for power and possession with a wake of mistrust, broken relationships, destruction, death and conflict on a grand world-shattering scale.  And in both stories the struggle of good against evil requires great courage, boldness, the willingness to do what is right despite the cost and indeed the laying down of life to win new life.  Just as Jake Sulley, the pivotal person in the story, enters into the world of Pandora by taking on the a Na’vi body and becoming one of the people, so also in the central Christian story God himself becomes embodied as a living, breathing human to win the world back from the forces of evil. Jake gains a more powerful and whole body while for God to become human requires a relinquishment of power and freedom .   In Hinduism gods such as Vishnu, Rama and Krishna may take on the semblance of human form (an avatar).  In the Christian story God is enfleshed  – taking on all that it means to be human even mortality.

In interviews, Cameron has admittedstrong links with Hinduism in the use of avatar (a Hindu term), echoes of Hindu mythology and even in the skin color of the Na’vi (Hindu deities are often depicted with blue skin).  Nevertheless, whether intentional or not, this movies alludes to the central great themes of the Bible – of creation, incarnation and sacrifice. In my opinion, in its celebration of the natural world and its beauty, in the taking on of the bodily form of the Na’vi to communicate with them and in the themes of sacrifice and hope, it actually draws more heavily from Christian themes than traditional themes from the Hindu spirituality.

Despite the verdict of the Academy, for me this was the best film of 2009, in fact one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time.  Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver all give strong performances yet it is the film as a whole that grabbed me.  It was visually stunning, dramatically gripping, emotionally moving, never boring and definitely thought provoking.   Its strong anti-war, pro-environmental message is obvious but it has many other evocative themes.  Set entirely in an imaginary world in an imaginary future it alludes to realities often ignored or dismissed in a modern and indeed post-modern world.

Avatar Images (c) Official Avatar Movie Photographs to be used solely for advertising, promotion, publicity or reviews of this specific motion picture and to remain the property of the studio. Not for sale or redistribution.

Welcome  0

Welcome to Fantasy Trekkers!  Over the days, weeks, and months to come I hope to review fantasy and science fiction movies, novels and games – some new, some classic, some favorites, some thought provoking, some inspirational….