Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dune and Avatar: Plays on the Messiah

I finally got around to watching Avatar this week, thanks to Netflix. Avatar is, I believe, the all time grossing film now, or close to it. I have read some different accounts of this, depending on how you factor in overseas receipts, subsequent DVD sales, inflation, and such. However you factor the money, James Cameron is clearly a billionaire, as he also directed the No. 2 all time grossing film, Titanic.

I dragged my feet on seeing Avatar because I have heretofore thought James Cameron was a dreadfully melodramatic, not a particularly good storyteller, and not a particularly good director in terms of knowing what to cut from films. There is still about an hour gap in the middle of Titanic I have never seen because I have tried to watch that film more than once and always fall asleep about an hour into it, sleep for an hour, and wake up to watch the final hour. For the life of me, I cannot figure out what on earth I missed in that film other than fluffery for that missing hour. I think the same is true for a lot of his other earlier work like Terminator and Rambo. I will make a partial exception for The Abyss, which was a good film overall, but like most of his films, was too long and got bogged down until the all too melodramatic (and predictable) ending.

All that having been said, I enjoyed Avatar, but I think not for reasons Cameron would appreciate. I also have to admit up front that I did not get to see it on the big screen in 3-D. I am sure it would have been visually impressive in the original 3-D as it was intended. I am not impressed with eye candy, however, for its own sake if there is no substance backing it the special effects. I think a movie is only good if it tells a good story, and I think that's why I liked Avatar because it told a good story, one of my all time favorite stories as it turns out. Ironically, the story as told was not original to Cameron, however, because Avatar is basically Frank Herbert's Dune with a few minor adaptations. The film makes no bones about this at the end because the first thing you see at the end of the movie when the credits roll is "In Association with Dune Entertainment."

The Dune series by Frank Herbert, and the Dune Prequel series by his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin Anderson, are probably my all time favorite Science Fiction novels. The prequels are not as good as the originals, but stick with them. They get better as they go along. I have read everything in the Dune universe, which is no small feat, as almost all of them with the exception of Dune: Messiah are easily 400 to 500 pages a piece. So, if you are planning on getting into that series, be prepared to be reading for the next 3 years. If you want to read my reviews of the prequels, search my blog. I've talked about them before.

The original Dune was intended as an environmental allegory, published when environmentalism and environmental concerns were not largely part of any mainstream public discourse or legislation. The basic plot of Dune, and I acknowledge that I will simplistically butcher this because that novel is so complex on numerous levels, takes place on a desert world named Arrakis. There is a galactic empire of sorts that is addicted to something called spice, which can only be found and harvested on the planet Arrakis. Spice is a byproduct of gigantic sandworms that exist only on that desert planet and no where else and cannot be manufactured off world. Spice is what fuels the Spacing Guild ships to travel faster than light,. and spice is medicinal and addictive when ingested in drug form. Daily consumption of spice lengthens life spans significantly.  As such, whoever controls the spice controls the galaxy basically.

The Local Indigenous Personnel on Arrakis, as they say in the military, are known as the Fremen. The Fremen are a mystical bedouin-like people in many tribes that exist in the extreme desert and have a symbiotic relationship with the Sandworms, which they worship like gods in a great circle of life. The Dune novel opens with a new Noble house from off world taking control of Arrakis under the auspices of the Emperor to ensure a greater production of spice. The noble who operates like a viceroy, has a young son named Paul Atreides.

To make a long story short, Paul escapes a coup attempt and goes to live with the Fremen. Paul, ultimately, through Fremen mysticism and certain genetic engineering from an off world Bene Gesserit religious order of which his mother is a member, becomes The Muad'dib, or Messiah, of the Fremen. He unites the tribe and they ultimately lead a rebellion the ultimately brings down the Emperor and the Empire. The subsequent novels have to do with the fall out of the Messiah image/cult and crusade that Paul creates and morphs into something out of even his own control, and how his son ultimately becomes the God Emperor, but that's not particularly relevant to this blog entry. For a more in depth analysis of that novel, check out Wikipedia's article here.

If that plot sounds at all familiar, it should, as it is the basic plot for Avatar, with the differences being that instead of a desert planet that produces spice and is inhabited by Bedouin-like Arabs, you have a forest world with a mineral that is inhabited by a more Native-American like people. But even while Avatardoes add a bit of originality with the avatar concept of the main character being injected into an avatar to infiltrate the local tribe, there were elements within Dune that mirror directly the mystical ecological balance that the Avatar creatures have with their Mother Earth. For example, the tribal dance where they try to permanently relocate the soul of the human into the avatar body is a direct rip off of the Fremen mystical scene when Paul drinks the "Water of Life" and basically dies and is reincarnated as the Muad'dib. Likewise, the main character in Avatar is able to mind meld (to cop a Star Trek term) with the master Pterodactyl creature, which is what allows him to muster the support of all the diaspora Na'vi tribes, just as Paul Atreides learns to control the Sandworms and muster the unification of the Fremen on Arrakis.

This act of unification by Jake Sully of Avatar and Paul Atreides of Dune, both of which were originally rejected as outsiders by the tribe, allows the locals to overpower and outsmart of off world exploiters. Both function as messiah-like characters, in a sense. They seem to have some form of annointing and become the savior of their peoples in both the stories. If there is ever an Avatar II, I will be interested to see if it follows the Dune pattern, but that's the topic for a subsequent post.

As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, "There's nothing new under the sun." Such is the case with Avatar and Dune plots. Great stories and allegories, reflecting the over arching need in cultures for a messiah, or at least someone who saves the people from exploitation. From a Christian standpoint, I view such stories as icons in the Eastern Orthodox sense. Icons are portals or guideposts that point the onlooker to the real thing, small truths that point to the overarching Truth.

Perhaps that is why I like Dune so much, as in it is allegory and a warning. Following mortal messiahs are fraught with hazard because mortal messiahs can become corrupted or lose control of that which they set in motion.


TLF+ said...

I like the ikon idea you use toward the end of this.

Somebody (probably way more than one-body) said that the Gospel is an unavoidable archetype - it is woven into the cosmos by the one who is "the ikon of the invisible God."

The Archer of the Forest said...

I've been reading way too much Maximos the Confessor lately.

caheidelberger said...

I'm surprised I didn't hear more about the Dune-Avatar parallels in the press. Close stories, indeed!