Dragonriders of Venus

I forgot to mention that I saw Avatar before my trip. So here’s a belated review.

Frazetta's cover for Burroughs' LOST ON VENUS

Frazetta's cover for Burroughs' LOST ON VENUS

I’ll start with the negatives. If there’s a problem with this film, it’s that it’s completely formulaic and predictable. In terms of plot (as opposed to visuals), there were no surprises – none. Every step of the story was telegraphed far in advance. Now I’m all for Chekhov’s dictum about hanging a gun on the wall in the first act and firing it off in the third; but here every gun essentially gets hung up with a neon sign that says “hey, watch for this gun to go off in the third act!” If even a fraction of the creative effort expended on other aspects of this movie had been devoted to story development, it could have been a much better movie.

Now, the positives. Foremost, of course, are the magnificently beautiful special effects. But I want to talk about some more specific things that I personally found especially meaningful.

1. As I’ve mentioned before, around age eleven I was introduced, on the same day, both to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus novels and to Anne McCaffrey’ Pern novels, so they got themselves lodged in my imagination fairly early on. I’d already noticed, from the trailers, Avatar’s resemblance to both, but the similarities were far more striking in the full movie.

There on the screen was Burroughs’s Venus, with its “causeways high among … giant trees” that “dwarfed the giant Sequoias,” traversing an “an endless vista of foliage,” an apparently bottomless “abyss of leaves” bathed in “soft light” – and occasionally shaken by the “terrifying dissonance” of “hideous screams and snarls” and the “crashing of some heavy body through the foliage.” There, too, were McCaffrey’s dragonriders of Pern, wheeling and swooping through the air just as I’d always imagined them. (The flying scenes alone are worth the admission price of the entire movie.) So that was a double treat.

Whelan's cover for McCaffrey's DRAGONFLIGHT

Whelan's cover for McCaffrey's DRAGONFLIGHT

2. With all the compulsive and compulsory adulation of the u.s. military that we’ve been subjected to over the past decade, it was great to see a movie that offered a more libertarian perspective. (Sure, the guys in the movie were corporate mercenaries, but in artistic terms they clearly stand for the u.s. military.) The movie’s most important message may be this: soldiers are responsible, as individuals, for the actions they carry out, and when they’re ordered to do something immoral they have an obligation to disobey. Spreading that message is an important step in the (r)evolution.

3. Finally, this excerpt from a review by AICN’s Harry Knowles (who is himself disabled and uses a wheelchair) brings to the film another perspective, one that I found quite moving:

Jake hates his wheelchair. He doesn’t like being treated like a cripple, doesn’t like having to depend on others and most of all – he’s out to prove that he may still be worth something, even if he is half a man. … Jake can’t afford to fix his legs, and the fucking government that got the legs fucked didn’t take care of it. So he has to go the corporate route to get adequate Healthcare. Man, can I relate. Instead, he’s had to see the legs wither. The very best effects work on the film are these emaciated dead legs of Jake. Nobody questions them, yet this visual detail tells us everything about Jake. …

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in AVATAR

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in AVATAR

To watch your own body begin to wither because you’re not capable of financially rescuing your own limbs from atrophy and uselessness, it is a bitter pill to swallow. …

Anyway, by the time Jake comes to – and he sees toes he can wiggle …. Look, I went over this when I saw this footage at Comic Con. I got excited by just what happened in the lab. However, when Jake busts out of the facility into the poisoned air of Pandora and can breathe without fear of imminent death … and then when he just takes off running.

People in wheelchairs dream of running. Trust me on that. I know I’m a fat geek in a wheelchair, but we all dream of running. This is Jake’s first step towards being intoxicated with his Avatar. Hell, I doubt I’d ever want to wake up if I could have a Na’vi body that was as nimble, fit and amazing as this. …

Sure, Neo plugged in and fought in a fantastical version of our world. But when he woke up, he was still Neo, just with a better haircut and sharper clothes. … Jake’s human existence, over the course of the film, you can see the effort it takes to pull himself out of the AVATAR machine. Every time he comes out of these ‘dream like’ realities – he’s back in a sterile environment, having to open up his chair, carefully swing his dead sickly legs over the side and back into his chair. The real world sucks for Jake. …

That isn’t to say it sucks for everyone in a wheelchair, it is just … for a man like Jake – a true Man of Action – life in a chair can feel like two feet in the grave. As a 4-wheeler myself … I alternate between hating and loving my wheelchair. However, I feel thankful that I live in a world that is as accomadating [sic] as possible for my condition – even if the dentist I went to today had painfully inadequate facilities to take care of me and my shattered wisdom tooth.

So there you have it: Avatar appealed to my eleven-year-old Venus-and-Pern-loving self, my present-day anti-militarist anarchist self, and my likewise present-day plodding fat (though thankfully not in a wheelchair) geek self. But not so much to my ingenious-plot-loving self.

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10 Responses to Dragonriders of Venus

  1. Clyde Adams III January 3, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    The idea of a disabled man pursuing an active mission with a substitute body reminded me forcibly of Poul Anderson’s 1957 novella “Call Me Joe.” I find I am not the first to note the parallel between that story and Avatar:


    • Roderick January 3, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

      I also recall reading a 1950s/60s-era story of a man (not disabled IIRC) and his dog exploring some hostile planetary environment (maybe Jupiter again) in artificially projected bodies (as energy forms, maybe?) and finding such delightful freedom that they never come back. Ring any bells?

      • Roderick January 3, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

        Ah, I tracked it down; it’s Clifford Simak’s “Desertion.”

        • Joel Schlosberg January 6, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

          “Desertion” (which was actually published in 1944, although the book version of “City” was first published in 1952) has one of the best endings of any science fiction story. It tuns out that the dog’s intelligence is augmented enough that it’s sentient and can communicate telepathically the human, and the last few lines are:

          “‘I can’t go back,’ said Towser.

          ‘Nor I,’ said Fowler.

          ‘The would turn me back into a dog,’ said Towser.

          ‘And me,’ said Fowler, “back into a man.'”

          And “Call Me Joe” also uses the device of projection to explore the question of what it really means to be human; the magazine blurb was, “If someone could just work out a definition for the term ‘human being,’ maybe we could decide whether or not Joe really was human, in the end.”

          Anyway, I’ve long thought that Simak is very underrated in terms of libertarian themes in his work. “The Big Front Yard” is all about how trade leads to peace. The beginning of “City” is one of the very few science fiction stories (such as Jack Williamson’s “The Equalizer”) that posit that in the future cities would become technologically obsolete, leading to a back-to-the-land return to rural life (and in general, Simak’s stories have a rural quality that’s rare in the genre, influenced by his Midwestern background). And “Empire” is about the struggle to overthrow a tyrannical government whose political power is based on a monopoly over energy production with a cheap and decentralized source of energy.

  2. Brandon January 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    If you want to see a sci-fi flick that doesn’t call its shots 2 hours in advance check out Shane Carruth’s Primer.

  3. Tom G January 4, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

    The comments about being in a wheelchair reminded me strongly of the character of James Finnegan/Ahira in the Guardians of the Flame fantasy series by Joel Rosenberg. James is a wheelchair bound geek who plays AD&D with his friends. The first novel in the series shows them tricked into the fantasy world they “played” in, and Ahira becomes his dream character – a strapping warrior dwarf.
    The novel does spend part of the time dealing with how Ahira loves his transformation.
    Not sure whether you’ve read this series, but it also has the group freeing a dragon, and then ridding the land they are in of slavery in later novels.

  4. TokyoTom January 5, 2010 at 5:14 am #

    Thanks for the ERB and Anne McCaffrey references. I`m also reminded of LeGuin`s “The Word for World is Forest”, and of short story (by Sheri Grasser?) about a world where colonists find themselves improved by linking to the world-wide hyphal net.

    I would note that Stephan Kinsella also posted a review, specifically from a protect-your-property-rights perspective that was somewhat surprising:


    • JOR January 5, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

      Thanks for reminding me that the Mises.org comments section is, if anything, even more silly and stupid than the one over at Hit & Run.

  5. Joel Schlosberg January 6, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

    The thing that’s gratifying about Avatar is that it gets *more* anti-militarist as it goes on, whereas most recent American movies that have some anti-militarist themes not only put such themes early in the movie but backpedal them by the end — Iron Man is a prototypical example. I’ve got to agree with Jesse Walker’s recent article about political themes in recent superhero movies, that the very ambiguity of the political messages in these movies in a country as politically divides as America is today is part of the point:
    It so happens that one of the recent movies that can be interpreted as either pro- or anti-war (though not a genre movie) is by one of Cameron’s collaborators, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker; which opens with a quote by antiwar author Chris Hedges (“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”), that can be read either as a critique of war or as simply acknowledging the harsh realites of war. And Japanese science fiction tends to be much more unambiguously anti-militarist than American science fiction, as one would expect from its history; check out Shotaro Ishinomori’s manga series “Cyborg 009” for an example of just how antiwar they can get.

    Cameron’s own films are somewhat ambiguous on the issue of war — there are strong antiwar themes in many of the films, especially The Abyss and the anti-nuclear war stuff in the Terminator movies, but on the other hand, there’s an appreciation of heroic combat; he scripted the 2nd Rambo movie, and the fighter planes in True Lies were even supplied by the US military; actor Michael Biehn’s roles in Cameron’s films have included both heroic military characters (in T1 and Aliens) and a villainous one (in The Abyss, where his character, a military officer who’s predisposed to view an alien culture as hostile and winds up attacking one that turns out to be friendly, is a clear predecessor for Stephen Lang’s character in Avatar). And Aliens combines a high level of violence and tropes from military science fiction (including some from Starship Troopers) with an overall leftist political view, and a jaundiced view of corporations in particular (“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”), in much the manner of leftist action movies like Robocop and Billy Jack. I found a quote from Cameron that summarizes his views quite nicely (and it’s funny to google this and see how people seem to think that “antiwar” is synonymous with “liberal”, saying that it proves Avatar is “Decidedly Liberal”, “Not Right-Wing Friendly”, and “a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy”):

    “It’s also a move about peace, from a guy who admits to paramilitary impulses. ‘I have an absolute reverence for men who have a sense of duty, courage,’ he said. ‘But I’m also a child of the ’60s. There’s a part of me who wants to put a daisy in the end of the gun barrel. I believe in peace through superior firepower, but on the other hand I abhor the abuse of power and creeping imperialism disguised as patriotism. Some of these things you can’t raise without being called unpatriotic, but I think it’s very patriotic to question a system that needs to be corralled, or it becomes Rome.'”

  6. John Petrie January 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    Professor Long,

    Here is an article about 10 possible sources of inspiration for Avatar. It includes a few of the stories and novels mentioned in your post and the comments thread, so I thought you (and your SF-enthusiast readers) would find it interesting:

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