Lesson of the day: I’ll forgive a lot in return for bioluminescent plants

Not everything, mind you, but more than I would have expected.

Which is by way of saying I spent the last day of my mini-vacation seeing Avatar (or, the other Avatar, as we’ve been thinking of it around here). Worth seeing in 3D, probably not worth seeing on the extra large screen.

The plant and animal life in this movie is stunning. I want to sit down and watch it again, slowly, just to take in all the details with a biologist’s eye. Only I’d have to deal with a lot of earth people being earth people scenes in between, unless I watched it at home, at which point I’d lose the 3D. But the worldbuilding took me in around the time I realized the floating white jellyfish were seeds. And when the nightime biolumiscence kicked in, I bought in fully, and was willing to put off wondering if there was a purpose to the plants developing this adaptation. And for the first two thirds of this movie, I was even mostly not offended, which is far longer than I expected.

Spoilers ahead.

The last third of the movie is where the “great white warrior saves the natives” part of the plot shows up. (Until then, I’d been almost less troubled by the “these natives need a white boy” plot than by the “these scientists need a marine” plot.) (Also, while I’m digressing: what do you mean, scientists don’t believe in fairy tales?)

Anyway, part of my problem with the last third of the story was that after 3 months of immersion in a foreign culture, our hero ought not be able to speak the language more than passably, let alone save anyone–but this sort of compression is common in movies and books, and I could almost let is slide. More problematic is that the plan our hero comes up with–let’s unite all the tribes and attack–is actually not all that clever, and surely could have been come up with by a native just as easily. (Who also would have a better chance of figuring out how to ride the giant orange flying dinosaur-like thing–which admittedly was way cool visually.) But of course, the designated hero must be the designated hero, rather than being told, okay, you’ve messed things up enough already–now you will sit back and learn what it really means to listen, outsider alien boy.

This is where my biggest problem lay: the hero has messed things up tremendously. In large part because of him, the home tree was firebombed into near-oblivion. That’s huge. You don’t make up for that sort of thing by saying, “I’m really sorry and here’s a third rate plan you could have thought up for yourselves to prove it.”

This taps into a deeper problem I have with a lot of storytelling and not just Avatar, one which appropriately enough I first became aware of with Darth Vader’s supposed redemption at the end the first Star Wars movies–the high-budget science fiction trilogy of my own childhood–but have seen countless times since.

Redemption is expensive, or ought to be. The more harm you do, the more expensive it is. You can’t just wave the big stuff away by realizing you were wrong, feeling badly about it, and engaging in a single heroic act. Redemption for big crimes–and even big mistakes–comes slowly, and requires continuing to act and trying to make amends and do what good you can over time, maybe for the rest of your life, knowing that even then it might not be enough. True redemption isn’t easy or fast or neat or clean, IMHO. It’s hard, it’s humbling, and it’s for the long term.

I think maybe a “first step toward redemption” story is probably harder to tell, especially on screen, than an “okay, you’re redeemed now, onward to the reward/party” story. But to set up large crimes and let them be redeemed for relatively small prices–more and more that doesn’t feel real to me. It doesn’t feel true.

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