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A biologist is moved by "Avatar"

From Shermin de Silva, University of Pennsylvania:

I just saw Avatar, and must admit that I lead a sheltered life from the media and neither saw nor heard any of the hype the preceded this film. We went in expecting the typical mix of gimmicky 3D effects and an empty storyline but got more than we bargained for. Now, no one can say that the story line is particularly original and it doesn't try to pretend that the Tribe, the planet, the worldviews being espoused are anything other than symbols for peoples, ecosystems and events in our own history. We've all seen the same storyline in one form or another (Pocahontas meets The Matrix, meets Star Wars).

But I didn't care about that. This very fact is what actually surprised, moved, and made me terribly sad.

I was first sad in watching this movie because it fantasizes about another planet in another time in which humanity might not make the mistakes it has already made on our own, having already ruined and decimated the indigenous cultures and ecosystems native to Earth. I am sad because it reminds me forever and ever of something I already know, and because it's fantasizing a about an opportunity to alter a wrong, a lesson to be learned, that it is already too late to learn.

I was also sad that the ineffectiveness of the scientists is all too accurate. I remember of course that Sigourney Weaver played a far darker role in the past, and this is just a dim and G-rated reincarnation of the Diane Fossey that was murdered in the mists.

I am also sad that the threat in this movie -- the aliens, the outsiders -- are no longer the threat here on earth. Instead it's as though the Tribes have swallowed whole the philosophies and values of the conquerors. Here on earth you really can trade a forest for blue jeans and coke, and this makes me solemn about the joke. The threat isn't from out there in many places, it's the local people trying to eke out a living on the land that was once fertile and is now barren because of all that we've done to it. And we will still mine it and we will still destroy it. Who's going to stop buying gold and diamonds, even though they've seen what it's done to Africa??

I study elephants. I see the largely privileged White Fight and White Burden that's being played out on the world stage (give them medicine, and give them schools?? for diseases we can't cure and a way of life we don't understand, never will). I know that as Europe and the World Bank throw money at so-called aid and development schemes, people still dream of blue jeans and coke, that one by one the animals are going, and the forests, and of course then who knows... Pandora may be a beautiful dream steeped in an eco-message, but it's a message whose time is long past. We already killed the Na'vi of earth, or else assimilated them into desiring the same destructive way of life.

I came out of the theater and started reading the reviews, and now it makes me sadder still that all people seem to talk about is the special effects. Finally, we have a film with CG eye candy that has enough appeal not to bore audiences while moralizing. Maybe the most I can hope for is that lots of kids see this and a few of them go on to read some history and actually understand that behind the fantasy there was Earth, and much of this Earth is already lost, but perhaps we can try to salvage what there is left.

Why I write to you is that I like and respect your reviews and thought I needed to vent somewhere besides an anonymous blog with the masses of other comments that will never get read.

Sorry if in the interest of being brief the words are strung out in stream of consciousness.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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