“You’re not in Kansas anymore, ladies and gentlemen,” cautions Col. Miles Quaritch, a sinewy, pugnacious antagonist in James Cameron’s instantly classic science fiction movie, Avatar.
Most American Boomers recall a powerful line from the first mega-movie to capture them as children: an eternal story of fanciful travel and even alien humanoids, a movie masterpiece called Wizard of Oz. Spoken by child actress Judy Garland, the original quote rings through the ages: “Toto, I have the feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Many glowing film reviews are being written about Cameron’s newest cinematic achievement. My filter for this movie is the same as the context of this blog, my books and speeches. I watched Avatar to understand how Boomer history, sociology and culture pervade the story, arguably the finest achievement of a director whose birthright is the Boomer generation.
What can Boomers discover and rediscover by simply investing 163 minutes watching this film?
First, Avatar is a blockbuster movie, wide and deep, thus encouraging multiple viewings to comprehend and appreciate tens of thousands of directorial nuances built into a technological feat of 3-D animation.
Epic movie events populate Boomer history. Many dotingly recall blockbuster films from their youth. Cinematic extravaganzas from the 1950s often showcased prehistoric monsters portrayed by men wearing latex rubber suits (and silly by today’s standards).
Perhaps the most famous of those blockbuster monster movies was Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, released in 1956 as an American adaptation of the original Japanese version. Filmed just a decade after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla was an allegory for irrevocable consequences that radioactive weapons could have on our planet.
Without ambiguity or subtlety, Avatar is a pro-environmental, antiwar movie and allegory.
Cameron’s awe-inspiring world of Pandora—its lush beauty, alien landscapes and ironically comprehensible flora and fauna—invites viewers to yearn for places of unspoiled beauty, tapping into deeply felt human needs for connection with the natural world. Mechanized assaults by humans on Pandora’s raw loveliness become more wretched in juxtaposition.
Clearly the director/writer of this movie has experienced and internalized antiwar messages of the Vietnam War era and even the bitter taste of environmental desecration symbolized by Love Canal. Visibly he has captured his revulsion for offensive war through a film that hauntingly intersects with two terrestrial wars today.
By probing the mystical, spiritual life of the giant blue Na’vi, Avatar champions a tribal narrative, recalling an Age of Aquarius when leading-edge Boomers became more sensitive to alternative lifestyles of Native Americans and Hindu mystics. As Boomers reached maturity, passage into independence for many also incorporated reverence for nature and unspoiled places, thus popularizing a renaissance in rural living and backpacking excursions into wilderness. Tribal ideals included exploration of new realms of spirituality and esoteric rituals designed to foster community while embracing inter-species diversity and racial acceptance.
It’s obvious to me that James Cameron is a Baby Boomer, not just because he was born in 1954 but because of his values. We can reasonably assume that one wellspring for his story was many movie experiences he must have had growing up. Like many of his generation, he learned to cheer for the underdog through epic stories such as Star Wars and Rocky. We may surmise that Cameron also must have felt deep indignation when beholding exploitation of land, native peoples, and wild animals as he watched Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves.
Through his portrayal of the Na’vi people on the planet Pandora, Cameron reveals cinematic influences that have led us to a more post-racial era. The director may have learned to identify more with minorities though movies that successfully amplified the social carcinoma of racism: great films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night, and more recently, Mississippi Burning.
Many movie critics have bestowed actress Sigourney Weaver with accolades for her performance in this movie. Once again, this Boomer performer, who turned 60 this year, has portrayed a character with a strong feminist bearing: a protagonist determined to prevail over mean-spirited forces. Weaver’s Grace Augustine recalls other iconic female heroes (and Cameron characters) such as Terminator’s Sarah Conner (portrayed by Linda Hamilton) and Alien’s Ellen Ripley (also portrayed by Weaver).
Portraying aggressive and racist Col. Quaritch, actor Stephen Lang, born in 1952, reprises the historically endowed role of a gung-ho military antagonist. He reminded me of other complicated and angry men reenacting the Vietnam War such as Tom Berenger, who portrayed a harsh and hardcore staff sergeant in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (a fellow Boomer director).
Writing for The Denver Post, movie critic Lisa Kennedy observed that Avatar “conjures Boomer memories of Saturday afternoons spent in the company of Ray Harryhausen’s hydras, dinosaurs and cyclops.” This pioneering special effects genius has obviously influenced James Cameron with storytelling possibilities of stop-motion animation, now updated to achieve truly otherworldly movie experiences.
Avatar also conjures Boomer recollections of epic movies, heroic storylines, racial injustice, xenophobia, environmental desecration, feminism, antiwar sentiments, historical exploitation of Native Americans, and yearning to return to nature, to live in peace more communally.
This movie reminds us of when we were young and becoming more complicated members of a tribe, not just a generation.