Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist’s Dream
When watching a Hollywood movie that has robed itself in the themes and paraphernalia of science, a scientist expects to feel anything from annoyance to infuriation at facts misconstrued or processes misrepresented. What a scientist does not expect is to enter into a state of ecstatic wonderment, to have the urge to leap up and shout: “Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!”
So it is time for all the biologists who have not yet done so to shut their laptops and run from their laboratories directly to the movie theaters, put on 3-D glasses and watch the film “Avatar.” In fact, anyone who loves a biologist or may want to be one, or better yet, anyone who hates a biologist — and certainly everyone who has ever sneered at a tree-hugger — should do the same. Because the director James Cameron’s otherworldly tale of romance and battle, aliens and armadas, has somehow managed to do what no other film has done. It has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world.
The real beauty of it, though, is that you do not have to be a scientist to enjoy the experience. “Avatar” is well within reach of becoming the highest-grossing film of all time. And while the movie’s dazzling animation and use of 3-D has received so much attention, it cannot be anything but the intense wonder so powerfully elicited, rather than merely the technical wizardry itself, that has people lining up to see it.
There have, of course, been many films that have depicted the excitement of scientists during discovery (think of Laura Dern in “Jurassic Park,” gleefully sticking her hand into a pile of dinosaur dung), and, from “Lord of the Rings” to “Star Trek,” there has been no shortage of on-screen fantastical floras and faunas.
But rather than having us giggling at a tribble or worrying over the safety of the children when a T. rex attacks, Mr. Cameron somehow has the audience seeing organisms in the tropical-forest-gone-mad of the planet Pandora just the way a biologist sees them. With each glance, we are reminded of organisms we already know, while marveling over the new and trying quickly to put this novelty into some kind of sensible place in the mind. It is a mental tickle, and wonderful confusion sparks the thought, “Oh, that looks like a horse, but wait, it has six legs and it’s blue, and whoa, that looks like a jellyfish but it’s floating in the air and glowing.”
The clues that we are “not in Kansas anymore,” as we are told early on, can be seen in every aspect of the life of Pandora. If there is one color that is most decidedly not a classic Earth tone, one that is least associated with living things, it might just be neon blue. And so many things on Pandora, like the Pterodactyl-like ikran and the deerlike yerik, are a staring, screaming blue. Another thing we do not expect from most living things is light. Yet on Pandora, life glows everywhere in the night, including the long, pulsating white Spanish-moss-like strands elegantly dangling off tree branches and the brightly glowing green and purple ferns.
And touching closest to home, Mr. Cameron has put a version of ourselves on Pandora, the Na’vi people, with whom he uses every trick. For they are blue, they have bioluminescing spots on their faces and they display the other of Pandora organisms’ stunning quirks: they are huge, at 10 feet tall.
To so strongly experience these kinds of wonderfully shocking similarities and dissimilarities among living things is the kind of experience that has largely been the prerogative of biologists — especially those known as taxonomists, who spend their days ordering and naming the living things on Earth. But now, thanks to Mr. Cameron, the entire world is not only experiencing this but also reveling in it.
What is sort of funny for me is that I spent much of the last six years working on a book about exactly this, about how inside of all humans there is a deep desire and ability to really see life, to see order among living things, and about the joy that comes with it. So at the end of “Naming Nature” (W. W. Norton, 2009), I make a plea to readers to go out into the world and see the life and find the order in the living world around them. I may have to amend the paperback to suggest, or you may want to begin by, heading into a darkened room to see “Avatar” and have your mind blown.
Please excuse me if I seem a bit breathless, but the experience I had when I first saw the film (in 2-D, no less) shocked me. I felt as if someone had filmed my favorite dreams from those best nights of sleep where I wander and play through a landscape of familiar yet strange creatures, taking a swim and noticing dinosaurs paddling by, going out for a walk and spying several entirely new species of penguins, going sledding with giant tortoises. Less than the details of the movie, it was, I realized, the same feeling of elation, of wonder at life.
Perhaps that kind of potent joy is now the only way to fire up a vision of order in life. Many biologists of my generation (I will be 47 this month) were inspired to careers in science by the now quaint Time-Life series of illustrated books on animals or by the television program “Wild Kingdom,” rugged on-screen stuff for its time (“Now my assistant Jim will attempt to sedate the cheetah”). But maybe that isn’t enough anymore.
Maybe it takes a dreamlike ecstasy to break through to a world so jaded, to reach people who have seen David Attenborough here, there and everywhere, who have clicked — bored — past the Animal Planet channel hundreds of times without ever really seeing the animals. Maybe it takes a lizard that can glow like fire and hover like a helicopter and a staring troop of iridescent blue lemurs to wake us up. Maybe “Avatar” is what we need to bring our inner taxonomist back to life, to get us to really see.
And waking up and seeing is what “Avatar” is about, as its characters tell us repeatedly, as when the marine hero, Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, struggles to make sense of his love interest’s passion for life on Pandora.
“Try to see the forest through her eyes,” urges Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver, head of the Avatar project.
And here we have yet another reason for scientists to love this movie. Who has not tired of seeing scientists portrayed as either grant-greedy maniacs or naïve dangers to humanity, shouting “I’m sure the creatures are friendly!” just before being devoured? In films, scientists are often assumed to be inhuman to some degree, and if they become more human as a film proceeds, it is by becoming less of a scientist.
Instead, in “Avatar,” Dr. Augustine begins as usual, abrasive and obsessed with her own project. But the audience begins to like her more and more, not because she becomes less involved with the life on Pandora, but because we become more involved with it.
“Get it?” she asks, after explaining the beauty and importance of the life on Pandora to her corporate nemesis. And though he does not, by that point, we do.
And — spoiler alert! — that is why when she, dying, arrives at the most sacred and most biologically important site on Pandora, it is with a sympathy and respect that we laugh when her first thought is that she really needs to take some samples. There is no line between her wonder, her love of the living world and her science. We get it.