The James Clayton Column: It’s sex, Jim, but not as we know it…

One or two Avatar spoilers here, as James wants to have a chat with you about sex. Hope you don't mind.

Avatar is an immense cinematic achievement, but ever since it entered the public domain people have been quick to dismiss James Cameron’s monumental movie as unoriginal. Some critics have seen it as a motion-capture remake of Aliens. Others have observed that it’s essentially Disney’s Pocahontas with blue alien people.  When Pocahontas is being held up as a credible piece of creative work, something is clearly wrong.

Anyway, Avatar is a milestone moment because of its special effects and not because of its ‘outsider-becomes-insider-and-leads-natives’-fight-against-evil-invaders’ plot. Whether people like it or not, they’re going to have to face the truth that this film will leave a lasting mark in cinema history and also, I reckon, in society beyond the screen.

Avatar makes us confront some pretty huge issues that humanity is going to have to grapple with at some point if the future turns out to bring intergalactic communications with other lifeforms. Where Avatar is a really groundbreaking piece of work is not in the motion-captured 3D spectacle, but in the exploration of interstellar relations. Indeed, James Cameron’s epic explores close encounters of a new kind, breaking a tremendous taboo in the process.

Admittedly, when ‘young, dumb and full of cum’ male marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) gets intimate with the beautiful native Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldaña) he’s in his Na’vi avatar form and therefore not engaging in interspecies intercourse in the flesh. Despite this, the scenario poses huge questions for horny teenagers, psychiatrists and dirty old men the world over. Are we saying that it’s now alright to lust after an extra-terrestrial creature? Have we crossed a threshold and found ourselves in a whole new cosmic realm of sexual liberation?

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Because you can’t apparently evaluate Avatar without noting its lack of originality or strands of dumb dialogue, I have to pause for a moment to point out that the movie isn’t the first to broach the subject of human-alien sex. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, for one, had Milla Jovovich’s orange-haired Leeloo falling in love with Bruce Willis’s Korben Dallas, climaxing in an obligatory resolution in the only scene Jean-Paul Gaultier didn’t have to provide costumes for.

I’d say that we can rate The Fifth Element as a bold, progressive film for hinting at the developing relationship between the human Dallas and the non-human Leeloo (I’m not sure what she is, so let’s just label her ‘orange elemental extra-terrestrial erotic being’). That’s just lip-service, though, and Avatar is far more ambitious in its exploration of great unknowns. Cameron’s vision eclipses all others who’ve dipped their tentacles into such murky subject matter by not only opening the can of worms that is coitus with alien humanoids, but also biological symbiosis with extra-terrestrial animals as well.

Observe the way the Na’vi interact with the natural world around them, and then imagine the blue beings struggling to defend themselves in a court of law against charges of bestiality and mistreatment of animals. On the planet Pandora, when the Na’vi ride their beasts of burden they form a physical and mental bond with them; different species are anatomically joined, both one with greater natural order and the Universe around. At least you can see it in those New Age terms or call it abnormal interaction with animals. The way in which Na’vi warriors claim their Ikran (flying mountain banshee) by dominating it and authoritatively insert their ponytail into its body as a rite-of-passage could be interpreted as inter-species rape. Avatar is taking concerned moral guardian-types into unsettling places. No one ever molested a racoon in Pocahontas.

The same goes for the fusing with the trees, ground and other assorted flora of Pandora when the indigenous population plug into the planet. Is this spiritual harmony with Mother Nature or is this unhealthy plant fetishism and disturbed objectum sexual obsession?

The talking tree in Pocahontas never went further than wise advice and polite conversation. The trees in Avatar, however, can send you into a state of near-orgasmic bliss. So many centuries of repression and conditioning in ‘correct’ behaviour and thought are being eroded by a mainstream blockbuster movie. Where so many hippies were dismissed as stoned superfreaks and many others were manhandled into a straight-jacket and locked away from ‘rational’ society, Avatar appears to have broken through the resistance. Whether you like it or not, these tree-hugging, free-loving ideals are both right on and the way of the future.

The movies have always made us face up to inconvenient or uneasy truths. “Your mother is going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it!” screams Bambi. “The entire fate of the world is in the hands of an exclusive bunch of deranged, disturbed imbeciles, and there’s nothing you can do about it!” howls Dr. Strangelove. “You’re going to go through horrifying puberty and become a hormonal psycho, and there’s nothing you can do about it!” cackles Carrie. Who said watching films was escapism? These flicks are shoving the unnerving actuality right down our collective throat.

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Avatar is simply burrowing further beneath the sheets and exposing the uncomfortable aspects of society’s speculative sexual future that people have been politely trying to ignore. There’s no escaping the intergalactic interspecies conundrum now. If Chewbacca and Princess Leia had a baby, would it have furry feet? Do androids dream of electric sheep, and, if so, does C-3PO have sexual fantasies about R2-D2? These are the sorts of questions that the Space Age is slinging at us, so we might as well get over the embarrassment and start dealing with them now before we end up with huge problems (discrimination against hybrid offspring, angry fundamentalist abstinence movements, censorship on spacey-pornography, etc.).

Before Avatar gets its DVD or Blu-ray release, it may be a good idea to get the children around the dinner table and have ‘the talk’. Get a funny-shaped cactus and tell them they don’t need to be ashamed if they find it stimulating. Show them pictures of E.T. and ask them if he makes them feel peculiar. Explain that Spock’s mummy and daddy loved each other very much even though one of them was a Vulcan and the other one wasn’t. These are bold new frontiers, I know, but try not to blush and, remember: it’s only natural…

James’ previous column can be found here.