Coauthored by David Lundberg Kenrick
If you haven't yet seen Avatar 3D, get off the internet right now, and adjust your priorities. We don't want to spoil anything. But like a reading of Darwin's Origin of Species, this movie may teach you something about human nature. The Origin shows us our reflection by looking at other terrestrial species. Avatar shows us our reflection in an imaginary species from another planet.
The Origin advanced science by integrating a lot of ideas that were "in the air" during Darwin's time. Avatar 3D does the same for cinematic experience. Movies like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca combined good story-telling with the wonders of cinema to help us experience what it might be like to live in another time and place; Avatar 3D adds a whole new dimension -- visually transporting us to another world.
Avatar is a blockbuster for several reasons. It takes the imaginary land of the Ewoks up several notches by using 3D and the latest computer animation techniques to create an absolutely convincing world filled with beautiful blue humanoids. The movie operates on several levels -- making you feel like a small child who has never before seen a moving picture, and subtly communicating a deeper message about what the 21st century computer-enhanced Military-Industrial Complex is up to back here on our own planet. But it also resonates with audience psychology because of the way it handles more timeless themes.
The two of us have been working on a documentary about evolutionary themes in film. After interviewing a host of experts including John Alcock, David Buss, Leda Cosmides, Steve Gangestad, and Martie Haselton, we came to the conclusion that great cinema taps into four profoundly important evolutionary themes: Getting the Girl (or Guy), Getting Along, Getting Ahead, and Getting the Bad Guys. Just as Ben and Jerry's exploits our ancestral cravings for sugar and fat, Hollywood has exploited our ancestral cravings for attractive mates, trustworthy friends, social status, and safety from the nasty guys who wanted to take what we have and burn down our village.
All these themes are masterfully developed in Avatar: The hero in this movie doesn't get the girl, per se; in fact, he falls in love with a strange looking blue humanoid alien. But by the end of the movie, you'll fall in love with her too. Despite being an alien, she's a sort of computer-enhanced human, with all the prototypical features that make for an attractive human female - big eyes, smooth skin, symmetry, a small waist-to-hip ratio, and a sexy walk (she's actually a computer-enhanced clone of Zoe Saldana). Besides all that, she's nurturant -- she saves him from death twice in the first hour after they meet, and then she trains him to survive in this strange new world.
As for Getting Ahead, Jake Sully (1) starts out being disdained by humans and aliens alike: as a human, he's an injured low-ranking soldier in a wheel chair working as low man on a team otherwise made up of scientists with Ph.D.s; as an alien, he's an incompetent greenhorn among graceful athletes. By the end of the movie, though, he's transformed into a mythological demi-god. He manages to get ahead physically - at the start of the movie he is unable to walk, by the end of the movie he can essentially fly - and to get ahead socially - he starts as low man on the totem pole, and ends up as a leader destined to go down in the planet Pandora's history.
The theme of Getting Along is also strongly developed. Our hero first has to gain acceptance among aliens who don't much like him. He wins their friendship not only by demonstrating strength and courage, but also by mixing in an appealing dose of humility.
And as for Getting The Bad Guy, this theme is also nicely developed. Unlike many movie heroes, Jake Sully is not up against a vile sociopath who kicks puppies in every scene. At the beginning, it's not clear who the bad guys are. And even after it's established, the bad guys always have a clear point of view, and they offer Jake a decent deal, forcing him to make a tough moral decision. His tough decision really taps into some key evolutionary themes. The two races are in a battle over territory and natural resources, and Jake Sully ultimately has to decide between his own genetic tribe and that of his mate.
So using the criteria of evolutionary psychology, we'd give the movie Avatar 3D:
2 opposable thumbs up!
Is the movie perfect? Of course not. It's more violent than necessary, for example, and the story's transitioning of the human soldiers into absolute bad guys completely lacks the grace of the finely polished special effects. But we both nevertheless regarded this as one of the best cinema experiences of our lives (yes, of our lives, not just this year).
P.S. Spend the extra buck or two to see it in 3D! It will transport you to another planet.
(1) Avatar's hero, which you would know, if you saw the movie, which, again, you really should do.
Stay tuned: Between now and the Oscars, we're going to review several contenders for best picture. To what extent will the evolutionary psych criteria pick the winner? (see links to our later reviews below):
Links to our other reviews of Best Picture nominees
Does God Exist, and if so, who cares? (review of A Serious Man)