August 21st, 2009

default, pepper

On beautiful aliens

In some of the discussion on my previous post, cargoweasel expressed disappointment in the “Avatar” trailer for not having a very alien world or very alien aliens. The Na’Vi are very anthropomorphic and distinctly feline; what we see of Pandora doesn’t look that different from a terrestrial rainforest (if we disregard the huge floating islands). As I wrote in response, first I agreed with this, then upon thinking about it I started to disagree with it, then upon thinking about it some more my mind went off in an only tangentially related direction.

First off, it would be neat to see more alien aliens in science fiction cinema. We’ve had fantastically weird aliens in novels for decades, and special effects technology is certainly at the point where we could realize them on film. I certainly don’t disagree with that premise, and I hope someone takes up that gauntlet. Cameron clearly isn’t.

I’ve seen other complaints about the aliens in the trailer. “If Cameron had any guts, he’d have made the Na’Vi look like slime molds.” “It looks like a Disney cartoon about blue people in a magical jungle paradise.” And this started to raise my curiosity. Why is the way the Na’Vi look a source of negativity?

What I’m considering is that the Na’Vi actually are different than other cinema aliens. I can’t think of another one quite like them. They’re markedly more non-human than Vulcans or Centauri or any other TV or movie alien that audiences are supposed to find attractive. But they’re still beautiful.

They’re beautiful. After decades of xenomorphs and creepy black-eyes humanoids and space prawns, with alien “love interests” always being either conveniently shape-changed to human or basically elves in space, the Na’Vi are just maybe a little more unusual than they’re being given credit for.

And yes, of course someone could make a far more exotic alien that’s still beautiful. The Na’Vi aren’t alien to the point where it requires a substantial amount of work to convince the audience that Jake Sully, the paraplegic marine controlling a Na’Vi/human hybrid ‘avatar,’ can still fall in love with a Na’Vi; any truly “alien alien” would be another matter. I’d love to see someone take on that challenge, but the story that could be adapted to that is probably not “Lawrence of Arabia.” (I think toob was on target with that comparison.)

The reason that many people are taken aback with the Na’Vi—and I’m not thinking of Cargo’s comments, to be clear, but rather the “ick, they look so cute!” comments around the net—is, I submit, that we have a set idea of what makes aliens alien, and that set idea pretty much is: chitin. Chitin and tentacles and glistening ooze, and a scientist character who says “they’re beautiful in their own way” shortly before being eaten. If we’re really lucky, they’ll be omnipotent balls of light who, after we finally succeed in making contact with them, will tell us that we’re not ready yet. We’re willing to accept that as realistic—but beautiful aliens living as hunter-gatherers in a mostly unspoiled world? C’mon, that’d never happen.

I think I’m okay with Lawrence. And while I would like to see more alien aliens, I’m thinking maybe a good first step is somebody finally giving us pretty non-human aliens who aren’t humans with pointy ears and, for the love of God, aren’t frikkin’ bugs. In modern sci-fi cinema, that’s actually bold.