James Cameron’s Avatar disappoints me as a movie. Without a doubt, it’s a beautiful film that a lot of time and effort went into, but despite all that, the story falls flat in so many other areas. In terms of worldbuilding, the movie’s biggest crime is that none of the characters seem to realize that they’ve discovered the key to eternal life.
While Star Trek and Star Wars still reign supreme when it comes to science fiction, I have noticed that in the past couple of years, there has been a different sort of trend happening in sci-fi. Usually what we get in sci-fi media is the story of plucky humans traveling the universe and beating all the odds. Though humans are usually not ignorant when it comes to science and space travel, there are usually alien species that are much older and significantly more advanced. Many older sci-fi stories are hopeful humanistic stories about how we are able to overcome some sort of problem despite our lesser tech, or by showing how human resourcefulness and good old-fashioned spunk make us major players in the universe despite not being as advanced as some of the older races.
We have always been fascinated with the idea that we are not alone in the universe; that there is some alien presence out there older than us, maybe watching us. We aren’t certain, but we’re confident that one day we will run into them. But as our technology advances more and more, people look up in the sky and wonder why we haven’t encountered an alien presence or why we haven’t at least seen evidence of them through our most advanced telescopes. While this hasn’t stopped people from believing in aliens, this had led to two interesting theories: that either we are alone in the universe, or maybe we’re the more advanced race. For some reason, when we are left with these theories, science fiction starts to become a little less hopeful and a little more bleak in its outlook toward humanity.
First of all, I apologize for not doing weekly reviews of the Korra episodes like I did last season. I wasn’t expecting Book 4 to drop as soon as it did, and, well, my brickspace job is in retail. The holiday season has been reliably brutal. Rest assured that I missed writing them as much as you all (hopefully) missed reading them.
That said, let’s get down to it. Book 4 has been a wild ride for all involved and while I am sad that it’s over, I could not be happier about how it ended. Yes, I’m going to talk about them doing the thing. Just give me a second.
Oh, and so many spoilers below the cut. Be forewarned.
In just a few short weeks, Avatar: The Legend of Korra will air its final episodes online, and the animated Avatar franchise will come to an end. The fourth season of the show was pulled from television a couple of months ago, but still airs every Friday online. Was it the nasty Friday night time slot, a lack of advertising, or just plain uninterested viewers that caused its failing ratings? I don’t know. But fans of Avatar need not fear, because Dark Horse and Nickelodeon have been steadily churning out some excellent graphic novels following the original Gaang from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first comic trilogy, The Promise, shows the Gaang struggling to figure out what to do with Fire Nation Colonies in the Earth Kingdom in the new post-war world. The second, The Search, finally answers the question of what really happened to Zuko’s mom. The final installment of The Rift trilogy came out this past November, and deals with whether or not humans and spirits can really coexist, and Smoke and Shadow is due for release beginning in late 2015.
The Rift raises some interesting questions about how religion can and should adapt and evolve to new times and places, questions that are especially relevant to religious people’s lives today. What’s the value in maintaining ancient religious traditions and practices? How can religious traditions be meaningful in a modern world? Can any changes ever be good?
Spoilers for The Rift under the cut.
Avatar is one of those movies it’s easy to have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it’s visually stunning. A lot of effort went into its making, and that shows. Avatar takes us to another world that seems nothing short of magical compared to our own. Hell, it’s even got dragons and floating mountains. On the other hand, though, the story sucks. The characters are underdeveloped, the overall message is both racist and ableist, and despite giving us an expansive world with its own peoples and cultures, the movie never adequately explores its own characters.
All too often, Avatar got caught up in its own message—environmentalism, which is not a bad message to have—but the movie never found a good balance between telling a story and preaching a lesson. None of that is more apparent than its take on religion.
(Here there be spoilers for all of The Legend of Korra. You have been warned, you giant babies.)
First, let’s take our conversation out of its context. I’m a sworn enemy of decontextualization, but we’ll fix it, I promise. Imagine that you haven’t seen the spoiler warning above, or read the title of my piece. Now, imagine that you live in a different country. Things have been strange lately; there was significant political upheaval a generation or two ago. However, it seems that affairs have re-normalized somewhat. People are going about their lives; industry has resumed what seems like normal function. Now, I’d like you to imagine that people are disappearing. Imagine that they are being taken from their homes in the middle of night, never to be heard from again. Imagine finding out that this is largely orchestrated by the powerful and secretive force tasked with protecting your country’s head of state and executing their will.
Some of you will note that this is very much like the situation that led up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, was overthrown in a coup d’etat orchestrated by the CIA and MI6 (yes, Americans, we did this). This allowed for the Shah of Iran and his military puppet government to rule in an absolute monarchy. Under his rule, with the help of SAVAK, a secret police agency tasked with domestic and external law enforcement, Iran held thousands of political prisoners. Many of these were intellectuals, dissidents, and revolutionaries. You’d agree that something must be done about a situation like this, wouldn’t you?
Now, imagine for a second that instead you lived in neighboring Iraq, where child soldiers fought in the armed forces as recently as a decade ago, facing punishment for any refusal. Certainly you’d agree that forcing children as young as twelve into armed service is among the most heinous of crimes. It’s the sort of thing that warlords in the developing world do. It’s the sort of thing that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and UNICEF have whole campaigns to stop. Its association with Timothy McVeigh aside, the quotation goes: “the tree of liberty must, from time to time, be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thomas Jefferson said that.
So, now that I’ve buried the lede about six fathoms deep, let’s recontextualize. What I’ve described is not dissimilar from what we discover the Earth Queen is doing in Book 3 of The Legend of Korra. She’s kidnapping the new airbenders, people as young as Kai, and forcing them into her airbender regiment, where they are beaten as a matter of course. Put another way, Hou-Ting is kidnapping children, torturing them, and forcing them to become soldiers. She does so with the entire force of the Earth Kingdom at her command, to say nothing of the rather impressive Dai Li. There’s no legal recourse to stop her. But, certainly you’d agree that this is unacceptable and that something must be done.
That’s pretty deep stuff for a children’s show. I raise these points because in Book 3, Legend of Korra essentially asks the same questions that it did in Book 1 with the Amon and the Equalists: If a system is or leader is fundamentally corrupt, unequal, or oppressive, to what lengths can or should one go to abolish it? Continue reading