Xenogenesis: A Lesson in Failing Well

The young filmmakers, riding on the coattails of the Star Wars’ success, convinced their investors they could match that achievement. Xenogenesis, a 12-minute B-movie sci fi short, never quite made it to a feature length. Its director, cast & crew had little to no experience. They were driven by the creativity that comes from ambition and enthusiasm. They dedicated the assiduous around-the-clock passion that only comes with aspiration; working on building futuristic models, sci fi scenes and special effects into the wee hours, only to fall asleep on their set. In spite of all of this effort the project failed miserably, the financial backers bailed, and the picture was scraped.

You would have never known that the inexperienced director at the helm would go on to make some of the greatest modern contributions to the sci fi canon. As I write this piece, James Cameron’s Avatar just picked up nine Oscar nominations (including, best pic & best director). The film has already claimed overall global box office records as it rapidly moves toward surpassing the U.S. domestic record holder Titanic. If Cameron claims it, successfully besting himself, he can conceivably put another ten-year gap between himself and his Hollywood competition. Moreover, Avatar is a technological masterwork, which if just a fraction of the buzz surrounding the affect of its innovation proves true, it will redefine movie going as we know it.

Beyond the lessons imparted by the film, Avatar is a lesson in failing well. If Cameron had thrown in the towel after Xenogenesis was trashed he would have never gone on to write & direct Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens or to redefine film as we know it! Cameron was able to use the footage to land his first industry job, turning what could have a career ending failure into the start of a legacy.

Here it is,  Cameron’s Xenogenesis, you’ll notice early prototypes for some of the Terminator technology:

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Five Lessons From Avatar

I will admit I was skeptical of James Cameron’s new epic Avatar. I didn’t believe that I would empathize with 9-foot tall blue creatures & the graphics seemed too video game-esque for my tastes.

I was wrong.

The film is a masterpiece. Cameron waited for years until the technology caught up with his vision. He literally dreamt the world that we see, wrote it, and shelved the project until it could be expressed the way the story needed to be told. He truly outdoes himself. Amazing eye candy, a story that feels like Howard Zinn on sci-fi, and a film that provides an actual experience well-beyond mere viewing. It leaves a mark deeper than its 162 minute viewing time. Below the trailer are five lessons I took away with me after leaving the theatre.

The interconnectedness of all things: Modern biology is finally catching up with indigenous tribal beliefs. Ecosystems have always relied on a complex series of interrelated, inter-reliant species of plant and animal, soil and cellular material. Decaying trees & plants add organic material to the soil, new plant life grows from these nutrients, animals & insects feed on this vegetation as sustenance and the green grass grows all around & around (& the green grass grows all around). The Na’vi vividly illustrate the interconnectedness of ecology by literally connecting with their environment. They have a mind meld with the horses they ride, the birds they fly, and even the trees where they make their home.

This metaphor is woven throughout the narrative. It underscores the contrast between the humans that perceive Pandora (the Na’vi home planet) as a hostile environment full of creatures intent on their demise (while they in turn exploit its natural resources indiscriminately) and the Na’vi who attempt to live in harmony and balance with their landscape.

Follow your instincts: At one point Neytiri, the Na’vi charged with educating the human Jake Sully, leaps from a ledge catching leaves & vines as she falls to slow her descent and bring her to the ground safely. In a scene reminiscent of the “jump” sequence in the Matrix, Sully must decide in an instant whether to take the plunge (& follow Neytiri) or not. He does so, rather clumsily, but makes it to the ground. This theme of “trusting your instincts” and feeling your way into what is right courses throughout the film, including a pivotal plot device that I can’t actually give away.  Sully is torn between loyalties throughout the film (the Natives & the military, the soldiers & science), but for all intents and purposes, what is “right” is not always what is obvious (even to the audience). By trusting his instincts, he is able to make very difficult choices, often at great personal sacrifice & risk, which have tremendous payoff in the long run.

Watch for signs: Neytiri should kill Jake Sully on sight, but when a fluff from a sacred tree lands on her arrow tip, she quickly realizes there is not much of a movie if she offs the main character this early. Signs are everywhere, if we are tuned in enough to notice. Throughout the narrative the Na’vi take their cues from the landscape around them and the biologically based spirituality that they have developed to interact with their environment. Psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor, explores the cognitive aspects of “luck” beyond superstition. He argues, “being in the right place at the right time is actually all about being in the right state of mind.”  Scientifically speaking, “lucky” people aren’t supernaturally wired for good fortune, but are more tuned in, open, and receptive to possibilities. Our ability to perceive & take cues from signs around us isn’t spiritual, just more perceptive and aware.

Empty your cup: This point overlaps very closely to the former, probably should come first, and is based on a classic Zen story.

Mo’at, mother to Neytiri, in assessing what is to be done with Sully, whose Western/ human views make him a bumbling “infant” in the world of Pandora, instructs him to empty his cup, which is too full of preconceived notions to make him truly perceptive of what is happening around him. Basically, Sully must unlearn his programming before he can learn the ways of the Na’vi. The original story, at least how I originally heard it, goes something like this:

A Jesuit missionary in rural Japan calls upon a Master to learn Zen. He is ecstatic, animated and eager to discuss what he perceives as parallels between Biblical parables & Zen stories. The Missionary states eagerly, “I am so glad that you took the time to meet with me, I see so much overlap between our two faiths and I think this will be an excellent opportunity to—“

The Zen master raises his hand and asks only, “Would you like some tea?”

The Jesuit is not much of a tea fan, but is enthusiastic to make an impression. “Of course, that would be great, of course.” He responds, launching back into it, “Just as you recognize the significance of nature, so to did Jesus proclaim that he was beneath each rock, in all nature—”

Again, the Zen master cuts him off raising a hand, “Would you like some tea?”

The Jesuit hasn’t taken a sip, but shrugs politely. His cup is filled higher. He takes a sip of the steaming brew, making a show of enjoying it, before he tries another tact. “In Christianity, we also meditate, enter a deep reflective state, just as you meditate—”

He can barely get started before the Zen master offers more tea. The Jesuit cannot even answer before the Zen master pours, quickly overflowing the brim of the mug, spilling across the table and dumping into the Jesuit’s lap. The Priest yelps, pushes from the seat and leaps to his feet, “Are you crazy Old Man? I barely take a sip and you refill my cup. Every time I try to tell a story, you cut me off. What is the matter with you!?!”

The Zen master only shakes his head and says: “How can you expect to receive anything if you don’t empty your cup?”

Wiseman differentiated the personalities of his “lucky” (perceptive) individuals from his “unlucky” (unperceptive) subjects. Those who had poorer fortune tended to be anxious, tense, highly sensitive to stress, which often translated to their being uptight and shut-off from opportunity. On the other hand, those who had emptied their cup were more laid-back and relaxed, tended to open to greater possibility.

Adapt to your surroundings: In Shadows in the Sun, anthropologist, author and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis wrote of the inability of early British explorers to survive in the Artic. They refused to adapt and adopt the ways of the indigenous Inuit population, even mocking their animal skin lined, fur coats. They continued to wear cotton undergarments that quickly turned sweat to ice—freezing the fabric to flesh— causing hypothermia & pneumonia. To make matters worse, the sleds these explorers were using to transport their essential goods were loaded with the wares needed for a perfect British gentleman: fine China dish sets, leather bound books, silverware. These artifacts weighed them down as they attempted to traverse tundra and navigate harsh blizzards.

Jake Sully’s ability not only to ask for help, but also to apply the ways of the Na’vi quickly is essential to his survival. When he is first lost in the jungles of Pandora, it is assumed by Dr. Augustine that he won’t make it through the night. He catches on quick, learning that the Na’vi live in balance with the world around them; they respectfully use everything in the environment around them to help them to survive. In contrast, Sully’s fellow Marines, like the British explorers Davis describes, see themselves in opposition to their environment.

I caught Avatar at IMAX. It was an amazing experience of multi-sensory cinema. The combination of innovative 3D technology and great storytelling work together to draw the viewer in and take them on a journey, but the transcendent lessons imparted by the film are what defines its legacy.