Friday, December 18, 2009

Oh You Pretty Things--Random Thoughts on Avatar

So I could not resist the hype, and went to see James Cameron's new flick Avatar. To state the basics, it was a decent film as an entertainment, and in 3D it was beautifully filmed. The back and forth between CGI and "real" filmed cinema flowed nearly seamlessly. It must be said that at over three hours in length, it was far too long. It almost ruined the entire film for me. Not being a fan of James Cameron in the first place (Terminator is decent, Aliens is overrated, and Titanic is sheer nonsense), I can see why the movie was hyped to such a great extent, viz. its production must have been so damned expensive that only hype could hope to recoup the costs. However, that is an unfair criticism because the film is in many ways remarkable even if it is merely decent as a whole. I'm glad I saw it.

Let me start with the title Avatar. The name for an incarnation of a divinity in Hinduism, it is also a term used by video gamers for their on-screen personae. This is problematic for the film. We are never clear if we are watching a video game, or rather if we are to understand the humans--the oft mentioned "sky people"--as being, from the point of view of the Na'vi people who live on the ominously titled planet Pandora, a manifestation of the divine. For in terms of the film, we are to believe that through the prowess of biotechnology, humans have become capable of genetically engineering actual body doubles which are similar in shape and form to the actual Na'vi. Each particular Na'vi double can be operated and controlled subjectively by its particular human genotypic original. When a particular human original lies in some futuristic version of a tanning bed (albeit a tanning bed with all sorts of fancy electronic wiring) he becomes fully functional as an other to himself, i.e., as a Na'vi. In terms of the film, as you lie in a futuristic tanning booth, you can also live in cyber reality (but in this case the real planet of Pandora) through the genetically engineered body double of yourself as a real Na'vi. This is the dream of all gamers--a dream that was well expressed (if more darkly) in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer. James Cameron has put such a dream to film in Avatar with different but just as dark implications. Either way, Cameron appeals to the longing for divinity of all video game players--the player becomes a veritable Jesus minus the cross and with restart functions and everything else to boot. So once again, I must ask if we are watching a video game or the incarnation of some sort a divinity (Christian, Hindu or otherwise)?

I say this because the movie, at least from the perspective of the scientists in the film, want you to believe that the the Na'vi theology or religion has a basis in science. Sigourney Weaver--back from the dead past of James Cameron--tells her unbelieving higher ups that the Na'vi religion is not "paganism" but instead "biology." So while we play this video game of a movie, we have no need to worry about the unfortunate changeableness of the Greek gods. You may have always thought that paganism was natural--well so much for St. Augustine. No Leda and the Swan here. Rather, in this film we are dealing a new age "force" a la George Lucas that apparently can be explained by biological science. Thank god there are no gods, because this would ruin the whole premise of the film in terms of its science (more on this later). It would be an insult to thinking audiences that god was god. Avatar, like most literal science fiction, avoids the age old question regarding how life emerges from not life. It's biology. For that matter, it's chemistry before it's biology. Of course if one is honest, it's physics before its chemistry. It seems that the question of life or soul can't be answered in terms of the science asking it. Nonetheless, Avatar sticks to its biology. It's like the proverbial Descartes with the cadaver on the autopsy table asking where's the soul. Luckily we live on Pandora which has proof of the biological basis of divinity which is nature itself (Pandora must be where Christopher Hitchens lives in his ode to the Burgess shale). In this view, the higher emerges from the lower, and you're an ignoramus to question it. This movie throws this argument in your face with its inexorable imagery and argument. To me it weakened the film in many ways.

Nonetheless, let's move beyond such polemics, and let's remind ourselves that in terms of the film bodies can be doubled--human and Na'vi. With this premise, the movie presents Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine and war veteran, as the protagonist. His human body (and soul?) operates as a Na'vi double. We "miraculously" see him running, jumping and flying in a Na'vi replicant version of himself while he lamely lies in his tanning bed. Like a wheelchair bound Jimmy Stewart as the voyeur to his neighbors in Rear Window, our protagonist lives vicariously as a Na'vi. Except in this case, the villain is not Raymond Burr but you yourself--or more abstractly stated, the villain is the species being human who resembles yourself in the tanning bed. On these terms, it was odd to hear the audience applaud the defeat of human beings by the non-human Na'vi (more on this later).

In the end Avatar has us believe that the Na'vi are not truly alien. They are completely at home in their world and live with justice and peace until the humans invade. No humans have ever had this luxury. Instead, the humans have set up a mining camp on planet Pandora, and in so doing they become the true aliens. The film doesn't initially state this theme, but it becomes obvious pretty early on. I can't remember the exact name of the mined mineral the humans seek after, but it is ridiculously titled something like "unobtainablite." The humans have invaded the Na'vi idyll on Pandora, and they seek this mineral with a pecuniary lust that knows no bounds. The human military is there to protect the procurement of this mineral with the most extreme prejudice. It is a frontier, and humans represent an immense danger to the way of life of the Na'vi, and likewise the Na'vi stand in the way of the "quarterly" bottom-line statement of some large and humanly owned greedy mining corporation back on Earth. This frontier may be a distinction between civilization and savagery, but in good revisionist western style the film presents the humans as the savages (as if the Indians were ever presented in film as being as ruthless as this bunch of humans).

However, it must be said that the scenes with the human soldiers show them to be a multiracial bunch--at least by human standards. So apparently race relations have improved, but then again in this movie the business and military leaders are still white. That doesn't matter because whether black, white, or brown the soldiers remain all too human and other than Na'vi. This is the main problem with them--their humanness not their race. At least the Na'vi supply an answer to the mere human problem of race relations.

When the film begins, there has already been much conflict between the humans and Na'vi on Pandora. Since our protagonist is a war veteran thrown into this frontier landscape, I am almost of the opinion that Avatar is another version of Dances With Wolves--albeit one that takes place in the future and on another planet instead of the post American Civil War western frontier. After all, about ten minutes into the movie, you know Jake is going to side with the Na'vi over his own human kind. What does he have to lose? He is a forgotten, wheelchair bound veteran. He suffers ridicule from all sides, but the scientists eventually come to respect him. His military superior lays down an ultimatum whereby Jake must give him secrets of the Na'vi way of life in exchange for a paraplegic rejuvenation surgery, which apparently exists at this time. Jake will allegedly play a video game, cyber-bio-technological-body-double, "fifth column" in order to provide the necessary information to facilitate the further mining of "unobtainablite." This doesn't happen. The predictability of the plot was another big problem in this movie, especially given its length. Of course Jake will side against his superior military hard ass. To indicate his excessive humanness, the superior even has scars on his head like Captain Ahab. Avatar would have been more interesting if it had upset these expectations, but it followed them to a tee.

In spite of their apparent alienness, the Na'vi are quite human. They are humanoid. Throughout the film we come to learn much about the Na'vi. These nonhumans have speech--a language which a bunch of "tree-hugging" (as the film terms them) human environmentalist scientists have mastered over years of study. We see the Na'vi communicate and deliberate with each other and with themselves. In fact, speech provides them the opportunity for choice. With speech, they exhibit all sorts of virtue, where they make distinctions between the right way and the wrong way. Furthermore, with speech they recognize their ancestors, as well as a tradition that has been handed down to them. They have concern for the preservation of their progeny, as well as handing down the way of life which the present generation holds in custodianship. When confronted with the presence of humans--the "sky people"--the Na'vi also express love of their own and hatred for the threat that is posed to it. They defend their own way of life with a "human" spiritedness. Consequently, it is no surprise that they live in political communities, and that they even make a distinction between public and private in terms of distinctive families. While primitive by human standards, they even exercise technological prowess. They make tools, use animals for their own ends, and even hunt some beasts in order to kill and eat them. Lastly, being aware of their mortality they are pious, and worship a divinity (or natural force) called Erya (or something like that).

Apart from the fact that they are aqua blue in color, three times the size of humans, and have tails, it makes you wonder what makes the Na'vi truly alien to humankind. They are simply strange, but oddly beautiful human beings. They have all of the attributes of Rousseau's so-called noble savages, uncorrupted by the vanity of civil society (albeit they have tails). In fact they exhibit many of the qualities that civilized humans ordinarily praise in speech and seek to make real in their own corrupted lives. However, in this film humans (with the exception of a few scientists, a paraplegic former Marine, and an ambivalent helicopter pilot) are completely corrupted. They are shown to be a godless race of savage insects bent on unlimited domination. The cruel Captain Ahab character exhibits all the vices of civilization--let alone the America of George W. Bush--in his speech of "pre-emptive strikes," "shock and awe" campaigns, and fighting "terrorism with terror" (the latter claim Bush never made). All these modes were to be used against the blameless Na'vi. Horrifically, the Na'vi are defeated in one battle when the humans blast out their giant tree home with missile after missile. The tree falls in a manner eerily reminiscent of the falling twin towers on 9/11. While the Na'vi lose this battle, they win the war (at least up to the end of the movie).

Throughout the film we hear of the Na'vi religion, and the human military and business leaders do nothing but ridicule it. The Na'vi religion is an Earth (or Pandora) religion. In this religion there is a hierarchy whereby the Na'vi hold a superior relation to all that exists on Pandora, but it is a superiority held in a way that shows their complete enmeshment with nature. Na'vi and nature are one--there is no distinction between beast and Na'vi. For instance, in order to win over and ride a particular "gorgon" flying fighter (or whatever it is called), one Na'vi fighter must be chosen by it. It will try to kill you, but then if you can make it submit to you as a Na'vi, then you have a "St. Francis of Assisi-type" pony tail that when you connect it to the beasts' similar extended receptacle you become one with nature (albeit, this tail is entirely natural not supernatural). When joined together, you and it unite in a mother Earth/Pandora gaia harmony. No wonder this movie was released simultaneously with the Copenhagen conference.

Unfortunately nature was not so kind for the humans as it was for the Na'vi. Humans cannot speak with the animals. As a consequence, humans in their ontological poverty must come to Pandora in order to extract all the "unobtainabalite" as standing reserve for their own use. The Na'vi may be at home in pantheism, but humans (with their "sky" gods) must ultimately rely on techne to bring about their own self-sufficiency. They have no tail with which they can commune with nature. Avatar suggests that humans are a dying breed on account of this theological need that results in their technological world picture. In contrast, Avatar advocates some sort of extra-planetary pantheistic religion.

Humans can't be pantheistic like the Na'vi, but ironically Avatar shows that Jake Sully not only overcomes his own paralysis, but also his humanness through the human technology that makes his body double. Yes the "tree of ancestors" (or whatever it is called) helps him to become Na'vi, but he would have never become Na'vi in the first place if it weren't for human technology. His Na'viness is a product of human technology. It is human technology that provides him with a fully functioning Na'vi tail. So at the end of the movie, while he may be fully at home in nature when he is transformed completely into a Na'vi, one wonders if he has nonetheless not retained his human memory (and Marine training).

The Na'vi likewise have surely not forgotten the recent past. They remember being almost conquered by the humans. They now realize that they need a foreign policy. They will need to learn of Jake's human technology, as well as about the "sky" god that allows him to manipulate the earth to his own ends. If the Na'vi don't learn these things, the humans will come back with full force. So like Twain's Connecticut Yankee, Jake will teach the Na'vi about the uses of gun powder. At which point, the typically "human" spiritedness of the Na'vi will find new outlets to not be at home on Pandora. The Na'vi will then fight each other to the the death, and over time some of them will master the arts of war. Hopefully, when the humans come back, there will be a fair fight even if escalated on a massive scale. Otherwise the humans will come back with a renewed vigor and a more advanced technology. Either way, it doesn't look good as long a humans remain. After all, the humans need their "unobtainablite." This would not occur if humans only knew how to direct their technology toward obtainable ends, but that would require a new religion and theology.

One last note of the religion in Avatar. It is true that the god or goddess Erya (sp?) responds to a personal prayer for a personal end. However, this all seems to be smokescreen to me. All of a sudden the god (or force) which was merely a biological "god" of nature--a god that was an abstract force holding and maintaining the balance of all things--becomes a personal god taking the Na'vi side in the war against the humans. This god judges their human lust, greed, violence and lack of attunement with nature. In being personal, it is like the Christian god, but god forbid it be the Christ himself. In Avatar one must simply have faith in nature, human technology, and the wise post-human scientists who will guide it to its proper ends. One's own subjective faith that all things will turn out for the best with this arrangement seems to me the definition of the stupidity of faith for James Cameron.

Faith to mean anything must be of something greater than oneself. James Cameron may be imaginative, but with his film he can't even distinguish between a human being and a dog. In his pride, he doesn't have a standard greater than himself. Human technology, like his own filmmaking, reveals the truth and goodness of the posthuman future described by himself. Since Cameron doesn't know what a human being is, he thinks the Na'vi are not human simply because they have tails. Lord knows what he thinks of people who aren't white like himself (yes, this is an unfair statement). This is the stupidity of his whole film.

So it is strange that the humans in my local theater all applauded the defeat of the humans. As their asses sat in the theater munching on popcorn and artificial butter, who did they think they were rooting for? As they drove home in their gas guzzling SUVs on the mega-highways, who did they think was the bad guy? Are they the ones who Jimmy Stewart like (or Jake Sully like) must remain voyeurs to their own obsolescence. (On a side note, Jake Sully's name could be an allusion to the Jake Scully character in Brian De Palma's Body Double--another cinematic weak and ineffectual voyeur. Like Body Double, it seemed to me that Avatar was an elaborate set-up intended to make the viewer an unwitting witness to the murder of his own species).

Avatar was ultimately bad because it was so overtly partisan. In this movie, the humans as we now know them are presented as nothing but bad. Apparently we must use technology to overcome our own corruption which is only our own fault anyway. This technological fix to the human problem is dehumanizing, and besides humans (including Americans) are not actually as godless and lacking in virtue as James Cameron would have us believe. Sometimes the "sky" god shows himself as a personal loving god--a god that offers an example for individual virtue and for salvation. This is in part what Christianity is about. Christianity reveals a God made man who is of such virtue that he points toward individual self-government as the true basis for any righteous life. This is the true avatar. To Cameron, on the other hand, humans remain chained to their belief in "sky" gods, and this accounts for all their "human" brutality, their confusion and their injustice.

So I'm glad I saw Avatar, but it was three hours of bad politics, bad theology, and a dubious belief in the possibilities of the technological fix. The best to be said is that it gave me something to think and write about. William Gibson's Neuromancer is more realistic to human nature. So if you want to read a book about avatars as doubles of oneself, then read it.

In the meantime, David Bowie sang about this post-humanism way back in 1972 when he said, "Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use."

UPDATE: Peter Suderman has a good take down of Avatar at Reason, and James Poulos has this interesting comment. The NYT review is here. Roger Ebert here. Ross Douthat here. John Podhoretz here.

1 comment:

  1. Good thoughts. But in a nutshell, Avitar is a futuristic ripoff of Dances with Wolves.