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Sat, 30 Jan 2010


Although the MPAA claims that the profitability of the movie business is being ruined by digital bootlegging, the recently released film Avatar has now become the highest grossing film in cinema history. That's in un-adjusted dollars. Correcting for inflation, Avatar still ranks high, although it's hard to imagine Avatar's box office take will ever exceed the $6 billion present-day dollars that Gone with the Wind has earned since 1939. Nor is James Cameron's latest epic likely to beat the likes of Snow White, Star Wars, Bambi, Jaws, or The Sound of Music; Avatar maybe has a shot of unseating A Hundred and One Dalmatians to rank number 7 in all-time constant-dollar world-wide movie earnings, but that's as far as I expect it will go.

Avatar is a very good film in general, and it's an outstanding science fiction action film. It's speculative adventure voyage of self discovery is not so surpassingly exceptional as to merit inclusion in my "best films" list, or even my "best SF films" sub-list, but it's quite good none the less. There were moments while watching Avatar when I experienced a glimmer of the same joyous wonder as I felt watching other great special effects classics, like Star Wars or Indiana Jones. I can't think of any other film in recent memory that struck the same chord in me. The Avatar team, led by James Cameron, well deserve the millions they are making from this film.

The movie is visually stunning. That much is obvious even from the trailer. I'm told that the 3D effects are incredible, although I can't confirm this from personal experience. Being mostly blind in one eye I chose to watch the film in "traditional 2D", saving the extra five bucks. Even so, those two dimensions weren't "flat" to me; I saw considerable depth, both in landscape and in theme.

But some critics saw no more than one dimension. Russell D. Moore in The Christian Post described the jaw-dropping visual design this way:

"If you can get a theater full of people in Kentucky to stand and applaud the defeat of their country in war, then you've got some amazing special effects."

Other right wing pundits have made similar snarky comments. Although I certainly agree Avatar has captivating CG visual magic, I don't quite get their accusations of it boiling down to liberal, left-wing, USA-hating propaganda. Why are they so quick to identify the bad-guys in Avatar as representing the evil USA? Are they feeling guilty about something?

I don't see Avatar that way at all. The plot is clearly derivative, using devices and themes that date back to before the fall of Rome. Tacitus wrote of the noble barbarian tribes, which caused him to be criticized for implicitly disparaging Rome as corrupt. Does that make Tacitus a USA hating liberal two millenia ahead of his time?

With plot themes as old as dirt, spinning them to fit your favorite politics is downright trivial. For example, why must the "sky people" be analogous to US imperialists? Rather, aren't the sky people just as well described as our terrorist enemies? After all, they are a rogue cell of monomaniacal evil invaders obsessed with only one unobtainable prize. Didn't they ruthlessly attack the homeland of a sophisticated culture by an aerial bombardment of a towering symbol of their society, toppling that edifice into flames, killing thousands of non-combatants? If you take the prevailing interpretation of September 11th at face value, and and are willing to wax modern-day indignant in terms of a theme that almost predates Aesop, I think a better fit with Avatar has the Na'vi as the innocent, good-guy USA, and their Hometree as the besieged Word Trade Center, flattened by the ruthless sky people symbolic of Al-Qaeda.

But if we are really willing to indulge in this nonsense, why look backward for possible analogies. Avatar is set in the future, so it's doubtful any "unobtainium" would still be symbolic of oil. A more realistic prediction is that this precious mineral of the future is something more like the rare earths of indium, neodymium, or samarium. Many of the sustainable energy technologies that promise to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil may actually just replace our hydrocarbon addiction with a different foreign unobtainium addiction. From this observation it isn't much of a leap to predict imperialist powers bulldozing local culture in the process of carving up some unobtainium rich region of the future, much like the victorious allies Britain and France crudely divided the Middle East (then the Ottoman Empire) after World War I.

As a potential example of this, let's look at the element predicted to be essential for the best possible batteries to power our future electric cars: the metal lithium. Where will car makers get this relatively rare element in quantities sufficient for the batteries in millions of Teslas and Volts?

Well, it appears that 50% of this world's supply of lithium is under the Hometree known as Bolivia. And yes, there are a bunch of Pandora-like rain forest in Bolivia. No doubt a few of those precious ecosystems need to be abusively bulldozed, even if most of the lithium now seems to be located in the already flattened Salar De Uyuni. Perhaps the machinations of late 21st century extractive exploitation, imperialism, and regional conflict, will result in the carving up of this cash-poor South American country. Maybe it's already too late for the USA to play the role of evil, imperialist sky people in this Avatar analogy. We're too far at the back of the line.

This prognostication may be fun, but none of its facile, political pattern matching has any deep merit. In Avatar, we're talking emotional, moral, and historical nuances at the level of Disney, not Steinbeck or Gibbon. To put it in the jargon of, the story arc of Avatar is ridiculously anvilicious in its social lesson. In general, the details of the plot and characters are a planet-full of cliches and hackneyed tropes we've seen before a zillion times, most notably in films like Pocahontas, and Dances with Wolves.

Any sort of criticism of the politics in pop epics like Avatar will ultimately fail because, almost by definition, people viscerally agree with these anvilicious parables. To rephrase Russell D. Moore, whatever it is that theater full of people in Kentucky are applauding (and paying ten bucks for the privilege), odds are it has a large overlap with what they inherently think is The Good. Put differently, I ask whether Mr. Moore wasn't on his feet applauding as well? If not, how did he dodge the anvil?

Despite the fact that most moral cliches in fiction necessarily resonate with objective social values we all deeply support, many of which even map to true, empirical facts about the world, there are a few misguided cliches in fiction that hang around despite the fact they don't map very well. Particularly in good science fiction, there should be an emphasis on getting the explicit technical facts of nature right -- or at least making an attempt to be consistent.

One such dubious cliche that appears in Avatar is the myth that all wild animals are fundamentally domesticated. If we just "keep the balance" and don't "act like reckless children", all mother nature's children will be our friends and servants. This mistake is worse than false. It's a hazardous meme. People have died as a result of believing it.

Case in point is the true story told by Werner Herzog's masterful film Grizzly Man. Outdoorsman Timothy Treadwell is not unlike our Avatar hero. Treadwell spends a long time in the real world of Alaska learning to keep the balance with mother nature and act maturely in the company of some fuzzy and cute brown bears. Sadly these individuals of the species Ursus arctos horribilis are unaware of their type casting in the Country Bear Jamboree. After years of seeming "domestication", with no warning or provocation other than there being too few salmon in the river that day, one of these thousand-pound wild grizzlies unceremoniously kills Treadwell and eats him.

The sad, empirical fact is this: mother nature cares not a whit about us, or "the balance", or anything else; mother nature isn't literally a person that knows or thinks or wills. The notion of Gaea as our mother-protector may be comforting, but anyone that ventures into the wild, imperialist or tree hugger, ignores the harsh reality of nature at their peril.

Similarly hazardous is the cliche that allows cinema heroes to scoff Newton's laws when falling from high places. We watch Jake Sully channel an indestructible George of the Jungle as he crashes into tree and branch and forest floor. I enjoy mountaineering and willingly suspended disbelief accepting the Floating Mountains of Pandora as a fascinating fantasy. At the same time, I found it difficult to stop myself from squirming uncomfortably in my seat, incredulous as our hero pranced carelessly through exposed YDS class 5 pitches without roping up with his Na'vi climbing partners. I expect that hovering mountains are even more unforgiving of man's reckless hubris than grounded mountains.

Unoriginal plot and stock characterizations, some of which might actually be ludicrous or dangerous memes, notwithstanding, the film still has some solid merit -- at least as adventure sci-fi. For the most part, the philosophical and technological ideas it interweaves are considerably more nuanced than the plot. These themes are strongly thought provoking, and, in my opinion, to provoke thought is the highest goal of speculative fiction.

The title of the film names its central theme: Avatar. Many of you cyberpunks out there might think this word originated with Neal Stephenson's book Snow Crash (or possibly the video game Habitat) but "avatar" is actually a Sanskrit word for the earthly manifestation of a god. As the story goes, many of the Hindu gods, particularly Vishnu, enjoyed logging into what to them must have seemed (or "really" is?) their Earth-side virtual reality game. The gods did this through human-like characters. Hindus called these characters avatars.

From what I understand of Christian dogma, a Hindu avatar is completely different than how Christians see members of the trinity, particularly the incarnated Jesus. The "man" Jesus supposedly wasn't an avatar of the big guy upstairs. What he actually was is a so-called mystery, making it hard to be specific about the details. What I've heard Christians assert is that Jesus was (is?) a fully autonomous human aspect of the one God as true man -- whatever that means.

An avatar, in contrast, is a much less elliptic concept. An avatar is a dependent manifestation -- a remote appearance of a controlling being that cannot function without its inner homunculus as operator any more than a glove can function without a hand inside. An avatar is a puppet operated by a puppeteer. As such, there is clearly only one puppeteer, but any number of puppets could be operated, one at a time.

Dogma asserts that Jesus was autonomous and born of woman in the usual sort of labor and delivery mechanism. Not withstanding His resurrection three days later, Jesus really died on the cross. Really died. Really. Sticking to the assertion that Jesus literally died would seem to preclude him being an avatar, even though the Jesus-as-avatar theory gives a neater explanation of the resurrection than any dogma I've heard.

Several times in the film, our hero Jake Sully withdraws from his avatar, leaving its body inanimate for some interval. From the actions of the Na'vi in the presence of these inanimate bodies, it appears that they consider them asleep rather than dead. They don't cry and place the lifeless body in a tomb; rather, they wait for the "dream walker" to re-animate. What would happen if the avatar body was seriously injured (say, by nailing it to a cross) is not explored in the film. All the Na'vi ever did to Sully when they were pissed at him was tie him up during the attack on Hometree. Me, if I was writing Avatar, I'd've had Sully nailed to the Hometree and killed by "friendly" fire in the raid. He could "virtually die", then rise from the dead three days later when they had a chance to swap in his clone backup avatar. (Surely they had a backup; once you put in the setup costs, making copies should be cheap, eh?)

The avatar theme is woven through the film on many levels. The metaphor of interconnectedness goes way beyond the genetically engineered bodies Jake Sully and the other operators animate through an unexplained wireless data link. The film is so overloaded with this theme it practically breaks through the fourth wall. Cinema fans with 3D glasses (and even some monocular fans) attempt to link themselves into the world of Pandora, albeit without avatars at the endpoint. Alas, the best we movie viewers have is the view from nowhere: third person omniscient. Experiencing a story is an attempt at out-of-body consciousness that falls short of avatar operation. If we could only go further -- all the way to first (blue) person. Maybe we'll have this when memories can be implanted. Philip K Dick is my prophet in Total Recall. Someday I'll know kung fu.

Even the making of the Avatar film incorporated the avatar metaphor. James Cameron pioneered a new technology that captures dynamic facial expressions of actors and directly transfers these gestures to the faces of the computer generated avatar images -- all in real time. The cast could see themselves as Na'vi on Pandora as they acted out the scenes of the film. In a sense, the human actors really were operating the digital avatars in the virtual film-world of Pandora.

Of course, even without computer technology, actors have always been avatar operators of a sort. The only difference is that an actor's avatar is a outer soul not a remote body. Classical actors control their external appearance and gestures so as to conjure up the soul of some fictional other. They operate their outward affectations of vocal intonation and facial expression with their body from a "remote" inner self so as to simulate thoughts and emotions of the character, bringing that character to life. Method actors, in contrast, allow the fictional character's thoughts and emotion to download into their inner self till there is no longer an inner self. The private thoughts and emotions of the actor vanishes as he becomes the character at all levels. Where did the original self of the actor go? It's resting with Eywa, I guess.

At the end of the film, Jake Sully the human operator is permanently "downloaded" into his avatar. Unlike the case of a method actor, Sully has two bodies to choose from rather than two souls. He chooses the stronger, bigger, bluer body and puts his one soul into it permanently. Given that his pink body has busted up junk and no viable girlfriend, the choice seems a no-brainer.

Assuming, that is, that a "choice" even makes sense here. The operating paradigm of avatars in this film, and in other modern stories with this theme, including The Matrix, enforce an inviolable monism when in comes to the human soul manipulating a body. Jake Sully is either animating his blue body, or animating his pink body, but he's never, ever, animating both at the same time, even for an instant. There's this hazy Being John Malkovich wormhole connecting the animatory business-ends of pink and blue bodies. Sully's homuncular consciousness was required to crawl back and forth through this wormhole, alternately operating the controls of the two bodies. In The Matrix Neo and his friends used telephones for this wormhole.

Why is this one-to-one control so strictly enforced? Maybe we can't accept a multi-bodied protagonist who is a hive mind. In fiction where one consciousness animates many bodies, that consciousness is usually cast as a bad guy. We have, for example, The Borg, a kind of communist menace that wants to absorb all individuality.

But despite our visceral (or affected political) fear of holistic entities during business hours, when the lights go out we may make one hasty exception. The monism of individual consciousness has a big downside: death. In The Matrix, Orpheus warns that "the body cannot live without the mind". He seems to be arguing that the operator's soul can be fatally trapped in an avatar that is destroyed before the operator has a chance to withdraw to another body.

We find hive minds generally unattractive except when there's only one, big, happy hive that forms a pantheistic holism interconnecting all individual consciousness, giving us a hedge against death (or bodies with busted up junk). A pantheistic backup plan is a way to have your solipsistic cake and eat it too. We can all be individuals till something goes wrong and our Malkovich wormhole has no corporeal exit. At this point our isolated soul follows the illuminated exit signs (follow the light) to the safe land Eywa.

Or something like that.

It's hard to say that these insights into the nature of consciousness as depicted in popular fiction have any scientific or philosophical merit, but I don't want to make the same mistake Russell D. Moore made in criticizing a plot arc from Aesop based on a modern political stand. Audiences get the meaning of the Malkovich wormhole and that says something about how consciousness appears to everyone. The comprehensibility of this fiction is evidence that cannot be casually discarded. How things seem to all of us, even speculatively, must fit with the levers and gears of how consciousness "really" works.

It may be that Orpheus' warning was factually backwards. The truth may actually be that the mind cannot live without the body. Our bodies and our minds are not distinct entities, independent and re-arrangeable; the two are one in the same. That this fact seems inconsistent with what makes for compelling (and wildly profitable) speculative fiction is something that may someday be explained. Modern science is learning more about the human brain everyday. Facts from popular psychology and facts from neurophysiology are becoming increasingly linked in our total understanding of the conscious human body. We may soon know the exact limits of the mind-body dualism.

When those limits are finally known, and only then, can we say for sure which speculations in the the film Avatar are absurd, and which are just a question of engineering. Even at our current level of understanding, it doesn't seem too far fetched that the military may someday develop powerful exoskeletons like those MK-6 class Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suits. On the other hand, I'm not sure that downloading consciousness through the ends of a ponytail into trees, horses, or pterodactyls makes any sense. Till then, we'll have to accept and enjoy the imaginative avatar-like possibilities offered by this fiction trusting that the details are all explained somewhere in the maintenance manual.

Posted Jan 30, 2010 at 19:40 UTC, 3191 words,  [/danPermalink