Warning: This review will contain significant spoilers for the movie Avatar. Do not read it if you don't want to be spoiled.
On a purely mercenary level, James Cameron's new movie, Avatar is the perfect movie for every demographic. A visually stunning film created with 3D digital technology which didn't even exist a few years ago, Avatar is equal parts Sci-fi, fantasy, action, adventure, and cowboys versus indians space western. There's even a romantic subplot thrown in to appeal to the "chick flick" crowd. While the story is simple on the surface, there also appears to be plenty of room for a very complicated back story.
The comparisons with Dances With Wolves and this film are inevitable. A military man makes contact with the natives and works to earn their respect. He goes native at about the same time that his own people arrive—basically our own western civilization—to play the bad guys. While a lot of people might complain that this is a simplistic movie–and it is—the people who like it, including myself, simply don't care that it's core message can be boiled down to "white people bad, blue people good." There are plenty of crappy movies out there with complicated plots and I'm glad to report that from my perspective, Avatar is neither the former nor the latter.
The movie revolves around a crippled marine named "Jake Sully" who must take the place of his dead twin brother in an ambitious program in which scientists explore an alien moon called "Pandora" by interfacing directly with genetically engineered alien bodies called "avatars." They do this in order to communicate with the planets natives, a race of ten-foot tall blue humanoids called "the Navi." The scientists are working against time as the Navi's "Hometree" is right on top of a mineral called "unobtanium" which a greedy company wants to mine. And that company has plenty of stereotypical marines in its employ who are ready to kill the Navi. Sully initially cooperates with his fellow marines, giving them a run down of the strengths and weaknesses of the Navi stronghold even as he works to gain their trust. Ultimately Sully falls in love with the Navi culture—and with a Navi warrior woman.
Naturally, Colonel Quaritch who is in command of the mission decides that the time has come to show the Navi who's boss—in one particularly effective scene the colonel uses Sully's own videolog to justify cracking down on the Navi. Sully tries to warn the Navi but finds himself rejected by his new people instead. Colonel Quaritch orders an attack on the Navi Hometree which is essentially a reverse 9/11. The heart of the alien culture is destroyed in a single unprovoked attack that echoes the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center by terrorists on September 11, 2001—only this time we're the terrorists and the aliens are the victims.
This isn't the first time we've seen 9/11 echoed in sci-fi. Battlestar Galactica used the Cylon destruction of the human colonies as a metaphor for the 9/11 attacks as well but Avatar is the first time that I've seen this metaphor employed in reverse, as an indictment of our own culture and echoing the destruction of American Indian culture by our own western culture. It's a fairly potent symbol and it really is the only way we can really justify what happens next. Sully turns against his fellow marines and teams up with a hand full of scientists and a renegade marine pilot (played by Michelle Rodriguez who supplies the fairly compelling scene of a beautiful woman in war paint flying a hovercraft into battle against her fellow marines) to lead the Navi as they fight back against the marines.
The Navi retreat to the "Tree of Souls" which is essentially the nerve center of Pandora, a tree which connects all life on this moon into one giant neural network, Quaritch is convinced that the Navi will be broken if the Tree of Souls is destroyed and makes it the next target in his "Shock and Awe"—yes, they actually say that in the movie, Cameron's bluntness as a story teller is his greatest weakness but his movies are so well crafted and so action filled that it is rarely an issue. It's not an issue for me here as the movie is so spectacular and so immersive that it is almost impossible to get pulled out of it.
Sully convinces the Navi to gather all of their tribes to make a stand at the Tree of Souls which ends in a fairly predictable but nevertheless stunning fashion. The evil humans are defeated and banished from Pandora and the Navi gather at the Tree of Souls to download Sully's consciousness into his avatar body. His human body dies and Sully is fully alien now. It's a piece of wish fulfillment which reminds me of the end of Inglourious Basterds where World War II is won in Europe not by a hard long slog through German held lands which kills millions but by blowing up Hitler and the entire German high command real good. Given that this is a sci-fi fantasy movie, it's hard to argue with the film makers' decision.
But I think that there is something else going on besides a extremely well made science fiction, fantasy, and special effects. I can't for the life of me imagine how an ecosystem like the one we see on Pandora can just naturally evolve. While it is fairly common for sci-fi film makers to ignore the laws of science when they interfere with their paper-thin plots, I don't think that this is what is going on here.
Pandora is basically a giant neural network where every living thing is so tightly integrated with rest of the planet that even the fiercest of the woodland animals know to attack the marines when the Navi are almost overwhelmed by the onslaught of the marines attacking with their superior technology. This neural network is so sophisticated that it is actually possible for the Navi to download Sully's mind directly into his avatar body at the end of the movie. This download is actually attempted twice in the movie—a human scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine who is played by Sigourney Weaver, is shot and the Navi attempt to download her mind into her avatar body. This attempt fails because she's too badly injured but before the final confrontation with the marines, Sully prays to "Eywa," the Navi deity to look into Dr. Augustine thoughts and to help them defeat the humans.
The Navi even bond to their animals by connecting a long braid of hair which unravels to reveal tiny tentacles which connect to tentacles on a similar braid which is attached to these animals. It reminds me of an organic version of the human/machine interfaces you see in movies like The Matrix. There is a scientific idea called "The Gaia Hypothesis" which suggests that all life is connected and cooperates to keep Earth livable which on the surface does resemble what we see in Avatar with all of Pandora's life being linked together. But in this movie Ewya is described in a manner which reminds me more of the way that the Force described the early Star Wars movies (before George Lucas ruined the concept in the prequels with technobabble about "midichlorians").
On the surface, Avatar is expressing a very anti-technology viewpoint—love Mother Earth (or in this case "Mother Pandora"), don't destroy her with your technology. This is a fairly common theme in James Cameron's movies; but there is a deeper, more subtle theme here which is never expressed—probably because it would be boring and James Cameron doesn't do boring. Just like John Connor cannot survive to lead the human resistance against Skynet without a Terminator acting as his bodyguard, so the Navi cannot defeat the humans without the interference of Eywa. Could it be that Eywa is just a non-evil organic version of Skynet? Is Eywa an incredibly powerful supercomputer which can be accessed by the Navi?
I think that this is as good as any theory on the "science" of Avatar. It would certainly explain gravitational "flux" which wreaks havoc with the human electronic equipment and which allows the gravity defying Hallelujah Mountains which float in the air with seemingly nothing save for this mysterious flux to hold them up. If some intelligent species evolved on a world where the gravitational and magnetic fields were so screwy that an entire mountain could just hang in mid-air, it might make it hard for them to develop human-style electronics. Any technology that such a species might develop would likely be organic. It's not a huge leap to imagine that some cataclysm—like say, a self-aware organic computer wiping out the existing civilization—resetting all life on Pandora and allowing it to be remade in the image of an all-powerful artificial intelligence which directs its evolution until all that life is part of the giant self-aware computer which first paved the way for its creation. They might even give it a name and make it their deity. Intelligent design sci-fi style or more aptly in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Oddyssey, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
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