“Avatar” - James Cameron (2009)

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is not just a movie, it is a cultural and economic phenomenon of such scope that it has aroused commentary from wide sectors of society. The numbers alone are staggering. Its production budget of about US$ 300 million far exceeded all previous efforts, but those expenses were easily recovered – its box office gross is already over $ 2.7 billion, and these numbers apparently reflect a large amount of repeated viewing. This makes Avatar the top grossing film of all time, surpassing the previous top-spot holder, Titanic (1997), also written, produced, directed, and edited by Cameron. Though there has been much written about what has made Avatar such a hit, my main concern here will focus on some of the film’s aesthetics and also on some of the philosophical themes underlying Avatar.

The story is set in the future, in the year 2154. The narrator, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic ex-Marine who has contracted to work for a project located on a moon, Pandora, of a planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri. Pandora has both natural biological life on its surface and a staggeringly valuable mineral, called “unobtainium” [1], that the RDA Corporation is bent on mining. The life on Pandora exists in a poisonous-to-humans atmosphere and features a lush and bloodthirsty ecosystem, including intelligent humanoids, called the Na’vi, who are about 10 feet (3 meters) tall. Thus there are two concurrent human-manned projects on Pandora. One is concerned with mining the valuable ore, and the other, the one for which Sully has been contracted, is concerned with scientifically studying the local flora and fauna on Pandora, particularly the Na’vi. In order to investigate in the hostile atmosphere, the scientific team, led by Dr. Grace Augustine, has developed enormously expensive hybrid beings, called “avatars”, that comprise a mixture of Na’vi and human DNA. While the Na’vi-lookalike avatars walk about on Pandora, they are mentally controlled by humans with matching DNA, one of whom is to be Sully, who are safely housed back inside the climate-controlled space colony quarters on the moon. Because his avatar is purely mentally controlled, Sully’s crippled physical condition is not an issue for his employment.

The mining operation is manned by military contractors and mercenaries, who use heavy machinery to clear the land and exterminate any hostile creatures in their way on Pandora. Sensing an affinity with Sully, the leader of the mercenaries, ex-Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch, secretly hires Sully to work for RDA, too, promising him that he will guarantee that the paraplegic eventually gets restorative surgery on his return to Earth. So early in the piece Sully is now serving two masters, Augustine and Quaritch.

Much of the rest of the movie now takes place in the wild Pandora environment among the Na’vi, with Sully’s avatar interacting with the Na’vi people and learning their ways. In particular, he becomes fascinated with and ultimately romantically interested in their princess, Neytiri, and from here on Sully is serving three masters and being pulled in three different directions.

Clearly the Na’vi are presented as noble savages, the RDA mercenaries are predatory plunderers, and the morally compromised scientists are relatively helpless technicians caught in the middle. Although Sully’s avatar is supposed to learn enough about the Na’vi so that the RDA corporation can gut their planet of the valuable mineral and force them out of their home settlement, Sully eventually goes native and turns the tables: he switches sides in support of the Na’vi. The Na’vi, though technologically primitive, are not powerless, since they have a holistic connectivity with nature that serves them well in their native habitat. The last third of the movie, then, is essentially a seemingly endless blood-and-guts battle to the death between the firepower-laden RDA mercenaries and the Na’vi warrior cohort, led by none other than Sully.

As a film, Avatar is less a drama and more an ornately-constructed cartoon. Much has been made about the 3-D filming: Avatar was released in several formats, including IMAX, RealD, and conventional two-dimensional projection technology (the version I saw was in RealD). To me the 3-D projection has been overly-hyped, and it is more of a marketing gimmick than an essential aspect of the viewing experience. Anyway, 3-D technology has been around for years, so there is nothing particularly startling about its use in this instance. Moreover, the 3-D viewing experience is definitely not natural and in conformance with the way we normally see, and, what's more, the enforced perceptual load is sometimes distracting, if not wearisome. Fortunately, Cameron did not overdo the 3-D effects in the film, so they do not get in the way too much.

The principal roles and the acting in Avatar are heavily stereotyped, again in keeping with the film’s cartoon dimensions. Dr. Grace Augustin (played by Sigourney Weaver) is a hardboiled, chain-smoking taskmaster, rather in the style of a front page city newsroom editor from a 1930s film. Similarly, Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang, in a showy performance) is satanically over-the-top, reminiscent of Beau Geste’s (1930) Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). Jake Sully is a typical innocent and mindless “G.I. Joe” that will appeal to the fun-loving redneck crowd. All of these characters appear to be self-consciously “working class”, whose roles have been crafted to appeal to the common dudes and dudettes out there. If you are looking for subtlety in the performances, you had better look elsewhere.

What is on display is grand scale and scope that is intended to awe the viewer. In fact as a filmmaker, it is interesting to compare James Cameron with Stephen Spielberg. Both are essentially civil engineers, rather than dramatic directors. They construct lavishly overwhelming environments into which they inject rather simpleminded and exaggerated narratives. And they are both enormously successful at the box office. But despite Spielberg’s successes, Cameron trumps him. Cameron’s environments are even more breathtaking, and his stories, simple though they may be, have rather more compelling relationships, including romantic entanglements, that make them generally superior to Spielberg’s. In addition, Cameron uses his crafted environmental space more effectively than Spielberg does (although despite the architectural dazzle, neither Cameron nor Spielberg creates the kind of navigable, interactive spaces Michelangelo Antonioni generally established and in which he situated his films).

But when one compares Avatar’s director with another blockbuster producer-director, Ridley Scott, Cameron doesn’t fare nearly so well. Scott’s films, like those of Spielberg and Cameron, are also huge commercial successes, but they come out ahead, in my opinion, because they are inevitably deeper and more gripping. The perfect matchup for comparison between Scott and Cameron is to contrast Scott’s Alien (1979) with Cameron’s Aliens (1986) – two films which not only contrast the two directors, but also clearly display the fundamental disconnect between British and American science fiction. Alien, which is one of the all-time great science fiction thrillers, captures the pure essence of horror – the shuddering fear of the dreadful, shapeshifting force that cannot be fully fathomed or even identified. One never really knows fully the nature of the pernicious and unstoppable creature in the film. Cameron’s Aliens, by contrast, simply fills the screen with pyrotechnics, much along the lines of King Kong versus Godzilla (1962). There is nothing really haunting, moody, or mysterious going on in Aliens; instead it is just a lengthy knock-down-drag-out brawl between two monstrous thugs. And that is pretty much the same thing that happens in the last third of Avatar, too. This kind of slugfest may appeal to the teenage video arcade crowd, but it blunders on far too long and without the proper dramatic pacing for my tastes.

What really does intrigue me most about Avatar, though, is neither its box office success nor its production details, but some of the cultural/philosophical themes that are raised, albeit confusedly, in the course of the story. Though critics around the world have examined the film along a great many cultural dimensions, what specifically interests me about Avatar are some basic interrelated and progressively deeper notions and issues that cast their shadow over the film:
  1. the antiwar message
  2. reductivism vs. holism
  3. Objectivism vs. Interactionism (man vs. machine)
  4. distributed being
1. Antiwar Message. Cameron cast the role of the RDA Inc. mercenaries as Western imperialist invaders of pristine wilderness already occupied by indigenous natives. In fact the depicted Na’vi in Avatar seem to blend notions from American Indians, Pacific Maori, and possibly Australian Aborigines and Black Africans. What may also (perhaps even primarily) come to mind to American audiences, though, is the Vietnam experience. But the more obvious metaphorical comparison is the near extermination of the Native American (Indian) people by European settlers in the 17th-19th centuries. In any case the evocation of recent, current, and possibly future US military excursions is explicit. For example, Sully refers to his bloody military experience in Venezuela, evoking the image of a current thorn in America’s side becoming a future US invasion target. And the utterance of the phrase “shock and awe” in the film suggests that it will still be common parlance in 2154.

But despite the clear-cut condemnation of rapacious imperialistic plunder and war, Cameron undercuts the purity of the antiwar theme by depicting the Na’vi as killers, too – they are meat-eaters who hunt their prey with bows and arrows. Their presumed high level of spirituality development notwithstanding, the Na’vis do not seem to raise any crops – they are basically just hunter-gatherers. So although their technology is not as efficient as that of Western killing machines, that is merely a technical detail; their sustenance, and hence their culture, is maintained by killing.

Sully is basically a violent individual, too. Once he assumes the physical body of his avatar and ventures out into the Pandora wilds, his instinct is to “take on” all comers in combat. In the film’s finale, in fact, Sully even spearheads the bloody Na’vi counterattack against the RDA warriors.

So by the end of the film, whatever antiwar message may have been earlier intended is completely undermined by the mayhem from both sides.

2. Reductivism versus Holism. Though both sides may be violent, there is still a fundamentally deeper divide that separates the humans (both the mercenaries and the scientists) from the Na’vi. The humans in the film share the Western European cultural attitude of scientific reductionism. From this perspective, effective understanding and manipulative operation in the world involves first an analytical division of everything encountered into its most basic parts and then understanding how those parts interact according to mathematically mechanical rules. This is the divide-and-conquer analytical methodology that has fueled Western civilization’s triumphant domination of the natural world, and it is epitomized here in Avatar by RDA Corporation’s operations to locate and mine the ultimate physical resource: unobtainium. The Na’vi, on the other hand, have a more holistic engagement with nature. When a Na’vi interacts with a wild Pandoran animal, for example, he or she connects its tail with that of the beast in order to achieve some sort of mysterious oneness that connects the two beings. This enables the Na’vi to ride flying Pandoran beasts through the treetops in a sort of symbiotic harmony, as if they are a single creature. How they do it is, of course, outside the understanding of reductivist Western science and more in the domain of the chigong and yogic masters of the East.

Given this identified distinction between reductivism and holism, the film clearly celebrates the holism of the Na’vi and their attempt to live in a sustainable harmony with their environment, as opposed to the humans, who are relentlessly looking for new worlds to dominate, plunder, and exploit for their selfish needs.

But holism, in the West at least, is primarily understood by what it is not – it is simply not reductivist – and holism is merely understood to be an assertion that the system as a whole must be appreciated in order to understand its workings. The question of how that unification might be accomplished is usually left begging. A better way to proceed down this track and approach this divide is to consider another dichotomy: Objectivism versus Interactionism, contrasting perspectives which can be characterized in Western philosophical terms.

3. Objectivism versus Interactionism. As I mentioned in my review of Michael Moore’s SiCKO (2007), Objectivism and Interactionism can loosely be characterized as follows:
  • Objectivism is the naive objective reality stance, which most of us adopt most of the time in our everyday activities. The objective world is assumed to be scientifically knowable and reducible to elementary entities that operate according to laws that can, in principle, be discovered by an “objective” observer. This objective world is “out there” – independent of any observer. To know about this world, one’s act of scientific observation must avoid any interference with that which is being inspected. Isaac Newton’s Laws of Physics are representative examples of Objectivism’s achievements.
  • Interactionism (which could also be called the “the Phenomenological”) recognizes that the observer invariably and essentially has an effect on whatever may be observed (as attested to by physicist Werner Heisenberg with his Principle of Uncertainty). For Interactionism, every human activity invariably involves an embodied interaction with something else (even, as Heisenberg noted, when interacting with a scientific observation instrument). In this respect, Interactionism is not compatible with Cartesian dualism and Newtonian analysis that separates the observer from the observed; instead one should associate Interactionism with Buddhism, Sufism, and the work of Merleau-Ponty. From the Interactionist perspective, Objectivism is only an abstract ideal that has pragmatic application in some domains, but certainly not all – real experience, which is inescapably interactive, can only be usefully approximated by Objectivism some of the time (such as when observing the heavens). In other spheres of activity, where account of human interaction cannot be dismissed or minimized, such as the sphere of human social activity, Objectivist approximations are condemned to be unavoidably weak and inaccurate.
Objectivists tend to see biological life in mechanical, deterministic terms – biological organisms are essentially extremely complex machines. Interactionists contend that the mechanical explanations, which discount the observer to achieve their models, need to be surpassed or supplemented with more sophisticated approaches. Thus the Objectivist-Interactionist split lies at the heart of the “man versus machine” dichotomy that continues to fascinate and bedevil our culture. It has clearly been an obsession with Cameron, whose Terminator films (1984,1991) explored the boundaries between man and machine.

From the Interactionist/Objectivist angle, then, the humans from Earth in Avatar visiting Pandora are Objectivists, while the Na’vi are Interactionists. Given the preferential depiction of the Na’vi in the film, Cameron seems to be urging us, too, to adopt an Interactionist stance towards our biophysical environment. But to pursue this point further, one needs to consider the nature of our being in the world.

4. Distributed Being. At the heart of the Objectivist-Interactionist split is the question of who we are and what is the locus of our being. What are the boundaries of our being? An Objectivist would usually either claim that (a) our being comprises a Cartesian duality of a physical body and a mysteriously related spiritual soul or (b) that we are only our physical bodies and that consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of no causal significance. The mind, the “I”, in either case seems to have no spatial extent and no meaningful spatial location, other than some sort of obscure identification with the physical body.

An Interactionist such as Merleau-Ponty, however, would argue that the fundamental starting point and basis for understanding the world is that we are essentially embodied beings that have consciousness. This raises the question concerning what are the boundaries of that conscious body? Consider several types of extensions that can be considered as additions to our bodies:
  • When we add eyeglasses (if we need them) to our bodily equipment, we improve our embodied capability of vision – the eyeglasses seem to be extensions of our eyes. Our visual capacity, and hence out interactive capability, is improved by wearing the eyeglasses. Similarly when a basketball player dons a pair of athletic shoes, he (or she) can jump better – his embodied use of his legs has been enhanced. These are thus enhancements of the biophysical body. A bit further in this direction is the case of a person who is given a prosthetic limb. In such cases a mechanical add-on has been so closely allied with the physical body that it seems to be part of the embodied nature of the being. We can call this a level 1 type of extension to the body.
  • A still further extension is when a person uses any kind tool, such as a hammer or saw, to enhance his ability to manipulate things in the world. The tool in this case is not obviously part of the person, but it enhances his interactive operations in the world and so extends who he is. Call this a level 2 type of extension of the body.
  • Still further on in this direction is the use of computers and telecommunications, which is greatly extending the reach of our interactiveness. Or consider when someone else simply provides us with some useful knowledge about the world that enhances our ability to interact in the world. With our interactive capabilities so enhanced, we have been further extended (level 3).
All of these tools and devices extend our interactiveness and thereby change the nature or our being-in-the-world that characterizes our individual existences. Where does one draw the line in terms of his bodily extent (and in terms of who he is): at level 1, level 2, or level 3? The confusion comes in when we insist on the absolute nature of the mind-body separation and on drawing sharp lines that separate them. Unfortunately, this is exactly where Cameron goes astray in Avatar. In the film Cameron adopts a purely Cartesian/Objectivist attitude towards Sully, even though the film seems implicitly to endorse the Interactionist perspective towards civilization. Early on Sully’s isolated Cartesian “mind” in the film is able to transfer its control to a different body, i.e. that avatar body that Sally sometimes “occupies”. This is a purely Objectivist conceit, not an Interactionist one. At the end of the film, Cameron’s Cartesian/Objectivist (and therefore anti-Interactionist) characterization of the world has Sully’s mind actually making a total transfer to the alternative body of the Na’vi avatar. This is an Objectivist hallucination that contradicts his otherwise Interactionist stance.

So James Cameron’s Avatar ultimately evokes powerful notions and images concerning war and the nature of man, but in the end its confused characterization of those issues undermines its powerful metaphors and fails to deliver the right messages. He undermines his antiwar message by depicting the pro-war mentality of the Sully and the Na’vi. He undermines his pro-Interactionist message by depicting Sully’s mind in an Objectivist/Cartesian fantasy. Both of these contradictions I consider to be fatal to any fundamental coherence in Cameron’s narrative presentation. The message that could have been delivered has been garbled and lost.

I would agree, though, that Cameron’s Avatar does deserves some credit for dwelling, however imperfectly, on some of the key issues that must be addressed in order for us to meet current global challenges and make our way in the modern world.

  1. “unobtainium” is a flippant epithet in US engineering circles, dating from the 1950s.

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