Sun
Jan 10 2010 10:43am

Avatar is about transformation

[Read below for how to win a free, autographed copy of the author's book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks]


Like many action-adventure, science fiction and fantasy movies of recent years—Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Batman, Transformers, to name only a few—James Cameron’s Avatar taps into our primal selves. That pick-up-your-battle-ax and kill mentality, long suppressed by so-called society, still courses in our veins. Movies let us “just do it.” We travel to richly-imagined parallel worlds and watch a hero like Aragorn kick major orc butt. We cheer, and secretly wish that we were him.

What distinguishes Avatar from its vicarious derring-do ilk is that the plot touches directly on this craving for transformation.

Jake Sully, the protagonist, is a paraplegic trapped by his body. Controlling his blue-skinned, feline Na’vi avatar on the jungle planet Pandora, he springs to life. Sully becomes a stand-in for all of us—the post-industrial, post-blue collar office worker stuck in our civilized ways. We are effectively paralyzed too, chained to our desks and DSL lines, far from Eden, far from nature, far from the magical thinking of yore.

The appeal may be about something larger, too. There’s a spiritual and communal emptiness that Avatar speaks to. Is it odd to look to a movie for moral guidance or a life philosophy? Not really. Here’s why: our technology-driven ways don't include sage advice, only how to connect, transmit, download, upload (and, you might argue, make us feel awfully anxious and scattered in the process). Chaos, not harmony. Besides, organized religion is corrupt, scandal-ridden, archaic (or so many think). The material world is mundane, despoiled, an ecological mess. No wonder that our jaded Jake is lured by the Na’vi belief in a vast bio-spiritual neural network, like the Star Wars universe’s “the Force,” that connects all Pandoran organisms like a warm-and-fuzzy fiber optic cable.

Sitting in the multiplex, 3D glasses draped on our faces, we’re asked to fantasize like Sully. Isn’t this how we were meant to live, and might live again? Hunting the forest, leaping through the canopy, killing beasts, taming others, enacting meaningful rituals? It’s the same dream offered by Tolkien’s Middle-earth—to be peaceful, nature-bonded hobbits, quietly growing crops, smoking pipes, drinking ale and laughing. An alluring fantasy life to be sure. And one perhaps worth fighting for.


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Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks:  An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms

31 comments
Fred C.
1. Fred C.
Really? Contemplate your life without running water, indoor plumbing, or a stove. You probably spend all day every day trying to track down food and secure shelter just to survive, since you can't go to the store or rent an apartment. No time for science or art (including our beloved sci fi). Since you do manual labor all day and live without modern medicine, you'll no doubt die young and painfully. This is an "alluring fantasy life"? Luddites...
pete hindle
2. petehindle
Like Palahniuk said in Fight Club: "You'll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center, and dig clams next to the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five degree angle."

It's not about any form of reality, it is (as Fred C says) sheer Luddite fantasy. David Brin's "The Postman" was a good antidote to this sort of thinking because of the casual way he revealed the depravity that man would sink too... it certainly wouldn't be all Navi-style tree-hugging.
Fred C.
3. Harry Connolly
An alluring fantasy life to be sure. And one perhaps worth fighting for.

Hahahahaha!

No.

I'll take antibiotics, central heating and the other benefits of the modern world instead.

But if you want to live in a tree canopy hunting your own food, buy yourself a plane ticket and move. As "fantasy" (it's sf, isn't it? bad sf?) worlds go, that one's pretty doable.
Fred C.
4. xi'an101
When I saw the movie a few weeks ago, everyone seemed excited about the nature of the film, especially for the special effects that made the planet Pandora where the story takes place so real. I quite agree with the quality of the landscape rendering, as well as with the imaginative fauna and flora that live on the planet. The idea of a connected ecosystem that make the whole planet like a single aspen grove is a very good idea (if presumably inspired by this unique feature of aspens).

I find the scenario of Avatar very poor, however. The notion of a mining planet with the local inhabitants rebelling against the desecration of their planet is a direct transposition of the settlers-versus-indigenous scenario. There is not an inch of subtlety in the characters: the good guys and the bad guys are clearly identified from the start! The Marines are strangely disobedient for soldiers. The locals are all very nice and full of qualities but they nonetheless need a Marine from Earth to lead them to victory. The end is in particular completely unrealistic. A battle with bows and arrows (and dragons) versus spatial technology does not seem to offer a wide range of possible outcomes! The man-to-man fight concluding the battle is truly ludicrous: the three main characters meeting in a final fight, with again bow and arrow triumphing of a military robot… This movie reminded me of the recent District 9, in particular because the final fight has many common features, except that the scenario choices made in District 9 led to a much better movie.
So I completely agree with the analysis of Avatar recently given by Le Monde (pardon my French!), namely that the special effects killed the focus of the director and made this movie a good entertainment rather than a masterpiece.
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5. heresiarch
Oh yes, let's all point out the patently obvious benefits of living in modern society. Because I'm sure no one noticed that the Na'vi's society and world are ridiculously perfect and that real hunter-gatherers don't, actually, get to ride dragons and mind-meld with their horses. Truly, pointing out the immense advantages of modernity entirely overwhelms--nay, eliminates entirely--any possible dissatisfaction a modern person might have with their lives. Having a microwave totally compensates for having a job that you don't understand or care about. Only the greatest of fools would ever fantasize about anything else, modern life is so awesome.
Mike Conley
6. NomadUK
modern life is so awesome

I have a funny feeling that it's generally considered ever so much more awesome when delivered by an unregulated, free-market, capitalist economic system with no welfare state.
Fred C.
7. omega_n
Of course the N'avi way of life seems wonderful and perfect. It's a completely idealized version of "living at one with the earth." There doesn't seem to be any drought, illness, injury, food shortage, floods, forest fires, invasions by other tribes, or other drawbacks to living in the wilderness without modern amenities. And let's not pretend that similar societies are completely harmless to the natural world--primitive humans slaughtered their way through the Ice Age and are probably the major cause of extinction for mammoths, ground sloths, and the North American horse. Just because a society is not "modern" doesn't mean they are harmless to the planet.

I'm not saying that either way of life is wrong or right, but neither is perfect. Avatar is a black-and-white morality film, utterly lacking in the subtleties of realism. We shouldn't start thinking that everything about our way of life is wrong because of James Cameron's Fern-Gully-for-grownups script.
Brian Simerl
8. Backwardation797
We all once lived in a vast, infinitely complex and inter-woven environment where we were all connected and lived together in nature.

It was called the Ocean. And we just spent the last billion years trying to crawl out of it.

Sorry. I am not going back! (Except on vacation!)

_B.
Tim Lewis
9. RaPToRFunK
He says as he blogs from his computer.

The irony of the movie and the idea in general is that the thing that the parapalegics (or avatars, if you will) rail against is technology, the very thing that allowed them to walk and run and jump and live that life to begin with. Without the technology they're still sitting in their wheelchairs.
Madeline Ferwerda
10. MadelineF
So heresiach, I'm a bit confused; are you trying to salvage something from this self-admittedly sagacity-free post? Looks like you're agreeing that it's good to be willing to fight for the dream of meaningful rituals in glossy comfy nature etc... How about the other stuff? Is it good to think of people at computers as paraplegics who wish they were putting axes through other people's heads? "Society" as something that stops us from being happy? The most technical computer-driven movie ever as a source for moral guidance about an world spiritually empty due to technology?

What did you see here that was worth posting something vaguely supportive?
Fred C.
11. Egilsdorf
Great discussion.

Your point, Fred C. ("Really? Contemplate your life without running water, indoor plumbing, or a stove...") and yours, omega_n, about "drought, illness, injury, food shortage, floods, forest fires" are well taken. Life in that jungle would be a slog. The reality of the fantasy life would be brutal. We'd be dead in a second, eaten by some jaguar-Trex hybrid or poisoned by a cute looking lemur dart frog.

We'd never actually survive on Pandora -- unless we were willing to live with half of our children never making it to adulthood, etc. As 21st century humans, we would never make it without modern technology that, of course, is an irony of the film (nicely put, RaPToRFunK). The other irony being that Cameron used a crapload of whiz-bang gadgets and digital who-ha to craft his environmental message.

And yes, I had to use my computer to write this. I'm not pretending to be Luddite -- I'm just saying there's a reason why that Stone Age way of life is superficially attractive. Of course the "alluring fantasy life" presented by Avatar would not be feasible in "real life." I think it's attractive because it IS fantasy --- unobtainable as Unobtanium. We can pretend, make believe, project ourselves in our imaginations. We can escape there for a couple hours, knowing that our warm beds and fast food await. And yes, Harry Connolly -- sign me up for the antibiotics, central heating, ice cream, etc.

I'd agree that Avatar is science fiction, Harry, but the world presented on Pandora is actually a throw-back to an older, simpler time --- when we were one with the universe, etc. So it's more of a romantic, nostalgic, backward-looking movie (at least as far as how the Na'vi live). That's why I call it a "fantasy," even if the genre of the movie is firmly SF. Like Star Wars: it's technically SF because of the future tech, the laser blasters, the hyperdrive, etc -- but many argue that the story is more Western and Fantasy than SF. But I digress.

Think of the appeal of Middle-earth -- sure, it would be cool to be a hobbit, or Strider, or Gandalf. But in all likelihood, given the odds of Middle-earth politics and crappy luck of the draw, we'd end up being pressed into service to defend the Osgiliath, or an orcish foot soldier forced to fight for the baddies, living in a drafty tent in the living hell that is Mordor. (Then again, being super-evil, maybe we'd dig all the fire and brimstone and maggoty bread. Is Mordor the heaven-on-earth of evil beings?)

As for your note, Backwardation797 -- hilarious. I think that's why we like the beach.

Thanks all!

--Ethan Gilsdorf
john mullen
12. johntheirishmongol
What part of Pandora looked like a place anyone would want to stay for a weekend, let alone a lifetime? I suggest a few weeks camping out in the wild, perhaps somewhere in Brazil with your only supplies those that you pick for your backpack.

I admit the scenery was gorgeous, but the story was remarkably silly. Even before I went to see it I had gotten enough from the ads to predict every major plot point. It was purile nonsense.
Wesley Osam
13. Wesley
heresiarch @5: Yes, our society has problems. You're going to have to work a lot harder to convince me they would be solved if we threw away our microwaves.

RaPToRFunK @9: I just saw Avatar today. (It was flawed, but visually interesting.) I don't think it was railing against technology, or expressing any opinion on technology at all. It was more about imperialism. The Na'vi had less technology because it made the conflict less equal and more suspenseful, and because the movie was drawing a parallel with indigenous societies who've clashed with better-armed cultures in the real world. (Which was not the greatest idea--as others have pointed out, it turned the movie into a Last Samurai-style "these benighted natives need one of us" story.)
Karen L
14. changisme
First of all, Avatar is a piece of eye candy, while the plot is definitely not to be proud of. Nevertheless, it could be talked about.

Each culture has its religions and believes, and they are usually where the ideals people hold as virtuous reside. For example, Christianity hold that people should forgive; Confucious hold that people should be pious and honor education; Buddhism holds that people should not kill or give in to worldly desires. However, these are never what the status quo in the culture is. They are how we like the people to be. Likewise, in cultures such as early tribes in the Americas, people hold the belief that men and nature should be one, doesn't mean that is actually how it was. Obviously there is constant struggle between men and nature. The Na'vi life seems to have realized these ideals which makes it hard for us to accept. It is literally men's fantasy.

On the flip side, regarding all the comments above about how a life like on Pandora would suck, we have to keep in mind that our life is not without struggles either. We have developed coping mechanisms for them as our family and societies raised us to this day. A Na'vi life is definitely "foreign", but not necessarily worse.
YouDont NeedToKnow
15. necrosage2005
Here I thought that Avatar was about both ripping off the story from Pocahontas and the story by Paul Anderson called "Call Me Joe" writen all the way back in 1957. It is also about suing people like the ones that made the very popular TV show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" over the name for their movie, eventhough it was a TV show before his movie officially had a title.
Emmet O'Brien
16. EmmetAOBrien
I thought it could be read as about a sentient planet that, once it started being mined by humans, decided it needed to catch some, so hacked together a shallow culture of quasi-humanoid looking beings that have no plausible evolutionary connection to anything else in that ecosystem (the little blue lemurs are clearly an intermediate stage, but I can envision no selection pressure that would make their first pair of limbs fuse), that would look appealing, in order to snag a couple of humans to study. (Maybe it sampled human pop-culture for story shapes and memes from which to fake its culture. Maybe the sentient planet has seen Ferngully and Dances with Wolves.) Which seems to work out OK, though I think it could probably have got hold of Sigourney Weaver by methods with significantly less expenditure of effort. Of course life there would suck, but it's been contrived to have a specific kind of allure, which would appear to have worked on Mr. Gilsdorf.

xi'an101@4: The Earth folks are clearly using the same materials tech as in Doomsday; armour proof against anything you like, windows that could be smashed by an irate duckling.
- -
18. heresiarch
MadelineF @ 10: "So heresiach, I'm a bit confused; are you trying to salvage something from this self-admittedly sagacity-free post? Looks like you're agreeing that it's good to be willing to fight for the dream of meaningful rituals in glossy comfy nature etc..."

Well, no. I have zero desire to return to hunting and gathering as a way of life (though if I had to, I'd want to go Pandoran-style.*) Fantasizing about how awesome it would be if we could return to the days of yore is about as useful and insightful as pretending that modern life is peachy keen all the way through, and I think we all know how I feel about that. My problem isn't that they were attacking the poster, it's that they were doing it in a really dumb way.

Modern life leaves people feeling such dissatisfaction that return-to-the-wilderness fantasies seem like a good idea. Talking up the convenience of toasters doesn't make that go away, and actually going back to the wilderness is a terrible, impossible resolution. In order to resolve the dissonance, the question we need to be asking is how can we change our society so that it is more viscerally satisfying, or maybe how can we change ourselves so that we find our lives satisfying though I'm guessing we can all see the problems inherent in that.

*Though as a side note, it's worth mentioning that the image of hunter-gatherers living on the brink of death is a fantasy of its own. The !Kung--actual, modern hunter-gatherers--spend an average of 12-19 hours per week gathering food. Something to think about next time you wake up early for an eight-, ten-hour work day.

Wesley @ 13: "You're going to have to work a lot harder to convince me they would be solved if we threw away our microwaves."

Too bad. If you change your mind, let me know: I could use a new microwave.
will shetterly
20. willshetterly
Heresiarch, great link! I was surprised by the number of people who were effectively arguing they would rather live in the Matrix/Caves of Steel/Airstrip One than in Lankhmar/Pern/Arrakis.

I still haven't seen the movie, but since it sounds like an anti-imperialist race-traitor film, I suspect I'll like it at least a little.
Fred C.
21. Other Alias 2
Parasites. Thank you modern life for eliminating so many horrifying parasites from my life.
William S. Higgins
22. higgins
Rezendi at #19:

Why the eye-rolling, exactly?

This movie grabs onto the emotions of people who see it. They're stunned by the visual delights. They're wrapped up in the thrills. Some cry. I saw this happen.

After the lights come up, their thoughts keep returning to Pandora. I find this natural and understandable.

Sure, a better movie would also have these effects on viewers. But this response is very real. The article to which you link offers a few extreme examples.

Sometimes people fall in love with a story. It isn't always the best story; it isn't always the story we might wish they'd love.
Fred C.
24. Tom Nackid
I think a lot of people are missing the point entirely. The questions is not who has the best lifestyle, but rather does one culture have a moral right to destroy another for personal gain. H.G. Welles presented this same idea to his stodgy, self-satisfied Victorian audience by flipping the question on its head and showing western Europeans as the "primitives". Avatar (and Dances With Wolve and Little Big Man and A man Called Horse, etc.)do it by putting the protagonist in the shoes (or loincloth!) of the "other".

Who says the Pandorans are anti-technology??? They are pro-Pandoran lifestyle, culture and traditions and are willing to fight for it! Can anyone here say they don't share that same attitude?

Why does there have to be a dichotomy between beauty and personal fulfillment and technological development? Are we doomed to having to settle for a lower quality of life to have a higher standard of living? I say its a false dichotomy.
YouDont NeedToKnow
25. necrosage2005
http://i304.photobucket.com/albums/nn189/Saibrock/16103_full.jpg

Its the same story rehashed. Yet another unorigional Hollywood remake. So what if the CGI were impressive. Golden guano is still just guano.
Fred C.
26. Tom Nackid
necrosage2005

Forbidden Planet was The Tempest. West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet. Frankenstien was Faustus. Rent was LaBohem. And on and on and on...

Didn't Heinlein say that there were only about 3 or so stories in the world. The rest are just variations on a theme. You'll need to go beyond "We've seen this before." To support your idea that the movie is crap. Maybe it is crap, but just being a theme that has been dealt with before isn't a good enough reason. then again not everyone HAS seen this before. Remember people grow old and die and a new generation wants to see these themes played out again--or should we just read the same books (scrolls? clay tablets? cave paintings?) over and over and over again?

Besides, Pochahontas is actually a poor model for Avatar. The real life Pochahontas, as well as the Disney version, was fascinated by the foreigners and was eager to learn about their culture. She bacame an de facto ambassador betwee the Pohatan people and the English.
Fred C.
27. Tom Nackid
xi'an101

There are no Marines in Avatar. All of the "soldiers" were private security forces...in other words mercenaries. (Ok, I know its "Once a Marine always a Marine." but these guys were not working for any government, i.e. "the people" but were doing it to make a buck.) That was another point in the movie that most reviewers didn't seem to get. I blame Cameron for skipping over the point so lightly in favor of the action, but early in the movie Jake (who was NOT hired to be security due to his disability) laments the fact that soldiers who once fought for "peace and justice" are now reduced to being hired thugs for a private company due to Earth's crappy economy. Its an important point. Soldiers fight for their country and are bound by law and honor, mercenaries fight for the highest bidder. I'd be willing to bet that places like Blackwater are full of self-styled "colonels" who probably never made it past lieutenant in the real military.

Its unfortunate that the point was glossed over since the power and (lack of?) accountability of private armies is an important issue. Just ask someone who lived in Germany in the 1930s.
Arachne Jericho
28. arachnejericho
necrosage2005 @25 -

I thought in Avatar Jake and the Na’vi kicked just about all the humans off the planet in the end.

I suppose GTFO is technically one way to resolve differences.
Fred C.
29. Not_Guilty
This is another white man's guilt film. We'll only stop going to see this drivel when we start realizing that we have no real power to atone for our forebearer's idiocy. We can only transcend it.
Mike Conley
31. NomadUK
we have no real power to atone for our forebearer's idiocy. We can only transcend it.

Atonement would, at a minimum, consist of ceasing to repeat said idiocy over and over again. Worry about transcending — whatever that means — once that bit's taken care of.
Peter Erwin
32. PeterErwin
Heresiarch @ 18 & willshetterly @ 20:

Note that Sahlins' estimates of very limited hours of "work" for hunter-gatherers have been subsequently challenged by other researchers. The main problems seem to been a limited and in some cases possibly misleading set of data and a rather restricted definition of work; a more appropriate definition might include time spend processing and preparing food and time spent making and repairing tools and clothing, in addition to just "gathering food." See, for example, the discussion in Chapter 4 of this book.

(But it's probably still true that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle does indeed not mean living on the brink of death...)
Earl Cooley
33. shiva7663
Someone needs to write a filk of "In the Na'vi" by the Village People.

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