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January 17, 2010

Review of Avatar (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — aspensmonster @ 5:56 am

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I have seen this film on two three separate occasions, though at the same theater, in the same theater, and more or less in the same seat. I guess that rules out a proper critique of the films 3D enhancements (which, by the way, were outstanding). Regardless, I am compelled to provide my personal review of Avatar in light of others that I feel misunderstand the major theme the work intends to communicate. Most of what I read labels Avatar as an orgasm for the eyes but sloppy seconds for the mind. Terms like environmentalism and phrases like cowboys and indians often make their way into the dialog. The overall opinion is that Avatar is either Green Peace fluff in the vein of Fern Gully or white-guilt apologetics in the vein of Pocahontas. Though I can understand the confusion, neither of these is the major theme.

Influences from other films such as Dances with Wolves exist, as stated by the director himself. Environmentalist tones are of course present. Elements of exploration and conquest pan themselves out and the ever-present good and evil archetype rears its ugly head. But these are small parts of what I feel is the full and proper composition of Avatar.

Avatar juxtaposes two different and apparently unequal species. The humans have developed the means to traverse the Verse. The Na’vi commute via dinosaur. The humans dwell in what amounts to an engineered biosphere. The Na’vi abide in a tree. The humans hunger for the resources of the Na’vi’s homeworld and will burn every tree in the forest to get them. Given that imagery it is clear how the aforementioned interpretations crop up. But these interpretations are myopic. They fail to see the forest for the trees. The full and proper composition is indeed an amalgam of these various concepts into something uniquely different: A contention that all sapient life in the universe is bound toward a common, emergent purpose of sustaining sapience; and that species-specific properties and behaviors are merely different (though not necessarily effective) manifestations of this single, universal purpose.

Before I continue I should elaborate on the foggy notion of the term “sapience.” I view sapience as the next step in a sequence of definitions of purpose. The first step was the rising of matter from quantum mechanics; the transition from unpredictability to stability. Then came molecular compounds; from random bumping and colliding of atoms into structure. Life arose next; the shift from simple structure to natural selection and sentience. Finally we have sapience; the move from mere awareness to the embracing of knowledge and its applications. In this vein, I view sapience not only with its technical definition of wisdom –of respecting knowledge and utilizing it appropriately– but also with this historical background of where it emerged from. We cling tightly to our sapience, just as other organisms on Earth cling to their continued survival. Our sapience is what clearly distinguishes us as rational agents from common animals. And it is this notion of sustaining our sapience that I feel Cameron most wanted to emphasize and explore.

Consider first the clear and visible differences between the Humans and the Na’vi, those species-specific properties and behaviours. The humans have a relatively weak body; they cannot survive on Pandora without respirators and are of little tactical use without complex mechanical AMPsuits. The Na’vi measure twelve feet in height, have carbon-fiber reinforced bones and an acute sense of how to maneuver within their environment. Aeronautically the Humans have mastered flight by means of spacecraft, helicopters and other planes. The Na’vi still have a presence in the air; by utilizing “sajelu” or “the bond,” they can interface with “ikrans,” flying organisms. Regarding information itself, the humans utilize arsenic-doped silicon wafers, hard disks, and other electromechanical peripherals to store and manipulate data. The Na’vi instead utilize a bio-botanical neural network –through which they can upload and download data– that makes heavy use of the “sajelu” components that every organism on Pandora appears to have.

But these are mere surface differences that don’t show the entire picture. The perceived inequality or “savageness” found between these two species is in fact nonexistent. The Humans and the Na’vi both have highly advanced technology. They reign supreme within their own environments. The only difference is that this is manifested mechanically by the Humans and biologically by the Na’vi. In fact, technology itself is a byproduct of sapience. In this view, the differing technologies of the Humans and the Na’vi can be considered the recursive, differing manifestations of sapience: wisdom calling upon wisdom to ensure more wisdom.

The Humans utilize their mechatronics in a variety of ways to sustain sapience. They have presumably harvested all of the available resources on Earth that can sustain their civilization and by extension their place among the stars. Not a species to be snuffed out, they sustain their sapience (and indeed existence itself) with space travel to other locales rich in resources that they can harvest. These resources are highly valuable on Earth. This marriage of technology and economics permits humans to fulfill their sapience-sustaining purpose. So long as they expand, the Human species remains a sapient one. Seeing as they must continue to expand and grow, it can be said that the Human use of technology is a positive feedback loop.

What about the Na’vi? Their intimate connection with the forest and Pandora itself is highly visible throughout the film. The connection is in fact literal:

Grace: I’m not talking about some kind of pagan voodoo here. I’m talking about something real; something measurable in the biology of the forest.
Parker: Which is what exactly?
Grace: What we think we know is that there is some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees, like the synapses between neurons. And each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora.

This network ensures the continued existence of Pandora. In the case of the Na’vi, it appears their sapience can be distributed a la swarm computing via this network. After losing Home Tree, the Na’vi fall back to the Tree of Souls that appears to behave, among other things, as an archive for Na’vi history and a sort of ISP between the Na’vi and Pandora. Jake “talks” to this tree and asks for help in the coming battle. Predictably enough, the organisms of Pandora behave in swarm, coming to the rescue of the fledgling Na’vi forces in the final moments of battle. But unlike the Humans, the Na’vi’s novel method of sustaining sapience appears to follow a negative feedback loop. Once the battle is won, the swarm behavior disappears. Bits of dialog imply a stable system as well:

Jake: All energy is only borrowed, and one day you have to give it back.

Neytiri:Our Great Mother does not take sides, Jake. She protects only the balance of life.

I suppose this is where I draw a conclusion, where I say I’ve proved my thesis. But the thesis itself isn’t much. It amounts to a sapience-analog of Darwin’s principle of natural selection. Its main advantage is that it allows one to view the amalgam of themes and motifs floating around the Avatar universe through a single lens. The two species might have different technology (mechanical versus biological), but both do the same job. The ecologies of the species might be different (positive versus negative feedback), but they permit the same result. Colonial attitudes are exhibited by the humans and environmentalist attitudes by the Na’vi, but both attitudes spring from the same goal: sustaining sapience.

If Cameron felt there was something more important to be gleaned from Avatar than the realization that this lens exists, than that something would surely be that the lens ought to be used. What kind of ecology is better? Ever-expanding or equilibrium? Should we focus on mechanical marvels or get back to biological basics? Should we colonize and harvest new resources or stay put and use what is here? Regardless of the question, view it through this lens if you want an answer. And The Answer? Well…that’s up to us to figure out.