Friday, January 01, 2010


Everyone agrees that Avatar is a beautiful movie that is cliched in its storytelling and racist in its politics. Good job internet, you win again.

If you've seen The Abyss or Aliens, you've seen John Cameron make this movie before: gung-ho militarism and corporate greed failing to comprehend or control whatever exists beyond normal experience.

If you've seen Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas, you know what everyone's complaining about: white guilt, white assimilation, white privilege. Paternalistic attitudes toward the "primitive" other.

The problem with the social-historical reading of Avatar is that it fails to account for Cameron's science fiction concerns. What interests Cameron is the way that an unchanging human nature deals with and conflicts with both technology and the natural world.

People are essentially limited. They are inquisitive, acquisitive, loyal, compassionate, and self-interested. But limited. When faced with the power of their own technologies or extremes of the natural world, they are powerless and uncomprehending. The best they can do is work together to survive. The good characters build teams and relationships. Bad characters are destroyed by their own machines, their own hubris, their own greed.

More importantly, in Cameron's world there is a blurring between the artificial and the natural. The xenomorphs of Aliens are technological marvels that the evil company wants to capture, study and weaponize. In the Terminator movies, Skynet becomes its own ecosystem and the cyborg Terminators become increasingly human in an attempt to destroy humanity. In this view, everything has a biological and a technological aspect. The technological is purposeful and exploitable. It is dialectical and has explicit value. It is good if it can be used by others. The biological is self-interested and self-determining. It is instinctive and has intrinsic worth. It is good in and of itself.  The former measure itself by how much progress it makes along a straight line. The latter is holistic and tries to optimize and balance the needs of its components within the greater system.

In Avatar, the planet Pandora is the perfect blending of the artificial and the natural. It is a world where technology is so perfectly blended into the natural world that it becomes invisible. In fact it is a technology that is so advanced that it looks like magic. What looks like untamed nature to us, is in reality a vast, intelligent machine with trees for network hubs, direhorses and banshees are robots and the Navi are always already self-aware, artificially intelligent avatars. Pandora is the posthuman eden of the singularity.

The point that Cameron is trying to make is not that nature is better than civilization, or that the noble savage is better than the compromised careerist. Instead he is collapsing the distinction between the two perspectives. What gets the humans of Avatar in trouble is separating technology from nature. Unobtainium is an exploitable resource that is not viewed in context but only seen for its explicit value to the humans. The Navi are viewed as primitive because the humans fail to see how they exist within the larger system of Pandora which is, in fact, technology more advanced than anything they possess. They are defeated by their own hubris and failure to understand the big picture, while Sully and his friends succeed through team-building and strong relationships with the Navi.

In Cameron's world you can't succeed by trying to control the system from the outside; you have to surrender to its internal logic and discover its intrinsic worth. You have to immerse yourself, even if it requires IMAX 3D. The world is more than what it can give you. The unsinkable Titanic will always fail to account for icebergs and the cold of the northern Atlantic, but you can still fall in love and become king of the world.