Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Avatard: Exit the World

It’s time I admitted to one of my problems. I have a tendency to get sucked in. I see the writing on the wall, read Nostradamus’ predictions, call Miss Cleo, do a statistical analysis, or whatever metaphor you want to use, and still think the outcome might somehow be different than what it’s obviously going to be. In their song “I’m the Fool,” my favorite band New Found Glory says it best: “I’m the fool who knows your tricks and still they take a hold of me.” Call me Dagny Taggart because maybe I have too much hope in humanity, but my inner contradiction bubbled up again upon the marketing campaign of James Cameron’s latest epic, Avatar.

The advertisements bombarded me daily. It’s in 3D! It has Uhura from Star Trek! It’s in 3D like no movie has been in 3D before! It has Ana Lucia from LOST! It’s in 3D in a way that’s going to revolutionize movie making forever and make 3D the standard to the point that ESPN is making a 3D network! It has Sigourney Weaver! Oh, it has Sigourney Weaver? Sure, no problem, I’ll ignore the writing in favor of the spectacle.

Here’s the problem with that promise: The novelty of witnessing the 3D technology being used to add depth to the picture, rather than having items pop out at the viewer, wore off midway through the first act. I was forced to pay attention to the horrible characterization and plot points. The dumbest person in the movie was the head of the corporation, because we all know you reach the top of a company by being dumb. The meanest person in the movie was the head of security, because we all know the best way to keep things secure is to extort people and use force to impose your will. The most likeable people in the movie were the crippled ex-military guy turned scientist by happenstance, the dorky scientist, the Indian scientist, the head scientist who hates all things corporate because they are diametrically opposed to her ideals, and the pilot who works security for the corporation but eventually sides with the scientists.

Actually, that’s all wrong. The most likeable people aren’t people at all, but the Na’vi, the native race to the planet of Pandora, which is a giant internet. You see, the Na’Vi interface with the planet and its animals using tendrils in their hair. Once connected, they download and upload data in a symbiotic relationship with the mother goddess Eywa. Eywa takes care of them, and they, in turn, respect the planet. All is well in the land of the Na’Vi, which the cripple soon learns.

Ex-marine Jake Sully no longer has use of his legs and is identical to his murdered twin brother, making him the perfect person to take over his brother’s Avatar, a remotely controlled replica of a Na’Vi that you interface with by sleeping. These replicas are necessary because Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans and the scientists want to study and befriend the Na’Vi while the corporation wants to conduct reconnaissance on them with the goal of obtaining a mineral named unobtanium. Yes, it’s called unobtanium, and it can’t be obtained because a Na’Vi tribe lives over where it’s buried.

Predictably, Jake meets the Na’Vi tribe, falls in love with Pocahontas, I mean Neytiri, the tribe’s princess, and identifies more with their race than humans because apparently not being able to walk means you’re no longer human. Eventually, he takes part in all their rituals, learning the superiority of their culture along the way, and leads them to victory over the humans in the climactic third act war.

However, what’s most disturbing about this movie is not the hackneyed writing and regurgitation of anti-humanity pro-environmental rhetoric; it’s the response from the audience. The most common defense of the movie has come to be, “Ignore the writing and appreciate the beauty.” The difficulty here is that statement speaks to a person’s definition of beauty, and to “appreciate” the beauty of Avatar, you must hold a definition of beauty that is impossible and debilitating to yourself. When watching Avatar, I was reminded of Frank Miller’s Sin City or The Spirit. Miller does some interesting things with the cinematography, but his techniques are so alienating that I struggled to identify with anything in the movies and had no desire to see them ever again. Likewise, with Avatar, the bright almost florescent colors made me feel like I was looking at a giant fish tank wondering how boring and depressing life must be trapped in a world where all you’re allowed to do is satisfy your most basic urges.

In contrast, the people who found Avatar beautiful had such an experience because they believed in the superiority of that world to our own. Check out the following article:

Audiences experience 'Avatar' blues

The gist is this: people are becoming depressed after seeing Avatar because they’re realizing life will never be as beautiful as the movie. To drive home this point, here are a couple quotes:
“The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don't have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed."

“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed ... gray. It was like my whole life, everything I've done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so ... meaningless. I still don't really see any reason to keep ... doing things at all. I live in a dying world."

Avatar is the logical progression of our computer culture. It is the motion picture version of games like World of Warcraft, which was well skewered by South Park, Second Life, and The Sims and social networking platforms like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. These items all serve as proxy for the user, giving him a level of control he doesn’t naturally have so that he’s able do, say, and be things he can’t in reality. Avatar is the motion picture version of this phenomenon, and escalates it to a dangerous level. Not only does it attack human constructs such as culture, but it passes a negative judgment on objective reality, telling its viewers it’s ok to evade and wish the world worked in a way counter to what is logically possible.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy genres have always contained impossibilities of reality, but what makes these elements compelling is they exist within the framework of reality to simultaneously ask us what if and reveal truths. Compare the supposed beauty of Avatar, a jumbled mess of overbearing colors of the completely fictional planet Pandora , to the actual beauty of District 9, an exaggerated reproduction of the real country of South Africa. When you take the metaphysical reality out of these genres, and fiction in general, all you’re left with is intellectual porn. And, truthfully, that is only a disturbing thought to consider because Cameron and company like to pretend Avatar doesn’t belong beside Michael Bay’s vision of Transformers.


Anonymous said...

When you take the metaphysical reality out of these genres, and fiction in general, all you’re left with is intellectual porn.

I would like you to explain how metaphysics separates from fiction. Do you think such a rupture possible?

Daniel T. Richards said...

I'm interested to read Justin's answer to your question, Anonymous, if he decides to reply. Your question is a little muddled, though. Could you clarify?

Nonetheless, I'll take a stab...

I would argue that since authors cannot recreate the world in its entirety, they choose to highlight what is metaphysically important to them. This choice tells us a lot about authors. If authors focus on pain and suffering with no regard of happiness, then their personal worldview is one in which misery takes precedence.

Science fiction is an interesting genre since it necessarily deals with the non-real. What makes "good" science fiction, then, is analyzing and describing how characters act under new metaphysically-given circumstances--e.g., how humans would live if the laws of physics suddenly changed.

Fiction becomes "intellectual porn" when authors focus more on the non-real itself rather than the interaction of the real within the non-real. An obsession with what-can-never-be becomes mystical whim worship.

Cameron's movie--from what I hear since I refuse to see it (so take this example for what it's worth)--highlights the relationship of the Na'Vi to their planet in a symbiotic way that, under metaphysically-given circumstances in reality, is impossible to achieve.

It's not simply a message-movie about being better stewards of the environment. It's a pantheon to an impossibility. It's Cameron's howl of, "This is the way I wish the world worked!" with complete disregard for how the world actually works.

And that's what makes it's porn--i.e., stimulation without values.

Of course, Cameron is not the sole proprietor of cinematic smut. There's plenty to go around these days.

(If I completely missed the point of your question, then I say, "Oops" and eagerly await Justin's response.)

Jayemel said...


Thank you for the question. It's an important and difficult one.

From Dan's angle, I think he has provided a satisfactory answer, though it's not possible to have fiction that is 100% metaphysically false, because it's impossible to construct a world without some element of reality. I mean, there are humans in Avatar. They do speak. Pandora does have gravity. Etc.

I am not sure your question was going in that direction however, so I will answer it from another angle.

The difference between metaphysics and fiction, what separates them, is that metaphysics is about discovering what is, fiction is about engaging yourself in an enjoyable discussion of how you deal with what is without real consequences. For instance, watching 24 tonight, by watching Jack Bauer, I could ask myself constructing a hierarchy of values and how that process affects my life. I could only do so because the circumstances and consequences regarding the decision he made were metaphysically real. He had to choose between exercising his talents, what he is good at, and a promise he made to his family.

Essentially, it's a difference of forum and intention. Although, it would be interesting to consider if fiction could be used within metaphysics.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Richards,

Thank you for replying. And rereading my question, I agree with your assessment of it-muddled, indeed. Your answer, however, is clear and reasonable. I refuse to see Avatar also. Something about it seems repugnant to me. Perhaps it is the notion of sitting in a theater full of catatonic jellyfish all wearing 3D glasses. After reading Jayemel's impressive analysis of the film, its seeming repugnance must be a certainty.

Your definition of porn as "stimulation without values" is very well said. When you say, "a pantheon to an impossibility," I get the feeling there is much thought behind this idea, and that it implicitly references more than Avatar. You must have several books within you waiting to be written. The phrase also raises interesting questions about the Pantheon in Rome, I think.

I'm sorry that I'm not really responding to your answer of my original question. I think I'd venture beyond my intellectual depth were I to analyze your response. I agree with what you say, and I think looking at the idea of metaphysics and fiction from the author's perspective is correct. I will say this, returning to the beginning: in posing the question of how metaphysics (which Jayemel insightfully and concisely defines as "discovering what is") might differentiate itself from fiction, and having read both your reply and Jayemel's, I now see why you rightly called it muddled, for I think what I was trying to articulate was a problem inherent to Narrative, which is really a problem of History. It is at this point that I think Jayemel's statement that it would be interesting to see if fiction could be used within metaphysics applies. See what I mean? Beyond my intellectual depth.


Have you seen the film Watchmen? Having read your deconstruction of Avatar, I'd love to know your thoughts on Watchmen. In my opinion, if Avatar is a heating lamp, then Watchmen is the sun; albeit a sun the movie-going public is not ready to look at yet, since it would no doubt blind them.

Jayemel said...


Don't be afraid to venture beyond your "intellectual depth." Also, don't disparage your "intellectual depth." If you're asking such comments and enjoying such discussions, you must be pretty smart.

In regards to Watchmen, I have seen it (and read the graphic novel). I believe it's the best movie of 2009, and is one of my all time personal favorites. Maybe I'll write an analysis of it one day.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the kind words. I agree with you that Watchmen is the best, and most subversive, movie of 2009.

I hope your analysis of it comes sooner rather than later.

Xenodox said...

This has nothing like the intellectual depth of some of the discussion I've seen here, but then neither do the majority of the audience members.

I would say another factor in why audiences liked Avatar so much would be the simple fact that most people don't READ science fiction, or watch science fiction movies; much the same reason there are so many people who swear Robert Jordan is the greatest fantasist ever, and when challenged with questions as to the breadth of their reading in the genre, reply "he's the only one I've read."

If you've never seen (serious) science fiction, and you go see Avatar, I can imagine that it's probably easy to miss the total intellectual and moral nullity of the movie while being dazzled by the visuals.

But anyone who has read more than one book, and experienced anything to provide a basis for comparison will immediately realize the vacuum that exists at the heart of the movie, and its total lack of moral support for any of its characters' actions.

In addition to which, it caters to its intended audience quite well, that being the Playstation generation. When the climactic fight between the security officer and Sully began, my fiancee turned to me and said "Is this supposed to be the boss fight?"

Calling this intellectual porn is an insult to porn. At least porn provides a backdrop for YOUR imagination to create fantasy; this movie holds your hand every step of the way, refusing you even the slightest mental engagement with it, yet the message it attempts to flail into your paralyzed neurons is both morally empty and without value even as speculation.