January 19, 2010

There are a lot of well-publicised problems with Avatar: the not-so-subte racism inherent to the white saviour narrative (see image below), the ironic fact that a movie that blatantly demonizes technology and capitalism is set to be the highest grossing film of all time, and the clunky story built from obvious archetypes and a complete lack of narrative imagination (see image below). Most critics have argued that the CGI spectacle compensates for the uninspired story, but its hard to imagine another recent blockbuster where form and content have been so dependent upon one another.
I went and saw Avatar early last week. I paid $12 to recline in a comfy chair, slip on my 3D glasses, and become immersed in a hyper-realistic world called Pandora. What interested me about the film was the way it seemed to parallel other recent high grossing sci-films, such as The Matrix. In both films we are exposed to two conflicting worlds: one whose beauty allows us to be complacent, and another much bleaker world ruled by technology. Both films treat this relationship differently, however, in each case, the act of plugging in is the crucial point of access to a world where anything is possible: an obvious analogy for the freedom of cyberspace.

Human explorers have discovered that Pandora is home to a highly valuable resource, "unobtainium." Because he shares the DNA of his highly gifted and well-trained brother, Jake Sully gets ownership of the healthy body of a Na'vi. He has been ordered to use this body for military reconnaissance, but there's also an altruistic science team (headed by Sigourney Weaver, who also has an avatar at her disposal) that Jake is supposed to answer to.

In Avatar the network (called "Mother All") exists within the planet of Pandora. The Na'vi have a special relationship with their planet accessed through a network cable that shoots out of the back of their heads (covered by a braid). This allows them to plug in to their environment, a variety of animals, and to each other.
Naturally, Jake Sulley not only begins to identify with the Na'vi, but is constantly feeling more at home in his new, "better" body (for more on the film's treatment of physical wounds, see K-Punk's fantastic write-up). Of course, Jake gets his wish. In the end he leaves his disabled body behind and becomes one of the Na'vi. Why would he ever want to go back? A holistic world of hyper-real beauty and limitless possibility sounds a hell of a lot better than a fragmentary world defined by humanity's violent past. It's not difficult to see the parallels with cyberspace, but ultimately, I think, this film (like The Matrix, although in a different way) betrays a deep disdain for the real world and a disavowal of history.

Jake Sulley's desires are finally satisfied when he passes from human to Na'vi, from the gnostic imaginary to a fully present hyper-reality. Unlike the rest of his naive species (who have done everything in their power to attain "unobtainium"), Sulley leaves behind this sort of organized desire and is immersed in a new world where desire is realized in the natural network of Pandora. As Graham Ward writes in Cities of God, "The gratification of human desire comes in the experience of the presence of the present. There is no remembrance in cyberspace, only a memory bank for the retrieval of arbitrary pieces of information."

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