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Avatar: Digital Environ-Mentalism

My critical analysis of Avatar rests upon a simple premise: there is a jarring disconnect between the content of the film and the form in which it is executed. Let me explain.

The film's story has already come under fire for a variety of critical reasons: it's weak (tepid romantic epic); it's derivative (Dances With Wolves in Space); it's imperialistic (indigenous population saved by white man in indigenous disguise). I would argue, however, that the true content of the film is the espousal of a very particular brand of ecological politics. The film signals this at the outset when we encounter characters traveling to outer space in order to procure resources exhausted on earth. While this motif is not by any means new to science fiction, what accelerates the narrative into a thoroughly ecological mode is the desirability of Pandora-as-fetish-object.  This planet, Cameron's dream-child, is the visualization of a whole host of ecological metaphors. It is a perfectly "balanced" "ecosystem" where the "bond" between the humanoids and the rest of the environment is actually affected through a physical entanglement; an almost orgiastic inter-penetration of the follicular ends of their hair with a similar appendage in the creatures to which they attach.

Further, the planet is a deified Mother entity, Awai, a near approximation of Lovelock's Gaia, which was originally intended to operate as a personified metaphorization of the totality of processes on Earth. In Avatar, the interconnectedness of all things through Awai is most explicitly visualized in the final battle scenes when all of the animals, stirred by this spirit, come to fight on behalf of the Na'vi. As these examples attest, the type of ecological affectation present in the film resonates with (still persistent) 20th Century beliefs in "Mother Nature," "balance," and "unity." The political program of such an affectation, when faced with an ecological crisis such as resource depletion, tends to be primitive-pastoral: i.e. the return to earlier, hunter-gatherer forms of existence, rather than technological-utopic: i.e. the overcoming of environmental limit through direct intervention into natural process.  This is what makes the indigenous tribe so appealing: they approximate our own myths of (lost) environmental balance, so that the future of science fiction becomes the past of the American Indian.

Our alignment then, as audience members masked in 3D goggle, is with the indigenous tribe, presented to us as both our past and our future. We begin to root for them (quite vociferously in the screening I attended) to a) destroy the white man who is trying to steal their land, thus allowing us a revisionist moment of American history where, for the majority of viewers, we eradicate ourselves, and b) to destroy the white man's technological prowess. This is where the radical disconnect between form and content begins to make us feel schizophrenic. Because at exactly the same time, Cameron has us both optimistically hoping that a slew of bow and arrows will overcome the technological behemoth of the invading party, and, masked in 3D goggle at IMAX theater, passionately engaging in a spectacular celebration of the technological innovations of the film itself.

So while we thought we were rooting against the technological-utopic, we are actually in full support of it. It is Cameron's achievement in terms of digital effects: the seamless merging of live action, motion capture, and CGI shots; the invention of a new 3D stereoscopic camera that blend[s] recorded and synthetic environments; the perfect alignment of the optical stereo images (right and left eye shots) for 3D effects, that draws us in droves to the theatres. Cameron has famously touted his quest to present the cinema viewer with an immersive environment, and, as 1700 of the shots are digital (an estimated 60% of the film), this immersive environment is unquestionably synthetic.

So if the content of the film at first glance is an ecological one: the desire to obtain Pandora-as-fetish-object, then all of it: the lush visual landscapes, the neon luminescence of the night scenes, the tangible materiality of the bulbous plants that disappear upon touch, the delicacy of the floating seedpods, everything about Pandora that suggests a kind of vibrant fecundity, an environment that is completely satisfying in biological, material, and aesthetic terms, is digital. The idealized eco-environment is a product of binary code. Which means that, formally, it is an extended commentary against a primitive-pastoral return to bows and arrows. The digital is many things. Primitive is not one of them. The film answers the ecological problematic it poses at the level of content with a technological reply: if you exhaust the "greenness" of your home planet, we will synthesize a new one for you.




Lisa: I'm not sure I share your sense of a clear distinction between the primative and the technological or synthetic in the flim. 

Idealizating an anti-technological pastoral is, I agree, somewhat crude and dissatisfying, even when opposed to a corporate-military complex explicitly allusive to recent US military excursions ("bring the war to them," etc.)  I'm not sure the film's content is quite so dismissive of various forms of technology, however. It's worth asking, for example, whether (spoiler alert!) Jake Sully's avatar is "synthetic" even in the final scene.

Also - though the film is indeed highly synthetic at a formal level (computer simulation, etc.), I don't think this form of technology is necessarily any less biological or material than high definition film.  Of course this depends whether you want to count the "biology" of a film actor's physical body given its (slightly) less mediated relationship to the audience - but Avatar seems to hope for its 3-D form to develop an immediate/material relationship of sorts to the physical world around us.  I'm not sure 3-D really succeeds in this aim - but I think there are ways in which digital technologies do in fact help us relate to (or at least re-think) our relationship to various forms of the primative or the material or the everyday - or even the ecological world (I'm thinking, for example, of the film Wall-e, which I enjoyed much more than Avatar).


Hi Scott,

You're right to highlight the word "synthetic" as potentially problematic, especially considering that its common usage typically connotes the "fake" or "artificial." I agree that the synthetic is material and employ it more to signify an act of creation: an intervention in a chemical or material or biological process. The synthetic, then, is a mediation, which almost makes the 3D goggles of the filmic experience (as further mediation) redundant. At the level of content then, I am not sure that this type of intervention, on the part of the Na'vi, exists. They seem to be in such perfect concordance with their environment that any direct manipulation is unnecessary (unless we include prayer which, in this setting, appears to have material effects). I also interpret the ending--where Jake must be transferred from his human to his avatar form--as a kind of injunction: in order for him to remain on Pandora, he must exist in an unmediated state. But I am curious about your take.   


Interesting idea: perhaps the tail-plugging is a way in which the Na'vi experience of their environment is mediated?  There is a sense that they "plug in" to the world (virtual riding, flying, sex. etc.), but you're right that this interaction is one of perfect concord, even if it's difficult or dangerous to fly the teradactyls at first.  Perhaps the fantasy is of perfect mediation, as opposed to un-mediation.

I suppose I would use the same logic to deal with the ending: Jake's avatar seems to be a kind of biological robot, so he is mediated (perfectly) through a technological past and mystical/pastoral present.  The relationship between technology and biology is to some extent indeterminate.  But I agree - the entire point of the ending seems to be a kind of celebration of (regressively) abandoning technological infastructure (though the Na'vi seem to hold on to the weapons!)  Not exactly Star Trek.


My take on the film focused much more directly on genre analysis, but oddly it winds up in the same place, the discovery that contrary to the logic of the plot is the technological invaders who may ultimately "win":

"... I worry about the consequences of an ideology in which science and military aggression are bound up tightly together through a science fictional aesthetic of extrapolative realism -- against which any form of resistance, alas, is just pure fantasy. If this is our binary -- science fiction and disaster vs. fantasy and hope -- outside the narrative’s terms it’s science fiction and disaster that emerges victorious. After all, as we leave the theater, recycle our 3-D glasses, and rub our eyes to adjust to the light outside the theater, it’s Colonel Quaritch’s world, not Neytiri’s, into which we must make our exit -- and this, after the fact, is his extratextual triumph."

Another friend's review reached a nicely compatible conclusion, having had this revelation upon leaving the theater briefly to hit the restroom:

"Somewhere near the middle of James Cameron’s three-hour long sci-fi spectacle, Avatar, I had to pee. The “medium” Diet Pepsi I’d been nursing was making its presence known in my bladder and the matter was just becoming too urgent to ignore. So I waited until I perceived a relative lull in the narrative, took off my 3-D glasses and exited the theater for the men’s room. In the fluorescent glare of the bathroom it occurred to me that I was experiencing a little meta-moment at the movies. The film is in large part about a guy (our hero) who uses fancy technology to enter a different world and experience things unlike the things he’s used to experiencing. In the course of the film he goes into and out of that new world by connecting to or being disconnected from that technology. And here I was, under the bright men’s room light, having been disconnected from my own fantastic world by disconnecting from technology — my 3-D glasses. The real world (while also technically in 3-D) was vastly less exciting and exotic than the one playing out in the room down the hall from me at that moment. After relieving myself, I went back and reconnected myself to the technology and hence to the virtual experience of the film, making a mental note about this insight so I could blog about it later in yet another virtual world."

The film's final miraculous leap -- that we could *actually* embody our Avatars and stay, permanently unmediated, in Pandora forever -- can of course never actually be made; instead, our prostheses will always fall short, and we always awake in our human bodies on this world, not that dreamed/synthetic one.


Anonymous (not verified)

The synthetic world of Cameron's film was not explicated in some shots.He has tried to ignore these by creating schizophenic feelings.But his created intimacy between human and Pandora's people by creating romanticism is really appreciated.Moreover, the sense to eradicate deforestation and to build up mentality for ensuring a green lively world for next generation as well as ourselves by creating special effective shot's on Pandora's calm and tranquil condition is really admirable.