Avatar: Transhumanist Perspective

Fox promotional wallpaper for Avatar
Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox - promotional wallpaper from Avatar

[REVIEW] [SPOILERS] – James Cameron’s “Avatar” is an astonishing and must-see movie. It is also a huge disappointment. What follows is a spoiler-rich dissection of an industry in transition, and it is best read after you see “Avatar” for yourself.

Astonishing

For movie audiences, “Avatar” offers nothing less than a revolution in audiovisual entertainment. Cameron draws the viewer into the new world of Pandora with a seamless blending of CGI, live action, and 3-D, creating an immersive experience unlike any film to date. Viewers are going to be going back again and again to experience Pandora and its flora and fauna; yes, Pandora is that rich. For all the promise of CGI, it was unclear just when the technology would be able to capture our most vivid dreamscapes. With “Avatar” that time is now.

Viewing making-of video for segments like Jake’s first glorious Banshee ride and Zoe Saldana amazing motion-capture performance indicate just how much filmmaking itself has being revolutionized by Cameron. Filmmakers are going to be turning to this approach in droves. Cameron also deserves accolades for his achievements in directing this epic. He is a master of moving through scenes, real or virtual. His skills are always on display, whether in long shots featuring vistas of Pandora with Polyphemus and its other moons in the sky, dynamic camera movements in action scenes, or closeups of Jake during his video logs and other personal moments.

Disappointing

“Avatar” enhances filmmaking with cutting-edge technologies to create a new kind of movie-going experience. As a story, however, the film’s plot is a disappointing failure. Not only is the story derivative, but it is ultimately too simplistic and naive. There is no subtlety in the conflict between the noble people of Pandora – the Na’Vi – and their human antagonists. Nature will beat technology because Cameron has chosen hypocrisy: all that money, time, and labor to build and use incredible new technology for telling stories through film and “Avatar” still ends up being an attack on technology and progress. The Na’Vi have eschewed most technology and like the Ewoks before them rise up to defeat a more technologically-advanced adversary. It is sad that a director who has parlayed his interest in science, art, and technology into a career that has continuously pushed filmmaking beyond the cutting-edge would write a story that so vilifies technology and progress. Not once in this movie do the protagonists appreciate or acknowledge the very technology that allowed them to be where they are. Jake seems to take for granted the technologies that brought him to Pandora and allowed him to leave his crippled body behind for the vital human/alien hybrid body cloned for him.

Promotional wallpaper from "Avatar"
Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox - promotional wallpaper from Avatar

Also appalling is how the plot refuses to acknowledge current trends in emerging technologies. Set in the 22nd century, “Avatar” cannot rise above the early 21st century in most of the technologies, social norms, and speech patterns depicted. We are told that in a time of interstellar travel, cloning, human/alien hybrids, and Amplified Mobility Platform suits, medicine in the 22nd century cannot treat Jake’s paraplegia economically and evolving language cannot provide Colonel Quaritch with better quotes than “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” In “Avatar”, for every artifact like transparent monitors and mind transfer pods there are artifacts like mugs and wheelchairs that seem to be little changed from today. These conspire to pull the audience out of the movie, even as Pandora itself draws them in.

Rapid technological progress is turning science fiction into reality. Science fiction in movies and television today must acknowledge this fact or risk the same backlash that has nearly decimated written science fiction. Those who are emerging technology aware can only suspend their disbelief so much; as these ideas become more mainstream, audiences are going to expect storytelling that acknowledges the real wonders already emerging around us.

“Avatar” required a script to honor and explore the same progress that led Cameron to complete a movie he once shelved because technology was not far enough along to realize his vision. Unfortunately, the script fails to do this. Instead, the movie now stands as a stunning vision of the future and uncomfortable reminder of the past. Someone will soon marry a brilliant script with this filmmaking technology, resulting in an immersive experience that not only engages the eyes, ears, and heart, but also the brain. As it stands, “Avatar” indicates not only a revolution in filmmaking that will transform entertainment, but one that will bring about the end of movies, television, and gaming as we know them today.

The End

In “Avatar” as in all other movies, passive audiences depend on the director to take them through the film’s world. We are guided by the director’s expert hands through visuals as they apply to the plot and the director’s particular vision. Despite Cameron’s expertise, during “Avatar” I found myself wishing over and over again to explore something in more detail that he did not. I wanted to linger on new vistas that brought with them a gasp of astonishment, only to be thwarted by a director that had other concerns. This became increasingly frustrating until I could only sigh in reluctance as we moved on for a poor story that had to be told in a set amount of time.

More movies are going to be made in this way while resolution improves and the 3-D becomes more and more immersive. The same technology will migrate to television and eventually even amateurs will have access. As movie theaters adapt and 3-D televisions start flooding the consumer electronics market, there will be few if any vistas, real or imagined, that cannot be captured on film. Studios and independent efforts will mine the richest fantasy and science fiction in comics and books. They will remake genre films that could benefit from these new tools and they will adapt these tools for romances, dramas, and documentaries. However, all of this media will still be limited by linear storytelling and the expectation that directors draw audiences through their film along predestined paths. As rich as these films will become, audiences will become frustrated with their passive role. Audiences will begin to demand participation.

The first filmmakers to merge this immersive filmmaking technology with the interactivity and immediacy of video games will bring about the end of television, movies, and gaming as we know them today. Audiences will walk through and experience entertainment with all of their senses. The Metaverse will serve as the medium for this new entertainment, relegating older forms of entertainment to nostalgic, in-world depictions on virtual walls. This immersive digital future is already writ large in bright neon letters across the end of the 2010s. With “Avatar”, Cameron has given us our first real look at what the future of entertainment will be like, while demonstrating the limitations of current forms of entertainment.

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.

4 thoughts on “Avatar: Transhumanist Perspective”

  1. I wasn’t sure, at first, if I wanted to dignify this article with a response, but here goes:
    First of all, the story does NOT vilify technology and progress; it vilifies the destruction of nature for economic gains, as well as the use of technology for the destruction of nature. The technology that allowed Cameron to make this film was not detrimental to the environment. Second of all, your thoughts and comments about the “social norms” and other aspects of the movie were obviously not thought-out. You made a comment about the ability to treat Jake’s paraplegia “economically,” but in the movie, the Earth’s economy is in the crapper, which is why they’re mining on Pandora in the first place. Also, the colonel says, “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” because it’s a famous phrase that will be around forever; it’s also something that the audience can relate to and enjoy. What is he supposed to say, “you’re not in galaxy B-42 anymore”? The audience wouldn’t understand that and it would lose its humor. That brings me to my final point: “I found myself wishing over and over again for him to explain something in more detail…” For the sake of getting the movie done and keeping the audience focused on the main point of the story, they kept the detail to a minimum. The movie would have been well over six hours long if they had sat there and explained every little detail, such as how the mountains float or how those hammock things work. I remember when viewers had something called imagination, and weren’t afraid to use it. Nowadays, everyone wants things spelled out for them because they’re too dull minded to figure it out or interpret it in their own way. Whiny, narrow-minded people like you are the reason the world is in such bad shape. This article makes me want to pull my hair out.

  2. I disagree with both. I think the first response is irrational and overly reactionary. And missed the point, likely from being a little too caught up in subjective reaction to really think outside the box. That, or just would rather nitpick than roll with the fact it’s his article and it doesn’t need to mirror your thoughts word for word, long as you get the gist of the concept.

    At any rate, agreed the story itself was far too simplistic for this amazing new visual delight, but the story didn’t suck in and of itself…it’s still fiction. We got the same superficial, one dimensional tale in Spiderman. It is true that Jake came off as unappreciative on the whole, and took for granted all the technology that allowed any of this to even be possible. And it is true that the plot was stripped out of Bush’s headlines (or any for that matter) when it “could” have been any number of things.

    The upside is that the technology blasts open the doors to other filmmakers who have other stories to tell, so we will be seeing the exquisiteness of Avatar in the future. I share the vision/hope for a more immersive experience and a revolution in our current media.

    On a final note, now that Cameron’s broken ground, I think he seriously needs to cater to those of us who weren’t finished exploring the wonderland of Pandora and get on the ball making for us a breathtaking standalone feature called Pandora…. (i.e. Fantasia 2010)

Comments are closed.