leaving the world: avatar
‘If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when he awoke — Aye, and what then?’
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
As my friend Liezel said, it’s not Woody Allen, is it? I know what she means. Not that Allen’s movies are particularly cool or cerebral these days anyway; and Emmerich knows there are plenty cruder, more clichéd films. But there are few movies on the commercial circuit that convey their clichés with such starry-eyed conviction, or where the stakes are quite as high. In a decade of CGI-dominated, predictable films, what sets Avatar apart — what makes it both worth fascinating and troubling—is the naïveté of its message, the lyricism with which it presents its utterly unconscious material, the starkness of its moral universe, and the manipulative and crude way it resolves its central contradictions. I’ve seen it twice now: each time I came prepared to see its flaws — the first time because of negative word of mouth; the second because, well, it was the second time — and each time I found myself swept along heedlessly, transported by the sheer lyricism of the moviemaking. And each time I felt flat and disappointed the next day, as if whatever had held me the night before had turned to dust.
The plot is simple: humanity is colonizing a jungle planet (actually a moon orbiting a gas giant) rather wonderfully named Pandora. The RDA corporation is strip-mining Pandora for a valuable mineral with the cringe-making name of Unobtainium. The chief obstacle in their way is not only the local environment (the atmosphere is poisonous; and the jungle is a dense, teeming Darwinian hell) but also the natives, a humanoid species called the Na’vi. They are physically formidable (they have carbon fibre in their bones, are about twelve foot tall and —the leathery Marine captain in charge of security tells us — they hard to kill); but more to the point, they are opposed to the human presence in their forest. A team of anthropologists have been trying to ‘civilize’ the Na’vi and to study them; as part of doing this (to build trust, I guess, and to avoid being killed) they don’t meet them physically: instead, they have their consciousnesses projected into vat-grown alien bodies – the Avatar of the title. The hero, Jake Sully, gets lost in the jungle in avatar form and accidentally ends up among a clan of the Na’vi called the Omaticaya. Instead of violent barbarians, he finds, they are sophisticated primitives; prelapsarian stone-agers living poetically in tune with their environment. Far from being a hell-hole, the forest is their paradise, and their spirituality is the worship of Eywa, a Gaia-like Mother Goddess embodied in a sacred tree. Forced to make a choice, Sully goes over to their side, and organizes the resistance that sends the colony – and humanity – packing.
This is all familiar territory, of course. The plot is an old science fiction standard; large sections of it (particularly Miles Quaritch, the redneck ex-Marine security man) seem to have been lifted bodily from an old Ursula Le Guin novelette called The Word for World is Forest (Quaritch is the spitting image of Le Guin’s Captain Davidson, whom she calls the most one-dimensional character she ever created). And within the frame of this story, James Cameron and John Landau have decided to bludgeon us with every noble-savage, white-man-loved-the-Chieftain’s-daughter cliché and stereotype in the book. From the word go, you know how it is going to unfold. It’s going to be Pocahontas meets Platoon. It’s going to be The Mission meets Dances with Wolves. The natives are going to be noble savages; the chief is going to be dignified and wise; his wife will be a sangoma with dreads and second sight; there will be a jealous brave who wants to kill Jake in the beginning but who becomes his comrade in the end; the aliens will be willowy and high-cheekboned; they will spout Buddhist koans; they will be wisely in touch with nature and the spirit world … but most of all, it will be a white man – oops, sorry, a human being – who awakens the natives from their rapturous trance and rescues them from the evil corporation. And so it all in fact unfolds. Moreover, all of it happens without a trace of irony, cheesy dialogue and all.
And yet, and yet. And yet the movie draws you in; and at times manages to move and enthrall. What is interesting about Avatar is the way in which it manages to bring off this predictable story, manages you to suck you into its world; not in spite of but because of the clichés.
One of the ways in which it does this is through its gorgeous visual texture. In one sense, the centre of the movie is not its story, nor its actors, but the visual technology of the film itself – the hallucinatory beauty achieved through the mixing of 3D digital film making, live action and computer animation. Cameron famously waited for more than a decade for motion-capture technology to become advanced enough for his project, and it seems in this respect at least he is completely vindicated. The sophisticated animation techniques give filmmakers an imaginative reach and power not seen in film before: if nothing else, science fiction and animated films will never be the same again after Avatar. More specifically, the film works because Cameron has succeeded in translating into movement (and into three dimensions) the visual and imaginary language of decades of psychedelic SF art. For me, that was a large part of the visual pleasure of the film. As a boy who loved science fiction, one of my greatest treasures was Brian Ash’s sumptuous Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which I got, I seem to remember, for my thirteenth birthday; a book that catalogued the way in which SF art progressed from those crude early twentieth century magazine covers (Frank R Paul’s garish covers for Amazing Stories, for instance) to the psychedelic and otherworldly images invented by the airbrush artists of the 1970s. I remember hours spent gazing raptly at the strange, evocative visions of those artists : Stephen Hickman, Michael Whelan, and, above all, Roger Dean.
This, by the way is one rather interesting aspect of the film: no-one who has encountered the art of Roger Dean (many will know him from those Yes album covers) could fail to experience a shock of recognition. Those strange, spindly, dragonfly-like spaceships; the unearthly sculpted landscape, the flying lizard creatures, the flying islands – all of these seem not just to be quotes from Roger Dean, but straight cribs. Yet Dean does not seem to get any recognition in the credits. As one fan site notes, when life imitates art, it’s one thing, but when art imitates art, it’s another.
But more is going on here than visual wizardry and artistic plagiarism. In a way, what the movie does visually is to split the world into two realms: the technological world of the Corporation, all steel and bulkheads, shot in grim, greyed-out colours, and the magical world of the jungle, which is presented as a fairyland. And I mean that literally. In a sense, the visual disjuncture in the movie marks (or perhaps hides) a genre disjuncture, for it seems to me that in emotional, genre and mythographic terms the jungle aspects of the movie are not science fiction at all, but fantasy. In entering the world of the jungle, Jake Sully enters the realm of Faerie – not another physical realm but another world entirely. This is particularly obvious in the sequences where Jake first arrives at Home Tree, the natives’ city-in-the-branches. Butterflies all round, glowing mushrooms, silver leaves, gargantuan trees with buttresses spiraling into the light: this is not Pandora, this is Lothlórien; and the aliens are not humanoids from another planet, they are Tolkien’s Elves, imbued with all the powers and qualities proper to them.
Middle-Earth, of course, is an interesting place. It serves many ideological and psychological functions and holds many projections; but one of the most important achievements of Tolkien’s mythos is how it connected myth and archetype with, on the one hand, a distinctively late twentieth-century environmental imaginary (remember this about Gandalf: he was always the only wizard who really understood trees) and, on the other hand, a wistful, fey, elegiac romanticism. At the heart of this romanticism, I always think, is a longing for lost innocence, for youth departed; a yearning for the mythical memory of the time that magic was real, when we were one with the world, before we ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.
This is the psychic and symbolic terrain occupied by Avatar; this is what gives it its emotional and psychological charge: its seduction lies in the starry-eyed conviction, the unblinking naïveté, with which it evokes the the possibility of Paradise, of being at one with the world, of living before the Fall. Nowhere is this fey, wild magic more passionately conveyed than in the long sequence where Jake Sully, as part of his rite of passage into Omaticaya manhood, has to capture, vanquish, “imprint” , and ride one of the flying lizards that live in the floating islands in the sky above the mother tree. Again, we are in solid science fiction cliché territory ( in this case, most obviously, the movie evokes Anne McAffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, a series of fantasy bodice-rippers where dragon-riders form a similar life-long bond with their mounts). But the sequence is ravishingly filmed. This is where the Roger Dean imagery really comes into its own. The camera gives us scene after unreal scene of unearthly beauty: the warriors swarming up a steep hill, snagging a passing root-tendril from a floating island, climbing up into the sky… each shot tops the previous one in eldritch weirdness and picturesque unreality. And the animation makes it all seem more real than real, bringing home on the screen the romance of the floating, flying world, the brutal, scaly weight of those lizard bodies, and the sheer thrill of flight. We understand, with a wrench, what this means for Sully, who in real life is wheelchair-bound: his rite of passage seems to have ripped him loose from reality altogether: an ex- Marine with a shattered body, locked in a metal pod connecting him to an artificial avatar, he is transported into this astonishing wonderland, scary and beautiful, in which anything can happen. And we the audience are taken along. Suddenly the plot is forgotten as we watch the lizard riders fly free through the sky; diving down sheer cliffs like so many BASE jumpers, lost in the exultation of flight. To my mind it is one of the most visually intense – and intensely lyrical – sequences cinema has given us in a long time.
But where to take all this? Just as the film’s effectiveness lies in its power to evoke the dream of life before the fall, it is in the context of its evocation of this dream that the film’s ultimate immaturity, and its betrayal of its narrative responsibilities, needs to be grasped. Having created this dichotomy – between the broken world of humanity and the whole one of the aliens, between industrial, technological life and the magical one – the film is posed with the challenge of figuring out how to resolve it. How indeed?
One way is the way charted by Tolkien, at least in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. As you will remember, in both these stories we are continually being reminded that the time of magic is ending. The elves are leaving Middle-Earth; and though Frodo can go with them, sailing to the Western Shores, the last words in the book belong not to Frodo but to Sam. Sam does not get to remain in Fairyland; he has to return home to Rose and the Shire (a Shire which, though it has been spared Pandora-like mining and Industrial Revolution, is now increasingly part of the real world); here Sam will have to labour in his garden and take up adult responsibilities, his feet on the ground. ‘Well I am back,’ he says to Rose, turning his back on the Elvish world; and I have always thought it is a well-nigh perfect ending.
Philip Pullman makes the same point, in a different way, in the Dark Materials trilogy – not only in Will and Lyra’s courageous decision to close the door between the worlds, but also in Pullman’s intellectual debt to Kleists’s essay on the Marionette Theatre. In this essay, Kleist argues that the state of grace embodied in lost youthful innocence cannot and should not be regained. For Kleist, and for Pullman, there is no way back. We are thinking beings now, separate from the world. An angel with a burning sword guards the gate of Paradise. Re-attaining grace requires us to build the Republic of Heaven in this world: we have to go forward, use what we learned from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, forsake innocence, take up adult consciousness.
But the film does not follow this path. It could have done so: we can imagine a movie in which Jake leaves Pandora in its unspoilt wildness, taking the Corporation with him. Or the film could give us the real ending, the outcome we secretly know is inevitable: the World Tree killed, the aliens enslaved and alcoholic, Pandora terraformed, the jungle destroyed or preserved only in isolated natural parks. But this is not the story the film tells; it dares not tell it like this. No: somehow the garden of Eden must triumph… no, more; it must triumph and maintain its original innocence. That is what infantile desire (read: Hollywood convention) requires.
But the problem is that this cannot be achieved without breaking the unwritten rules of satisfying and true fiction. For a fictional victory to be psychologically true, for it to be resonant and satisfying, something must be lost. Frodo has to lose his living connection to Middle-Earth; Will has to lose Lyra; Ged has to give up his power. If nothing is lost, the prize offered by the story will be a hollow clanging shell. And so the movie descends into bathos: a pitched, armed confrontation between the Omaticaya and the forces of the Corporation. With this, despite all the visual wizardry, the movie loses its magic. We are back watching some kind of post-Nam jungle firefight. The point is not only that the Hollywood plot mechanics here are grimly familiar and utterly predictable, right down to that last physical battle between Sully, Neytiri and Quaritch (how many Hollywood movies right now are ending with one key figure fighting a desperate battle in a disintegrating exoskeleton? I count Iron Man, I count District 9, I count Avatar… ) It is that, try as we might, we cannot ignore the uncomfortable fact that Sully prevails only by turning the Na’vi into that which they oppose. One horrible jarring note is struck when we realize that somehow (it is never explained how) the Omaticaya appear to have acquired a lot of modern day electronic battle-comms gear, whispering tersely to one another over earbud headphones and microphones. Another is when the wild beasts of the jungle rise up together against mechanized invasion. This was not supposed to happen: As Neytiri explained earlier, Pandora’s mother-goddess looks after the balance of life and death itself; praying to her for help in an actual battle meant to go one way or the other is to misunderstand what she is about. The creatures of the wild are not supposed to be recruitable for tactical military maneuvres. But this is a Hollywood movie. Paradise may be Paradise, and the Balance of Life and Death is all very well, but if Nature really knew what was good for her, she would be revealed to be at heart American, viz. able to use organized aggression in the defense of Freedom.
And so it goes. The movie supposedly ends in triumph, but there is something anticlimactic about it, with the Earthlings sent packing like so many British colonialists after a particularly successful Boston Tea Party. It all feels contrived and dishonest. And the heart of the dishonesty lies in the film’s refusal to contemplate the possibility of waking up, of coming back from Faerieland.
Waking up, of course, is a difficult challenge. As Jungian analyst Julian Davis often liked to remark (apropos, I think, of the myth of Orpheus), it is easy to enter the Underworld; the hard thing is to bring back into the real world the treasures and the wisdom you found there. As I have argued elsewhere, Chihiro manages it in Spirited Away, going back into teenage life with her unsatisfactory parents, but having established her own connection with the River Spirit. The eponymous heroine in Coraline does not: she abandons the magical world, closing the trapdoor on the possibilities of yearning and desire. Jake Scully, in contrast, follows the path of Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth: Ofelia, you remember, chooses not to go back to the real adult world, opting instead to live in Faerie forever. Similarly the real climax, the final punchline of the movie is not the political resolution of the humans leaving Pandora: it is the last shot, in which Jake’s Avatar’s eyes open, signifying that he has died in his human body, and can live transferred to this artificial one, in this fantasyland, forever.
What is this saying about the culture that made it? Two things stand out. Firstly, and most obviously, like Dances with Wolves and The Mission, the film’s psychological immaturity reflects and enables an underlying political dishonesty. It enables an American, first world audience both to have its cake and eat it. On the surface the film seems to critique present day American imperialism (the head of the mining operation, Parker Selfridge, is a smug, golf-playing, chubby Bush lookalike, and the beefy Quaritch at times appears to spout verbatim Bushisms) but it never undermines the underlying dichotomies and splits that emanate from the colonialist, imperialist viewpoint. The most obvious and juvenile manifestation of it is Scully’s role as rescuer, and the movies cheesiest, falsest note — worse even than that Unobtainium, worse than the battle radio — is the moment when Scully leads the Na’vi in the preparations for battle. ‘This is our land!’ he cries; and the appalling dishonesty of that moment is the dark mirror of the breathless yearning of the dragon flight sequence. Less obvious, but as insidious, is the movie’s shameless exploitation of the noble-savage myth. A lot of what is queasy-making about Avatar is what is queasy-making about a certain kind of alternative modern consciousness in the real world: I am speaking here of the creepy ‘new age’ ideology that deals with an awareness of the unsustainability and violence of modern, industrial life by making ‘primitive people’ and ‘first nations’ the screens on which all our own spiritual and political needs are projected. Queasy-making because of the detachment from real life this split requires and enables: its refusal to acknowledge the reality of our existence in this broken, post-industrial world and its failure to recognise the physical and political reality of the ‘others’ upon which these golden fantasies are projected. (This is what made District 9 so fascinating: in all its evocation of xenophobia and racism, it is a much more honest attempt to imagine the encounter with the alien ‘Other’).
The second thing is this: linked to this detachment is the way the film evokes the power and centrality of notions of virtuality in modern imaginative life. The film’s title and central device is crucial here. Jake Scully’s avatar, at least, is flesh and blood (and, presumably, carbon-fibre strengthened bone), and is, we are told, worth millions. But in the real America, avatars are a dime a dozen. These days, ‘avatar’ does not stand for a divine manifestation; instead it is a word for a few lines of code, a pictogram with which you can denote yourself – and thereby assume a whole new persona — when interacting with others on the Internet. This usage of the word originally comes from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, where people use avatars to inhabit an imaginary virtual universe called the Metaverse. Ten years after Stephenson’s novel, the Metaverse has attained actuality, for example in constructs like Linden’s Second Life, where you (or you avatar) can transport your whole social life into a virtual world, interacting with others, having (virtual) sex, and (crucially) buying property. It all sounds rather awful and boring; but at least it is not real. Reality… reality we don’t want. Not in our dreams.
And this is what Avatar seems to promise, with its gorgeous visual textures, its sumptuous three-D, its notion of projecting your consciousness into another body, another world. It seems to be a metaphor for the experience of cinema itself, for what it can promise. The tagline for the movie is evocative, double edged. Enter the World, it says. But what it really means is, Leave it. The real world is too broken. Industrial civilization may be raping the planet, but dealing concretely and practically with our accountability for our impact in the real world is asking too much from us. Let us rather sleep. Let us depart into the virtual, disembodied world. Let us dream.