I saw Titanic on opening day, 19 December 1997 – my birthday. The movie immediately generated a welter of discussion among critics and cineastes alike. I eventually weighed in with my own “quasi-review”, which I posted on the discussion group “rec.arts.movies.current-films”. The review was titled “TITANIC: Some Reflections”
James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar, came out one day shy of 12 years after the release of Titanic. Now that I’ve seen it (twice) and had a chance to ruminate on the experience, it is fitting that I produce another quasi-review.
At the outset, I must say that as a long-time fan of Cameron’s cinematic oeuvre, there are aspects of Avatar that challenge me. There is a political and philosophical thrust to the movie that is most uncongenial to my world view. I beg the reader’s indulgence while I explain.
There is wide agreement among commentators that the movie offers up good “tree hugger” aliens who are pitted against the lackeys of an evil corporation. Said corporation is raping the edenic moon Pandora for a miraculous substance called “unobtainium”, which possesses unexplained but extremely valuable properties that fetch $20 million a kilo in 2154 dollars. (We are to assume that $20 million is a lot of money but, given the likely inflation rate post-Obama, I figure a loaf of bread in 2154 will probably cost $10 million. More realistically, assuming we maintain an average inflation rate of 3% over the next 144 years, that’s roughly $275K in uninflated 2009/2010 dollars. The current market price of platinum is $1.5K/ounce – that translates to $52.9K/kg. So figure unobtainium is around 5 times more valuable than platinum. Not hugely expensive given a trip of several light years in the RDA corporation’s private starship is required to “obtain” it. But I digress.) Unobtainium is the classic Hitchcockian “MacGuffin” – the thing that provides the raison d’être for the action. All of the humans on Pandora work for the RDA corporation and RDA seeks the riches that unobtainium will bring. The aboriginals, who live in complete harmony with the flora and fauna of Pandora, have no interest in unobtainium – there is no indication they have any idea that it exists.
Commentators who love the movie see it as a science fiction rendering of our own history: Western Civilization expanding at the expense of aboriginals who are our spiritual betters. Commentators who hate the movie see it as PC, anti-Western, revisionist history melded with populist demagoguery and “deep green” environmentalism.
I would naturally incline to the latter view. The “tree hugger” philosophy of the aliens is the purest deep green dogma. I call this dogma eco-fascism (see Democrats are responsible for Global Warming or Goose Pond: an environmental hazard? for some examples of my thinking on the subject). Eco-fascism is unquestionably the most dangerous dogma the world has ever seen: it effectively proselytizes; it has inextricably entangled itself with most Western governments; it is neo-Luddite, neo-Malthusian, neo-Pagan, collectivist, and is virulently anti-human.
Cameron intends for us to identify with the aliens, not the humans. He does this by offering up the Rousseauian ideal of the “noble savage”, a pernicious fiction that remains very popular in the halls of academe and is part of the regular social studies curriculum throughout the public school system. I have an undergraduate degree in sociology and a life-long interest in anthropology so this is a subject about which I have some knowledge. Moreover, I’ve discovered over the intervening years that much of what I learned in college was just plain wrong. (Apropos of which, I’d recommend Nicholas Wade’s book
Before the Dawn, as a good lay person’s overview of the current state of anthropology, paleoanthropology, and genetics.)
One idea in anthropology I never embraced, even as an undergraduate, was cultural relativism: that all cultures are equal; none is better than any other. I always maintained that the essence of Western Civilization is correct – that the scientific method, reason, and the celebration of the individual are superior to every alternative. This put me at odds with my fellow students – I was always being drawn into arguments because I took the side of Western science and reason over folk “wisdom”.
In order to make it easy for the audience to identify with the aboriginals, Cameron makes them explicitly humanoid – they are so humanoid in fact that they really don’t fit in with the apparent evolutionary history of Pandora. I’ll have more to say on this in due course.
Returning now to reviewing the movie, I agree with critics that Avatar can be seen as “Dances With Wolves in space” though that is not, in and of itself, a negative for me. I enjoyed Dances With Wolves and I think Cameron’s exploration of similar themes in a work of science fiction was handled well. For me, eco-fascism was a trope too far. Cameron has publically and unabashedly acknowledged that the movie is intended to convey a strong environmentalist message, as can be seen in the following interview excerpt.
Well, I think that obviously there’s a connection to recent events, and there’s a conscious attempt to evoke even Vietnam era imagery, with the way the guys jump off the helicopters and so on. It’s a way of connecting a thread through history. I take that thread farther back, and I sure like to have a little historical memory that goes back farther than that to the 17th, 16th centuries and how the Europeans pretty much took over South, Central and North America and displaced and marginalised the indigenous peoples there. And I think there’s this long wonderful history of the human race written in blood, going back as far as we can remember. And the Roman Empire, and even farther back. We had a tendency to just take what we want without asking, as Jake says. I see that as a broader metaphor, not as intensely politicised as some people would make it. Broader in the sense that that is how we treat the natural world.
There’s a sense of entitlement - we’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the brains, therefore we’re entitled to every damn thing on this planet. And that’s not how it works, and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on Earth. And this is the challenge that’s before us. And I think that, certainly, the film espouses this love-hate relationship with technology.
Obviously, we used technology to tell the story that’s a celebration of nature, which is an irony in and of itself, but I think that it’s not that technology is bad, it’s not that a technological civilisation is bad, it’s that we have to be in control of our technical process. We’re not going to be able to rip our clothes off and go back into the wilderness. First of all there’s not a whole lot of it left, secondly that’s not going to work for 8 billion people. So we’re going to have to think our way out of this, and we’re going to have to do it using technology, using science, but we’re also going to have to be very, very human about it, and get in touch with our emotions and our understanding of each other. One of the themes of the film, I think, is symbolised by the fact that it begins and ends with the character’s eyes opening. It’s about a change of perception, and about choices that are made once our perceptions change.
Is that it? Is Cameron acknowledging that Avatar is largely environmentalist (that is, eco-fascist) propaganda? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. As is usually the case with Cameron, Avatar is multi-layered and many of these layers (colonialism, environmentalism) are intentional. More intriguing are layers that must be unintentional because they are subversive of his surface message. The observation that artists may not be aware of all of the themes that appear in their work is hardly novel. Isaac Asimov recounted an experience he had attending a lecture where some of his stories were being analyzed. Afterwards, he approached the lecturer to offer corrections to some of the latter’s analysis. After listening patiently to Dr. Asimov’s critique, the lecturer responded something along the lines of, “That’s very interesting – but tell me, what makes you think that because you wrote the story, you know anything about it?”
What I propose to do in the balance of this review is to probe the thematic depths of Cameron’s Avatar - of the story he put on the screen. I’ll analyze areas that critics, both favorable and unfavorable, have missed. I’ll also examine other elements that are present that make the movie much more interesting and complex but in a way that Cameron likely didn’t intend.
Cameron’s vision of Pandora is alone worth the price of admission. And, to his credit, Cameron presents it largely as is – there are none of the long explications typical in science fiction movies. If one is paying close attention Cameron gives us enough information to develop a general idea of the physical parameters of Pandora: one character mentions that Pandora has lower gravity and another that it has a thicker atmosphere than Earth. We know the atmosphere is poisonous to humans but we see that it does support combustion so it is oxygen rich. (What makes it poisonous? No explanation is given, though I’d guess a lethally high CO2 level. Why would there be high CO2 given a global jungle? Pandora, being the moon of a gas giant, experiences tidal heating and a high level of volcanism, which produces lots of CO2.) The low gravity and thick atmosphere make the gigantic flying creatures that can be ridden by the humanoids – the Na’vi – scientifically possible.
The flora and fauna on Pandora seem to have elements of an aquatic and terrestrial environment – think coral reef and rain forest. We never see any marine life though we know Pandora has oceans from the scenes of the RDA starship approaching and going into orbit around the moon. With the exception of the Na’vi, all animal life seems to have evolved from a common hexapod ancestor. The Na’vi are the only species we see having four limbs, though in an early scene we are shown some arboreal lemur-like creatures whose arms bifurcate at the elbow. I suspect that Cameron gave us the shot of the lemurs to explain the Na’vi. If the lemurs and Na’vi share a common, arboreal ancestor, it makes sense that brachiation would tend to select for two, rather than four, arms. The lemurs represent the branch that didn’t fully develop brachiation and, hence, have retained a partial hexapod configuration.
Support for my observation that the lemurs are intended to show how the four-limbed Na’vi might have evolved is found when the pack of hyena-like creatures attack protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Cameron gives us a close-up of the feet of one of the creatures and we observe that rather than paws, it has something more like an ape’s hands but with three fingers and a thumb. Na’vi hands, of course, follow the same model: three fingers and a thumb. (In a nice touch, the human-Na’vi hybrid avatars have four fingers and a thumb – alien features obvious to a Na’vi. From dialogue we learn avatars also have a distinctive smell.)
The most interesting life form on Pandora is the tree network, which constitutes a global brain. We get our first hints that the trees communicate when Sully provides armed escort for exo-biologist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant, Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) – all in their avatar bodies. We see Augustine and Spellman tapping in to some of the connections between trees, commenting on the electrical current flow. In time, we learn that the individual trees form quadrillions of interconnections – 1012 trees with 104 connections per tree. Functionally, the trees are a single giant brain – a hard science version of Stanislaw Lem’s planetary brain in Solaris (made into a movie by Andrei Tarkovsky). All of the complex animal life that we see in the movie has twin bio-ethernet connectors with the exception of the Na’vi, who have only one “cable” that first appears to be a single, long braided pigtail. The Na’vi use their cable to “bond” with their hexapod horses and the flying “banshees” in order to control and ride them. The Na’vi also connect directly to tree nodes. When Jake does this, we learn that “dead” Na’vi have been uploaded into the planetary brain and, apparently, exist. The form of the existence is not explained – we don’t know whether the dead exist as static recordings of memories or dynamic, self-aware entities.
Gaia versus Pandora
James Lovelock proposed what he called the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970’s. In his view, all life on Earth effectively functions to maintain a planetary homeostasis that is favorable to life’s continued existence. For example, our oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere is not stable. Free oxygen would never exist were it not being continually replenished by living organisms (photosynthetic plants). Lovelock concluded that one could think of the Earth as a single living organism. In subsequent years, and to the consternation of Lovelock, the Gaia Hypothesis began to take on a religious tenor with eco-fascist acolytes treating it as literally true – as Gaia being the spirit of a living world.
In Avatar, the term “tree hugger” is used several times by characters as an epithet. Tree huggers would be Gaia-worshipping eco-fascists. The Na’vi act and sound like such people and so the humans (who Cameron portrays as ignorant racists) naturally assume that they are contending with a belief system akin to Gaia-worship that makes the Na’vi uncooperative. In the course of the movie, we learn that what is a belief system on Earth is reality on Pandora. The moon Pandora is the living being Pandora.
Pandora as a character
Like the Pandoran ecology, which Cameron only shows but never explains, we learn about Pandora primarily by observing what it does. Grace Augustine delivers a couple of lines late in the movie indicating that the tree system is a biological internet more complex than the human brain although she never articulates that it actually is a brain. The Na’vi princess, Neytiri (Soe Saldana), says that the god – Pandora - only maintains the balance of nature. It never intervenes directly. Yet, when she says that we have already had hints that she is wrong.
We are first introduced to Pandora, though we don’t know it at the time, when one of the flying seeds of the home tree lands on Neytiri’s arrow as she prepares to shoot and kill Sully. She interprets this “sign” as being the home tree god telling her to spare Sully’s life. Of course, that is exactly what Pandora is saying. Shortly thereafter, a large number of seeds descend upon Sully, cover him for a few moments, and then fly away. For Neytiri, this “sign” is unmistakable – the tree god has chosen Sully in some fashion and she is now committed to taking Sully to the tribe and to her mother, Moat (C C H Pounder), the tribal shaman and interpreter of “signs”.
There is only one other instance of clear, purposive behavior from Pandora and that is during the climactic battle when the animals are sent to attack the humans. At this point, we can now see the significance of the bio-ethernet connections on the various animals. They are used to communicate with Pandora. Information is not only uploaded from animals to Pandora, Pandora also downloads instructions – “programs” – for the animals to relentlessly attack humans and their machines. The animals function like biological unmanned combat robots that, once given their targets, operate in a wholly autonomous fashion.
Once again, Cameron has done a remarkable job with the biology. When Sully learns that the dead Na’vi live on in the tree network, he does so at a communication node. The nodes have a dense collection of long, bio-luminescent structures that give the appearance of a weeping willow fashioned from glowing strings of LED’s. This finally explains why animals have those bio-ethernet connectors – they are to communicate with Pandora. The “branches” of the node are passive receptors – any time an animal moves through branches or walks along the ground and brushes against them, there is a reflex in the animal that causes it to make a quick connection and download information into Pandora. It has to be a reflex because all the Na’vi have to do in order to “bond” with various animals is brush their braided connector against one of the target animal’s connectors. It’s easy to see how this arrangement could co-evolve once you have the beginnings of a network.
Returning to Pandora and its intentions and motivations, Cameron doesn’t provide us with any information other that what I’ve detailed above. However, we can draw some reasonable inferences. Pandora could be thought of as an infant genius – perhaps even an infant god, insofar as it is the literal brain of its world. As intelligent self-aware life begins to evolve, it provides Pandora with richer and more detailed observations or “reports” on its surroundings and, perhaps, the first awareness of a wider universe beyond itself. The gas giant around which Pandora orbits and the star around which everything orbits will be observed and reported on. The coming of the aliens – us – offers a whole new set of inputs. We know that there were early contacts between the Na’vi and humans – Grace Augustine has photos of the time when she was “educating” the Na’vi in our language and culture. However, like Solaris, Pandora was actually studying the humans. We know there was an initial period of cooperation, after which cooperation ended. Was this a choice made by the Na’vi while Pandora passively accepted data or did Pandora command the Na’vi to break off contact? I’d assume the latter.
I also assume that Pandora was actively involved in the ecology of Pandora. It had probably been engaging in selective breeding for millions of years – making sure that its biological agents were more reliable sources of data and with better, more responsive connectors. Predators could be programmed to go after prey with shorter connectors and spare prey with longer ones. The same sort of selection could be going on in mating, with the length of connectors being programmed as a preference.
This brings us back to a comment I made about the human-ness of the Na’vi. Even if we accept that four-limbed bipeds with mammalian features evolved naturally, without any direction from Pandora, the odds that most of the facial features as well as all of the facial expressions would be human are nothing less than astronomical. Such a creature evolving elsewhere in the universe, let alone within a few light years of Earth, is so improbable as to be functionally impossible. Of course, Cameron had this advanced motion capture technology that gave him accurate rendering of the human face. The humanoid alien who is an actor with appliances on his face is a staple of space opera and even hard science fiction audiences will accept this without question. The problem is that Cameron has given us a brilliantly conceived and largely consistent ecology and a completely plausible, naturally evolved global brain and then he throws utterly impossible humanoids into the mix. Cameron may or may not have decided that he wasn’t going to worry about this. However, there is one possible explanation that is available to Cameron to explain the Na’vi if there is a sequel: the Na’vi are the product of a crash selective breeding program initiated by Pandora!
We get hints that humans have known about Pandora for a long time. We learn that Sully grew up hearing about Pandora and its legendary floating mountains and he appears to be in his early 30’s. There are some other suggestions that indicate knowledge of Pandora goes back even farther. Late 21st century explorations, starting with robotic probes and later humans, are consistent with what Cameron gives us. Neytiri tells Sully that there have been times of great trials in the past, notably five occasions when the “last shadow” flyer was tamed and ridden by heroes who united the tribes. What was going on? Perhaps Pandora was instituting a massive cull of the sentients in order to produce a more human version – a human version that would allow it to study the strange creatures that had suddenly appeared in its world.
If Pandora became aware of humans 70 or so years before the action of the movie there might be enough time to engineer human looking and behaving aboriginals if there are enough generations. One thing we don’t know about the Na’vi is their average lifespan and how long it takes them to reach breeding age. (Cameron may have offered us a clue in Grace Augustine’s photographs but unless I get the movie on Blu-ray and freeze frame the photos, I can’t say if this is the case.) In the movie we learn that the human-Na’vi hybrids grew to adulthood in their tanks over the nearly six years of the voyage from Earth. In and of itself, this tells us nothing of the average lifespan of the Na’vi – the growth period may have been a function of some process associated with making the body avatar-ready. There may have been purely logistical concerns – it’s simpler to keep the avatars in the tank rather than on life support or cryo-sleep. Still it may be a clue that Cameron even thought out this aspect of the ecology and of Pandora’s control over it.
Another look at the MacGuffin
I stated above that unobtainium was a MacGuffin. On the surface, that is exactly what it is: the thing that everybody wants – a plot contrivance that only serves to advance the plot. Typically, anything can be a MacGuffin. For example, in the noir classic, Kiss Me Deadly, the MacGuffin is a box that, when opened just a crack, emits a blinding light, accompanied by a sinister, guttural hiss. Everybody wants the box and it really doesn’t matter what’s in it. In the novel, the box contained heroin. In the movie, it was plutonium. The plot would have worked just as well with anything the audience would believe is valuable and that everybody wanted. (Note: Quintin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, like all of Tarantino’s movies, is replete with cinematic references. It’s pretty obvious that Marcellus Wallace’s glowing attaché case is a reference – Tarantino fans would say “homage” – to Kiss Me Deadly.)
As I’ve already demonstrated, the setting of Avatar is extremely detailed and very well thought out. It should come as no surprise that unobtainium is more than a mere MacGuffin.
When I saw the previews showing the floating mountains, I strongly suspected that this substance was a room temperature superconductor (RTS). In the scene in which Grace Augustine confronts executive Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), he says that her science project is financed by an undistinguished looking gray rock that he calls “unobtainium”. His small sample of unobtainium floats over a plate on his desk. Self-levitation! One of the key features of superconductivity! Q.E.D. Of course the stuff is valuable – that’s why the RDA corporation has established a mining operation on a hostile, inhabited moon nearly a six year starship journey from Earth.
Unobtainium may not exist on Earth but it seems to be everywhere on Pandora. The Hallelujah Mountains – the “flying” mountains – self-levitate. They clearly contain large amounts of the RTS. Even richer deposits (though it’s hard to imagine richer deposits than whole mountains of the stuff) of the RTS seem to be associated with the trees - in particular the home tree of the Na’vi tribe. This actually makes sense in terms of the role of the trees as super-neurons in Pandora’s brain. The root structure taps into the unobtainium and uses it to facilitate information/energy storage. It is the ubiquity of the RTS throughout the crust of Pandora that makes it possible to transfer information over vast distances with no energy loss. The RTS is an essential environmental element for the evolution of the global brain that is Pandora.
Jake Sully: seduced or programmed?
The similarities between Dance’s With Wolves and Avatar are, as previously stated, obvious. Cameron himself has acknowledged similarities. Both stories require that the journey of the protagonist from being a member of one culture to another is believable. Cameron gave himself a bigger challenge since Sully isn’t just joining another culture – he’s joining another species. I believe even the severest critics of Avatar would agree that Sully’s conversion works in the context of the story.
Sully’s journey from human to Na’vi begins the first time he controls his avatar. As a paraplegic whose prospects for a spinal repair are dependent upon pleasing his company superiors, suddenly inhabiting and exercising a healthy alien body is exhilarating. Sully charges out of the sealed building and into the Pandoran atmosphere – he bounds over obstacles and ends up in a garden of alien plants. He digs his alien feet into the alien soil and works it with his alien toes. Joy, bordering on ecstasy, plays across his alien but remarkably human face. Interestingly, at this moment, Sully encounters a smiling Grace Augustine in her own avatar, sporting a Stanford t-shirt. For the first time, Augustine treats him as something other than an annoying and unwelcome interloper foisted upon her by corporate politics.
The exhilaration of living in his avatar body continues on Sully’s first expedition into the Pandoran jungle, where he fills in as a door gunner on a VSTOL craft. This is the trip that leads to his first contact with Neytiri and the Na’vi. Sully is a military man and almost certainly an adrenalin junky so being accepted as a sort of apprentice Na’vi warrior is appealing. So is the chief’s daughter, who becomes his mentor-trainer. She’s human enough that being tall, blue, and with feline nose, ears, and tail simply makes her more exotically attractive. Being accepted by the Na’vi also raises Sully’s status with both Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the head of the RDA mercenary detachment, and with Selfridge. Even Grace Augustine is impressed. Sully for the first time receives a guarantee that he’ll “get his legs” when he completes his mission. Everything that Sully does in his avatar body nets him big rewards both in the human and Na’vi world.
Initially Sully see’s the Na’vi as “tree huggers” but that attitude changes over time as he starts to be accepted into the tribe. As he identifies more and more with the tribe, he experiences a growing confusion about which part of his life is “real”, as he reveals in his video log. Once he finally joins the tribe as a warrior, he is taken to the communication node where he links to Pandora and learns that the minds of the “dead” Na’vi, live on in the “tree”. After this he makes love with Neytiri and “goes native” – his conversion is complete and unwavering in all subsequent action.
I submit that there is another explanation for Sully’s total conversion that is perfectly consistent with the action, though I doubt it was intended by Cameron. When Sully links to Pandora, it programs him in much the same way it will later program animals to attack the humans. If he had divided loyalties before that moment, they are gone afterwards. Is programming necessary to explain any of Sully’s actions? Not at all. However, there is no reason to assume that Pandora is a benign god. It has its own motives and, as I’ve observed, it may well have done significant culling of the Na’vi in the past. I’m not suggesting that Pandora is the biological equivalent of Skynet but Cameron has left open the possibility of making Pandora a more significant and complex character in any sequels.
Cameron subverts his message
In Hollywood, two religions dominate: Scientology and Gaia-worshipping eco-fascism. Cameron belongs to the latter belief system. Cameron may have been captured a long time ago, though I didn’t see it in any of his movies. I’d guess that the long hiatus he took post-Titanic in which he indulged a passion for deep diving and exploration (probably awakened by making Titanic) brought him in contact with the eco-fascist ethos. Pity that Cameron didn’t spend as much time researching economics, energy, and natural resources as he did biology, when preparing the background for his narrative.
Such research could have started with economist Julian Simon (profiled here by the Cato Institute’s Stephen Moore in 1998). Simon’s most comprehensive and accessible work is The Ultimate Resource 2. The “ultimate resource” of the title is the 1.5 kilos of skull meat known as the human brain. Simon’s extensively researched book busts every myth animating eco-fascism. Cameron states “there’s not a whole lot of [nature] left”, which is patently false, as Simon shows. For example, the U.S. is more heavily forested today than it was 100 years ago. A case in point is the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), where I work. Today, Crane is nearly 100 square miles of forest, dotted with a few buildings where R&D and in-service engineering for the U.S. Navy take place. In the mid-1930’s this area was cleared farmland, with nary a tree in sight.
After Julian Simon, Cameron could have read The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjørn Lomborg. After publication of this book, Lomborg was subjected to unremitting attack from eco-fascist zealots because he is that most evil of creatures: a heretic from the true religion. Lomborg remains an “environmentalist” (hence the title) but he rejects the dogma that has come to dominate environmentalism. Ironically, he took his first steps on the path to heresy when he attempted to debunk Simon. In looking at all of Simon’s supporting evidence, Lomborg found that it was his own position that was debunked.
Even though Cameron’s knowledge of humans and the environment is seriously deficient, he is too much of a technophile to be a true eco-fascist – one might say that he belongs to the Reform rather than the Orthodox Church of Gaia. This poses a problem for Cameron that a less meticulous movie maker would have avoided. Cameron invites us to believe that Pandora is possible, which he has done to an amazing degree by constructing a scientifically consistent ecology. He gets the behavior of RTS right and fits it into the story in an ingenious way that ties to the ecology. Even the starship is plausible insofar as it doesn’t obviously violate physics and, by implication, obeys relativity. The problem all of this creates is that it doesn’t comport with the idea of a world that is no longer green and is dying – the cautionary message Cameron puts in Sully’s mouth.
The first problem is that a civilization with starships – a “starfaring” civilization – cannot die unless it encounters a more advanced competitor that decides to eliminate it. Life that remains on Earth must perish at some point because the aging Sun will eventually kill it. More likely is that some celestial catastrophe – comet or meteor strike or cosmic ray burst - will kill everything down to or including bacteria. Gaia-worshipers celebrate an Earth without humans. They don’t even understand the full implications of their belief system. On those occasions when I’ve debated the Gaia-worshippers, I like to point out that human beings are Gaia’s nervous system – we are Gaia’s brain. Gaia evolved us for the specific purpose of saving life on Earth. We are the solution, not the problem. I said something similar in Yuri Gagarin Day!!
[C]osmic ray bursts are so common throughout the universe that they may be the best explanation for why there is no evidence of technologically advanced life besides us. Complex life (almost?) never lasts long enough to develop space travel before it is seared to extinction by lethal radiation. The animal rights loonies and eco-fascists, if they really love non-human life so much, should consider the fact that human beings really are the “paragon of animals” – only we humans can safeguard terrestrial life by spreading it throughout the solar system and beyond.
Cameron must understand at some level that a necessary component of saving life on Earth ultimately requires that humans leave the planet and take a sufficiently varied DNA library of organisms along to allow colonists to construct a terrestrial ecosphere somewhere else.
This brings us to problem number two. The power requirements to move one spacecraft over interstellar distances bespeaks such a mastery over energy production that there simply cannot be energy problems for terrestrial civilization. And the RDA starship cannot plausibly be a one-off: it is private and belongs to one corporation. Said corporation may well own several – we can reasonably expect that. But be assured that various governments around the world have even more advanced models – think of the difference between a modern cruise ship and a nuclear aircraft carrier (CVN). The energy conversion technology used in starships must be ubiquitous, ergo, there simply can’t be an energy crisis for terrestrial civilization in Avatar’s universe.
Problem number three relates to the first two in that what we see of science and technology is completely inconsistent with the neo-Malthusianism inherent in the statement about the dying Earth. Genetic engineering has advanced to such a level that human-alien hybrids are possible and yet it is impossible to save supposedly dying eco-systems? It beggars the imagination.
There is a clue that Cameron himself may not believe his own message. When Quaritch meets with Sully early on, he comments about fighting in Venezuela, describing it as bad (or tough – don’t recall the exact adjective) “bush” but nothing in comparison with Pandora. In military vernacular, “bush” would be jungle. Jungle is, by definition, “green”. Was Cameron just being sloppy? Or is “green” a relative term and “green” is slowly being eliminated on Earth though we know it still exists in Venezuela? I think Cameron meant the latter but that just creates more problems for him. If jungles still exist, expanding them becomes a much easier task. Of course, the fact remains that the natural world is not being destroyed by human beings – if anything, advanced civilization is good for “the environment” as Cameron would define the word.
Plot weaknesses or opportunities for a sequel
The implicit contradictions in the story brought about by the conflict between Cameron’s message and the technology in evidence I noted above. In this section I will enumerate explicit plot problems/holes that crop up where Cameron either fails to consider the clear implications of a plot element or decides that he’s just going to ignore them for the sake of his narrative.
In some cases, potential plot weaknesses in Avatar could actually be explained in a sequel and add more complexity to the story arc Cameron is supposedly pursuing. I will discuss those as well.
The low-tech military - With the exception of single-stage-to-orbit shuttles and the powered walkers, none of the equipment used by the company military is more advanced than what the U.S. military currently employs. Arguably, it is all 1970’s or 1980’s technology at best – I say this as someone with roughly twenty years experience (off and on) as a Defense contractor and (now) civil servant for the U.S. Navy. Even a military with 2009/2010 capabilities could lose once Pandora unleashed its animal hordes but why not show it? A more reasonable battle would be to show all of the humans in special VR equipment controlling an attack force composed of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) and unmanned combat vehicles (UCVs) – early versions of these are already on the battlefield. No human would die in the battle with the Na’vi-Pandora force, though all of the remote combat vehicles would be quickly destroyed once Pandora hit with the animal shock troops. Of course, if the final battle doesn’t pit actual humans against the Na’vi, it isn’t as dramatic. It would also make it much more difficult to have a one-on-one battle between Sully and Quaritch. (Note: as I’ll discuss below, there is actually no need for any Na’vi or animals to die if RDA used non-lethal defensive technology.) So, Cameron sacrificed scientific/technological accuracy for dramatic effect. There is one possible explanation that might serve. The RDA corporation is doing security on the ultra-cheap. RDA underestimated what would be needed to deal with the threat and bought a bunch of 150+ year old war surplus equipment.
I still question the low tech but, I’ll give Cameron this one.
Unobtainium mining - we know that unobtainium is a naturally occurring mineral on Pandora. Whether it is five times, ten times, or even a hundred times the going rate of Platinum in 2154 (as I discussed above), the idea of value has no meaning unless unobtainium is being shipped back to Earth. There is no economy in any sense of the word on Pandora - there are no human colonists, just a company outpost. Besides, the ubiquity of unobtainium would mean that it would be a cheap commodity in the event Pandora is colonized. As Gary Cooper observes in the Western Garden of Evil, “[I]f the earth were made of gold, men would die for a handful of dirt.” Pandora is practically made of unobtainium – it’s as common as dirt. Earth, however, has none of it. This much is obvious. What is not obvious, however, is why it is necessary to ship unobtainium back to Earth. Given the technology, how can it possibly be cheaper to ship rocks X number of light-years back to Earth than it would be to analyze samples in situ and learn how to make it? Send the information from the mineral assay – unobtainium’s composition and crystalline structure – back to Earth as a stream of photons traveling at the speed of light. Once again, it beggars the imagination to assume that something nature creates in abundance can’t be duplicated by human science. If there is no need to mine unobtainium then the entire conflict that propels the eventual clash between humans and aboriginals – actually between humans and Pandora - disappears. A “rich” deposit is no more intrinsically valuable than a rock chipped off of one of the floating mountains because either can be assayed. Every explanation I can come up with for mining the stuff makes no sense as long as it is being sent back to Earth. It is economically and scientifically absurd. There is one explanation that Cameron might be able to use in a sequel: mining unobtainium is a cover for the real mission. If unobtainium is going to be used as a raw material for a future colonization wave, it could be used to jump start technological development on Pandora. There’s no need to make the stuff, just refine what is already there. If Grace Augustine was aware mining was a cover story it would validate Sully’s communication that an unending wave of humans was in the offing. Why would there be a need for a cover story? To steal a march on potential competitors? It appears that RDA managed to obtain some sort of monopoly on exploiting Pandora. Maybe the cover story was necessary to win a contract from some governmental entity. As a plot device in Avatar 2, it might work.
Where are the computers? Where is the A.I.? - This problem relates to the first in the list and is, to my mind, the most serious. A “Moore generation” is the amount of time it has historically taken for integrated circuit manufacturers to double computer processor speed. That value is around two years per doubling. Concurrent with improvements in processors, massively parallel arrangements of processors plus improved algorithms increase the overall performance of computers. Currently the fastest supercomputers are capable of around 1015 operations per second. Assuming that we continue to have technological breakthroughs that allow us to sustain the current value of a Moore generation, then the increase in processor capability would be roughly 270 by the middle of the next century when the story takes place. That’s on the order of 1021 or a billion-trillion (sextillion) times current processor capabilities and that’s not even including parallel computing improvements. Lots of technical folks would argue (and I’m one of them) that we can’t maintain the pace of the doubling – that we’ll reach an inflexion point long before 140 years from now. So, let’s pick a more reasonable value and assume that we only get twenty more doublings. That’s still a million times current computing power. We should have something between “soft” and “hard” A.I., where “soft” describes computers that are semi-intelligent, semi-autonomous and “hard” describes computers that are fully self-aware. Even at the slowest possible development speed of computer and programming technology commensurate with the other technologies we do see – starships, genetic engineering, and remote bio-thought control – the human race would be on the threshold of realizing, by purely artificial means, what has evolved naturally on Pandora: a network capable of storing human minds and possibly even capable of self-awareness itself. Cameron has already told a version of that story in Terminator and Terminator 2 and probably didn’t want to deal with it here. Still, I think he should have done more to suggest that something along the lines of soft A.I. existed on Earth. The RDA outpost should have had some very sophisticated computers and robots around – write off the lack of robot warriors to bureaucratic stupidity and bean counting, which has to be a fundamental law of the universe.
Darwin and Drake’s Equation - If there is complex, intelligent life (two! species) on Pandora, which is a close interstellar neighbor, Bayesian reasoning would suggest a high value for the Drake Equation, which offers a probability for technological civilizations being present at any given time. A high value would mean that there are probably a fairly large number of technological civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. In a crowded Galaxy, we can expect that contact between alien races will obey Darwinian laws. David Brin makes exactly that argument in Shouting at the Cosmos. In Brin’s view, actively broadcasting messages in hopes of making contact with alien civilizations rather than passive listening carries the risk that the race we contact, once aware of our existence, would see us as a rival to be eliminated and proceed to do so.
Implicit in trying to contact alien intelligence are two assumptions: (1) they are benevolent and altruistic and (2) even if they aren’t, space travel over interstellar distances is so impractical as to be functionally impossible. Darwin tells us the first assumption is almost certainly wrong. A study of technologically feasible propulsion systems informs us that the second is probably wrong as well (see, for example these papers on antimatter catalyzed fission-fusion propulsion systems for extra-solar probes or VASIMR ion propulsion for an optimal Earth-Mars transit in 29 days!).
Cameron has given us a future where (2) is wrong. Cameron also intends that we see Pandora and the Na’vi as benign – they certainly lack the technology in 2154 to be a threat. Perhaps in future episodes Cameron will offer up a “hopeful” story of Earth civilization “maturing” and become an eco-aware, benevolent and altruistic civilization because of our contact with Pandora. So, Cameron will implicitly assume that (1) is correct. That’s not the way to bet.
Permit me to offer a modest proposal for the final two movies in a trilogy.
Pandora, now that it has gained a huge amount of knowledge about cosmology, evolutionary theory, terrestrial biology, and human history from the mind of Grace Augustine, decides that it needs to institute a crash program to develop its own technology to deal with potential threats from Earth. Pandora can download information into the Na’vi that would give them all the basics of a PhD level education in biology and possibly secure the cooperation of the traitorous – pardon me – enlightened humans who remained behind to obtain even more information in physics and practical engineering. Using the company outpost and plentiful unobtainium to jumpstart the effort, Pandora could have its first factories up and running in a couple of years and its first space craft before the next starship from Earth shows up. The Pandora-plus-Na’vi symbiosis would have tremendous capability for expanding knowledge and technology. Eventually, Pandora could become a serious threat, with its own fleet of starships, crewed by Na’vi. The subtext would be that Pandora itself is Eden and, once it has partaken of the Tree of Knowledge (from the brains of Augustine and Sully), loses its innocence.
The story of Pandora’s postlapsarian technological improvement program could be paralleled by events progressing on Earth. Selfridge leaves RDA and becomes a politician, warning about the Pandoran threat. A number of governments on Earth consider an aggressive Pandora a plausible worst case scenario. The solution is to send a large expedition with orders to prevent, by any means necessary, Pandora from developing starfaring technology. A genetically engineered pathogen injected into the biosphere that kills 90% of the trees would lobotomize Pandora. End of problem and no thermonuke has to be detonated. The tension comes from whether or not battle will be joined. Allow Selfridge who has been put in charge of the expedition to have a change of heart and communicate with the Pandoran force, headed by Sully. A modus vivendi is arrived at and Pandora and Earth civilization become friends and allies.
For episode 3, the joint Pandoran-Terran fleet has to battle the evil cephalopods from the Greater Megellanic Cloud. The evil cephalopods are defeated and the Pandoran-Terran Co-Prosperity Sphere is declared, to the accompaniment of a faux-Enya ballad by James Horner. The End.
Another possibility Cameron could consider is that there may be other human colonies that are more advanced than Earth, both in terms of technology, and in the “spiritual” way that Cameron is advocating. He introduces these advanced humans in the sequel.
In 2000, Bill Joy wrote Why the future doesn’t need us. He argues for rigid controls over the development of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robots. (For a rebuttal, see Joy to the World, by Virginia Postrel. She sums up Joy’s article as “…a screed against unpredictable change, a call for a static world, and an assault on commerce and the individual desires it serves. It is the same old attack on the open society, just wrapped in cool clothes.”) In the Avatar universe, if neo-Luddism had been successful in stunting some technologies on Earth, it would explain the lack of A.I. and other technologies that are so glaringly absent in the first movie.
One technology they didn’t block was cheap space travel. That means “misfits” can leave Earth and found their own societies elsewhere. One such group of misfits is made up of Extropians who rejected neo-Luddism. They left Earth in the middle of the 21st century and colonized Mars. Once there, they developed both hard A.I., genetic self-improvement, functional immortality, and a global network consisting of their minds linked together with each other and with a benign network intelligence, which we could call Ares. The “Martians” have effectively become a transhuman species and replicated Pandora in hardware. The Martians arrive in their own starship at the beginning of episode 2 and offer assistance to the Pandorans. They know that the next Earth expedition will consist of a fleet of starships bent on colonization of Pandora.
The first time we see the Martians, they exit from their ship wearing a few body adornments and what appears to be iridescent body paint. If they hadn’t just debarked from a spaceship, we would think they were a group of hunter-gatherers. All are bald but otherwise look completely human. Unlike the last group, they don’t wear special breathing equipment. The Martians include adults and children of various ages as well as a number of what appear to be large dogs. No one speaks yet we quickly get the impression that they are communicating with each other in some fashion. The dogs seem to be a part of this communication and, as if on command, form a perimeter within which the Martians deploy four-legged animals that are all torso and no head. The headless animals take up station just inside the canine perimeter. When this operation is completed, the dogs, as one, wheel and rejoin the Martians.
In short order, the skies darken with banshees while thousands of animals charge the Martians from all sides. The headless animals extrude from their backs various devices that send directed sound and microwave beams at the animals. As the beams play back and forth along the animal attack front, the animals recoil as if in intense discomfort and leave the scene just as rapidly as they came. None is killed and none is obvious injured. (Note that the directed sound weapon – the LRAD – is already old technology. Directed microwave beams are under development and close to deployment. Why didn’t RDA use such non-lethal technology against the Na’vi and the animals? Two reasons: it would make the RDA less evil and would have been devastating against the Na’vi and the animals. Pandora could never have defeated such weapons if enough were deployed.)
In the aftermath of the attack, the Martians wait. Presently the emissaries of Pandora arrive: Sully and Neytiri. For the first time, one of the Martians speaks. The Martian explains that they have come to offer their help against the invasion from Earth but only if Pandora requests it. The Martian asks for a meeting. At this point there could be a period of trust-building before the meeting is agreed to. The Martians could interact with the Na’vi starting out in English but learning Na’vi as rapidly as it is spoken to them. Within a few minutes, all further dialogue is in the Na’vi language.
The story could now deal with an extended period of cultural exchange between the Martians and Na’vi that would allow for a dramatic exposition of the differences and similarities between two cultures that can link minds with members of their species and with a network intelligence. The symbiotic species that evolved on Pandora meet the symbiotic species that self-evolved on Mars.
Eventually the meeting with Pandora occurs and the Martians are taken to a communications node where they produce braided bio-ethernet cables that they link to their own heads and to the glowing branches. When the Martians link, a piece Ares they brought with them links as well - Pandora encounters one of its own kind for the first time. The natural Eden meets the artificial one.
I’ll leave as an exercise for the writer-director how to fill in the details – to establish the conflicts and their resolutions and to arrive at the thrilling denouement accompanied by Jame’s Horner’s next Academy Award-winning song: a faux-Enya ballad.
Cameron has given us a much more deeply layered story than most critics realize and, perhaps through some internal confusion, a more layered story that even he realizes. The interactions of the characters – human, Na’vi, and the global brain Pandora - are full of enough possibilities for an extended arc of stories.
It’s hard not to be captivated by the lush environment Cameron has created on Pandora but he really must resolve the human-Pandoran conflict in a satisfactory way. I’ve offered a couple of suggestions about how he might go about this, with the second being the more serious one.
This is first time I’ve ever been disappointed in a Cameron movie but I’m enough of a fan that I’m willing to give him a chance at redemption with the sequel.
Directly after I completed this review I visited an aggregator site that focuses on popular science articles from a variety of publications (for example, “National Geographic” and “Scientific American”). The site leans strongly environmentalist. Not only are there never any articles that directly question the extreme AGW position, there are frequent articles by “psychologists” that purport to analyze AGW “denialists” and explain why they suffer from cognitive dissonance. Suffice that perusing this site, I stumbled onto an article in the Christian Science Monitor titled Avatar: the real-life science behind the fantasy. It begins with this line:
The producer of “Avatar” is fond of saying that writer and director James Cameron does not write science fiction, he writes science fact.
Except for the areas I discussed above, which are either junk- or pseudo-science, I’d agree. The “Avatar” article provides a link to a book intended to be a confidential report on Pandora that has been obtained by whistleblowers/activists to use against the RDA company. The “report” is excerpted here.
When I was putting together this review I felt that I had picked up all or most of the clues Cameron placed in the movie about Pandora but I regretted there was no way I could validate my speculations. I figured at some point there would be a novelization, as there was with The Abyss (by Orson Scott Card), which would explain everything and, if I were sufficiently motivated, I could buy it in order determine how close I came. Stupid me! That was so last century. Apparently, Cameron did a lot of forward marketing, including the purloined “report” which has probably been around for a while. Now that I’m aware of it, I’m strangely disappointed – everything is explained.
In any case, the excerpts from the “report” validate nearly all of my observations about the technical details. I’ll take the key points in order.
Pandora is in the Alpha Centauri system - I assumed this was Alpha Centauri but didn’t stick my neck out. No credit.
Physical parameters of Pandora - Mostly bulls eyes here. I was right about the high tectonic activity and the high CO2 content. Lower gravity, higher atmospheric pressure, check.
Unobtainium - mostly right. I said it was a room temperature superconductor. Actually it is a very high temperature (up to 1500 celcius) superconductor – I’ll give myself full credit since RTS is the term for a high temperature superconductor that was current when I was a young lad. Obviously, it has remarkable properties. ‘Nuff said.
Suppressing unobtainium development - Apparently Cameron is going to deal with this, though he’s doing it poorly. In the “report” it says that RDA is attempting to “suppress any attempt to develop a Terran alternative to unobtainium”. If unobtainium is being used on Earth then it can be duplicated - more to the point, duplication cannot be prevented. I reiterate: any civilization with starships has sufficient energy and technology to do any materials fabrication imaginable. I did offer a way out – certain branches of science and technology are banned by neo-Luddites. Of course, Cameron is never going to go that route. I think my story of the Martians and Pandorans is a better movie.
With this new information I see the direction things are going to go: Terran dissidents on Earth and on Pandora, with the help of the Na’vi and Pandora, will fight to overthrow the evil corporations and retake the Earth. After reverses culminating in a cliff-hanger in episode 2, they will be successful in episode 3. Fade out, credit roll, accompanied by the Oscar-winning “Hymn to Gaia” by James Horner.