Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Avatar - Life vs. Death

I saw Avatar nearly a week ago. I thought I would write a review earlier, but I haven't been able to get a full grasp of the movie. There is so much information online; and I didn't want to just repeat someone else's observations. And yes, there will be spoilers; so watch the movie first.

Bio vs. Mecho

One idea that popped out at me even as I watched the movie, which has not been explored, is regarding technology - but not technology in the ordinary sense. I'm referring to an alien technology which our human science is unable to fully comprehend. That technology is all around us and yet we take it for granted. It is the technology that allows you to read this page. It is the technology of Life.

We don't often think of Life as a technology. And honestly that is perhaps appropriate. Life is more than a technology. Life is a mystery.

I can say this without offending any religion or even science, because it is true. Life is a mystery. It is a puzzle without an answer. And at the same time, the answer is looking at you in the mirror.

Life is.

It is undeniably true. It is an everyday miracle. No one can claim to understand Life. It is a mystery and it is the source of all religion.

Science which bases its existence on the idea that everything can be studied and understood cannot explain Life. And Science simply ignores the question that the means of understanding is through the human brain which is itself a product of Life.

In the movie Avatar, the struggle between Bio and Mecho - or perhaps I should say Life and Death - is woven throughout the story. But it really becomes apparent during the final battle scene.

Here we see Life battling directly against the Death machines. And Life wins. Life wins because it can move in ways that the Death machines can never imagine - even when those Death machines are piloted by Life organisms.

Here we see the beauty of the motion of Life; the agility; the ferocity. The teaming masses.

James Cameron could have chosen some force of nature to destroy the invaders  of Pandora - like a giant Hurricane - but instead he chose Life. It is the animals that ultimately come to the rescue of Pandora.

Balance of life

Which brings up the question, why didn't the living inhabitants of the planet Pandora rise up against the invaders earlier? And the reason is that Life does not normally respond this way.

In a normal ecosystem Life destroys other Life for food, or in order to protect itself from a threat. This creates a balance - but not a rigid balance. It is more like a pendulum swinging back and forth around its resting spot. As it swings too far in one direction the natural forces pull it back; and it may overshoot. Overtime even the equilibrium point slowly changes as the system evolves.

You don't expect to revisit a forest one thousand years later and see the exact same pattern of trees. And as a result you wouldn't expect to see the exact same types of birds nesting there.

Life is constantly changing. It is dynamic. It responds to the natural forces. A volcano may destroy the natural landscape, but Life will recover. It will adapt.

And so Pandora does not respond immediately by destroying the invaders. Perhaps it thinks that the Death and destruction created by the invaders is part of a natural and organic process. Perhaps it thinks that in the healing of this deep wound created by the invaders a new Life will flourish.

What Jake Sully shows Pandora is that this invader is capable of causing wounds so deep and so extensive, that the planet will not be able to recover from them.


One reviewer I read points out that the Na'vi have not even discovered the wheel. This is true.

But let's think about this. How does the wheel stack up as an invention? Do you notice that in nature there are no wheels? There are cycles, but no wheels. Is this because nature is stupid - or just primitive?

What good is a wheel in a forest? A man on foot can go places that a wheeled vehicle can never go. In fact the latest technology seeks to recreate the locomotive methods of two and four legged animals. Can a wheel go up stairs?

Wheels need roads.

The big invention is not the invention of the wheel, it is the invention of the road. The wheel was easy. Some guy in a cave probably came up with it and then chucked it out as impractical. The only thing that makes wheels practical are roads.

And how do you make a road? You make a road by destroying the natural landscape which is beautifully irregular and covered with living trees and grasses and flowers, and then replacing that with a flat, sterile surface composed of crushed dead materials.

And then you can take your car and drive around on that road. Just stick to the road. Because if you get off the road, you may find yourself stuck. Which means we need to build more roads, and more roads, and more roads...

A very dangerous technology

But I detect a flaw in Cameron's creation. And that flaw is embodied in the very title.


Cameron has taken this word and given it a meaning of its own. In the virtual world of the network an avatar has come to mean a virtual representation of yourself.

In the "real" physical world of Pandora the Avatar is a real physical body.

What disturbs me is the way this body was created in the story. It was created by combining human DNA with DNA from a Na'vi. This implies the use of highly advanced biotechnology. And it is this biotechnology which I'm referring to when I speak of "a very dangerous technology".

Look at the the way that mechanical technology is developed. It is created from inanimate objects. It is energized by burning dead fossil fuels. Its limited decision making capabilities come from inanimate silicon circuits.

And most importantly it's employed with the goal of conquering Life and submitting it to the service of man. In other words, it is a Death machine.

Now biotechnology is following along this same path. Do not be fooled by the 'bio' terminology. This is being employed as another technology to conquer Life. It is following along the same path as mechanical technology to become another part of the Death machine.

It is no doubt a deliberate decision on the part of Director Cameron to not employ biotechnology as a weapon against the Na'vi people. This would ruin his narrative of Life against Death. And rest assured that Cameron's intent is to create a sort of mythical tale, so the symbolism is paramount.

I would compare Cameron's storytelling to that of the Tall Tales of Paul Bunyan or John Henry. Only in those cases it is man against machine. Here we have alien against machine. And of course the end is diametrically opposite, because in Cameron's fairy tale Life wins. Yes it is a fairy tale; it is a legend; it is a parable.

But getting back to the biotechnology. Maybe in part deux we will see the humans come back with biotechnology weapons. Perhaps they will assemble an army of Avatars. No doubt.

No doubt because biotechnology is perhaps the most disruptive technology towards Life. Even without malicious intentions biotechnology is capable of destroying Life totally and utterly. Imagine a virus that can destroy all Life forms. Or a bio-engineered mutation that overwhelms the naturally existing species.

And the Avatars are just such a bio-engineered mutation. What will their offspring be like? Could they come to dominate the native population? Stay tuned for the next episode.

Real world vs. virtual world

One thing that struck me as I learned about the process of creating the movie, was that the process was not unlike the way that Jake entered into Pandora through his Avatar.

Cameron had to create a whole virtual world inside his computers in order to make the movie. He created something similar to a computer game. And inside that game he directed the action.

What's really interesting is that the way he controlled the action was through the actors. The actors movements were captured and transferred into the virtual reality of the computer to bring to life their virtual characters. Sound familiar? Yes it's similar to the way that Jake controls his Avatar.

In the process Cameron blurs the line between the real and the virtual. Cameron constantly mixes in elements of the real and the virtual. Even though Jake Sully's Avatar actually exists in the reality of Pandora, for Jake it might as well only exist in a virtual world.

I actually think that Cameron would have originally liked to make that movie where the Avatar is alive in a virtual world, but of course that movie was already made a few years back and called The Matrix.

There is a difference in the way that the Avatar is controlled which is that it is directly through the mind. Which give us an idea that Cameron is suggesting that eventually he would like to be able to control his virtual movie actors directly through his director's mind. For now he has to beat and cajole his actors to do the things that he envisions and then watch the results appear on a computer monitor.

And I have no doubt that Cameron as a director is a bastard. He would need to be to bend everyone to his will. Avatar was a huge project - not unlike a military campaign - and Cameron was the General in charge.

In the case of the movie Avatar, the making of the movie is as much a part of the story as what we see onscreen. And again, the reality and virtual reality are intertwined. Watch this documentary on the making of the film and I'm sure you'll get the idea of what I'm talking about.

Jake as Messiah

Is Jake Sully Jesus? Has Cameron created a sort of Na'vi second coming story? Yes. Isn't it obvious? But then I suppose all Hero stories could be compared in some way to the story of Jesus. Still let's look at some of the parallels.

We can start with the name. Both start with a 'J'. Not a coincidence in my book. And the full name Jake Sully contains all the letters in Jesus. Again, not a coincidence. Remember how Neytiri says his name, "Jake Sully". If I remember correctly she pronounces the 'u' more like 'oo' than 'uh', in the same way that we pronounce Jesus.

But that is trivial stuff. Let's look at the story for more clues.

Jake has an immaculate conception - or at least his Avatar does. He is 'born' in an artificial womb.

Jake's mother is a virgin. That is if you consider Dr. Grace Augustine - the Sigourney Weaver character - to be his mother. She is childless and while maybe not technically a virgin, she at least does not conceive Jake - but at the same time she does bring Jake to life through the Avatar.

Speaking of names, how about Dr. Grace Augustine. Grace is obvious. And Augustine alludes to St. Augustine - one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church. In fact St. Augustine is accredited with clarifying the principle of grace in Christian religion. It is through Christ's sacrifice of his life that souls are redeemed, and not through the good works of man. And it is through Dr. Grace Augustine's sacrifice of her life that the planet Pandora is ultimately saved.

And then I suppose there is the question of whether the Na'vi have committed the original sin of Adam and Eve. Everything about their innocent way of life implies that they have not. They even live in a Paradise. (I suppose that Cameron was tempted to have them running about naked, but was hampered by the Motion Pictures rating system. But notice that he only provides them with the absolute minimal amount of clothing.) Like Adam and Eve, the Na'vi are innocent and unashamed of their nakedness - in the same way that children are innocent. There is even a Tree of Souls which is reminiscent of the Tree of Life in Genesis. What more proof do you need that Pandora is intended to represent Eden?

And going back to Jake, notice that his last name is Sully. This sounds like a shortened version of Sullivan - a typical Irish Catholic last name. But note also that 'sullied' refers to something that has lost its purity. And in the beginning of the story Sully is just that. But through 'grace' (and no action of his own), he is able to regain his purity in a new body.

Jake gets lost on his first trip into the jungles of Pandora much as Jesus is lost on his first trip to Jerusalem. Jake ends up at the Hometree just as the young Jesus ends up at the Temple. Remember that even though Jake is an adult, his Avatar is only days old. So he could be considered to be a child at this point in the story.

Jake goes through a series of rituals in order to be accepted into Na'vi society. Perhaps these are similar to the sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Contemplating more on the name Jake, it is clear that this is a shortened form of Jacob. In the Bible, Jacob is famous for his dream of a ladder that goes from Earth to Heaven. Jake also has a dream. In his dream he is flying - perhaps flying up into Heaven. Pandora then is Heaven or Paradise. In Jacob's dream he sees Angel's ascending and descending the ladder, while on Pandora the Na'vi fly through the air like Angels on the backs of their Banshees.

Not only that, but in the Bible Jacob had a twin brother - just like Jake Sully. And also in the Bible, Jacob takes the place of his brother Esau in the sense that he becomes the family heir. Finally after wrestling with an Angel, Jacob becomes Israel and becomes the father of the Hebrew people. Perhaps this Angel is represented in the movie Avatar by the Toruk - the enormous flying creature that Jake 'wrestles' in order to tame it.

Jake dies and then is resurrected. This happens towards the end of the movie - before the final battle. When the evil Colonel pulls the plug on Jake he 'dies' in the arms of Neytiri. Later Jake manages to escape and get back into his Avatar thus completing the resurrection.

The final battle scene is reminiscent of a Book of Revelations style Apocalypse where Good triumphs over Evil. I'm no expert on Revelations and I'm not about to go and research this, but I think the parallel fits in this case.

And at the very end of the tale, Jake "ascends into heaven" when he gives up his earthly body and fully adopts the body of his 'half human - half Na'vi' Avatar body. There he becomes a King just as Christ would be in Heaven.

Isn't it odd that Cameron would insert so much Christian symbology into his story? I assume that Cameron was raised as a Christian. (I couldn't find any information online about his early religious experience, but it is a safe bet.) It's interesting to me that in a story so infused with elements of Pantheism, that there are also elements of Christianity. No doubt that Cameron is hearkening back to his upbringing.

And if Jake is Jesus, what does that make Cameron?

The final verdict

There are many other aspects of the movie that I could go into, but these have been covered very well in other places. With regard to the 'political' aspects of the story, some have suggested that Avatar is a sort of full-length 3D Rorschach test. I have to agree.

But where do I think this movie sits in the history of movie making? I think this is a ground breaking movie for its use of virtual characters and its ability to incorporate them into a whole world created on film - or perhaps more appropriately, inside a supercomputer.

[By the way, I've searched online and haven't been able to find any information on what kind of computer hardware the Avatar movie was made on. If anyone comes across this information, please leave a comment. Curiously enough, no one seems to even be asking the question.]

The movie has been described as "this generation's Star Wars". I am completely in agreement with that. Star Wars was released in 1977 - about 30 years ago. At the time it was a tremendous breakthrough in Sci-Fi on film. But if you watch it today, it will seem rather lame.

What I wonder is, how we will perceive Avatar in ten, twenty or thirty years. My impression is that this sort of virtual actor technology will evolve so quickly, that Avatar will seem rather technologically primitive in ten to twenty years.

And then the only thing left to prop up the film will be the story, the characters and the fictional world of Pandora where the story takes place. My feeling is that without multiple sequels, there is not enough of a story to achieve a prominent place in 21st century culture.

An example of a movie that was able to achieve cultural status almost immediately was The Matrix. But I don't think that Avatar has any elements in its story that are unique enough to grab a hold of the cultural consciousness in that way. Perhaps the strongest element is the world of Pandora itself. But to me there is no one characteristic of Pandora that is strong enough to stand out.

But with two or more sequels, that could change. I would tend to expect a trilogy, which would require two sequels. And while expectations were not that high for Avatar, expectations will be through the roof for any sequels. Which means of course that if expectations are not met, then people will be disappointed. But if anyone can meet and even exceed expectations, it is James Cameron. After all he was the one that brought us the original Terminator, and then blew the lid off with Terminator 2 - or simply T2.

Predictions for Avatar 2 - or simply A2

Call these predictions or mere speculations. Here is what I am expecting from A2.

Did you notice there were no Na'vi children on Pandora? This implies to me that the Na'vi children take on a different form and then go through a metamorphosis before becoming adults. I am guessing that they start off life as some sort of sea creature like a fish. Or perhaps more like a tadpole which loses its tail and grows limbs to become a frog.

At any rate it will be interesting to see what the child of Jake and Neytiri looks like. Don't forget that they had some sort of sexual experience and presumably Neytiri is now pregnant with Jake's child. And also don't forget that Jake's DNA is composed of a combination of Human and Na'vi DNA.

Which also brings up an interesting subject. The fact that Na'vi have DNA means that they are closely related to life on Earth somehow. That opens up a possible subject for a future sequel, but I wouldn't expect this to be explored very far in A2. This seems like a subject for the concluding chapter in A3.

One more thought about the offspring of Jake and Neytiri. Don't be too surprised if Neytiri lays an egg instead of giving live birth. Again I would expect the birth to happen underwater. Of course Cameron would want an excuse to explore an underwater world where he could practice his craft of creating underwater animation. And also don't be too surprised if Neytiri gives birth to a litter of children instead of just one child. Remember that Jake is Jacob the father of the Hebrew tribes. Which means that each of his children will end up heading up a separate tribe. Or maybe Neytiri will give birth to twins, after all we know that Jake was a twin.

Expect to see Dr. Grace Augustine appear as some sort of spirit. Remember that Jake was able to hear the ancestors voices through the Tree of Voices. And even though that tree was destroyed, I would expect that there will be an alternate way to communicate with the souls of the dead. And what about Jake's twin deceased brother - will Jake find a way to communicate with his soul as well?

And I mentioned earlier that I expect that the Humans will be back to attack - this time as an army of Avatars. That will give them the agility that they lacked in their first battle with the Na'vi. They might also create their own animals for flying and riding. And of course they won't just be Na'vi style Avatars, but will be super versions of those with enhanced senses. But even though the Humans may out power the Na'vi, the Na'vi will always have the home field advantage.

Like any great Hero, Jake will have to wrestle with his own Pride or Hubris as he leads the Na'vi people. Pride is in many ways the original sin that leads to the fall from Grace. Indeed, it is considered to be the first and most serious of the Seven Deadly Sins. Will Jake's Pride cause the Na'vi to be ejected from their Pandoran Paradise?

There are many mysteries to be explored in the lush Pandoran world that Cameron has created. This provides ample material for a sequel. The most interesting for me are the seeds of the Tree of Souls. They have a jelly fish like appearance. This is in keeping with a sort of underwater theme in Pandora. Given that they are seeds, they must give birth some sort of new Life at some point. But don't just assume that a new Tree of Souls will emerge directly from the seeds. Take a look at this video of the lifecycle of a jellyfish to see just how complicated a reproductive cycle can be even in our Earth bound real life world. Those who ridicule the nerve endings emerging from the pony tail of the Na'vi have obviously not spent much time appreciating the diversity of Life on Earth.

Cameron's own imagination seems to have been fired up by his explorations of the Deep Ocean as part of his making of Titanic. It was Mark Twain who said that "Truth is stranger than fiction". The same could be said of Life. No matter what marvelous creations Cameron can create on the movie screen, it will never be as marvelous and mysterious as the creation of Life that exists right before our very eyes.

To James Cameron: If you need anyone to consult on the script for A2, I'm available.

[UPDATE - Jan 8 2010: I continue doing some editing to correct minor mistakes and to add bits of material. This post is sort of a work in progress. I may add some follow up posts. We'll see.]

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