Avatar: Film-making and Human Destiny

by Paul Gilster on January 15, 2010

by Larry Klaes

Judging by the abundant reaction to Larry Klaes’ recent article on James Cameron’s Avatar — and by the continuing commentary in society at large — Larry seems to be vindicated when he says the film has become a focal point of discussion for many in the general public. Having engaged in the lively debate in these pages, Larry now wraps up our Avatar coverage with a look at the film’s message and its ramifications, along with comments on its use of science.

To some the new film Avatar may seem like just another science fiction action-adventure flick designed to show off some new special effects while raking in the money for Hollywood and giving audiences some feel-good messages in the process. In Avatar’s most essential sense, this is true. At their core, all films are about giving certain people jobs and making a profit through the entertainment of the masses.

However, there are deeper messages to be found in Avatar, some of which the makers of this film and its intended audience may not appreciate in full, nor their potential consequences that may reach far beyond a mere night at the movies. In fact, I would go so far to say that the overriding message in Avatar might even threaten the ultimate goals of groups like Tau Zero and Project Icarus if left unchallenged and unanswered.

Hollywood’s Reach

It may appear to be a bit much to assume that one film could influence the destiny of humanity, but Avatar has the advertising publicity befitting a film that cost approximately $237 million to make, along with its new filming and presentation techniques which have already established its status in cinematic history. In addition to all this, producer James Cameron says he plans to make two more Avatar films if this first one is financially successful, which it seems well on its way to becoming. Avatar’s presence in the public mind and in our popular culture is ensured for decades.

As I said in my previous article on Avatar, a fair percentage of the people who see this film will get their main ‘education’ on the various themes presented to them by Avatar itself. Now these same people may have seen the occasional news blurb on one of the subjects, but they probably tend not to read science books and periodicals about them. Sadly this is the state of many people in our society, even the otherwise educated ones. Avatar will be giving them one side of a complex theme that will one day become one version of reality for our descendants, a reality that is now taking shape in our present culture.

Before I become fully involved in the main focus of this piece, allow me to address a few more items about Avatar, thanks in part to the comments and information pointers on my previous Avatar articles in Centauri Dreams. Regarding earlier cinematic efforts that have plots and ideas similar to Avatar, I add to this list one animated feature titled Battle for Terra, which first appeared in Canada in 2007 and arrived (with relatively little fanfare) in the United States two years later.

Avatar in Cinematic Context

Battle for Terra involves the surviving remnants of the human race seeking a new home in the galaxy after they managed to destroy Earth and its neighboring colonies in a self-inflicted interplanetary war. They come across an alien world named Terra where the ranking native intelligence lives in peace and harmony with each other and the ecology of their planet. Some humans want to work out a mutual agreement with the natives to live among them, while the military elements want to skip past any diplomacy and simply take over the planet. The two main characters in Battle for Terra are a human male fighter pilot and native female whose cooperative efforts may hold the key to saving both species and the planet.

Perhaps it is true that there are only so many story plots in existence. Or perhaps it is also true that Hollywood has a rather limited repertoire of ideas when it comes to science fiction stories. There have also been claims that certain elements in Avatar come from a science fiction story written in 1957 by author Poul Anderson titled “Call Me Joe.” This story involves a physically handicapped human scientist who explores the planet Jupiter (as that world was envisioned at the time) by placing his mind in the body of a native creature not altogether different from the Na’vi in Avatar. Eventually the scientist abandons his human body and fully becomes the Jovian being.

In any event, Cameron has learned his lesson in regards to credit from the events surrounding his 1984 film, The Terminator. After Cameron publicly stated that he got his ideas for The Terminator from two 1960s television stories by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, he was subsequently sued when the producer initially failed to give Ellison screen credit on the film. This time around, Cameron has declared that Avatar’s elements come from “every single science fiction book I read as a kid,” thus covering all his bases.

The Problem of Polyphemus

One staple of the science fiction genre where Cameron was clearly influenced from his youth in making Avatar is the giant planet and retinue of moons seen hovering in the sky of the world essential to the plot. While having such worlds hanging prominently in an alien sky is indeed a very cool thing to see, it does not necessarily follow that having such a sight would be necessarily safe for any living beings on the main moon, assuming they could even exist at all with such massive nearby celestial neighbors. The chances for such a place having major tectonic upheavals, numerous erupting volcanoes, and lakes of molten lava are quite high, taking Jupiter’s moon Io as a prime and real example.

Other hazards to be encountered from living on a moon so close to a Jovian type planet as Pandora does to Polyphemus would include major amounts of radiation from the Jovian world, assuming Polyphemus has radiation belts as big and as nasty as the ones surrounding Jupiter and Saturn in our Sol system do. The first probe to orbit Jupiter, appropriately named Galileo, was frequently affected by all the intense radiation it had to fly through on a regular basis, constantly going into safe mode at critical moments during its mission. Galileo might still be operating in Jovian orbit to this very day had it not been for all that collective radiation.

With Jupiter, you have to move all the way to the moon Callisto to get outside the range of that planet’s radiation belts, and by then Jupiter, while still being pretty impressive to look at in the heavens compared to, say, our Moon, is nowhere near as big as Polyphemus is in Pandora’s skies.

Another Pandoran space hazard to contemplate is a ring system. Now while Polyphemus did not appear to have such a collection of debris around its equator on the level of Saturn (now there’s another staple of science fiction visuals, a planet with rings) from the relatively brief and distant glimpses we were given, every Jovian type world in our Sol system has a system of rings, though some like Jupiter’s are faint and thin compared to Saturn’s. So assuming Polyphemus and many other such massive globes have some kind of flat plane of debris, then add in Pandora’s proximity to its mother world, there should be a fair number of debris hits from the rings.

Even if the moon’s atmosphere keeps out all but the largest objects, a world like Polyphemus will also attract many comets, planetoids, and meteoroids just as Jupiter does (the impressive breakup and smashup of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into the Jovian atmosphere in 1994 is a prime case in point). It is hardly unreasonable to imagine that Pandora and its fellow moons have been struck by objects pulled in from deep space by Polyphemus’ massive bulk more than a few times in their history. Some of those impacting bodies were probably big enough to radically affect any past life on Pandora, just as the dinosaurs on Earth disappeared after a five-mile wide planetoid or comet hit our world 65 million years ago.

On Setting and Culture

I also have to wonder if massive, looming Polyphemus also does the Na’vi a disservice in terms of not only blocking much of the Pandoran sky from the natives with its apparent size but also the serious amounts of natural light pollution it spreads across the heavens of that moon and its neighbors. Observe how many stars are washed out on an otherwise clear night with a full phase Moon in Earth’s skies and now imagine our satellite replaced with a world that takes up half the heavens! I chalk this up as another reason why the Na’vi (or at least the Omaticaya tribe who our main human character interacts with the most) don’t seem terribly interested in astronomy, at least given the amounts we were shown of their culture in the film.

One could argue that they are alien beings who evolved on a different world, but considering how similar they seem to have developed otherwise to aboriginal humans on Earth, I find it odd that they would ignore what so many other cultures all across Earth for millennia have focused on with more intensity than our current artificially light polluted society. At the least one might think that the presence of a giant planet with a big “eye” (several times we saw a giant hurricane-style storm on Polyphemus very similar to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter) and at least three nearby big moons would have developed some kind of interest and/or worship among the Na’vi.

What this really says to me is that Polyphemus was put there (or Pandora put in its realm) to look really cool aesthetically to audiences and physics be darned with what that giant planet would really do to a moon so close to it. It would have been better for the logical existence of life on Pandora if that world had been made a separate Earth-type planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A. Besides, there do not seem to be any Jovian-type worlds in the real Alpha Centauri star system (astronomers have looked and they would have been found by now), but there is still a chance for much smaller planets around our nearest stellar neighbors. Otherwise, though, Pandora is a fantasy place existing strictly in the minds of its creators.

Starship Design

Thanks to the Pandorapedia and comments on my earlier Avatar articles in Centauri Dreams, I was able to learn quite a bit more about the starship seen briefly at the start of the film. It turns out I was correct that the ship, named the ISV Venture Star (you can see the name on its hull), appears to be based on a realistic starship design, as opposed to most science fiction starships which rely on hyperspace bypasses and magical crystals to channel their energy from. They do use instantaneous communication across the light years with quantum entanglement (we will see how that ever works out). The Avatar starship concept comes from an antimatter starship design by Charles Pellegrino and James Powell called a Valkyrie, which you can read a fair bit about here.

That’s refreshing, at least. It is ironic, though, that a ship which had so little screen time has been given so much realistic detail, more so than the Polyphemus system and the biology of Pandora if you really think about it (as of this writing, there is no entry on Pandora itself). Ignoring for one moment whether complex life could exist on Pandora at all given its situation as just described, note how similar the creatures and intelligent beings on that moon are to Earth life. The Pandoran life forms really weren’t all that imaginative. Maybe all Earth-type worlds evolve similar types of beings, but then why bother to have Avatar take place 4.3 light years from here, other than to make comments on human society without offending certain groups, of course.

Let’s Go Camping – Forever!

Although we never really see human civilization on Earth in the year 2154 as imagined in Avatar, we are told that the place has become rather rundown, with not much green left (shades of Silent Running), lots of skirmishes all over the globe (that is how our Marine hero, Jake Sully, ended up in a wheelchair), and most everything is run by a company (shades of Rollerball and Robocop) called the Resources Development Administration, or RDA (about as bland a corporate name as one can get). Crime rates have probably gone up (Jake Sully’s twin brother was murdered by a thief, which is why he was sent to Pandora to replace his scientist sibling) and resources have certainly dwindled, which is why the RDA has gone to all the bother and expense of traveling over 25 trillion miles across the Milky Way galaxy to set up a colony and research facility (but in fact more like a military base) on an alien moon to mine a mineral called unobtanium to supply energy for human society back on Earth.

In a previous Avatar article I discussed why it seems so foolish that a society which has space travel would need to go all the way to another solar system, even the nearest one, to mine resources just for civilization on Earth. There should be colonies on worlds in our Sol system, especially on various planetoids, which have their own societies and access to lots of untapped resources. Clearly the filmmakers wanted and needed some kind of conflict with beings roughly equal in intelligence to humans, and since they at least knew no other intelligences exist in our Sol system (no living native ones anyway), they looked into the galaxy, where there are still so many unknowns that one can still create their own mythos of living worlds and feel safe from most ridicule (Venus and Mars used to serve this role until the first few decades of the Space Age showed them to be hostile to complex organisms). Thus the need to go mining around Alpha Centauri in Avatar.

In contrast we have the alien moon Pandora, which, despite the fact that most of the life forms and even the air are dangerous and deadly to Earth natives, is perceived of as some kind of Garden of Eden to the human race of the Twenty-Second Century. Certainly in Avatar little time is wasted in making sure that we see the humans and their technology on Pandora as short-sighted at best and outright destructive at worst while the native beings on that moon – while being more hostile overall than in any jungle on Earth – are revealed to be in a harmonious and literal connection with each other.

We the audience are supposed to take this to mean that the Na’vi are not only the “good guys” but also good in general, even above the humans in a moral and spiritual sense. Granted it was the humans who “invaded” their world and brought motives and items with them that are not for the benefit of the Na’vi, despite the representative company boss’ retort that they tried to give the natives schools and roads but rejected all their overtures.

But the Na’vi people are not saints, they are mortal creatures just like the human species. The fact that so many of the Omaticaya are warriors (or are at least among the highest ranking social order of their people) implies that they battle with each other just as most aboriginal tribes on Earth did for ages. The Na’vi are not better or worse than the humans, they are just different and wonderfully adapted – to the world they evolved on.

This is one of the two main issues I have with the themes and depictions in Avatar. By making the Na’vi out to be better than humanity because they are so “natural” while our technological civilization has brought nothing but hardships and problems to Earth and now to Pandora, this reinforces the notion among those in our society who think all technology is evil and only by returning completely to nature can we be saved.

The conclusion of Larry’s essay will appear tomorrow.

tzf_img_post

ljk January 20, 2010 at 1:00

Rollen said on January 18, 2010 at 21:27:

“I think the author misses the point. Technology is not what is made out to be evil, it is the people commanding the technology that are obsessively and pathologically evil. That was abundantly clear to me .”

Yes, there is that old phrase “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
However, the contrasts between the dirty metal technology of the
invading humans – both of which clearly have no respect or regard for
the native life forms on Pandora – and the Na’vi who embrace their
natural world (maybe they have no choice being plugged into Eywa
24/7 or whatever equivalent time measurements they have) in
totality are made clear and simplistically as a large ringing bell.

You the audience are supposed to frown upon the metal gray base
of the humans with its huge perimeter fences and patrolling armored
men and machines. You are meant to hiss and boo at the big yellow
construction machines that mow down the sacred Na’vi places
without thought or regard. And if you don’t well up with hurt and
sadness when the human war machines literally strike down the
Na’vi’s Hometree, then you just aren’t human – or at least a nice one.

You and others can say that it was a certain percentage of the humans
on Pandora who were the “evil” ones, but Cameron meant us to see the
“bad” human invaders and their cold hard technology as indistinguishable.

These humans clearly forgot a long time ago how to appreciate, respect,
and properly utilize nature like the Na’vi so clearly do in all aspects of
their lives.

So the message to we humans of Earth in 2010 is, again: Technology =
bad, Nature = good. And the only “good” technology is the squishy
biological ones like the Avatar program.

And there is my other issue with the characterizations in Avatar. The
good and bad folk are so two-dimensional, ironic for a 3-D film. The
military want nothing more to do than kill everything Pandoran, with the
exception of our hero, Jake Sully, who at first is only too happy to sell out
the Na’vi to get his legs back in working order.

Then we have the scientists, who end up being so humanitarian but
ironically seemed to have few issues in signing up for the trip to Pandora
and working on the Avatar program in the first place. Were they really
all that nieve about what was really going on at Pandora? Did they really
think the RDA (the company) was there to improve the lives of the Na’vi
and conduct pure scientific research on the alien life forms? Personally
I don’t know what is worse, their willful ignorance or their outright
cluelessness when it comes to business and politics in this world.

The other thing that was sadly not emphasized upon enough in Avatar is
the fact that in their reality in 2154, human civilization is degrading back
on Earth (and maybe the Sol system). The humans were on Pandora to
see if they could bring back a minerla that might save their civilization.

If the human race were in deep trouble and we needed the resources of
another world – an inhabited one – to save our species, what would you do?
Would we nobly go down with the ship to keep the Na’vi or a similar
species safe? Or would we do what we had to do to survive? What might
another species do if Earth was their sole chance at survival?

Avatar brought up some big issues that our descendants will face one day
when they head out into the galaxy, but it went all simplistic and kept the
themes aimed at an early 21st Century audience. That is why I wrote what
I have about Avatar to bring up these important issues, which I have not
seen focused on nearly as much as other ones regarding the film.

I certainly understand the excitement and awesome prospects of wanting
to build a starship and head out into deep space to see what is there. But
we better really appreciate just how big and complex things are out in the
galaxy, to say nothing of all the unknowns. We might find worlds and beings
that make Pandora’s life forms look like bacteria and they may be even
less inviting if we go out there with our “We’re So Special Everyone Will
Love Us” attitude.

ljk January 20, 2010 at 1:17

And oh yeah – for those who say we shouldn’t expect science fiction
films to depict real and accurate science, I say to you – WHY NOT?

Medical dramas go out of their way to be accurate, hiring and consulting
real doctors to get procedures and terminology right. And don’t tell me
that the majority of the audiences who watch these programs really
understand biology and surgery and so forth.

So why can’t we have one or two science fiction films that strive to be
totally realistic? Yes, we had a few that came close, but they are now
four decades old. If Hollywood is willing to spend hundreds of millions
of dollars on a film, why not make that extra effort to get its science
and technolog accurate too? Yes, I dare to ask and demand.

And by the way, just because I criticise certain aspects of Avatar does
not mean I hate it, okay? If I didn’t like or care about the film in certain
respects I wouldn’t have bothered writing any of this at all. I just think
Avatar had certain important themes it either dropped the ball on or
didn’t go far enough with that should be addressed.

Next time let’s get an SF film that is original, daring, and accurate. I know
someone can do it. There is no reason why not.

ljk January 20, 2010 at 14:44

Having stated before that I would like to see a film that deals with really
alien aliens – or at least ones that don’t look like human actors in rubber
suits (or is it CGI ones now?), I would suggest using the gas giant that
Pandora circles, namelhy Polyhemus if we are to stay in that Alpha
Centauri A system as I saw rumored (Cameron wants his film sequels
to investigate the other moons orbiting the alien Jovian world).

I would like to see them build a story around the kind of beings
envisioned by Carl Sagan and E. E. Salpeter in 1976 that they
projected could live in the atmosphere of Jupiter, namely a collection
of living, intelligent gas bags called floaters, sinkers, and hunters.

See here for the details:

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=6308

Since I read that they are mining Polyhemus for fuel for their starships
(it sounds like the method planned for Daedalus, which means stations
floating in the Jovian atmosphere via balloon), they could use this as
a focal point. At least it would not be just another version of Pandora,
though a love story between a human and a gasbag may not work.

By the way, for the poster who asked me somewhere why I favored the
antimatter propulsion method of the starship in Avatar when antimatter
is so tough to procure: Well, besides the fact at least it is a theoretically
feasible method of interstellar propulsion, there are studies that the
rings of gas giant worlds may contain a fair deal of natural antimatter to
mine (look up the CD posts on Saturn’s rings for the details). Assuming
Polyhemus has a ring system, this could be a resource for the ships in
the film.

Plus the current facilities that produce antimatter are not focused on
making large quantities of it. Imagine if they did. I am not saying it
would be a game changer, but it might be enough to make some aspects
of antimatter propulsion feasible.

ljk January 21, 2010 at 0:12

For the sake of completeness:

Yet another film which I now realize has many parallels to Avatar is the
animated Disney feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire, released in 2001.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis:_The_Lost_Empire

Unlikely hero travels with quasi-military expedition to an alien world,
meets beautiful native woman, becomes one of the natives, battles bad
humans who are only out for wealth and power, aided by other humans
who decide to help our hero. Hero defeats bad guys, chases them from
paradise and becomes one of the natives.

Did I mention the native woman is also the daughter of the king and queen
of her people? And that they can communicate with their ancestors.

ljk January 21, 2010 at 0:19

Article on how some people want Pandora to be real and showing real
life (on Earth) parallels to Pandoran life forms:

http://martianchronicles.wordpress.com/2010/01/12/how-to-cure-the-avatar-blues/

ljk January 26, 2010 at 1:18

Avatar is now the biggest money-making film of all time, beating
Cameron’s own Titanic from 1997:

http://paralleluniverse.msn.com/features/movies/the-wrap/avatar-sinks-titanic/story/?gt1=28140

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 3 trackbacks }