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Avatar, some thoughts - Journal of Omnifarious

Jan. 22nd, 2010

09:41 am - Avatar, some thoughts

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I watched Avatar recently with a friend. And we came away with some very similar opinions and some very different ones. Predictably, it was the difference of opinions that stuck and we had a rather strident discussion about it.

I do not wish to be worried about spoilers, so I'm just putting this whole thing behind a cut and not worrying about them. If you don't want any, don't read it.

Here is my opinion of the movie...

Technically it's a fantastic movie. It uses CGI heavily, but very rarely does the CGI distract (aside from the fact that, you know, there aren't any 10 foot tall blue people in any reality I know of). It's smooth and realistic. Especially how things move. CGI so frequently makes mistakes in that arena. There were a few places in Avatar where things were just a little off, but it wasn't that noticeable and didn't happen that often.

The story is simple and predictable. But it grabs you all the same.

In my opinion, it's a black & white morality play. And if it suffers from anything, it's from the noble savage archetype. The Na'vi are everything in us that's good and nothing that's bad. They are on friendly, harmonious terms with their ecosystem. They mate for life (though, IMHO, this is a dubious quality with regards to how positive it is). They are largely egalitarian (except that men choose women, and rarely it seems the other way around), and they appear to not have any conflicts or wars of their own.

There are small things in the story that are very interesting details. The scientists, for example, are portrayed realistically and very well. I've never seen movie scientists that resembled the real thing so strongly. Hollywood usually hates and/or completely misunderstands both scientists and computer geeks. This movie definitely doesn't.

And life on Pandora is apparently part of an actual honest-to-goodness global organism. They don't have to imagine their Gaia in the myriad of interactions between different life forms in their world. Their Gaia (who they call 'Eywa') clearly exists in the form of a planet-wide neural network formed out of trees. Additionally, most forms of life over a certain level of complexity have a built in neural interface for connecting directly to Eywa or to each other.

The Na'Vi's harmony with their environment has a real physical basis in Eywa.

But I still think that the lack of flaws in the Na'Vi make it easy to idealize them and set them up on a pedestal. They are the great good we can never hope to achieve, and the most we can do is try in our own pitiful but nobly futile attempts. And additionally, we will have to give up all of our stuff, our material aims, in order to do it. They are the 'other'.

In the movie, the Na'Vi repeatedly call us 'blind' and 'ignorant'. They show no interest in our technology, in our medicine, in anything we have to offer them. They joyfully interact with their world seemingly without ever asking how it's all put together. All the boundless curiosity that teaches us so much and gets us in so much trouble seems to not be evident in the Na'Vi.

My friend came away with a hope that people would see this movie and see their own spiritual connection to the world around them. They would see the Na'Vi and be inspired to do better. I don't feel really qualified to go into what I think she sees further, because I'm not sure I completely understand it.

I think the movie does disservice to our attempts to be ecologically friendly. I think it makes the hope of living more harmoniously with our environment to be a remote hope that requires giving up all that we are to become something else. It's a distillation of the worst fears of those who say ecological friendliness will destroy our economy. In my opinion, learning to live in harmony with our environment will let us become greater, do more things, and have even neater stuff, not require us to live in trees and hunt with spears.

And that was the crux of our disagreement.

Current Location: 2237 NW 62nd ST, 98107
Current Mood: [mood icon] contemplative

Comments:

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From:gamerchick
Date:January 22nd, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
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I didn't care for Avatar at all for a bunch of reasons unrelated to what you talked about here (though I agree with you that the use of CG was stunning and that the film was absolutely a technological leap forward), but I wanted to say that I think you're right in the particular debate discussed here. I viewed the environmental elements of the film in the same way.
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From:vastatuuli
Date:January 22nd, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)
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I kept thinking that that's what the world has been like, that's how the peoples live who still live "in tune" with the nature, and we're pushing them deeper into the jungles and mountains. The movie was like a glimpse to the past where we can never go again.

On the other hand - like your friend, I had a hope that the film would touch people and remind them that things are completely connected in this world too. Avatar had it all very clearly on display, the connections were tangible and material, whereas in our world many things are invisibly connected. We see the connections when it's too late. I guess the people who interpret the movie the way I did already know the connections are there.
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From:cresal
Date:January 22nd, 2010 10:34 pm (UTC)
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I kept thinking that that's what the world has been like, that's how the peoples live who still live "in tune" with the nature, and we're pushing them deeper into the jungles and mountains.

actually, no. those people who "live in tune with nature" often don't. they often cause less disturbance (by FAR) than the much larger industrial societies, but hunter-gatherer societies still did and do drastically alter their landscape, hunt species to extinction, and wage war on each other. a human is a human is a human.

there's an interesting incident where some researchers were staying with one of the deep amazon groups (i forget which one) and recording their hunting practices, the ones that researchers say are part of their (unwitting?) plan to keep the environment balanced. the group forbade the hunting of this one particular small hoofed mammal because it was rare (read: endangered, by our words). it was a long standing tradition, one of their great taboos. great evil spirits will come spite you and your family and everyone you know if you hurt these animals!!!!! funny enough, those researchers went back a few years later and those little mammals were killed and eaten any time they crossed the path of a human. the people had lost some of their other food sources and had gotten hungry.
we're all just human. push anyone hard enough and all the "live in tune with nature" goes right out the window, won out by "i'm hungry".

there is no noble savage. there's different ways of viewing the world. and i do strongly feel that those groups that are closer to that ideal are more "in the right" and that we *should* try to live with a better understanding of how our actions affect our environment, and work to change things in a way that is overall beneficial, and hopefully not kill ourselves in the process. but there has never been a group that lived in "perfect harmony" and did nothing to negatively affect their environment (although the definition of "negatively" is obviously controversial). people are part of the environment, often a dangerous part. our entire landscape here on the west coast has been determined by thousands of years of controlled burning to encourage the growth of certain plant types (and the animals that eat those plants) and put down others. archaeological sites are full of the stories of groups eating a particular resource into near-extinction (at least in that area) before switching to a new resource.

we're just much, much better at causing damage now. much much much much much.

/rant off

that being said, while i despise the romanticized noble savage concept, i still prefer having movie heroes who are an environmentalist ideal and that do encourage people to think about their connection to the environment and make them want to live in a more conscientious way. for that i like avatar.

also it was super pretty. also also, while i think the noble savage can be a racist and dangerous concept in modern society, i'm still a romantic at heart. i wanna be a na'vi!!!
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From:vastatuuli
Date:January 23rd, 2010 09:38 am (UTC)
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I see "I'm hungry" as a part of living in tune with nature :) Of course, it's detrimental to biological diversity if one species hunts other species to extinction and controls the planet like we do now (...or do we? you could ask). I guess Avatar is indeed another version of the noble savage myth, and you may be right that there was never such advanced harmony here, but there are peoples who live much closer to nature than we do. They know how to read the signs sent by the rest of nature, like with the 2004 Tsunami.

Your story somehow reminded me of the history of Easter Island. I don't remember it in enough detail to recite here, but it's another story where humans destroy an environment with their ignorance and desire to reach a certain goal. I'm hoping we'll know more about the world one day to make informed choices, and that's what technology should help us with (referring to a comment by someone else below).
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From:omnifarious
Date:January 24th, 2010 04:23 am (UTC)
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... controls the planet like we do now (...or do we? you could ask).

We are strong enough to be dangerous to others and to ourselves, but don't know enough to use that strength in ways that are beneficial to ourselves. We really don't have any control because control requires understanding and we don't have much of that. We're just as likely to do something that severely hurts us as anything else.

At least, that's what I think. :-)



Edited at 2010-01-24 04:23 am (UTC)
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From:vastatuuli
Date:January 24th, 2010 08:59 am (UTC)
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Okay, if it's a matter of choosing the right word, maybe I should have said we dominate the planet. Would that change the meaning of what I said? Because I certainly didn't mean we're making things go the way we want, just that the world seems to be most affected by what we do, rather than by what some other species does.
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From:omnifarious
Date:January 24th, 2010 09:43 am (UTC)

Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't disagreeing with you

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I was just sort of giving my own spin on your statement, not intending to disagree with you.

Though I do agree that dominate is a better word than control, and more true than 'control'. I think we are the single species most capable of creating changes that create or destroy whole sub-ecologies.



Edited at 2010-01-24 09:43 am (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:January 22nd, 2010 11:22 pm (UTC)
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I have something I practice sometimes. It's like an internal filter I put on in my head. I try to imagine an overlay, or like I have some sort of special vision. I try to imagine seeing all the biological processes going on inside something, or try to imagine all the invisible links between things as I'm watching.

So, I know those links are there. I make a point of thinking about them in detail. I just don't think the movie will help most people see them.

If the story were more nuanced and the Na'vi less 'pure' it would be easier, I think, to see those things. But the fact that they're such a fantasy (as cresal points out) really gets in the way for me.

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From:vastatuuli
Date:January 23rd, 2010 09:43 am (UTC)
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That's good. I practice the same thing by watching discovery channel type documentaries. :D In all seriousness though, I study geography and most of my minors have something to do with the environment, and I can't avoid trying to see the big picture. That's a good exercise too.

The pessimist in me agrees with you. Or the realist in me. Sometimes it's hard to tell the two apart, especially since I like to be a bit of a dreamer. Otherwise I'd feel (my) life here is pointless.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 22nd, 2010 11:10 pm (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:January 22nd, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC)
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*chuckle* Hey, the word 'unobtanium' has been used in serious engineering research papers. :-)

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From:eonen
Date:January 22nd, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)
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Oh, c'mon...the Na'vi aren't all good; they had their typical snarky, dick-sizing, next-in-line-for-the-throne, don't-touch-my-girlfriend character in there, for example.
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From:omnifarious
Date:January 23rd, 2010 12:09 am (UTC)
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That's true. And you can sort of tell that that character is just bowing down to the Turok Mokto because politically he has no other choice. And Jake Sully throws him some political bones and makes it clear that he's not there to usurp his leadership of the clan, so he goes along with it figuring it can only enhance his own prestige.

So, yes, they aren't all good. But they certainly don't seem to have any of our really big problems.



Edited at 2010-01-23 12:09 am (UTC)
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From:eonen
Date:January 23rd, 2010 12:11 am (UTC)
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Other than being fodder for furry conventions, no, I suppose not.

I have to admit, the thing I liked least about Avatar was that, yet again, it can boil down to "nature-good-technology-bad", and I really HATE that crap.
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From:oniaka
Date:January 23rd, 2010 06:08 am (UTC)
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What would YOU do to ensure you had your computer, cell phone, and your video games? If it came down to destroying the habitat of the hermit crab to ensure you kept your computers, cell phone, and video games, would you destroy their habitat, thereby destroying them?

Or would you give up your tech for the sake of those simple lives?

Bare in mind that using the Hermit crab is simply an example.
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From:omnifarious
Date:January 23rd, 2010 07:23 am (UTC)

False dichotomy

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I'd go find the person who was holding the habitat for the hermit crab hostage and do something to him instead.

None of those things have to be given up. Everybody on all sides of the debate over how to live more in harmony with our ecology makes that mistake constantly. The solution doesn't generally lie in the direction of people giving stuff up. It lies in the direction of figuring out how to have our stuff without destroying things.

I actually think we would be happier overall and have more fun stuff if we learned how to do this. Things that work with the laws of nature instead of trying to bully them into submission are generally more efficient and nicer. Designing things so that there are only recyclables and no consumables will ultimately make them cheaper.

There might be some things we'd have to give up, but I don't think we'd have to give up most stuff.



Edited at 2010-01-23 07:23 am (UTC)
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From:eonen
Date:January 23rd, 2010 09:08 am (UTC)
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I think you miss the point: what humans do in the name of progress and the potential uses technology has are not the same thing. Technology definitely has benign and beneficial uses, but it's always portrayed in a demonized way, and I resent that.
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From:bansheewail
Date:January 27th, 2010 09:49 pm (UTC)
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I too rolled my eyes a bit at "And you may choose a woman. We have many fine women."

Horseshit. You make them seem like some ideal society in every other way, and the men and women share all responsibilities and opportunities equally, except for the part where the men come of age or whatever and are suddenly capable of choosing their life mate, who just has to go along with it? That's fucked.
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From:cresal
Date:January 30th, 2010 05:00 am (UTC)
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i actually got the impression that the woman had to choose the guy in return, that she could reject him if she wanted to. although they also had the arranged marriages thing going on, in which neither person usually has a choice.
i could be mistaken tho, i don't remember the exact details of that conversation.
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From:omnifarious
Date:January 30th, 2010 05:21 am (UTC)
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The phrase he used was "I've already chosen. But, this woman must also choose me.". That strongly implies that's not the normal state of affairs.



Edited at 2010-01-30 05:21 am (UTC)
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