Avatar: The Second Nature?

Planet Pandora in Avatar (2009)
Planet Pandora in Avatar (2009)

I just saw Avatar (dir. & written by James Cameron), in 3D, and I must say I am impressed. Not necessarily deeply moved like some other great films I have seen, but impressed as in made to think about cinema and the role it will have for us in the future.

Many people who have written about Avatar have started by dropping a long list of other movies it has borrowed from; my take would be Avatar is “Aliens meets Dances with Wolves meets Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” style of movie. But there is enough originality in this particular blend that the intertextual or -medial reference listings do not make justice to its real essence.

Looking at the film through the thick and rather dark 3D goggles, I felt the basic scenario built around the avatar technology of the movie was sort of metaphor for my own situation: the medium was there, both opening me an opportunity to reach into this alternate reality, and keeping me forever at a distance from it, at the same time.

It is easy to criticize the plot of the movie, or the characters as superficial – they are sort of cartoon elements, or maybe it would be more appropriate to talk about a fairy story in this case. But I felt the actual main character was the alien planet Pandora the film was built to introduce to us. It is easily the most beautiful place I have ever seen, taking all Natural Geographic documents or BBC nature documentaries to a whole new level. Flying over it, running through it, all the action sequences of the film felt like yet another excuse to show us yet another amazing aspect of this great world. (Cameron has promised to make two more films located in the same world, if this one will be successful, so there might be more of that in the making.)

Some older theories of ‘film’ are based on the idea that light from something original has touched the material medium so that it will carrying with it the ‘aura’ or true significance from the moment of its making. Digital medium has not this same status, but I think Avatar will be remembered as the film that finally made it inevitably clear that digital media has reached beyond the artificial. It has truly become ‘Second Nature’ to us, capable of capturing such richness in points of view and diversity in the expression, that analogue mediums will have very precise, stylized roles reserved for them in the future.

As the Natural Geographic documentary of the Second Nature, Avatar also underlines how much care and resources it takes to truly respect the material universe if one wants to show it properly. I think there was a whole department of artists mentioned in the end titles working on every element of nature, from water to fire to plants, animals and inanimate nature. I am really eagerly waiting for the blu-ray release to get rid of the endless battle scenes, and really be able to immerse myself in the exquisite details like the designs of grass or hey, or ferns, or the little amoeba like seeds from the Life Tree, floating in the air. There must be loads of extras coming from a mega-production like this one.

As Science Fiction, Avatar is sort of mixed bag. The technology does not really hold water (where is the lag in the telepresence tech? On what kind of crude Cartesian ideas the neural link is based on?); even while the machinery and physics look satisfyingly “hard SF” on the surface, there is also a strong aspect of Sword & Sorcery style fantasy in the film. Oh yeah, and quite a lot of dragons, too. But all this is fine for me, I enjoy both chocolate as well as strawberry in the same cup of ice-cream, thank you very much. This is just entertainment, after all.

At the same time, I left the theatre feeling good about some of the direction big-budget entertainment is taking with Avatar. The movie was built on old and proven formulas of war and romance, but it will also introduce millions of people watching it to some simple (and a bit mystified) version of ecosystem thinking, which is good and valuable thing in itself. I have loved Japanese anime long time for this kind of reasons. E.g. Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli is one work carrying similar kind of spiritual and ecological message, while being considerably more complex in its moral and ethical themes than Avatar. Another computer generated anime I mentioned before, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Square, 2001) is also useful point of comparison, not only because of the huge leap computer animation has taken in less than a decade, but on terms of its emphasis on the futility of military actions in global conflicts. But again, Avatar is considerably less convincing as a pacifist movie, it takes too much relish on its Cowboys versus Indians, Hiawatha style narrative focused on driving home the ‘noble savage’ and Gaia the world-soul myths.

So: hardly a masterpiece movie, but enormously entertaining and really worth watching in 3D. Seeing this, it is hard to believe that there would be cinematic spectacles that would not be released also in 3D in a few years time.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the University of Tampere, Finland.

2 thoughts on “Avatar: The Second Nature?”

  1. Particularly to a techno or scifi fan this is a must, but of interest also to others. While exiting the theater, I heard some members of audience to talk excitedly, but some also with various degrees of confusion — the experience was not necessarily something from your average action movie.

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