Avatar and Evolution, or Isn’t It Ugly to Think So?

I was four the first time I saw a movie. My dad had a job teaching a summer session at UT Austin and in the evenings there was a program showing movies on the side of a building on campus. We sat in folding chairs on a lawn between two rows of manicured trees and watched the movies on a screen of mottled cement. We saw Fiddler on the Roof, Superman 2, and Star Wars. I have a few scattered memories of my early childhood, but that summer is, for me, the starting point from which I can draw a continuous line of memory to where I am today, writing this.

I fell asleep during Fiddler on the Roof, but I remember still the last wintry image of the man pulling his cart while the fiddler follows behind him. I could barely put together sentences and had no way to relate to the stories or places in the movie, but the starkness of the ending was like an immediate and sharp waking, and I can still remember it today. It’s a kind of sport to tell children lies: Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, religious fables, super hero stories, euphemisms about a stork to ameliorate the horror of describing the inner animal hibernating inside our loins.

Seeing that terrible and lonely march through an unforgiving part of the world during the cruelest season was a shock. It was like waking suddenly and finding myself underwater. There was an irreconcilable conflict between that image and the self-centered whimsy that had defined most of my young life. It was sobering, all of the idle daydreaming about playtime and candy had to immediately be put aside to reckon with something urgent and all encompassing.

James Cameron’s Avatar is about consciousness. It begins with medically administered waking from a six-year sleep, and ends with a metaphysical eye opening onto a purer kind of life among blue humanoids. From the outset, humans are shaded with moral compromises. Jake Sully is a paraplegic because military insurance coverage in the future refuses to treat those conditions even though the technology exists. Jake’s selection to replace his dead brother is, likewise, ruthlessly utilitarian.

He doesn’t have any social, linguistic, or cultural understanding of the species he is about to merge with, only his genes make him an ideal candidate. The human home world is described as dead. Humans now have to rummage through the galaxy in search of raw materials to keep their civilization on life support. The miners and mercenaries that protect them speak of the Na’vi in derogatory lingo, savages that can be moved from one tree to the other or else bulldozed. Which is to say there’s not much of a case being made for humankind.

The Na’vi are treated with reverence. Cameron hits all the nativist tropes that have been marveled over for centuries. They are naturally more athletic than the bumbling humans. They can link consciousness with any other living creature in their world through a dangling dreadlock cum sex toy. The can tame wild animals by virtue of this glowing French tickler. They sleep in hammocks, wear loin cloths, have shaved Mohawk hair, and live in one big tribal commune in the roots of a giant tree that sheds midichlorians.

It doesn’t come as a surprise when Jake eventually becomes alienated from the heartless greed of his own species and instigates a terrible battle to save the cherished locals. After vanquishing the guilty humans, he wins the great prize of being able to transform completely into a Na’vi. As the end credits scroll, the last image of Pandora is Jake riding on the back of a space pterodactyl heading directly into the glowing red sun, which I assume is setting because all of the imagery that preceded it was set in the daytime.

There’s something terrible in that image. A human who renounces his species and all of the achievements that have brought him to where he is in favor of the primal thrill of native life; the palpitating exhilarations of riding on the back of a big lizard bird, living naked, and eating in a squat. It claims as a spiritual victory what seems to me a tragic dismissal of all the advancements of a civilization that can travel through space, heal dead limbs, survive in alien atmospheres, make use of natural resources for the collective good, bond DNA, and create empathetic links between two creatures through computer code and electric pulses (presumably).

Avatar is a movie in opposition to evolution, which is simply stupid given how entirely reliant on technology is the entire experience. This is the inner heart of the most deluded bullshit, a romantic infatuation with the eradication of human growth, evolution, and achievement.

The humans greatest sin is greed and corrupt exploitation of nature for their own purposes. When the Na’vi kill a space panther for dinner, it’s necessity. When humans marshal vast amounts of technology to find materials to sustain themselves, it’s corruption. When humans enter the environment of other creatures they become amoral militants. When the Na’vi break into the habitat of those space pterodactyls, wrestle one to the ground, force it into submission, then mind rape it so that it will always identify with its master, Cameron finds some kind of rugged natural poetry.

Avatar is a parable about how to slough off consciousness. It’s an apologetic for all of the awful and unanswerable moral dilemmas that conscious beings face in the world. It’s a romantic leap backwards into a time of unknowing with only amusement park athletics to compensate.

The great leap backwards is inevitable, the foreknowledge of that looming precipice of our own dissolution is what defines us. The struggle to justify one’s life in the face of that unavoidable reunion with the lower molecules of the galaxy is the edge beyond which we might discover who, and why, we are. I’d rather have that struggle than the animal existence Cameron’s imagined for us in the future. Avatar’s idea of waking is to turn away from those defining struggles with loneliness and purpose for the sake of an orientalist dream. In other words, to go back to sleep. Would that Cameron thought more of what it is he’ll have to leave behind once he goes.


14 thoughts on “Avatar and Evolution, or Isn’t It Ugly to Think So?

  1. I know for a fact that you don’t really think what this article seems to imply that you do: Imperialism is fine, it’s just Survival of the Fitest.

    You’ve made it clear, I think, that you are opposed to that viewpoint.

    It is true. Avatar is overly romantic toward ultra naturalistic lifestyles. It is also very true that humanity is, in general, portrayed as evil imperialists (though I’d also say that at least in this point Cameron had historical precident.)

    It is too easy to go either way. Attitudes tend to polarize between turning a blind eye to the ravaging of nature to strip the land of all resources, or abandoning all technological advances (even, as you mentioned, medicine.)

    Far harder is to find a way for both of those elements to live in a sort of… perhaps not harmony… a minimization of damage to either.
    There are technologies that do not require the destruction of the natural world, and provide mankind with our luxuries. Thanks to the progression of our scientific understanding, a sort of peace between industry and nature is growing ever closer, ever more realizable. We’re not there yet, of course.

    But that’s another topic.

    I’ve found that I tend to forget important, fundamental facts about the world. The realities of economics. Third world hunger and strife. Suppressed minorities, even in our United States. Loving everyone is not only important, but nessesary.
    All these things are important, valuable, and incredibly forgetable.

    What reminds me of these things is not bland encyclopedic entries. It is not a simple recitation of facts or statistics.
    These facts, and the impact and emotion and reality of them have to be shoved in my face sometimes, if I’m to remember at all.

    And there is another fact that I believe is important for myself, and everyone, to remember: the natural world contains wonderful beauty, and life and creatures. All of which are important. Valuable.
    It is important to commune with it in some respect. Not become one with it. That is a silly notion. We are who we are and we cannot become something else entirely (a notion that Avatar relished, obviously.) But walks in the park, observing wild animals and hell, hiking through the rockies perhaps are all ways that modern man can still appreciate the natural world and not shun our technological progress.

    Modern man looses sight of that. And we become complacent and uncaring when it is destroyed.

    Avatar is not reality. It is over romantic. It is not a model for real life.
    And yet I also see it as a perfect vehicle for those important facts of life to be shoved into modern man’s face, break through his complacency and, if just for a moment, remind him of what he’s forgotten.

    After watching Avatar I did not want to go romp through the woods in a loincloth. I’d be mental if I did. But after witnessing the beauty of Pandora’s natural environments, for a while there, I saw every tree, creature, and person in a more striking and considerate way.
    For that alone, Avatar was worth it to me.

    For the record, I loved Avatar. Whatever flaws the storytelling and dialogue and themes had, I still found myself in love with the film, even weeks later. Perhaps you’ll not take me seriously for that?

  2. The only humans in the movie that are the evilest-bastards-who-ever-lived are the ones attempting to take things by force. Sigourney Weaver’s character Grace, the rest of the science team and the chopper pilot are all presented as good guys because they disagree with the methods employed by the corporation.

    Jake doesn’t instigate the conflict. The hostile humans (as opposed to the nice ones) do when they torch the Navi home and then attempt to destroy the site that holds the memories of all the Navi ancestors.

    He doesn’t renounce his entire species, just the more hostile and destructive aspects of it. He gives up his human body because it is broken, and he has no ties (that we know of) to Earth, now that his brother is dead.

    Jake doesn’t “mind rape” the pterodactyl thing. They can fly, remember? It could’ve flown away like all the others. It chooses him and attempts to kill him to test his strength.

    Is it biological evolution you’re talking about? Technological advancement is not the product of mutation and natural selection. It is the product of the accumulation of hundreds of years of scientific study and experimentation. Evolution has only provided a handful of us with the means to advance our technology a little at a time. And we humans do our best to eliminate the mechanisms of evolution with advancements in medicine and other technologies.

    Now, the Navi have a hierarchal social structure, a spoken language and art. They are also more physically capable than the humans, as you pointed out. Given that they are sentient, they have the potential to develop complex technologies but ostensibly have no interest in such things. Why are they evolutionarily inferior?

    My thoughts on the movie: It’s a pretty film with some good one-liners and the plot of Pocahontas. For my money, I’d rather watch (500) Days of Summer three more times.

  3. Will: Everything broken about Jake has a solution in the human society. Still he chooses to abandon his body and his species entirely, and spearheads the effort to force them off the planet. Maybe it’s on the cutting room floor, but I don’t recall any scenes where a seed group of scientists is allowed to stay behind for cultural exchange. If this is not a wholesale rejection, it’s hard to imagine that such a thing could exist.

    The involuntary imposition of one’s consciousness into another being by means of force is about as literal an example of mind rape as there may be. Saying the ones that fight are the ones that are calling you to mind rape them strikes me as the worst sort of immorality. As if not running away and instead choosing to defend one’s home is an invitation to have one’s consciousness intruded upon. I’ll pass.

    To say that technology is not a product of evolution seems a bet far fetched. Compare a coffee grinder to a paleolithic mortar and pestle. Technology is a byproduct of evolution, but I think there’s a close relationship between the sophistication of technology and the stage of evolution. I’d also be hesititant to commit to the idea that medical technology is removing the pressures that have guided natural selection and evolution. I’d say it just moves the process onto a different axis, which is where all our technology points to anyway. The next great stage of evolution will likely be much less physical and far more mental (e.g brain size and function), though I confess to sounding like an ass in guessing just what processes of evolution are on-going.

    Homo habilis was more physically capable than we are, but they’re still not exactly ideal. But anyway, debating sci-fi anthropology is a canard because the rules of Cameron’s society are arbitrary. He gives the Na’vi hair in a world where almost no other creature has hair, not even the horses. I think Tarkovsky was much better and more provocative on this idea of symbiotic connection with one’s world in both Solaris and Stalker because in both cases there was some fearful horror attached to it, which is something that strikes me as more honest then a playground fantasy of flying on orange lizards and sprinting across glowing tree limbs. When we get to a point where we can commune with other creatures and life forms innately, why will still need bodies, individual vessels of physical survival in an antagonistic world?

    • The opportunity to get his legs fixed only comes after he has made the connection with the Navi, and it’s about that time that Quaritch has all the information he needs to go to war with them. If he had given in then to save his legs, he would have abandoned Navi to destruction.

      And the movie mentions that a handful of humans are allowed to stay on Pandora. How they will survive when they run out of oxygen tanks, I do not know.

      No, Mike, that still doesn’t work. Within the context of the story, it’s consensual–if we’re going to run with that theme. Jake just has to prove his worth before they make the connection. It’s a very short and bizarre courtship, but it’s not “mind rape.” That place is too hazardous for the Navi to colonize, so it makes no sense that the pterodactyls would stay and fight, risking themselves, unless it’s to join with one of the Navi.

      If you’re going to complain about mind rape, why not talk about the horse things? It doesn’t seem like they get much say in it. But then it would seem like the relationship humans have with real horses. Goddamn humans.

      Expanded mental capacity can only become more prevalent if it gives a person a greater capability to produce offspring. Do you think we’re at a greater stage of evolution than Isaac Newton, who created Calculus by himself? And it wasn’t even his life’s work. It was just so he could prove his other hypotheses. Newton never married, and he never had any children. Hey, you’re a smart guy. How many children do you have?

      The reason we are so technologically advanced is because we can stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Newton himself said, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Evolution gives us the means to advance, but there’s much more to it than that.

      I don’t think that even the people of Classical Greece were mentally inferior to us, considering all the advances they made in architecture, science and art. If you haven’t already, read about the architecture of the Parthenon. It uses some ingenious optical trickery that I don’t think even we have mastered, and they did it all without electronics or even Arabic numerals.

      Anyway, the Navi have hair because he have hair. And they have their noses on their face instead of on their necks because that’s how we are. Same thing with their reduced number of arms.

  4. Ed-o: I do not support Imperialism in any way, but you don’t have to go far into the history of any colonized country to find serious moral conflict within the colonizers. I don’t think Cameron gave that serious representation, to the story’s discredit. In Titanic he was much more sympathetic to those hubristic failings of humanity, but in Avatar it’s a brash bureaucrat who practices putting in the office, and a Curtis LeMay military contractor.

    But so anyway I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t reasons to like Avatar or love it. I like the Star Wars prequels in many ways more than the originals, for example. I just couldn’t find any reasons to like it for myself, but, as you might guess, my inability to find reasons is not to suggest that those reasons don’t exist.

  5. Will: I understand the reasons Cameron gives to justify the battle, and the mind raping, but I don’t accept his justifications. They strike me as disingenuous bullshit. And you will have to dig much much deeper to demonstrate precisely how mortal combat constitutes consent. We know, at least in humans, the neural response to invasive threat is identical, but different people respond to that identical neural stimulus in different ways. So simply saying that one bird lizard stuck around to fight it out while the others took to the skies is a form of consent to have its mind invaded, using the same mechanism by which the Na’vi also have sex according to the script, is barbaric. It may well resemble the rough and masculine myths from which Cameron might be pulling inspiration, but, at least for my sense of morality, that act is ghastly and condemnatory. And I can’t tell you how much I empathize with the terrible plight of horses caged in human servitude. It’s an absolute moral blackbox, the benefits to society through the harnessing of beastly power, versus the indefensible cruelty which we must subject the poor beasts to in order to break them.

    And look Newton was brilliant, but we only discovered how truly brilliant he was in hindsight and because, calculus aside, so many of his discoveries are universally understandable. What’s left to science know is filled with obscure concepts and invisible thought experiments. It’s become so abstract and obscure it’s become divested from art entirely (a phenomenon that for which Avatar stands as a good example). Anyway, is it more remarkable that Newton cobbled together a system for calculus, many parts of which had already been experimented with before he went home to win his bet. I find it equally astounding that someone with half his brain size figured out, with no instruction, that fire could be made by spinning a stick against another for 10 minutes. Whether or not there’s evidence of evolution in our species over the course of 300 years, I imagine there is none. But Newton was wrestling with similarly invisible mysteries in his time that astrophysicists are now. The nouns and numbers have changed, but the sorts of thinking that have the most success seem to me broadly similar. So I would not yield our greatest minds to Newton. I think Feynman, Einstein, Krause, Wittgenstein, could be considered co-equals. It’s only the trick of relativity that we invest some super human intelligence in Newton while yawning in the face of similarly revolutionary discoveries in our time (whose true meanings will likely not be felt until you and I are both dead).

    And for the Parthenon, there is still much about Newtonian physics that is a mystery too. Mostly why questions. Whatever guided the Greeks though, it’s worth remembering that they also felt guided morally by the cult of Athena and has inscribed in it sanction for human slavery. So here then is that same moral split between our works and instincts leading us to greatness beyond our cultural understanding, while the moral justification we use to explain those works is often absolute piffle. So I would certainly not contest the idea that respect for life and cultural exchange be respected as paramount values, I’d just say that Cameron’s fable tells me the exact opposite in many crucial points.I’m going to get especially snarky here, but his sense of empathy is built on self loathing and misanthropy, which, if you’ve ever seen how cagey and provincial he can be in interviews, says a lot.

    Also, I don’t think it’s a very pretty movie. It looks an Easter basket mated with a Lite Brite. Powers of Ten is beautiful, but day glow pollen floating over a pink and green coral bed, not as much.

    • Okay, if it doesn’t matter that within the context of the movie the pterodactyl thing wanted to join with Jake but fought him to test his mettle so he wouldn’t get both of them killed later on, then we’ve gone as far as we can there, I think.

      After talking with you about it, there does appear to a bit of contradiction where the humans are condemned for the destruction of their planet, while the Navi are only able to function as well as they do without machines by claiming the less conscious critters around them into servitude. It’s reconciled a bit by the concept of the biological network of the planet and the thought they all live in symbiotic harmony, but I can definitely see that point of view.

      I just used Newton as an example. I didn’t mean to indicate that I think he was somehow superhuman. And I agree that there are many minds that have come since that are comparable to his. I just think that our technological advancement has more to do with the refinement of our methods and the accumulation of scientific study than biological evolution.

      I’m sorry if you addressed that, but I find that your posts become increasingly hard to decipher as theses conversations go on. Don’t worry; it’s probably not your fault.

      Anyway, I hope you get something out of these little chats. I often feel like a midget wildly swinging my arms while you hold me back, your palm to my forehead.

      • I don’t think he means to make you feel that way.

        Nobody holds all truth and knowledge in their pocket. Having the ability and will to hold and create your own opinions already raises you far above the metaphorical midget swinging his arms.

        Einstein was defeated in his debate over Quantum Physics with Niels Bohr, but that hardly makes Einstein an idiot.

        And, quite frankly, this debate is far more philosophical than Einstein’s was (though his was philosophical in its own way,) and s it’s open to far more interpretation.

        Don’t beat yourself up for it if Mike has very good points. If he didn’t have good points, even when we ultimately disagree, I doubt we’d bother to read it. 🙂

      • It’s not you, I think we’re talking about so many different point in each post and as soon as I get fully involved with thinking one each through I’ve forgotten what the other points were and things sort of scramble away. A good debate should always be like that, the nerve-wracking process of keeping all the rascally pigs in the pen, or at least one’s with me. I’ve neither the gift of terseness, natural grammar, nor mental organization so my own pigs usually begin in a state of squalor and only wander from there.

        One parting cheapshot about the pterodactyl’s, I think the real point is you take the movie at its word when it tells you that’s why the bird’s stay, and I call mystical bullshit. What’s more likely, the bird simply staying to fight a smaller creature that’s invaded its home or its instinctual understanding that it must needs partner with these hairless primates for no benefit to itself whatsoever. Cameron explains it clearly but, to me, it’s a voodoo explanation that I can’t buy. Would rather he said there were midichlorians.

        Anyway, there’s nothing I value more than honesty, but second as much is the idea of the dialectic. I think it’s safe to say that its mutually edifying, energizing, and interesting. But please don’t take my disagreement for condescension. I’m not that tall.

  6. Top 3 phrases above:

    3) “It looks [like] an Easter basket mated with a Lite Brite.”

    2) “…all of the idle daydreaming about playtime and candy had to immediately be put aside to reckon with something urgent and all encompassing.”

    1) “…the inner animal hibernating inside our loins.”

    w/r/t #2: Looks like I need to see Fiddler on the Roof. I think, often idly, about candy and playtime far too much for a man of my station.

    Love the conversation, gentlemen. For the record, I was hugely skeptical of the film, but after 3 hours wearing chunky black plastic 3D glasses, I walked out of the theater blown away. I get your arguments, Mr. Thomsen, but that inner-child within me hankering for some Reese’s Pieces was thrilled too vividly for the Adult to ignore. Can one be “vividly” thrilled? Well, I was. Call me anti-evolution. Or maybe I just yearn for the day-glo fluorescence of my childhood Lite Brite.

  7. Jon: Yeah, I totally accept that there are myriad reasons to like something, and some aesthetic/daydream appreciation for Avatar could more than offset whatever thematic/rhetorical flaws I find in it. There’s a huge element of that pure sensoria in my enduring passion for reality television. It titillates my various senses with abandon and I’m inclined to put my arms behind my head and let it tickle me. For the reasons above, I can’t get to the same point with Avatar. Those reasons aren’t definitive truth, but they’re mine as truthfully as I could manage.

    I can’t vouch for Fiddler on the Roof. I haven’t seen it since I was four, and all I really remember is that image and the If I were a Rich Man sequence. Let me know if it’s good beyond the pretty picture (my appreciation of which is, I think, born of a purely aesthetic appreciatiion that mirrors why I suspect people respond positively to Avatar..)

  8. I guess we can go a little farther with it. Well, I can, anyway. No pressure to respond.

    If the more advanced problem solving skills and weapons of the Na’vi give the pterodactyl things a higher rate of survival, it would make sense that they’d want to join. It’s not like it’s a first encounter. If it were, you’d be completely right, but they’ve presumably been living together in the same ecosystem for millions of years to have evolved the capability to join consciousnesses and oh christ this shit is bananas.

    I say decent movie; you say Attack of the Blue Lite-Brite Mind Rapers.

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