Thoughts on James Cameron's Avatar and Neal Stephenson's "Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out"

Despite reading Greg Egan’s brilliant review of Avatar, I saw the movie. The strangest thing about Avatar is its anti-corporate, anti-technological argument. Let me elaborate: there are wonderful anti-corporate, anti-technological arguments to be made, but it seems contrived for them to be made in a movie that is, for the time being, apparently the most expensive ever made; virtually all mainstream movies are now approved solely on their profit-generating potential. So a vaguely anti-corporate movie is being made by… a profit-driven corporation.

The movie is among the most technically sophisticated ever made: it uses a crazy 2D and 3D camera, harnesses the most advanced computer animation techniques imaginable, and has advanced the cinematic state-of-the-art. But Avatar’s story is anti-technological: humans destroyed their home world through environmental disaster and use military might to annihilate the locals and steal their resources. Presumably, if Avatar’s creators genuinely believed that technology is bad, the movie itself would never have been made, leading to a paradox not dissimilar for those found in time travel movies.

Avatar also has a bunch of vaguely mythical elements, including some scenes that look like the world’s biggest yoga class. The Na’avi, an oppressed people modeled on American Indians, or at least American Indians as portrayed in 20th Century American movies, fight against an interstellar military using bows, arrows, horses, and flying lizards. They live in harmony with the world to an extent that most Westerners can probably barely conceive of, given that more people probably visit McDonald’s than national parks in a given year.

So why are we fascinated with the idea of returning to nature, as though we’re going to dance with wolves, when few of us actually do so? Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness may offer a clue: he cites Wilhelm Worringer’s essay, “Abstraction and Empathy,” which posits that art emphasizes, in de Botton’s words, “[…] those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply with in itself.” We live (presumably) happy lives coddled in buildings that have passed inspection, with takeout Chinese readily available, and therefore we fantasize about being mauled by wild beasts and being taken off the omnipresent grid, with its iPhones and wireless Internet access. We live in suburban anomie and therefore fantasize about group yoga. We make incredibly sophisticated movies about the pleasures of a world with no movies at all, where people still go through puberty rituals that don’t involve Bar Mitzvahs, and mate for life, like Mormons.

Neal Stephenson wrote a perceptive essay called “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” which examines the underlying cultural values in the older and newer Star Wars films. I would’ve linked to it earlier but frankly can’t imagine anyone returning here afterwards. Therefore I’ll quote an important piece of Stephenson:

Anakin wins that race by repairing his crippled racer in an ecstasy of switch-flipping that looks about as intuitive as starting up a nuclear submarine. Clearly the boy is destined to be adopted into the Jedi order, where he will develop his geek talents – not by studying calculus but by meditating a lot and learning to trust his feelings. I lap this stuff up along with millions, maybe billions, of others. Why? Because every single one of us is as dependent on science and technology – and, by extension, on the geeks who make it work – as a patient in intensive care. Yet we much prefer to think otherwise.

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way. Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.

The tedious particulars of modern technological life are both embraced and avoided in Avatar too. The villain, rather than being political chaos, organized oppression, ignorance, entropy, or weak/ineffective institutions, to name a few of the real but abstract contemporary bad guys, is instead replaced by an army / mercenary commander who might be at home in Xe Services / Blackwater USA. The military villainy and disdain for superior firepower in Avatar is especially odd, given that the United States has held the technological advantage in major wars for at least a century; the people watching Avatar are probably also the ones who support our troops. The studio that made Avatar probably cares more about quarterly statements than about the environment. The movie villains, however, apparently aren’t being restrained by an intergalactic EPA.

Avatar is really a Western about the perils of modernity, but it gets contemporary politics utterly wrong—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that contemporary politics are utterly absent. There is no intergalactic criminal court or committee for the protection of indigenous peoples, which seems like a probable development for a race nursed on Star Trek and post-colonialism and that is advanced enough to travel the stars. In the contemporary United States, a bewildering array of regulations govern activities that might have an environmental impact on communities; the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example, requires that federal agencies to monitor and report on their activities. Such regulations are growing, rather than shrinking. They’re a staple bogeyman of right-wing radio.

But in Avatar, decisions aren’t made at the future equivalent of the Copenhagen summit. Instead, they’re fought in battles reminiscent of World War I, or the Civil War, leavened with some personal combat. The battles are jarring but anachronistic, although maybe Iraq War II: The Sequel would’ve turned out better if George Bush and Saddam Hussein had dueled with swords, but that’s not how wars are fought any more. And when one side has machine guns and the other side doesn’t, you get something as nasty as World War I, where all the élan, spirit, and meditation in the world didn’t stop millions of people from dying.

My implicit argument isn’t perfect: Avatar does criticize our reliance on oil through the parable of the cleverly named “unobtainium,” but the thrust of the movie is unambiguous. We want to fantasize that solutions are as simple as putting a hole in the right guy, which will make things right again. That’s probably a comforting notion, and an easy one to fit into a two- to three- hour movie with a three-part arc, but it’s also a wrong one, and one that ignores or abstracts the world’s complexity. The people who tend to rule the world are the ones who pay attention to how the world really is, rather than how it was, or how they would like it to be. The real question is whether we are still people who see how the world is.

72 responses

  1. “Avatar is really a Western about the perils of modernity, but it gets contemporary politics utterly wrong—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that contemporary politics are utterly absent. There is no intergalactic criminal court or committee for the protection of indigenous peoples…”

    Although Avatar has its flaws (mostly in the overly-maudlin storytelling and over-the-top preachiness), this is not one of them. The absence of accountability is set up in the opening scenes, where it takes months to travel between stars. Couple that with the concept that the story takes place in the future, and the lack of contemporary politics makes perfect sense — this is a movie in which contemporary politics does not exist.

    Fascism is a political system in which corporations and government are indistinguishable. That is the political system portrayed both in Avatar, and in the earlier Cameron movie Aliens. In both movies, corporations willingly exploit any available resource, at any imaginable cost. As corporations represent the de facto government, they are able to get away with it.

    As for international courts and official retribution in modern times, where are the courts prosecuting Blackwater? Why has there been no official inquiry into American adventurism in Iraq? These courts are there to prosecute the losers, not the winners. Even when genocide is evident, it often takes years to address internationally. By then, it is too late. If a corporation were involved, it would have profited already, and moved on.

    I would say that isolation coupled with rapacious greed mixed with a healthy dose of self-governance would lead to the exact results portrayed in the movie. There are many examples of this in history. Consider the India Tea Company, for example.

    The anti-technological aspects of Avatar are inherent in the premise — what if there were a world in which all living things communicated via an intelligent biological network? (This story has already been told in Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld, to much better effect. In fact, it seems as if Cameron “borrowed” liberally from Midworld through much of the movie.) The anti-technological message is an artifact, not a central premise. Cameron may have chosen this construct precisely for that artifact, but that makes it integral to the storytelling.

    The in-your-face environmentalism, and plot lifted directly from Dances With Wolves and Midworld, were much bigger flaws in the movie. I won’t pretend that Avatar was good as anything but eye-candy, but I certainly won’t fault it for lacking contemporary politics any more than I fault Pirates of the Caribbean for lacking contemporary politics.


    • “I certainly won’t fault it for lacking contemporary politics any more than I fault Pirates of the Caribbean for lacking contemporary politics.”

      It’s not that the movie lacks contemporary politics, or that it should be political in an allegorical sense — rather, the problem is that the movie feels wrong in its depiction of how things operate: the battles feel like 19th C westerns, and so do the politics. If one actually wants to stop a rapacious corporation from devouring things, a legal brief is probably vastly more useful than a rifle (or a bow).

      That isn’t to say I’d like to see Avatar: The Courtroom Drama, but it is to say that the movie feels wrong because it doesn’t incorporate the internationalist and bureaucratic realities of modern society in a useful or interesting way.


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  3. Both sides had machine guns in WW1.

    The US didn’t have technological supremacy until the latter half of the Korean War. (It had manufacturing and organizational supremacy in WW2. Against Japan it had technological supremacy, but against Germany, things were more evenly divided.)


      • “The abuse of technology dwarfs the brutality of civilizations past.”

        That’s because now our civilization has more powerful technology. Avatar’s story is anti-abuse-of-technology/power.

        “The “peaceful tribe” image is the exception, not the rule.”

        Indeed, the “Noble Savage” is not a myth, though they’re pretty much extinct, with them being defenseless and all. But the Na’vi don’t seem to be defenseless.


  4. “And when one side has machine guns and the other side doesn’t, you get something as nasty as World War I, where all the élan, spirit, and meditation in the world didn’t stop millions of people from dying.”

    Uh, no. WWI is what happens when both sides have machine guns.


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  6. I’m sorry, but I think you missed the point of the story. Nowhere in the movie did it say technology is bad – what it said, and what you illustrate here in your review, is that failing to listen to all the information around you is bad.

    The story relies heavily on the “link/avatar program to communicate, and the Na’vi accept the avatars, until they demonstrate that they are too full of their own opinions and belief in their own knowledge to pay attention to what surrounds them. “their cup is already full” is the point – not that the technology is bad.

    Failing to see what is right in front of us, because we expect to see something more in tune with our preconceptions is all too common in human interaction, and that was the point here. We can use amazing tools to look at the processes going on in the plants and miss the fact that they are alive – we can see that they communicate, and never think of listening.


    • I thought it clever because the name acknowledges the cliche — as if the screen writer thought, “The mineral isn’t important except as a lever to the plot, so we’re just going to announce that and move on.”

      Sometimes pointing to the cliche can avoid the cliche itself.


    • I agree, Gray Area. My first thought of the mineral “unobtanium” was, “Wow, that’s about as unoriginal as it could have got.” Any fictional/creative mineral name would have done the job, but as soon as I heard them say “unobtanium” I was taken unpleasantly surprised.


      • Look up Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the “MacGuffin”. Maybe the *character* calling the rock “unobtainium” was attempting to make a feeble joke; he’s obviously non-technical and wouldn’t understand about ores and isotopes and Crystal and Spice and dilithium(tm?), but he understands “more valuable than diamond”.


    • Unobtainium is still a better name than “Plot Device A” :)

      It’s a blatant statement from the storyteller, “this is the motivation for the conflict we’re about to see. What it is or does is unimportant, what matters is that it motivates the greedy corporation to come out here. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

      Yes, as a sci-fi geek I find the blatant use of Unobtainium as a plot device quite jarring, but I’m quite happy to put it behind me and move on. It’s easier to cope with a blatant plot device rather than “dilithium crystals” or some other invented substance based on Star Dreck style technobabble.


  7. It’s more of an anti-capitalism theme than anti-tech. The evil machine of capitalism sets out to destroy another utopia after killing its own.

    Remember it’s tech that is the source for the messiah that rises (over and over) from the ‘dead’ (ok deep sleep) to save the world.

    He’s half sky people and half the oppressed people (sound familiar?)

    He’s also from a ‘virgin’ birth – virgin in this case being no sex was involved.

    Feel duped now?

    Cameron is trying to make us all dance with wolves, the three that howl at the moon! ;-)


    • Exactly. The technology is what allowed people to come to Pandora and meet with the Na’vi, and be able to inhabit a Na’vi body and learn about them as one of them. The technology is what allowed the people to learn about Pandora’s biology, beyond the simple, mystical understanding the Na’vi have. Used wisely, the science and technology allows greater understanding and for different races to learn from each other.

      The problem is that the technology is misused, is mostly oriented towards weapons, and is under the control of an out-of-control corporation that doesn’t answer to anyone.

      Besides, notice that most of the highest technology in the film is totally peaceful: the Avatar program mainly. The mining tech isn’t very advanced, it’s really the same thing we already have, only bigger: big dump trucks and the like. The military tech isn’t even very advanced: helicopters, rockets, and machine guns, and pistols, basically not very different from what we currently have. The biggest difference I can see is that the helicopters have moved their blades to separate nacelles, which isn’t really much change for ~200 years, and the fact that they have some extremely large ones (and Pandora’s lower gravity probably helps here; it’s not said whether these things would work on Earth).


  8. This movie is simple. Indians are good. Cowboys, unless they are traitors, are bad. Only non white people have heart. Whites (by the way, i am latin mixed race), unless they are traitors or treehuggers, are totally evil. Capitalist and industrialist are evil scum that should die…. What else? Oh yes, marines are the more sadistic beast anywhere. As I said, it is a simple movie.


    • It’s a little more complicated than that. People, of any race or origin, are herd animals, and are easily led to do evil deeds. It happened in Germany in WWII, in Rwanda in 1994, in Nanking in WWII, and many other places. Not all of these were white (Caucasian) people.

      Being the dominant and most powerful group of people means that if you’re led to do evil deeds, you’re going to cause more damage than someone who’s not powerful. Germany caused millions of deaths in WWII because they were powerful, and could send their soldiers anywhere. Rwanda didn’t cause as many deaths because they were mostly armed with machetes and couldn’t go very far.

      Pandora is just a story about a simple, indigenous race being trampled by a technologically superior and morally deficient race for resources. It obviously mirrors many things in Earth’s history, such as the European colonizers destroying Native American culture. But this happened not because white people are evil, but because that’s how humans are: there’s too many of them, they’re greedy, and they want resources. There were lots of bad Native Americans too, long before the Europeans got there: they warred with each other over various things. But none of them were nearly as powerful as the Europeans who came for land and resources, nor as successful, so we don’t think much about the tragedy of tribe X that massacred tribe Y because X’s leader felt slighted by Y’s leader for some silly thing, so tribe Y with its population of 200 was wiped out. These injustices were small by comparison, so they’re forgotten.


      • All that excuses are pretty nice, but still, they are nowhere in the movie….. So, my first impression stand… It just a simple anti-occidental, anti-industrialist and anti-militarist movie where only good people being traitors, tree-huggers and not white people…. Special effects where pretty impressive anyway…


  9. Presumably, if Avatar’s creators genuinely believed that technology is bad, the movie itself would never have been made

    News flash: sometimes people advance ideas that they don’t believe in to make a story work. Hope that ground-breaking concept didn’t startle you too much.

    Also: what Gray Area said. “Unobtanium” is a pretty tired expression that’s been used in popular culture for ages – for example, bicycle riders joke that their next, super-lightweight bike will be made of unobtainium.

    The idea that Avatar universe politics don’t match up with real world politics seems utterly unremarkable as well. The premise of the story is that 1) government has become very corporatist (as pointed out earlier in the thread) and 2) the story takes place in the space equivalent of the Wild West – it’s far removed from “civilization”, and the show is being run by what amounts to a military outpost. Of course the politics of the situation are different.

    There are some interesting thoughts in this essay, but some of them seem pretty obvious.


  10. Just a thought: maybe we wouldn’t need to watch $270 million 3-D spectacles to distract ourselves from the banalities of life if we had a better connection to nature and eachother. Then again, that blue chick was certainly a hotty!


    • Word. :) Saw AVATAR at the 12:01a show – Dont understand why people are trying to dis it so much – half of which haven’t even seen it. Sci-fi, stuff blowing up, naked blue chicks…. What more could a person ask? PEOPLE – IT’S A MOVIE, get over it and get on with solving our CURRENT world’s problems….


      • “PEOPLE – IT’S A MOVIE”

        My generic response is that if we had higher standards for movies, perhaps we’d get better movies.

        My specific response to Avatar is that the movie obviously aspires to more than just being another dumb action movie, as the Wired article demonstrates; you can read it as an eco-parable, or a warning about militarism, or whatever.

        My third response is that you’re missing part of the pleasure of the text: as Umberto Eco said of The Name of the Rose, that novel can be read on three levels: the surface or plot level, as a meditation on how signs function, or, at the deepest level, as a collage of texts that speak to other texts. To say that the first exists should not be to deny the third.


  11. Avatar is not anti-technology. Technology saved the Na’vi. The movie was making a statement about imperialism and ethnocentrism. Both the Na’vi and the humans possessed advanced technology. The Na’vi have advanced biological tech including a world spanning network that they can tap into at will. They fly, possibly better than humans can with their technology. The Na’vi are not stone age primitive people, they are a highly advanced culture with advanced technology. Their technology is just very different than human technology.


    • Kudos. I have a hard time believing the movie says it explicitly in two places by way of simple dialog and then uses the technology three times and these guys don’t pick up on it.

      Nobody noticed that the titles of half the biologists and engineers have merged to “bio-engineering” at most research universities. And it’s only 2010…


    • I think the most consistent backstory in that the Na’vi biotech is very advanced. I don’t believe the technology could have been created in the society we see, but we can say they adopted a simpler culture by choice.

      There’s no evolutionary reason for “horses” and “dragons” to evolve so they can plug into the nervous systems of “humans”. There’s no reason for all the trees to wire themselves together into a giant brain. But if a society wanted to engineer a self-managing planet those would be reasonable ways to do it.

      The kind of immortality they achieve in the trees is one you might design as part of a sustainable system.

      In that context the giant Na’vi “mind meld” with the trees, making a huge powerful system capable of identity transfer between bodies, pretty much makes sense. They don’t normally have extra bodies lying around, so we have to figure that they whipped up the specific capability to deal with the situation — though since the avatars have been around for a while they didn’t have to do it overnight.

      So that implies that the Na’vi didn’t exactly regress. Their culture must be simpler than when they originally developed the technology, but they retain the ability to re-integrate to a level where they can rework nature, bodies etc. when needed. Again, that’s only sensible and fits the backstory perfectly.


      • The Na’vi wouldn’t have any reason to transfer identities. The capability isn’t magical – that specific spare body was manufactured to accept the control of that specific personality (very clearly stated from the very first scene). The only afterthought I had, as an engineer, was whether the body was really equipped to be self-sustaining, or had been limited so much by the inclusion of Avatar-receiver capability (whatever that might be) that maybe it lacked higher brain functionality (like today’s prototype robots with the computer still outside). It’s certainly a stretch, but it is consistent with the story. That’s why I think this film stays on the “science fiction” side of the line rather than sliding into “fantasy”.


  12. Sorry, this article is a jumbled mess, and as others have pointed out, you’ve widely missed the mark in your main premise.

    I suppose it’s a good thing that the film has inspired such widely different interpretations, and often heated exchanges. But I’m particularly amused by the constant references to “Dances With Wolves”; as if that film was somehow the first to portray such a theme. I suppose that serves to identify the age group of those making the criticism, more than anything. Keep going back, past “A Man Called Horse”, and before cinema itself, and you can find the same theme in other stories.

    But so what? What work of art can claim to be wholly original, referencing nothing? Isn’t the Sistine Chapel just more of the same angels in clouds? If any of you wants to make a movie that’s entirely free of themes that others may have explored, then go right ahead; you’ll have no shortage of critics willing to tell you where you failed, assuming you can get anyone to watch it.

    As an immersive, entertaining, and expertly crafted movie, and – yes – a work of art, Avatar is a masterpiece.


    • Actually I think most folks reference “Dances with Wolves” because most folks can immediately relate to it what with it winning all the Oscars.

      Certainly for me that’s the primary reason.

      To me the story was a safe chewy nugget to wrap the advancements in CGI technology around. What amuses me more are people (a few) who claim the story is so fresh.

      Avatar is very entertaining and worth seeing in the theater.

      My only word of ‘warning’ don’t see it in 3D if you don’t know for sure if the effect will work for you. There are different ways to present 3D films and for some reason linear polarization doesn’t work for me. (and I have a few other friends where this is true as well).


      • Funny, I’m “warning” all my friends & family just the opposite: you MUST see this film in 3D! To experience the film for the first time in 3D can be an incredibly immersive experience – one that would no doubt be lessened greatly if it was first viewed in 2D.

        Also, my understanding is that RealD 3D showings use circular, not linear polarization. Therefore, you might seek out a RealD projector; I believe the SF IMAX uses linear, but am finding it tough to pin this down. As a side note, I also suspect that the IMAX “print” is sacrificing a fair amount of the frame because of the aspect ratio, and plan to see the film again on a non-IMAX screen.


      • Yeah, I read about the RealD approach but felt why risk another 2.5 hours of frustration.

        For me the 3D effect popped in and out of working (not just because of my head tilt) so it ended up being more of a distraction.

        I saw most of the film in 2D, leaning over to my friend to verify that he was seeing 3D.

        So in the end, for me, the effect lessened the viewing experience.

        The best 3D I’ve experienced was with the strobe glasses, worked perfectly. It’s just too bad that technique is not cost effective.


      • “As a side note, I also suspect that the IMAX “print” is sacrificing a fair amount of the frame because of the aspect ratio, and plan to see the film again on a non-IMAX screen.”

        Depends on the target screen format.

        FWIW, I saw the IMAX version on a non-IMAX screen: The aspect ratio was somewhere between IMAX and the typical wide-screen format – more ike 4.5:3 instead of 4:3. And I paid an extra $4 for that.


  13. A movie (like Avatar) isn’t about accurate portrayal of socioeconomic/environmental issues. It is also not about some convoluted and hard to understand story like the Phantom Menace or Matrix3.

    Avatars story, characters and political aspects are simple but effective. They just happen to come wrapped up in the most gorgeous graphics ever to fall into moviegoers eyes. It’s exactly what made Star Wars (with the first movie) such a smashing success, and what is now giving Avatar the same.

    I dread the day some witless over-funded producer/director gets his hand on the Avatar franchise and decides to make a politically correct, societally insightful and more “appealing” sequel to it.


  14. I don’t see the same “anti-technological” bias you do. The movie doesn’t suggest we should all go back to nature; it’s more about not destroying nature in the process of obtaining resources, and about recognizing alternative value (in this case biological resources), and about the morality of stealing resources from the people currently relying on them. Strip-mining is messy and destructive, which we’ve realized years ago; saying that is not anti-technology, it’s anti-messy and anti-destructive. Taking the land to strip-mine from people already living there, dislocating them without regard for their prior claim, is a moral issue seen throughout history and has nothing to do with technology.

    The lead characters rely *completely* on technology for their very existence – without the sophisticated and expensive Avatar technology the crippled Marine wouldn’t be a fit and healthy warrior who could attract the affections of a native, and the older scientist wouldn’t be a young and fit persona either. I saw no suggestion or implication that “technology” in the abstract is bad when used for good purposes.

    Certain stories keep recurring because they keep happening in real life, in all cultures. The shipwrecked sailor or forward scout or isolated captive who “goes native” and finds the local culture more appealing IN CONTEXT than his own; the honor-bound individual questioning the direction of his leaders compared to the greater moral imperative, and questioning which truly holds his oath; the ethnocentric bigot denying any value of the stranger until it is demonstrated repeatedly and overwhelmingly (and this works in BOTH directions).

    You don’t go to a classical music concert and think, “It’s old music that I’ve heard before”; of course it’s old music! What you judge is how good the rendition is, how well the particular performers brought the familiar to life in a new way. I watched this film and thought, It’s a collection of archetypal stories brought together and told and most importantly SHOWN in a way that nobody has SHOWN them before, and as such it is wondrous. Even after I picked it apart and compared the themes to old legends and stories and films, I came back to the images and the immersive experience, and I feel that it sets new standards.

    If you missed that point when you saw it . . . my sympathies.


    • I can’t agree with you more. I believe your post summed up my feelings exactly. I absolutely loved this movie. It really touches my inner 13 year old. I have the same feeling I did when Star Wars came out and saw it 7 times that summer. Whenever I find a friend, neighbor or family member that hasn’t seen this movie, I tell them come with me I’ll see it again with you. As of today I’ve seen it 5 times and will be seeing it tomorrow with my 65 year old neighbor who never goes to the movies. I laugh at those who say this isn’t going to have legs. I’m off all next week (teacher) with nothing to do but see Avatar with whoever I can find.


      • Hehehe. I’ve seen it 3 times already, and after paying for various friends, and my elderly folks who are in another state, I figure I’ve spent close to $200 already. I also believe I’m directly responsible for at least 4 others, who said they would’ve never bothered without my insistence. I’ve never been so motivated by a movie – although I find the term “movie” itself inadequate for Avatar.

        No film will satisfy everyone, but I feel very fortunate not to be in the small minority who didn’t “get” it. For me, and apparently lots of others like me, the screen and the theater vanished, and I was “there”. Talk about the power of film…


  15. “Technology is bad” is not a theme in Avatar. The author completely missed the point.

    The theme of Avatar is that it is wrong to exploit nature- the best way to live is to be in harmony with nature.
    It has nothing to do with technology. Technology was just a tool, which can be used for good or bad. Medical technology was used to save people in the movie. The Na’vi used technology themselves by using spears and bows and arrows.

    Anyway, you can’t make a movie without using some form of technology, e.g., a camera, film, electricity, chemicals…


    • The Na’vi had their own medical technology, which was able to transfer the consciousness of Jake from his human body to his Avatar at the end. That’s a bit more advanced than any of the human technology portrayed.


    • I’m on the fence about the anti-tech themes. However I totally agree with gregor about the harmony with nature idea. Ultimately the difference between the two races was one (Na’vi) used their technology in ways that brought them in greater harmony with their world. The humans however used technology to separate themselves from their world. One leads to greater appreciation of the world/environment the other leads to exploitation and isolation from the environment.


  16. What, no one here remembers Ferngully? You know, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest? Circa 1992? Voices including Tim Curry, Robin Williams, and Christian Slater?

    Yeah. This movie is Ferngully+Dances With Wolves*Space. And apparently the solution to that equation is M@D L00T.

    But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it a hell of a lot, even if it was clichéd in many places. Facts are facts – movies have to turn a profit. That means you have to stick to certain conventions. What did you really expect?


  17. I agree with Goober. It’s Ferngully in space with giant smurfs instead of teensy fairies. I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt this way (During the movie, I kept insisting this was Ferngully 3-d to ‘the author’, who had no idea what I was talking about, probably because he was never a 10 year old girl…) Apparently half of youtube agrees with me. For those of you who require a reminder….


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  19. Just saw it at the Imax in Melbourne, Australia. I didn’t really see a strong environmental message, or an anti-technological message. I saw a very expensive B-movie that was, perhaps, intended to be a parable about virtual worlds versus ‘real’ worlds, and what happens when the real world tries to dictate the form of these virtual spaces.

    I think the world of Avatar, which was even named Pandora, was perhaps meant as some kind of giant simulation of the kind of fantasy world that many gamers choose to inhabit. The main character is basically playing a videogame, after all, and explains the cheesiness of much of the actual plot.

    The obvious parallels would seem to be the various efforts by commercial and governmental agencies to regulate or control virtual spaces, and that they are doomed to fail because the inhabitants will always be more familiar with the environment than intruders.


  20. “The people who tend to rule the world are the ones who pay attention to how the world really is, rather than how it was, or how they would like it to be.”

    Oh, they pay attention to how they would like the world to be. Most of them just don’t care about anyone other than themselves. As long as they rake in a pile of money so they can retire in leisure, they’re happy.


  21. A work of art, that’s right. Smurfs, no. Technology used right, yes. Dreams of flying, of being one with animals, running, leaping, swimming, rendered with passion. I’m going to see it as long as the dream lasts. Why not? It’s a way out of the Great Disappointment.


  22. Pingback: 卡梅隆《Avatar》中的反技术主题 « 每日IT新闻,最新IT资讯,聚合多站点消息,保证你与世界同步

  23. Given what you are trying to analyze you should read the original scriptment or at least some of the reviews of it. That allows distinguishing the original idea and what made it through the movie making process.

    Here’s a review of the scriptment:

    This looks like it might be the actual scriptment (though I have no way to verify that):–James-Cameron


    • I disagree. This movie is a new artistic product, and the combined visual & auditory experience is an entity to be assessed on its own. This is not the movie of a book, like Lord of the Rings, where the movie(s) are one discussion and the the changes/compressions of book material are a separate discussion. (off-topic: I very much enjoyed LOTR, while simultaneously being very aware of how much the movies differed from the books.)


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  25. ‘Presumably, if Avatar’s creators genuinely believed that technology is bad, the movie itself would never have been made, leading to a paradox not dissimilar for those found in time travel movies.’

    I really don’t think they are saying all ‘technology’ is bad. For example creating a loaf of bread can also be a technology humans have developed. It is the technology that is environmentally damaging that is bad, which is pretty clear in the movie.


  26. “It is the technology that is environmentally damaging that is bad”

    That environment-damaging technology is what gives us computers, the Internet, enough food to feed 6+ billion people, etc, etc ad nauseum.


  27. I’ve written up some previous thoughts about Avatar at my blog. Basically I don’t think Pandora is possible without very advanced biotechnology, so any consistent backstory isn’t anti-technology, it involves value decisions about the kind of technology.

    Now I’ve thought a bit more about this and have some ideas about what is implied by these technology differences.

    We are tool creators and tool users, our technology consists of tools that have grown bigger and more powerful and become weapons, vehicles, computers, prostheses, etc. That is the human technology we see in Avatar.

    But under different circumstances maybe we would have developed biological technology that wasn’t primarily mediated by tools (we have a lot of this such as domestication of animals, brewing, folk medicine, etc. but it is secondary to our tool use). If we figured out how to build a complete suite of biotechnology this way we might not use tools very much at all.

    In this case we’d be almost entirely working with living things. We’d have to learn how to manage evolution, emergent behavior, symbiosis, etc. We’d develop a very different set of values, assumptions, skills, and probably cultural patterns.

    Arguably thinking along these lines is the best way to understand the Na’vi and the entire ecology of Pandora.


    • I think that it’s really just a matter of advancement: I think that biotechnology is the way we are currently going, and I think that Pandora simply represents a more sophisticated technology than that of the humans.

      There are plenty of modern activities that would seem incomprehensible to aliens, which are clearly built-in behaviours that we enjoy but don’t really need to do to survive.

      Let me suggest that the inhabitants of Pandora could be very highly technological people who spend their time doing what they enjoy, which in this case is hunting. We don’t see any evidence at any time that hunting is anything more than a sport. There aren’t any predators trying to eat them (the predatory beasts only threaten outsiders, people who don’t know the rules). Lots of people in the real world engage in risky behaviours unrelated to their immediate needs. It’s a built-in need that we satisfy through simulation of life and death struggle.

      Let’s imagine that the world is so deeply controlled that there is no real risk involved at all. They hunt, they impress each other with their prowess, but there’s no actual threat of dying. It’s like a videogame, in other words.

      I don’t think you can take the movie seriously otherwise. I think it’s meant to be a bit like Blade Runner, in that all the characters are replicants (well, avatars) who may or may not realise that they are playing a game.


  28. Pingback: Review: Avatar (2009) | Movie Schizo « Movie Schizo

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