Interpreting Avatar

Bloggers who I greatly respect feel Avatar is just another Dances with Wolves — a way of putting a romantic gloss on native authenticity and then appropriating it by having a “white man” out-native the natives. So I want to think a bit about where I agree and disagree with this position.

We could adopt a bunch of interpretations of Avatar — or some combination of them:

  1. Cameron wanted to make a big movie that would advance his career. He picked 3D CGI, the rest was more or less inevitable as “engineering decisions” to optimize his objective function
  2. Cameron had some goals that included endorsing fairly naive political messages (respect for earth, etc.). He hired good people to invent a cool ecology without worrying about the backstory, and then just pasted his agenda on top of that
  3. Cameron had something like the posthuman interpretation in mind, but since he knows what sells, he drenched it in sugar syrup to make it palatable.
  4. The internal logic of the story pulls it into a posthuman shape, and Cameron, however he started, saw he couldn’t fight that and so went with it.

But we don’t have to just guess about which of these is correct. After Titanic, Cameron wrote a “114 page scriptment… known at the time as Project 880″ (apparently a “scriptment” is a preliminary version of a movie script, but in this case much more complete than the movie as shot). Based on an extended description the scriptment was a much more detailed version of Avatar, with pretty much the same focus and a lot more explicit back story. Most of the changes from Project 880 to Avatar as shot are trimming and making the action more obvious.

And Project 880 supports the “naive messages” interpretation, but also is fairly consistent with the “internal logic” interpretation.

There are a few touches in Project 880 that show Cameron had a sense of the the posthuman logic of the story. When the humans are being kicked out they are told that if they come back “Pandora will send them home with a horrible virus that will wipe out humanity” but apparently this is just a threat by the pro-Pandora humans. So Cameron knew this threat fit into the logic of his story but didn’t want to (or didn’t see how to) make it an integral part of the story.

Bottom line, the people who say Avatar is just Dances with Wolves with 3D CGI alien “natives” are right as far as they go. That was the movie Cameron planned to make. But I think we can make a legitimate case that the internal logic of Pandora, the Na’vi, etc. escapes from that formula and has its own very subversive implications. These implications subvert not only the characteristics of the Na’vi — they must be really high tech, only “at one with nature” because they designed it — but also our ideas of posthuman — it doesn’t need to involve metal tech and smart computers.

And regarding the origin of the quadrupedal Na’vi vs. the hexapodal animals (why not hexapeds or quadrupods?) I still like my extreme version. We know from the historical evidence that interpretation (3) — a story about a posthuman high-tech Na’vi + trees symbiosis — wasn’t Cameron’s intention. But we also know (3) is more consistent with what we see in the film than any other backstory. So why not go the whole way and make our backstory fully consistent? The fact that humans identify with and even fall in love with Na’vi is a big tactical advantage to the Pandoran system, so why not say Pandora arranged that? It doesn’t stretch credulity any more than humans being able to grow avatars in the first place — and in writing a back story, we could easily make the avatar tech a covert “gift” from Pandora as well, transferred by subverting early human scientists.

Let’s consider how that would play out in a “prequel”:

Humans first visit Pandora a few decades before Avatar. This is an exploration ship, staffed mainly by scientists, but with some military / naval types as well.

The scientists don’t encounter Na’vi, but they do study the hexapods and the trees, and they find the unobtainum. At some point a scientist dies on the planet and his / her mind is assimilated by the trees. Then the trees start to communicate covertly with some other scientists.

With the help of the trees, scientists figure out some of the biology of Pandora, and figure out how to grow avatars, but initially not human-like ones. Pandora in turn figures out how to grow human-like Na’vi — maybe it even transfers the mind of the initial scientist who dies into one of the first Na’vi. (You could make the scientist Maori for linguistic continuity, since that’s what Cameron’s folks used as a linguistic base. Facial tattoos would be cool.)

After a while, guided by the trees, the scientists “discover” Na’vi living in the jungle. Maybe before the ship leaves, some of the other scientists covertly “jump ship” by dying and getting reborn as Na’vi. Maybe they have to kill or subvert some of the military types to avoid discovery.

(Actually, of course, the smart thing for the trees to do would be to clone some of these minds into multiple bodies. There’s also no reason the original has to die. But we rarely see narratives where the same person is multiply instantiated, except as a joke.)

When the exploration ship gets back to earth, we see some of the floating tree sprites dispersing, putting down roots, and starting to grow as Earth-like trees. Maybe those trees even catch and reprogram some Earth fauna. So we know a “pod people” scenario (or as I prefer to think a “porkchop tree” scenario) is possible, but we don’t know how it will turn out.

Pandora doesn’t need to send a virus to Earth, its minions could just create one here.

One thing that’s missing in this picture: I’d expect the trees would find ways to create moles in the Earth human population as well. Offhand I don’t see how to factor that in.

As written this lacks drama but I that’s why I’m not a fiction writer. I expect Cameron or someone else with the right skills would find it easy to put real people, dramatic tension, etc. into this framework.

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