The two faces of Avatar

Avatar just keeps demanding a bit more analysis.

To recap, I agree the story is an embarrassingly naive retread of the “white man goes native and saves the natives” plus gooey nature worship. But…

I also believe the world Pandora, as shown to us in the movie, can’t be confined within that story. It keeps escaping and cutting across or contradicting the premises of the narrative, as discussed in many nerd posts including mine.

So Avatar has two very different faces, and different personalities to go with them. And I think this goes back to the basic character of the social processes used to create Avatar. No, seriously, stay with me for a minute and I’ll explain.

For our purposes we can say there are three modes of production in films and a lot of other activities: craft, industrial, and networked. Of course any real film is produced through a mix of these.

A film made by a small team working on their own (with or without a presiding genius) is an example of craft production, just like similar teams producing ceramic tiles or houses.

A film made in a “factory” environment along with many others (like The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca) is an example of industrial production.

And a film made by multiple loosely coordinated groups with different expertise is an example of network production.

Network production is now nearly universal in large films, but before Avatar I can’t think of any examples of network production driving the film content. Generally the network mostly fleshes out content dictated by a small team that is using craft production. (If you can think of good previous examples, please comment or email, I’d really like to know.)

In Avatar, Cameron wanted a lot of depth in his world, and had the money and skills to pull together a network to produce it. Pandora was created by a huge collaboration between ecologists, biologists, linguists, artists, rendering experts and so forth. The collaboration also necessarily included software and hardware experts who built the computer networks, and project managers who shaped the social network, and these people were no doubt also very engaged with the ideas about Pandora and contributed to its character in significant ways. Cameron was of course involved, but the depth and complexity of the world (and the network) meant that most of the decisions had to be internal to the network.

So Avatar inevitably has two faces. The plot arc, the characters and the dialog were crafted by Cameron. Much of the commercial success of the film no doubt is due to his judgements about what would work in that domain. But Pandora, and probably much of the human tech in the film was created by a social network that was focused on scientific (as well as artistic) verisimilitude, conceptual integrity across a wide range of disciplines and scales, and our best current skills for designing and managing big networks of people and machines. And a significant amount of the success of the film is due to the richness and coherence of the vision generated by the network.

In some sense Cameron was responsible for both faces. In one case he was directly shaping the content. In the other, he was shaping and directing the social network that produced the content. But the two forms of production generate very different kinds of results, and those generate the divergent critical reactions that tend to focus either on the story or on the world.

This analysis brings into focus a question on which I have no information, but which I think is important to our deeper understanding of Avatar and our thinking about the successors it will inevitably inspire. Who defined the parts of the world that bridge between the network and the story? For example, in Pandora, animals, Na’vi and trees can couple their nervous systems to each other. This coupling plays a role in the story, but it could have been avoided in some cases, and made less explicit and more “magical” in others. On the other hand this coupling mechanism is constitutive of key parts of Pandora such as the “world brain”, and it drastically affects our understanding of the nature of Pandora and its possible history.

Did the network come up with this coupling as a way to make mind transfer — a part of the story that would otherwise have been magic — into science? Or was it somehow integral to Cameron’s vision of Pandora? Or — more likely — some combination of those.

One Response to “The two faces of Avatar

  1. June 29th, 2010 | 7:10 pm

    There is some saying along the lines of “an organization can’t evolve to be any more complex than the communication system it uses.” perhaps this is an example of that communication visibly bleeding over into the artifact of the networked communications.

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