Avatar isn't Dances With Wolves, it's another plot

Everybody has an Avatar review. Indeed, Avatar is a monument of moviemaking in terms of the quality of its animation and 3-D. Its most interesting message for Hollywood may be “soon actors will no longer need to look pretty.” Once the generation of human forms passes through the famous uncanny valley there will be many movies made with human characters where you never see their real faces. That means the actors can be hired based strictly on their ability to act, and their bankability, not necessarily their looks, or more to the point their age. Old actors will be able to play their young selves before too long, and be romantic leading men and women again. Fat actors will play thin, supernaturally beautiful leads.

And our images of what a good looking person looks like will get even more bizarre. We’ll probably get past the age thing, with software to make old star look like young star, before we break through the rest of the uncanny valley. If old star keeps him or herself in shape, the skin, hair and shapes of things like the nose and earlobes can be fixed, perhaps even today.

But this is not what I want to speak about. What I do want to speak about involves Avatar spoilers.

Dances with Wolves or advanced, post-singularity culture meets humanity?

The most common review I’ve seen of Avatar compares the plot to “Dances with Wolves” or other movies where there is a conflict between powerful modern people (ie. white invaders of North America) and a primitive group, and one of the invaders goes native and joins with them to fight his original people. On the surface, that is indeed the story we see.

However, it turns out the real plot may be a different SF trope. This is identified well by Matt Bell in his blog post on Avatar where he explains Pandora as a post-singularity world, with the Na’vi a gone-primitive offshoot of a highly advanced culture.

I had the same thought viewing the movie. For such a well-constructed ecology, done by one of the best in the field (Wayne Barlow) some things are just glaringly impossible. The tree-god is no myth, it’s unquestionably real and powerful beyond our understanding. There are trees that can download memories from the bipeds. All the animals on the planet are 4-eyed hexapods that breathe from their necks, except the Na’vi. (This has a more mundane explanation, in that Barlow did not do the Na’vi.)

And most strangely of all, all the animals have a neural input jack coming out of the back of their neck, and the bipeds can grab it, and connect to it, and then take control of the animal! The predators can take neural control of the prey. It’s just not something that could evolve. None of it seems like it could evolve. And then we have these floating mountains, which have full gravity while you are on them, even waterfalls coming off them, but they float. Some people imagine the Meisner effect with superconducting unobtanium, but that would require huge magnetic fields, and so no ship with steel in it could fly anywhere near there. However, they do look cool. And, at the central tree, we have very un-natural arches of rock that look very much like ruins from something more advanced than the Na’vi.

Which means it was designed, and not just by Barlow. What we’re seeing is a remnant or offshoot of a very advanced civilization. The technophiles went somewhere else, perhaps into the computer. And somebody designed an idyllic, primitive world for the back-to-nature people. Animals, bodies and a complete ecology with a web of life that lives in harmony. And a master computer that oversees it all.

It’s a pretty smart master-computer. It can put its tendrils into a human body and map out human neuroanatomy in a short period, and copy it into a synthetic, part Na’vi, part human body. But it is not there to solve all their problems. The Na’vi ancestors made a decision to live a simple life in this synthetic world. The master computer rarely gets involved, unless it might be at risk itself, or the whole culture might be at risk. And even then, only to the minimal amount required to avoid breaking the chosen way of life.

So Avatar isn’t Dances with Wolves. It’s more like Star Trek’s “Errand of Mercy.” In this famous example of a frequent plot in SF, the humans meet a primitive people, and don’t understand them. Over time, it is revealed the primitives are actually vastly more advanced people who have decided to live primitive, either for their own reasons, or to not reveal the truth to the young races who are out exploring. There, the Organians are energy beings who get tried of the humans and Klingons fighting it out and force their own truce. Star Trek didn’t do this plot first, or last, but this is one of the better known examples. (It is suggested that the lesser known Star Trek episode “The Apple” where the aliens were not aware of their true nature is a better comparison.)

This is the only explanation for Avatar. The humans are the primitives and fools. The Colonel’s bomb mission was never going to succeed. The only question was in what subtle way would it be averted. Eywa, or should I say AI-wa, had it worked out well in advance, and sent the seeds to tag Jake Sully so that he could play this role, and thus both find somebody who would be human enough to arrange explulsion of the humans, and also join the Na’vi and fight for their side. Indeed, you could say that Jake was AI-wa’s avatar, or at least instrument, as is clear from the very start.

Had AI-wa needed to do something more drastic to deal with the threat, it presumably would have. If the humans had nukes, or just decided to drop rocks from orbit, something else where have happened. But what was chosen was in line with the life the Na’vi ancestors chose for themselves — in tune with nature, but also hunters and warriors with a strong sense of honour, as they once were in their original state, perhaps. So AI-wa solves the problem with a battle, and suborns a human to provide the necessary tools to defeat the humans in a way that makes sense. AI-wa’s goal, after all, would not be to run the Na’vi world or solve their problems directly. Note than when AI-wa wanted to, it controlled the animals and even the floating seeds remotely, with no neural hookup required.

What’s the alternative to this interpretation? Well, of course no movie gets its SF perfect, so you can just put much of this down the mistakes and the expediencies of Hollywood storytelling — even from Cameron who is one of the best. However, it means you have to interpret Eywa the god as a real god, able to not only control all the animals and transfer alien minds into Na’vi structures, but able to predict the future enough to know that Sully should be tagged so he will be accepted by the Na’vi instead of tossed out. If not a post-singularity computer or group mind, just what is Eywa supposed to be?

Update: An interview with Avatar crew suggests the question of what’s behind Pandora is still up in the open. They suggest possible explanations include the post-singularity one, a “next step of evolution” and there being some truth in the Na’vi religion.

If you ready my battlestar blog you will know I am not a fan of the latter choice, nor do I think many others will be. Is it a universe of multiple competing gods (in which case, how did they arise?) or have we just happened to come upon the planet chosen by Eywa, the real god, whose presence to humans has not been so apparent.

My issue with it being “the next step of evolution” is that we see things which don’t match what we understand about evolution. In evolution, traits which are expensive get evolved away unless they give a strong benefit to the creature, and they vanish even faster if they have a negative value. Those hair-braids are expensive: a long cord of exposed nervous tissue, which can be used by predators to take control of you. To maintain that, they would need a huge positive. They would of course allow complex communication between two beings who are intimately close, but the truth is that sound and other forms of communication seem to do very well at a much lower cost, at least until you get to the very high level.

But those braids would have to be very old. The Na’vi are clearly a different phylum from all the other life we see. They share only the neural braid; other things like numbers of legs and eyes, style of breathing etc. are all different. They diverged from the other live a very, very long time ago, yet both branches have this neural braid, and they are still compatible. It’s like us still using the phermone system of a slug. The post-singularity explanation suggests the Na’vi are not even from Pandora, but were transplanted there and the local ecosystem was modified to add the neural braid to promote the “one with nature” lifestyle they sought. Other than the braid and a few other matters (colouring, tolerance for the atmosphere and gravity) they seem much closer to humans in morphology than to the other life of the planet.

So while Cameron may have different possible intentions, I will contend that if it’s not a gone-primitive offshoot of an advanced culture, they have some explaining to do.

Hey, Brad...

... that's definitely an interesting take that I haven't seen before, and does make sense of some of the wierdness in the world that doesn't... FIT.

Perhaps I've simply missed it, but I don't think I've seen you on r.a.sf.w in a long time -- you abandon Abusenet?

If I recall correctly, you once, a long time ago (for values of "long" that means "sometime in the 1990s") once mentioned -- in the context of a discussion of "A Fire Upon the Deep", I think -- that an acquaintance of yours had encountered something that seemed to indicate we existed in a simulated universe. Did anything ever come of that?

That was noosphere

And that was not their interpretation. They believed (probably incorrectly) that they had found anomalies in random number generators based on thermal noise when “big events” were happening, like 9/11, earthquakes etc.

One interpretation of that would be that when the system is running a lot of intense mental states it loses resolution on doing quantum stuff.

However, “simulated” is the wrong word. This universe is not simulated, which would imply not real. It might be running on a computer, but that’s not a simulation, it’s just another implementation.

Noosphere if you are interested. I think they make statistical mistakes.

In the Na'vi

I think that interpretation would have required an entirely different parody song.

It's a pity there are more Avatar movies on the way. As with _The Matrix_, not saying too much in a first movie gives viewers latitude to come up with their own interpretations that might beat what the filmmakers had in mind or are likely to come up with later when they need to extend the franchise.

I discussed this in some detail

... in a couple of posts in December, starting here.

You skip over a bunch of issues, including why the Na'vi aren't hexapods who breath through their neck, that have at least plausible answers.

We don't need to posit that the technophiles went elsewhere, exactly -- just that they liked a different kind of technology. I discuss that in my second post.

Actually, I think Avatar is a great challenge to our idea of what posthuman could be, whether or not Cameron was clever enough to intend it that way. (If he really was that clever I'm very impressed, even scared.) We've been gearheads, maybe it is time to get over that.

On the Hexapods

Sadly, there is a more mundane explanation for the hexapods, as you mention. Barlow designed the hexapod ecology and Cameron added humanoids to it so the audience could understand it. I’m not sure this was necessary. We’ve seen animated movies where the audience identifies with garbage robots falling in love, as long as they have big eyes and ways to make human body language. But it is more challenging, and it may be wise that Cameron did not want to try too much.

The neural jacks, however, are definitely a big part of the plot, necessary for Jake to capture his Toruk. These are no accident and speak loudly of the post-singularity world.

So no honeypot. But understand that with a post-singularity (not post-human) culture the humans are not a threat, nor something to conquer. Just an annoyance. This is not just advanced biotech. Human biology and neuroanatomy will be entirely alien to the Na’vi, yet they can do the mind transfer. I realize mind transfer is one of those tropes of Hollywood SF and so I am probably reading too much into it here, but the reality is that would never be a natural ability, only a post-singularity one.

seems like we mostly agree, but...

There are multiple possible interpretations (not necessarily exclusive):

  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.

The one thing we can be pretty sure of given his track record is that Cameron has excellent judgment about what the audience will like; much better than you or I, or just about anyone else.

There's an interesting prehistory to the film itself; some filmies have read "the 114 page scriptment that Cameron wrote after Titanic, a 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). You can read an extended description. Project 880 supports the "naive messages" interpretation, but also is 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 realistic.

Most of the changes from Project 880 to Avatar as shot are trimming and making the action more obvious. There is a lot more detail in Project 880, some of which shows what Cameron intended, but there don't seem to be any real changes of focus or back story.

So bottom line, the people who say this is just Dances with Wolves with 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 are 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 quadrupeds vs. hexapods (why not hexapeds or quadrupods?) I still like my 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 it 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.

unanswerable canon questions

I always wonder if folks like Cameron read up on the speculations like this to shape the sequel. After all, crowdsourced storytelling out of fandom has come up with so many better plots than the ones that actually make it to the screen.

Whether Pandora is meant to be post-singularity or not, it's a great interpretation of the art, and art often grows interpretation more profound than that intended by the creator.

Personally, I hope that if it isn't the postulated origin story, they make it so.

We don't have to depend on "them" to do it

People write prequels and sequels to other people's stories all the time. Admittedly we'd only get a book, not a movie, but that's a lot better than nothing. I wish I had the skills to write this.

Let's sketch the prequel plot.

Humans come to Pandora a few decades before Avatar. This is an exploration ship, staffed mainly by scientists. They 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 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.

(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.

One thing that's missing in this picture: I'd expect the trees would find ways to create moles in the 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.

We can fanwank

But I’ll leave that to the fan fiction writers. Whether Cameron intended the Na’vi to be descended from more advanced people we’ll have to wait for him to say. But I can say the life on the planet does not look evolved, the floating mountains which are stable in spite of wind and tides but which don’t involve large magnetic fields do not seem natural, Eywa’s ability to transfer a mind that is alien to it into another body is advanced beyond our comprehension, and the central tree seems to have the ruins of arches from old structures. We also know the Na’vi appear to be evolutionarily completely different from the fauna except for their neural jack ponytail, that the unobtanium clusters under the home trees and that the planet, with low gravity around a gas giant, probably should not be keeping its oxygen atmosphere so long. These are things we see in the movie, we can explain them as mistakes or as the result of the advanced culture plot.

James Cameron says it is Dances with Wolves.

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2009/08/james-cameron-the-ne...

Who should I believe? You or the guy that made the movie? Its frikin Dances with Wolves. Stop trying to be such a fanboy.

Dances with very smart wolves

Indeed, if Cameron truly viewed the Na’vi as pure primitives, then that is what they are. It may well be. However, Cameron doesn’t say that in the cited interview. He agrees that the plot is similar to the plot of DWW and other such films, and of course it is. The question which he has yet to resolve, is is there something deeper under that?

After all, if this is DWW, it’s DWW where the native’s spirit gods are real and help defeat the U.S. troops using Costner as an instrument, which is a pretty radical change. The question being asked in this post is just how is it that Ey-wa is real? Is it a mystical fantasy reason, or is there an SF reason? If he does a sequel, we might find out.

Rock architecture & the flux vortex

A few things I figured I'd mention:

My interpretation of the "Flux Vortex" was that it was some massive magnetic phenomenon. The floating mountains are kept in place by magnetic forces from the surface repelling other magnetic materials / minerals in the base of these mountains.

In addition to this, the "architecture" of the massive arced rocks surrounding the "tree of life" was (I think) intended to illustrate the strength of the magnetic forces near the tree (as the "flux" was strongest here). I take this as the equivalent of spreading iron dust out around a magnet ( http://www.360east.com/wp-content/magnetic-field.jpg ). The gigantic arcs on Pandora may have formed after thousands of years of erosion.

This also explains why the navigational systems on the aircraft went haywire in the vortex, as strong magnetic forces can easily interfere with such equipment.

However, the fact that the aircraft (also likely composed somewhat of magnetic metals) itself is not physically affected by the field leaves holes in this theory.

That said, you have an interesting take on the movie. I'll be interested to see how much of this proves to be true in the sequels.

Transhumanist / post-singularity dilemma

Great read, Brad! I am surprised I didn't catch the "AI-wa", myself. I read "Eywa" as literally "Yahweh" being vocalized backwards. I agree with the idea that Na'Vi and the world-computer-god is a chosen evolution. I see the film in general as, like much good sci-fi, a question to us: Do we want to become enveloped in machines and cybernetics and lose our humanity, as the marines and humans do in Avatar? Or, do we want to use our technology to give us abilities to better connect with each other and nature.

I discuss it here:
http://secondtense.blogspot.com/2009/12/james-camerons-avatar-is-about.h...
and follow-up here:
http://secondtense.blogspot.com/2010/02/humanism-without-secular.html

I was going to post my thoughts on what the Avatar sequel ought to be. I'll be sure to cross-link this post when I do.

Here we go again...

You never learn, do you, Brad? James Cameron is no RDM, in that he tries to stick to science whenever he can, but he's still a "story first" kind of writer- he'll make the science fit the story when he absolutely has to.

I like the theory and hope

I like the theory and hope that the sequel goes along these lines, else it is just the "same old story" retold with some new special effects.

I'm fine with the story as told so far as long as it is expanded upon. I hope he doesn't waste a great backdrop to create an arc that could be this decade's trilogy.

repetition

I don't see how a sequal can be viable,.how much more drama can we take...regardless of other moons full of aquatie and the like.The ending of the extended remix was freaky enough..I think Mr Landau's imagination may have been exagerated a little too much for all the buzz.A sequel with one central character,..who died at the end...I'll eat my hat!.I always thought Avatar was a two parter originally,but someone bottled it and went for the jugular for the blu ray sales crammed with all the ommissions instead.T'was more of a fable/documentary type production which draw to a natural end once Camewron had told the intended.All the talk of sequals is to further interest in the Pandoram tale so we all rush out and hammer hard the limited edition box sets.No amount of back story either could fill all the holes and answer the un-answerable,..my only hope is Avatar will be re-issued to 2011 Summer audiences,to remind us all just how much fun it all was!

Frankly, this idea makes more sense, plot-wise.

Given that James Cameron is planning two sequels, and that the gun-toting humans will probably be returning to retake Pandora in the near future, all I can say is: the Na’vi are going to need that fancy, world-bending, post-singularity tech pretty quickly! Unless Eywa can telekinetically repel starships, landing craft and/or space-to-surface weaponry (unlikely, given that humans have been landing safely there for decades), I don’t see how else the Na’vi could possibly survive a full-on invasion.

While I’m more than happy to see where Mr. Cameron actually takes the sequels, I would love to see a story arc in which Jake and company have to unlock the secrets of Pandora and its builders. As the humans rally for a military invasion, it would make sense that Eywa would see a need to reactivate some of Her makers’ powerful technology. And who better to make use of it than Jake and the Avatar team, who at least have some grasp of technology beyond the Neolithic level? Thus begins an all new globe-trotting adventure, in which our heroes must journey across Pandora – giving us, the audience, some awesome scenic eye candy along the way – on an epic quest, searching for the clues that will awaken Pandora’s hidden power. If they fail, Pandora will become Earth’s conquered, dying twin. If they succeed, the revelations they uncover may save Pandora – and possibly Earth, as well.

Besides being beautiful, maybe the Na’vi’s white, star-like biolights are a hidden message from their ancestors. Perhaps the People once traveled the stars … and are destined to return there one day.

The plot might not be terribly original, but then, that didn't bother too many people about Avatar (least of all me!)

Keep away the humans

Actually, it is indeed a flaw in this interpretation that Eywa did not simply use techniques to keep the humans away from the primitive reserve created fro the Na’vi. One could argue that it didn’t do this until it became clear the humans would interfere so greatly, knowing it could find a subtle way to resolve things. We can’t truly understand the planning of god-like beings. But it certainly seems the simplest situation would be to just not let the humans land in the first place. It seems hard to imagine it would not have the capability to stop them.

Perhaps, one might speculate, it felt some need to shake up the Na’vi society with an external threat. Even at a cost in lives.

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