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.