Avatar: I’m not lovin’ it.


Since it just won the Golden Globe award for best picture and several other garden blogs have commented on it, I think it’s time to take a break from blogging about nettles and weigh in on James Cameron’s Avatar. For the five or so folks who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a plot summary: An evil corporation sets up shop on a far off planet, “Pandora”, to mine a rare mineral necessary for the next generation of iPhones. Unfortunately, said planet is occupied by a tall blue Rastafarian/Smurf people who practice a quaint religion centered around a fiber optic tree (what Doug Harvey describes as the “Gaia Hypothesis Shrub”). The blue folks also have fiber optic connections in their pony tails, kinda like this:


In Pandora’s jungle, everything is bioluminescent and all the plants are networked with the fiber optic shrub. Even the flying lizards have fiber optic appendages. The tall blue smurf folks can plug into these connections and control the flying lizards and five-legged horses. Oddly, when the blue people make love they don’t seem to connect up their fiber optic pony tails (would that make for an R rating?). Best of all, Sigourney Weaver discovers that the quaint religion, which involves sitting in a lotus position and swaying in front of the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub, is all based on SCIENCE since the fiber optic network is just like the internets back on earth not some woo-woo esoteric thing.

Spoiler alert–a disabled veteran, using a fancy wii controller mounted inside a tanning bed becomes a blue person and, by jacking into a really big flying lizard, defeats the evil corporation. In the final scene the disabled veteran, now fully smurfed-out, uses a spear to tip over the corporate general who is walking around in a top-heavy robot thingy. Sigourney Weaver dies and gets sucked up into the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub. Or, that’s my memory of it. I got kinda distracted by the 3D Imax Sensurround experience.

As for Avatar’s ideas about nature, one of Cameron’s workers must have done a brief one page summary of Paul Stamet’s mushroom writings for the busy director. The whole fiber optic natural network subplot in Avatar is reminiscent of the discovery, thanks to advances in DNA testing, of what may be the largest living organism in the world, the underground mycelial network of a massive honey mushroom Armillaria ostoyae that covers some 1,500 acres in Washington. Mix mushrooms with undersea landscapes and you’ve got Cameron’s jungle. Add the fiber optics and you’ve got a computer geek’s vision of Mother Earth.

What bugs me about the critical reaction to Avatar is the idea that the movie somehow represents a yearning for contact with the natural world (ironic in a movie that substitutes flesh and blood actors with digital puppets). In fact, Avatar is an artifact of a culture profoundly out of touch with nature. and serves only to further that disconnect by embedding the myth of disconnect in our popular imagination. How deeply offensive it is–how simple minded and tech biased–to suggest that nature is something we can “plug into,” Matrix style, as if we’re somehow separate from the world around us, aloof from it until we choose to interact with it. We are one with the natural world, always have been, always will be. We are born jacked-in, but we learn to ignore it.

What really frightened me about the Avatar and all the critics who loved it, is how the movie’s protagonist redeems the natural world by becoming virtual. Sure, he becomes flesh and blue blood in the end but only after all those virtual hours in the tanning bed. In this way Cameron’s movie inverts Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant Solaris (not to be confused with the George Cloony remake). The doomed astronauts of Solaris descend into madness because they loose touch with the natural world and can no longer distinguish the virtual from the real. In the film worried government officials dispatch a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, to find out what is going on aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Kelvin spends his last days on earth deep in the woods at his fathers remote cabin. Once in space Kelvin loses touch with reality. His dead wife appears to him, simultaneously real and virtual. Jerry Mander describes Solaris in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:
“Without concrete reality, which is to say, contact with their planetary roots, they are adrift in their minds: insane. All information has become believable and not believable at the same time. It has become arbitrary. There is no way to separate the real from the not-real. Although the astronauts know this, since there is nothing that is not arbitrary, except each other, all information is equal. It is impossible to determine which information to act on . . .

Finally, the message of the film is clear. The process of going insane began long before the launch into space. It began when life moved from nature into cities. Kelvin’s ride from woods to city to space was a ride from connection to disconnection, from reality to abstraction, a history of technology, setting the conditions for the imposition of reconstructed realities by a single powerful force.”

Tarkovsky says far more about our alienation from the natural world in Solaris’ highway scene than Cameron can ever hope to and he does it without dialog or special effects. In the clip below, the people in the car have left the countryside, a peaceful interval of grounded-ness. Now they’re traveling to the city, and from the city, to space. The long silent car ride shows their transition from the natural world, to the dislocation and isolation of the city freeway system, setting them up for the final dislocation and madness of the space station.

As if we didn’t need more proof that our culture is dangerously losing touch with reality, like the doomed astronauts of Solaris, along comes the newfangled form of depression,”Avatar Blues,” a sadness that fans suffer knowing they cannot actually live on Pandora. CNN offers this helpful suggestion,

“Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing “Avatar” video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities.”

Here’s our own suggestion for folks longing for Pandora. Go outside. Find a plant, any plant. A tree, a weed growing out of the sidewalk. Spend a few moments with that plant, observing what it looks like, how it grows, how it makes you feel. Believe what you hear, what you feel, what you imagine. There’s no need for tanning beds and fiber optics. You’re already jacked into a world 10 billion times richer and more imaginative than Pandora. To see it you just have to open your eyes.

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34 Comments

  1. I was put off by the ticket price, twice as much as an ordinary movie. The money went into seeds for our garden instead. It actually covered all the seeds for this year.

  2. WOW! Someone has the balls to say it like it is! BRAVO! That said, the movie still wasnt half bad. It was enjoyable eating my own homegrown organic popcorn I snuck in.

    This is like my third or fourth 3D movie I have seen that uses Camerons new 3D technology of oscillating polarized images. He developed or helped develop this new 3D technology. The first modern 3D movie I saw was “Up” and I got a major migraine from it. It was so bad I took off the glasses and missed the last half hour of the movie, just sitting there with my eyes closed. The new technology uses something like 100+ images per second. My eyes actually got tired from watching the Avatar movie too and I actually was waiting patiently for it to end.

    I have a relative who enjoyed the movie tremendously. This same person also plays some “Facebook Farm” game every possible second imaginable. I made a statement that they should help me in my backyard with my 2010 crops, or possibly plant some strawberries or herbs outside their apartment door and be a “real” farmer. No, no. That is a ridiculous thought! REAL labor? Moving out of a computer chair? OMG!

    I am unplugging myself quickly from the internet. My blog is all that remains of my internet “footprint”. No more Myspace, no more Facebook, no more Tweeting, etc. I use the internet anymore only for instructional help I cant find elsewhere. If someone needs to call me, I am at home or at work, and if they still cant get a hold of me, I dont want to be gotten a hold of!

    Anyways, Im glad I bought your book a while back. Its a great read on a stormy night!

    -1916home

  3. For every white man messiah movie that comes out, I can show you a black man messiah movie too. Its all how you look at it. Frankly, we are all humans and we all have both daily problems and challenges to conquer as well as worldly problems we face like GMOs, chemtrails, etc. Working together we can topple the big guys, whatever color they are.

  4. I see your point, but i don’t totally agree. I looked at it as more a wonderfully more tangible metaphor to the connectedness we have to the world around us here, on Earth. I didn’t see it as a way to be more disconnected while wishing we were more connected. i saw it as a way of proving my own point that we’re all connected, we being humans, rocks, plants, critters.
    I understand where you’re coming from, and agree we should encourage everyone to take a moment with a plant every day ( i for one sing to mine, to the confusion of my neighbors ). I see the point you’re trying to make – but i feel like it is more off putting and self righteous than accurate.

    I thought the movie was beautiful, exciting, reminiscent of other native american white hating movies that i love (being a white person myself)- except they won! for now at least. So, they made our connectivity with nature a little over the top and literal/ physical… but that was still a pretty neat angle, you must admit.

    and of course we all want to live on Pandora – it was freaking beautiful! And as a huge fan of the Dragonriders of Pern series, i reaaally want to ride those dragons. But my home town on top of a mountain in Oregon is pretty freakin’ beautiful too, and i wish i was there now as much as i’d like to be on Pandora.

  5. thanks for the interesting post! i saw the movie and afterwards said to my fam. congratulate me! i have officially seen the last robot shoot up the end of the end of the world movie i will ever see. what a waste of time. and even with mr. cameron’s clever use of glow in the dark coolio plants–no way, I’m done, it’s over. avatar. ugh. i am so thankful to be done with this genre of movie. i just don’t get it!

  6. Anyone who agrees with the critiques here, but appreciates the movie for calling out empire as a mental illness, should read “The Word for World is Forest,” by Ursula K. Le Guin.

    It’s mostly the same story, with two important differences: it has no white messiah, and its different sort of mind is not a biological internet, but a product of lucid dreaming and polyphasic sleep.

  7. I honestly think you missed the point. It wasn’t suppose to be about us connecting with the environment. It was a sci-fi about the story of the land we are on right now, there was a huge resource [of land] in North America, and we came in and exploited it. Sci-fi’s by nature exaggerate and change reality to prove a point that is extracted from our human connection and emotions to any specific situation. This is why I love sci-fi so much because it gives important insight to issues and helped me understand things on a deeper level.

    To conclude, I don’t think this movie was suppose to be about trying to improve our ‘connection’ to the earth, but to show that the indigenous communities that were here before us and ARE STILL HERE, have a connection to the land that we will never be able to understand in the current western society.

    Please read ‘I sing the body electric’ by Ray Bradbury to gain an understanding of how sci-fi can really expose things within our culture and use it as a basic of thinking critically about Avatar.

  8. I went with my sister who loves the film (and also spends all of her free time on WoW). But I left feeling uneasy, and you summed it up well in that it fosters a further disconnect of our real natural world. I imagine that many people would view true nature as a pale, boring version of Pandora. sigh….

  9. Hear hear. I was more offended by the white-man-is-the-only-hope-for-poor-spear-wielding-natives-with-special-spiritual-depth angles of the movie, but I share your concerns as well. Oh and I think he owes a debt to Terrence McKenna as well as Stamets!

    It did really redouble my desire to see Joe Berlinger’s new movie Crude, though, about the fight against oil companies in the Amazon.

  10. If this movie bothers you (and it probably should bother all of us), just look into World of Warcraft. Over 11 million people spending an average of 11 hours a week (mind you that’s just an average) attached to a virtual natural world.

    It’s such a depressing trend in my generation.

  11. What is the best way to contact you folks with a question? I sent an e-mail to an address on one of your profiles, but it looks like its an adress you don’t check.

    I’m enjoying your book by the way.

  12. Thank you for the very lucid critique of Avatar. I have heard too many of my friends raving about it and how “pro-sustainability” and “pro-resistance” it is.
    I resisted by not watching it.

    I like the idea of buying seeds instead of tickets!

  13. While I certainly recognize the connection to nature theme in the film and how it might leave modern urban technophiles feeling even more disconnected and despondent, I walked away ruminating on a different connection – to place and history. I tried to sit and think what it must have felt (and probably still feels for some) like for Native Americans and other indigenous groups when they realized that their homeland and way of life would never be the same; that some things were forever lost. The most poignant aspect of the film for me was that despite the Na’vi’s “victory,” they and Pandora have been irrevocably changed by the human encroachment.

    In our modern, highly mobile society, how many of us have lived in our family’s land for even two generations? How many of us practice a way of life that is remotely similar to that our great-grandparents practiced? No matter how much connection to nature we re-develop (because yes, we learn to ignore it), I don’t think the vast majority of modern folks will ever be as grounded in time or place as the Na’vi.

  14. On the other hand, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have been inspired by this movie to get further in touch with nature and their roots.

    Cameron and the design team spent hours and hundreds of designs for the direhorses, banshees, bioluminscent plants and the Na’vi, drawing inspiration from nature itself – one can see it in the striping patterns on the direhorses legs inspired by okapi, the color patterns borrowed from tropical fish on the body of the banshees, the zooanthid like mushroom-headed plants and so on.

    For some people, I think it is inspiring them to go and see the beauty in nature. Stand in a prairie in the middle of the night at the open sky and watch the stars twinkle. Develop a bond and reverence with animals that may border on having a neurological connection. Find the beauty within the plants and creatures around you, and learn to value them for more than their material worth.

    My two cents anyway. I’d sooner have people watching this than the next episode of “Gossip Girl” or the latest rehashed romantic comedy.

  15. I enjoyed the movie, but had some of the same reservations as other posters. My husband mentioned this morning that he had heard a teenager say something like, “I wish I could live in a 3-D world”….. yikes! But I too noticed and appreciated the sensitively observed and copied coloration patterns on the critters and flowers ….. it was a visual feast.

    I hope the people wired into their little virtual worlds get the hit from watching this movie to step outside and look at the incredible beauty of our home planet. When I get all depressed and worried about the internet and other electronic gismos, I remind myself to step back, take a deep breath, and look at all this as a metaphor. We are already all interconnected — I have faith (and hope) that at some point we will realize we don’t need machines to tap into it. Then we won’t need computers or iPods or cell phones…….

    And I admit that I would LOVE to have one of those cool horses, or best of all, big dragon birds! Whoeee!

  16. Every SF theme in this movie has been done and done better in SF novels many many times. What is important about this movie is not its themes, but its technology. Now, any world you can imagine, you can put on film. As the technology spreads and becomes cheaper, we will have a chance to see new films by new directors with themes that we haven’t seen before. But Cameron broke some new ground here and deserves some credit for it.

  17. I saw it twice. I liked it. I was entertained. The allegory was transparent on many levels but there was more if you chose to see it. It was a thrill. It was an escape. So are books, to me.

    While I am decidedly more connected to the Earth upon which I tread than some, I am remarkably less in touch than others. I can not allow myself to feel myself better than others if I am to find new ways to be better myself and if I am to remain some viable resonance with others who could gain some insight from me.

    If this movie has done nothing more, it has allowed us to consider these ideas. That is something.

  18. I thought the movie was “eh… okay,” at best. I don’t understand all the hype. I love your wii & tanning bed destription … too funny! Thank you for the entertaining recap!

  19. I was really happy to read this post. Not only because I like your perspective on ‘Avatar’ and its surface treatment given to nature, but because I’m happy someone (anyone?!?!) is saying something critical and not wholly positive about the movie. Nearly every major film critic/writer simply went gaga over this movie praising its technological advances and (more odd) its ability to be “universal” in its use of allegory. Even the most basic icon/allegory/symbol has more complexity and depth than this film had.
    As for this movie being good sci-fi… hardly… at least for me. Writers like Lem (loved the Solaris example btw), LeGuin, Dick, and Sheldon/Tiptree have actually spent the time, blood, and sweat to create worlds other than our own that are deep, complex, detailed, and compelling. What’s more, thanks to these things, they give much more insightful and lasting commentary to our own situation here on this planet than a film/sci-fi like this can.

    Rant aside… thanks for this post. It was a breath of fresh air!

  20. What a political movie wrapped up in sickly sweet storyline. Reminded me of the beautiful fungus in my yard … you’ve never seen such an intense neon orange then pink then red, but it smells of rotting flesh.

  21. This review is so deep, and so on-spot of it!
    From the beginning i have been put of from Avatar by the hype and the hightech of it all.
    Finally a watched the movie and it was even more soul-less than i expected.
    One thing i reacted on was; if the ppl from pandora where so different, higher souls and in strong contact with the Wholeness…how come they had to use the old human violence to solve the problems? An eye for an eye…bad storyline, would have been more intresting if they could transform the human mind, instead of being adapted by it.
    But i never thought of it as being an encouregement to accept interacting with OUR nature through THEIR interface, virtually! …anyone wonders what they are cooking?

    I really like the take on Solaris and how the message then was so much more coherent, even without much of speak. And how the message has shifted diametrically, and shallowed in avatar.
    I have referenced to this review on a community i often visit, and hope it gives a lot of ppl a lot to think about.
    /Laura

  22. I loved the movie, but I took a much different view on it. Yes, the main character ends up ‘saving’ the smurfs, I suppose, but they ‘saved’ him first. I thought of the connection thing as more of a metaphor and exaggeration as to how we can connect with our world. Rather than thinking at the end “man, I wish our world was like that,” what I thought was “what’s really sad, is that if we weren’t so obsessed with beating everything we can out of it, our world would be better than that.” Furthermore, the horses reminded me of my sister trying to teach me to ride- she seems to control this stallion with pure thought, while I can’t get my milk toast mare to do anything!

    And btw, I spent money on both movie tickets AND seeds.

  23. I was definitely overseas by the time advertising for avatar got around, so I was completely clueless to all this avatar buzz, but Im happy I tuned in to this train of thought. For me, seeds it is. But I do think what you get out of the movie trumps the supposed “point”. Hey even measures taken to secure militainment can be interpretive… and resolved with natural non virtual means, I hope avatar blues is not as contagious as swine!

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