Avatar, A New Dawn
By Tal Brooke
The epic film Avatar--the most expensive film ever made at--$500 million--has finally fulfilled James Cameron's ambition of pioneering the next great leap in movie technology by seamlessly combining real-world scenes with a digitally created artificial reality. If George Lucas, Peter Jackson and other visionary directors have taken digital effects partway, Cameron has taken the full leap.
Cameron will likely earn an Academy Award, and a place in history in the long tradition of movie-technology innovations, starting with the baseline black-and-white silent films of a century ago. Technicolor brought color to screens for the first time; Cinerama expanded the viewing screen; 3-D offered depth; and IMAX offered astounding size and resolution, creating a fully invasive picture. With Star Wars came a noticeable leap in believable special effects. Lord of the Rings fused digital effects with real-world scenes to greatly enhance an already engaging story. And there are other films. But Cameron's leap is huge: The virtual world is the film. He has opened a Pandora's box on the moon he named Pandora, hardly coincidental. Moviegoers leave longing for the pristine world of Pandora, not wanting to return to their routine earthly lives. In "Audiences Experience 'Avatar' Blues," CNN's Jo Piazza writes, "Cameron's completely immersive spectacle É may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora."1
Indeed, we should not underestimate the power of this medium. Cameron had to wait years for the day when the vast power of computers could make Avatar possible. Seen and experienced on an IMAX screen with 3-D glasses and Dolby Surround Sound, the technology's intended impact is fully displayed, revealing the dawn of a new frontier. It is several orders of magnitude beyond the mid-20th-century's claymation (like the Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) that moved spasmodically across the screen, giving themselves away as miniature models in glorified sandboxes. This is a medium that promises incredible power. Story sophistication will develop rapidly.
The goal is fully immersive "virtual reality." Thirteen years ago, I described this emerging technology in the book Virtual Gods:
"When the technology fully comes of age you will be able to bring any fantasy to life and actually don some superhero's body and dive off the World Trade Center, swooping by windows and waving at astounded onlookers. Or you might bungee jump from an airplane over the jungles of Sumatra, whooshing toward a smoking volcano till you hover inches above the boiling lava, feeling the adrenaline rush of a lifetime. It won't kill you and nor do you have to spend exorbitant amounts for the real experience. A child might decide to appear on someone's coffee table the size of an ant, or even wander across the Martian desert in some alien tribal gear. More sedate folks can have tea at Buckingham Palace with the Queen É or they might take the Grand Orient Express to Budapest as old Europe passes by. Those that long for youth, can be young again É for a while. While women from the '20s or '30s can live out some long-cherished dream, like standing in the place of Garbo or Lombard while clutching onto Clark Gable and watching the spray of Victoria Falls--and holding on to this pregnant moment in time that never happened in the real world. Virtual reality intersects human vulnerability, perhaps on some level where desires and longings meet the imagination. And that makes it a formidable mind-machine."
Like his Terminator series and Titanic, once the most costliest film ever made (earning him an armful of Oscars and still holding the box-office record at $1.8 billion, which Avatar is rapidly nearing), James Cameron again succeeds in creating a storyline that holds audience interest throughout, despite some critics' denigration of Avatar for its clich_s and simplistic dialogue.
It is still a visual feast. It is also seductive--the real power behind this medium. You can sit there knowing the
truth while feeling your emotions and will pulled in different directions by an undertow much more powerful than mere argument.
Ironically, my first book, Avatar of Night, was written after my own two-year mystical journey in India under one who claimed to be an avatar, the Vedantic term for the highest incarnation of the godhead descending to Earth as Vishnu's embodiment. Krishna, the most popular avatar, is always depicted as blue. Cyberculture borrowed the term avatar some ten years back for Internet and computer games in which players depict themselves in various "avatar" bodies.
As Avatar begins, the year is 2154. Pandora is run by a corporate elite at the top of world government (this is not free-market enterprise but total monopoly). The earth has been mined to depletion, its natural world destroyed, and the ruling
elite won't hesitate to do the same to other worlds. To facilitate their planned exploitation of Pandora, a scientific elite works under the occupying military force, which in turn serves the mega-corporation financing the mission. The Pandora mission is to locate and mine a rare mi
neral worth $20 million/kg on Earth. On Pandora this material lies beneath at least one massive sacred tree, a tree a thousand times larger than the earth's largest redwoods and sequoias, on which the tribes live. It is the very center of their existence, their tree of life.
Jake Scully, the film's star, has been recruited to join the most recent military expedition to Pandora. He is a courageous, paraplegic former marine, still looking for something worth fighting for. Now he has a chance to have a new body, a superhuman avatar body ideal for Pandora's conditions. The towering ten-foot blue Avatars are the result of individual human DNA fused to Pandora's humanoid DNA, the Na'vi. Once the hybrid body has been grown in a tank, the team can transfer an individual's consciousness into the avatars, retaining the person's full identity. Jake can run, leap and do all the things he can no longer do in his own body, which is wheelchair-bound. When he gets his new body, Jake's awed jubilation is irrepressible as he unhooks and wanders outside, stumbling as he adjusts. In this new world, Jake's experience is reminiscent of someone adjusting to the explosion of boundless colors, iridescent hues and raw perceptions of a psychedelic LSD trip. He has new, razor-sharp senses.
The avatars' official mission is to penetrate and learn the alien culture, reporting back to base while gaining trust of the Na'vi and using that trust to turn them. Nothing has worked, and no avatar so far has been accepted fully into their culture.
In portraying the alien inhabitants, Cameron resists succumbing to the easy option of Rousseau's noble savage. The Na'vi have noble traits as well as violent and petty ones. They are content to resist technology while living with a connection to nature that earthlings have long buried, if they ever had it at all. If you swept the various native Earth tribes--from Borneo, New Guinea, the American Indians, the Amazon and Africa--culling the various traits, you'd have much of what makes the Na'vi. They also have acute senses that far surpass
humans', plus a nervous system that can tap into the consciousness of various native animals. They are courageous and have a forthright honesty that few humans possess. It is both their virtue and their vulnerability.
As Jake enters their world, he has a gradual awakening and grows increasingly protective of Pandora and the Na'vi. The same goes for the other elite members of the avatar team, whose own world has been stripped and pillaged of all that was once natural beauty, leaving a barren earth. They know it will happen all over again to Pandora. It is the avatars, not the Na'vi, that are turning. They are given a deadline before the military assault begins.
The overpowering military machine calls to mind America's invasions of oil-rich Iraq, its occupying armies deeply resented. The commander, Colonel Quaritch, drops the buzzword "shock and awe" before savaging a section of Pandora. He unleashes various weapons, grinning as he hits the buttons. One button, many dead. The planet and its creatures collectively wail. It is bombs over Baghdad redux with hideous collateral damage as Pandora's population is savaged in blistering attacks. The hubris of the military recalls Donald Rumsfeld grinning condescendingly into the news cameras as bombs go off. A drone hits a wedding party of civilians. It's just collateral damage, Rumsfeld tells the simple masses. Through Cameron's lens, we witness a cosmic crime against nature, grotesque on every level, against a sovereign people crying out for redress.
Audience sentiment is clearly against the massive war-machine and its crude, brutal underlying mindset. The tough voice of Quaritch embodies the worst caricatures of the military mentality: arrogance, narrow vision and lack of cultural understanding. It is a voice we've heard many times during media coverage of gung-ho leaders in the Afghan and Iraq wars. Quaritch is ready to kill anything in Pandora that moves. Here is a military commander who holds his coffee mug as he hits the buttons. He just loves using those weapons. The writhing creatures below just give him a buzz.
Huge mega-dozers fly into action, ripping up the rich jungle of fauna and flora, buttressed by the hideous airborne war-machine. But in contrast to the unfolding brutal mission is the backdrop of the drama, and one of the universal hooks that gets audience sympathy: an emerging love-story between a lovely Na'vi named Neytiri--reminiscent of an elegant catwoman, and also the king's daughter--and Jake's avatar, now her temporary understudy who she first encountered in the jungle during his initial exuberance. He wandered out of his depth, and she saved his life from hyena-like creatures. The tribal leaders have assigned her to teach Jake the ways of the Na'vi, from hunting to scaling cliffs and trees, tightrope-walking vines and branches hundreds of feet in the air, indeed flying the giant dragons. Neytiri has her own dragon who comes when summoned. It's Jake's turn to scale the heights of the "floating mountains" to get his own dragon in one death-defying act after another. The small group of warriors with them taunt mockingly, until Jake pulls it off. His courage and his
will are evident.
Then a moment of sheer elegance unfolds. Jake and Neytiri fly their dragons side by side, diving, swooping back up and then soaring. They float between vast mountain ranges then over dense jungle. We see the power of the new medium on IMAX. It is compelling, fascinating and truly fun. Then the biggest dragon on the planet appears and chases them. It is the big red dragon that is at the top of the food chain. The smaller dragons dive into the dense jungle and finally hang up the red dragon on a pass between vines and trees. No one has ever conquered one of these and flown them like the other dragons.
Jake and Neytiri overcome distrust and caution as their attraction unfolds. They are winsome and we want their love to succeed, an important rallying point as well as a kind of misdirection as deeper concepts slip under the radar. It is a controlled dichotomy, a kind of good-cop/bad-cop that Cameron gives us. Planetary harmony trumps the military occupiers reminiscent of the Bush-Cheney Imperial War Machine. The military is completely out of sync with the Edenic world into which they have been thrust.
The audience applauds when the earthly invaders are counterattacked by a resolute union of tribes and beasts under Jake Scully as avatar. They doubted his loyalty after the first surprise attack, which burned and uprooted the massive hallowed tree where they had lived. They were in shock, recovering, vulnerable. But now Jake has returned to them to prove his allegiance with them over the invaders who initially sent him.
As the forlorn Na'vi sit, yoga-style and chant across hills and fields, resembling Indian sadhus, how does Jake get their attention? He descends from the sky, riding one of the giant red dragons no one has ever tamed, and lands on a huge rock behind them. It is a dramatic visual moment in the film. In awe, the Na'vi part respectfully as he approaches the tribal heads. Neytiri has been crushed at what she thought was his betrayal. Now she embraces him. Jake addresses the crowd and presents them with a novel vision to seek the allegiance of the other tribes of Pandora to help in an attack he has planned. He, his red dragon and the leaders visit the other tribes. A union is forming for the first time.
But there is an odd tugging of the heartstrings in Cameron's synthetic universe. When Jake and Neytiri pay homage to the planetary goddess once the military starts to ravage the planet, it makes sense in their world. That's the point. We accept this new realm that looks so real. In it, Gaia makes sense. The planetary goddess blesses their union in one meta-neural network. It is a synthesis of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis with primal paganism. In this world it works. But it's easy to forget that Pandora was born inside of vast arrays of
computers and is an imagined reality. With the digital artist's brush, anything can be made real. This is true seduction. It is why audiences leave longing for Pandora.
The invading war-machine attacks preemptively once they see Pandora's fighting groups assemble. But Jake leads an effective counterattack. He knows the various warships' vulnerabilities. He shows how the dragons can grab the scorpion helicopters and toss them into cliffs or the larger air-machines. He jumps off his flying dragon atop one of the larger air ships, tosses a grenade into a duct, and dives off in freefall. His dragon swoops to catch him up and fly off as the airship explodes. Jake and the Pandorans soon decimate the airship fleet. Meanwhile, the ground crew, led by giant robots, have sprayed the Na'vi with shells and missiles. But nature has another surprise. Dinosaur-sized creatures come from nowhere and charge them, tossing the giant robots like toys. It seems the animals of Pandora are of one mind, and there is a reason for this: Jake has gone where Pandora's natives feared to tread. He linked up with their goddess.
With Neytiri standing behind him, beneath the sacrosanct luminous tree, whose branches resemble glowing neurons, Jake hooks the neural tendrils that emerge at the end of his hair braid with the tendrils of the tree, and the communion takes place. The encompassing spirit called Eywa is now alerted. Jake "downloads" the military invaders' full plan, and it passes along the vast planetary neural network. We hear Jake think "look at where I come from" as memories of his world and civilization pass through. It warns Pandora/Eywa of her eminent demise if the invaders succeed. Eywa convenes with all the animals who will be summoned on various fronts of the final attack. As the Na'vi are being hit hard on the ground, massive charging creatures cut into and toss the robots while hyenas savage the ground troops. Then flocks of dragons appear. It is Gaia/Eywa in motion.
As the air armada is destroyed and falling out of the sky, out of the exploding command-vessel drops Col. Quaritch in one of the giant robot-suits to make a last stand. He just wants to kill. Jake and the robot are in fierce combat. In a trailer nearby lies Jake's human body sustaining his consciousness inside the avatar. If Quaritch can rip that open, Jake's avatar will fall. But before Quaritch reaches the trailer Neytiri recovers to stop him with arrows the size of spears.
The next scene is eye-candy to the audience. The vanquished invaders are dwarfed by the Na'vi, towering over them as the humans they lay down their weapons to board a one-way transport off Pandora. Jake and Neytiri are side by side, twice as tall as the defeated army marching single-file beneath them.
In the final scene, Pandora's neural network sends the great tree's glowing tendrils along the ground and wraps them around Jake's body and the avatar body as both bodies lay head to head. Jake familiar luminous avatar eyes begin to open with eager expectation. Lying on the ground is the much smaller human husk, a body that had been confined to a wheelchair. It is left behind. The alchemy of transposed consciousness has happened without any need for a machine. Pandora has raised its adopted son.
The audience drifts out of the IMAX caught between two worlds, the real world and the digital world. They have witnessed the dawn of a new technology whose power to influence--indeed, seduce and beguile--will only increase.
Aldous Huxley foresaw virtual reality. He also predicted a correspondence between virtual entertainment and mind-control in his futuristic novel Brave New World, which described "talkie-feelies," interactive movies that totally immersed audiences in lifelike experiences so intense that they lost themselves in the experience. In Huxley's futuristic world, the masses were gradually being domesticated through entertainment, a kind of mind control that made them livestock in the hands of the "world controllers," a techno-dictatorship. That technology is on our doorstep.
Tal Brooke is the President & Chairman of SCP. He has authored nine books and his work has been recognized in Marquis Who's Who in the World and Who's Who in America. He has won three first-place EPA awards in the nationwide contest. Tal Brooke was converted in India. He is author of One World, referred to by respected reviewer Paul Likoudis as "the definitive book on the New World Order," vindicated repeatedly by recent events.