At first sight James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar (2009) is no more than a spectacularly rendered version of the classical Pocahontas story. We could criticize its keenly calculated ambition to please everyone, the hammy dialogs, its thinly veiled ecological message, or the somewhat bizarre spirituality in its second half. But we choose not to. Avatar is an important film and there is more than meets the eye through the 3D goggles.
To begin with, the film familiarizes us with the beauty of hypernatural landscape even the most advanced geneticist wouldn’t dare to dream of. Similar to the landscape painters of the 17th century that taught us to appreciate an untainted landscape, Avatar presents us with flora and fauna that shine with the bioluminescence of a thousand deep sea critters, interactive plants and trees that dwarf the Empire State Building. Fantasy? Escapism? Sure, but it nonetheless mentally prepares us for some of the things scientists are working on today.
Avatar is the kind of movie that, in retrospect, could become an icon of a shifting zeitgeist. Since Avatar, people will not instantly think you’ve lost your mind when you’re speaking about the interconnectedness of trees & plants in a forest as a sort of biological Internet – thus leveling the biosphere with the noosphere.
EMANCIPATION OF THE VIRTIVIDUAL
More importantly, Avatar puts the emancipation of the virtividual on the societal agenda. Its main character is Jake Sully, is an ex-marine, bound to a wheel chair, who seeks to make a fresh start on the moon Pandora. The moon has a military run mining colony – humans are playing the role of the aliens for a change – and Sully is asked to go under cover as a member of the local Na'vi species, to learn their secrets and give the humans an advantage. If successful, Sully will get his legs back.
Admitted, the technological premises of the film is altogether unfeasible and many have criticized Cameron’s blockbuster for the lacking of a sound description of the virtual technology employed to transfer the handicapped Sully onto a healthy Na’vi donor body. Yet, this is beside the point: which is that – although less sophisticated – we are living in a society where people are constantly creating avatars for themselves to participate in games, online platforms and social networks and that, so this movie shows us, the use of avatars has radical implications for our sense of identity, community and moral judgment. As Sully becomes part of the Na’vi community and embodies their sensibilities he soon starts to feel differently about his assignment. Lesson learned: Avatars aren’t neutral.
Presumably, our society has still a long way to go before the emancipation of the virtividual is complete. When will we cease to think in terms of borders between the virtual and the real? Will the virtividual one day claim its basic rights? Will society be forced to grant rights to someone’s virtual identity? And will we look back at Avatar as an important film that forecasted this situation? Perhaps.
Passed: eXistenZ (1999). Thanks to Tom Kniesmeijer.