Saturday, January 23, 2010

Some Thoughts

Warning the following contains lots of Spoilers!!!

Scene from the movie Avatar

Over the Christmas holidays I went and saw the movie Avatar and I must say I greatly enjoyed it. I, however, cannot say that I was impressed by the level of critical commentary on the film much of which showed a truly embarrassing level of knowledge concerning Science Fiction and an inability to see beyond the typical pop culture tropes and perceive the roots of the film.

Before I go into what I consider to be the roots of the film I will give a synopsis of the plot of the movie

In the story Humans are in the process of mining a mineral called Unobtainium on a planet called Pandora, filled with a very poisonous, for humans, atmosphere, gigantic trees, dense forest and very lethal animal and plant life. The world Pandora is a moon that orbits a huge gas giant of a planet that orbits a star many light years from earth. The native inhabitants of Pandora are called the Na’Vi and are about twice the height of humans.

A company has mining rights on Pandora for Unobtainium and views the natives as simple obstacles in the way of getting this precious metal.

This story is takes place about a century from now and concerns Jake a crippled marine sent to Pandora as part of mission to manipulate the natives to get the metal.

In order to further the manipulation of the natives the company as set up a school, tried to give medical aid etc., but the natives seeing their world getting dug up are now very angry and things are on the verge of serious bloodshed.

The Na’Vi worship a sort of mother goddess called Eywa, who they connect to through tendrils in their hair. The thing is Eywa is a sort of planetary spirit or linked mind consisting of all the trees and life on Pandora. In other words Eywa is for real.

When Jake arrives he learns that the Scientists in order to interact with the Na’Vi have created Avatars, living alien bodies that they connect too and through so that they can interact with the Na’Vi. Jake interacts with the Na’Vi at their home tree an immense tree that is hundreds of meters high. Now the Scientists generally are sympathetic to the Na’Vi, but the company and its military helpers want to find ways to remove the Na’Vi to get at the minerals.

Well Jake is recruited to spy on the Scientists and the Na’Vi to find out about them and report to the company.

Our hero, however, falls in love with a Na’Vi girl, Neytiri, and is won over to the Na’Vi. The turning point comes when Jake tries to convince the Na’Vi to move their settlement away from the home tree which is over an immense unobtainium deposit. Jake fails and the company and its military allies using their immensely superior firepower drive the Na’Vi out and destroy the home tree.

The company arrests Jake and the Scientists. They escape with the assistance of a pissed off military officer who is just sick of the whole thing. They decide to help the Na’Vi resist the company.

Too make a long story short The climatic battle takes place in an area where human technological instruments are useless due to unusual fields of force and the planet itself or at least its interconnected web of life, Eywa directly intervenes and the company and its military allies are defeated.

The remaining humans are forced to leave with only a few exceptions. Jake abandons his human body to be forever in his Avatar. Presumably everyone lives happily ever after.

Now that is the basic plot of the movie a few people have pointed out the alleged similarity with the movies Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas. Those comments only go to show how deeply ignorant so many people are about Science Fiction.

For example the idea of human beings occupying some another body and being linked to it via electronic neural circuitry is actually fairly common in Science Fiction. For example the Ben Bova novel The Winds of Altair1 has a researcher using an electronic implant to control and perceive through the body of an alien life form. Further the novel is about an attempt to colonize and terraform a planet Altair VI for human colonization By then the Earth is a dying planet much like the earth referred to in the movie Avatar. The problem is that this colonization would involve the annihilation of all the native life on Altair VI including a sentient species, which is an immense six legged cat like creature. It does have certain similarities with Avatar.

Cover of The Winds of Altair

The most obvious similarities are with two Science Fiction works from the 1970’s. The first is Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.2 In the novel Humans are in the process of colonizing the world of the Hilf, a native humanoid creature, about ½ the height of humans and greenish in colouration. Human’s are interested in colonization and in harvesting the worlds massive abundance of trees, for virtually the entire world is covered in an immense forest of dense trees and vegetation.

Earth is apparently badly damaged world and wood is very prized and in high demand so the forests of the Hilf world are, well very valuable for greedy humans. The Hilf are mere obstacles in the way they are brushed aside and killed almost casually and sometimes used as slave labour.

The Hilf live in villages mainly by hunting and gathering although they do practice certain features of primitive agriculture. They have no idea or concept concerning murder. It is the destruction of their forest that infuriates the Hilf. For the Hilf view the forest as alive and are seeing it in their view killed. A Hilf male named Selver is captured and put to use. He eventually learns enough of the Human language to converse. Further he learns that the humans are divided many of whom want to stop the casual, brutal exploitation of the Hilf and their world. Well Selver uses his knowledge gained to unite the Hilf and engages in a massacre of a human settlement. The humans retaliate and meantime the humans engage in mutual recriminations and in fighting. Several humans help the Hilf. In the end the Humans agree to confine themselves to several small areas of the world and to stop destroying the forest.

Cover of The Word for World is Forest

The second work is Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld.3 This is probably the novel that contains the most similarities to Avatar. In it a company is trying to exploit a vast forest covered world; that has trees more than a kilometre tall, divided into many levels; depending on how much sunlight gets through. On this world the usual division between plant and animal life has broken down and many animals have plant features and vice versa. The forest trees are linked together in a vast system like the interlocking neurons of a brain. It functions so that life continues to flourish on Midworld.

Now this world is deadly and lethal. Several centuries before our story a human colony ship, that was off course, crashed on Midworld. The forest mind; called they who keep, has modified the humans extensively making them smaller, giving them long fingers and toes, along with wood coloured skin. Each human has on this world a companion, the green furred three eyed furcots, who are at least partially plants. The furcots are sentient and have learned human speech.

In to this beautiful but dangerous world comes the company seeking wealth in the form of the unique biology of the world. The company finds it in an unusual bur on trees that creates an extract that massively prolongs life.

In the story a shuttle crashes on the world and a hunter named Born and his furcot Ruumahum save the two humans, and after many other adventures, repeatedly saving the two company employees from danger and death over and over again, Born and Ruumahum return them to their research station. There Born learns about their extraction of the extract and he is furious. The reason is simple. After death a human and his furcot are buried inside a tree and the forest mind incorporates them into itself giving the dead human a sort of immortality. The company is not simply planning to plunder and destroy the forest it is engaged in grave robbing.

Born, Ruumahum and another hunter and his furcot proceed to use the plants and animals of Midworld to destroy the station.

Cover of Midworld

In the movie Avatar the item that takes the place of the extract is unobtainium which is a slangy term used by geologists and metallurgists for a metal that would do certain things and therefore solve certain problems which does not exist.

To me it is obvious that at least the last three stories mentioned had an influence on the movie Avatar. Another obvious influence is the idea of Gaia. The notion that all life on earth is in some ways a super-organism that functions in some way to keep the Earth in an optimal state for life.

Also of course is the ecological fairy tale of the need to live in balance with nature; or nature, somehow strikes back. There are also the rather sad tales of indigenous peoples all over the world brushed aside in order to advance “progress”.

Whatever the movie’s deficiencies in terms of plot and acting, for example the final battle is a bit too much like the battle on Endor in Return of the Jedi, despite Cameron’s efforts to make it believable, it is actually about things that happen on earth and a cautionary speculative tale.

1. Bova, Ben, The Winds of Altair, Tor Books, New York, 1988, (Original pub. 1972).

2. Le Guin, Ursula K., The Word for World is Forest, in Again Dangerous Visions, Edited by Ellison, Harlan, Signet Books, New York, 1972, pp. 35-126. Note: I am relying on the version published by Ellison it is my understanding that the later published version, (1976), is longer and has certain differences from this version.

3. Foster, Alan Dean, Midworld, Del Rey, New York, 1975.

Pierre Cloutier

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