Immersion in Pandora: The Virtual World of Avatar

As a filmmaker, James Cameron is a thrill master, but not a deep thinker. The themes in his films, noble as they are, are nothing new, and his futuristic ideas are old hat compared to what's explored in the best science-fiction literature. His plots are sturdy and formulaic, designed to entertain but not to innovate. The dialogue can be fun, but is often trite and rarely poetic or profound. Yet the man knows how to enthrall and deliver "shock and awe," and along the way he inevitably moves the craft and technology of filmmaking up to a higher level. Terminator 2 dazzled with the new CGI effect of morphing; Titanic set a new standard for disaster-movie realism; and Avatar has set the bar higher for digitally created characters and 3D filmmaking. More importantly perhaps, it offers the audience a compelling immersion in a simulated reality, an experience somewhere between watching a movie in a theater and entering a virtual world in cyberspace.

Avatar is a beautiful movie, stunningly so at times, yet it isn't due to artful cinematography in the sense of poetic images and striking composition. Rather, the visual splendor lies in the inherent beauty of the alien world in which we are immersed. Pandora's lush rain forest, its colorful flora and fauna, the spectacular gorges and long waterfalls, and the moons and blue Jovian-type planet Polyphemus in the sky are rendered with painstaking detail and depth. Cameron has created a convincing exoplanet environment, worth the price of admission all on its own.

Visually, Avatar owes a debt to artist Roger Dean, known for his Yes album covers in the 1970s. The film's floating "Hallejulah Mountains" and dragon-like banshees appear based on the levitating mountains and fantastic dragons of Dean's fantasy-art paintings. There are also resonances of movies like The Lost World and King Kong in which dinosaurs and exotic bugs roamed tropical jungles. Most of all, Cameron seemed inspired by his post-Titanic fondness of exploring the deep sea in submersibles; he has transplanted the ocean's bioluminescent fauna and hovering creatures (like jellyfish) in altered forms into a rain-forest environment.

At moments, the phosphorescent colors are a little too intense and feel like an interlude in a '60s "black light" room full of psychedelic art; of course, this may endear the movie to future generations of chemically altered viewers. My other minor complaint about the Pandoran reality was Cameron's apparent obsession with optical fibers, tendril-like versions of which keep popping up all over the place, from the Na'vi-animal interfaces to the Tree of Souls. Or perhaps it's an obscure reference to Carlos Castaneda's books, which describe us all as being composed of "luminous fibers"?

Avatar may have borrowed some ideas or at least names from the great Russian science-fiction authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; the brothers' "Noon Universe" (or "World of Noon") cycle of novels from the 1960s included a lushly forested planet called Pandora populated by a humanoid race called the Nave. Cameron's movie also follows in the footsteps of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars novels, as did George Lucas's Star Wars films. In the John Carter tales, a paralyzed Civil War hero "incarnates" in a facsimile of his own body on Mars, where he fights with and against red and green-skinned Martians, falls in love with a red princess, and encounters many strange beasts.

Some have said that Avatar is yet another story of an individual from a colonialist nation who joins an exploited society, sees the world through their eyes, and becomes a hero or messiah. At the end, he atones for his own culture's imperialistic sins (call it "white guilt" if you will, but skin color is not the point). Certainly, Avatar owes more than a little to movies like Dances with Wolves, and the Na'vi people resemble lanky ten-foot-tall blue Native Americans and share some of their spirituality. The Na'vi worship nature and have a reverence for all living beings, including those they must kill in order to survive. Avatar decries the genocide of indigenous peoples and the plundering of nature in order to seize natural resources (unobtainium in this case rather than oil or gold). Casting the Cherokee actor Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans) as the character Eytucan reinforces the Native-American connection on a subliminal level. Yet while Avatar is undeniably political, it is mostly archetypal.

Avatar takes us on the hero's journey (as per mythologist Joseph Campbell) or a reluctant hero's adventure (as per screenwriting courses). Stories of outsiders who enter other cultures, endure trials, and become heroes are heard around the world. And the desire of city folk to experience tribal life, at least via a ripping yarn, has probably been a campfire staple ever since most of humanity moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers and merchants. And doesn't everyone fantasize about starting life completely anew, in another place or time? (In this case, it's with an alien body with working legs in a far-away solar system.)

The movie's title and Jake Sully's conscious immersion in a Na'vi body bring up other spiritual elements. In Hindu mythology, an "avatar" is the manifestation of one deity as another (such as Krishna being an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu). In video games and virtual reality, an avatar is the on-screen representation of a player, who controls its behavior. For most of the movie, the latter definition applies; the Na'vi is a representation of Jake. He experiences the world remotely through the Na'vi body's senses and controls it like a puppet, while his consciousness remains in his own body. At the end, his mind is transferred to the new body via the Tree of Souls. In other words, he goes from being a "cyberspace avatar" to a full, new incarnation. When it happens, are those luminous tendrils/fiber-optic cables channeling Jake's soul (as per much Earthly religious belief) or a neural net that constitutes his mind (as per materialists)? It would appear that they are one and the same on Pandora, as all living organisms are connected there to the same "bio-botanical neural network." (On our Earth, science is still working out the riddle of consciousness.)

As a story, Avatar offers a recycling of familiar elements; as an experience it breaks new ground. In the near future, we will immerse our minds in interactive simulated realities with next-generation goggles, data gloves, or other devices. Let's hope they are as beautiful as the Pandoran world in Avatar. Cameron has delivered the most immersive film to date, one that offers a tantalizing glimpse of the future of entertainment in many realms.