Five Ways to Read Avatar

If box office returns are any indication, I must have been one of the last persons on the planet, Earth, to see Avatar. (Returns are not in from Pandora but let's assume there's strong local interest there as well.) All I can say is that my delay was a product of being sick between Christmas and New Years and having trouble getting tickets to see a 3D IMAX screening in Los Angeles (People in LA seem passionate about hot new releases. Who knew?) By the time I got there, the talking points among my intellectual cohort and my tweet buddies had jelled around "spectacular visuals; too bad the characters and story are so flat." With this consensus view helping to counter-act some of the advanced hype, I actually found myself pleasantly surprised by Avatar and wondering why the perception of weak characters and story had become so firmly entrenched in popular perceptions of the film. Overall, the story told was a familiar one, well within genre conventions (someone called it "Dances with Smurfs") but the story was well told and I found myself drawn emotionally into the characters and their plight.

As someone who has long taught classes around science fiction, I found myself thinking about the many different levels upon which a science fiction film (at least a good one) operates and the degrees of access different viewers might have to reading Avatar on each level, as well as the challenges James Cameron faced in ballancing those many different kinds of expectations. I can only sketch this in here and as I do so, I should warn you that I make specific references to aspects of the film, enough so that I want to put a spoiler warning on this for those who haven't seen it.

Science Fiction as Visual Spectacle. I am always confused by people who talk about films as "relying" on special effects. We don't say a film "relies" on camera work or editing or music or acting or scripting. Special effects are part of the language of contemporary cinema. Pretty much all films deploy special effects of one kind or another, but the uncertainty about the relationship of the digital to the actual in contemporary films most often gets debated in terms of science fiction and fantasy films -- even though historical epics may rely just as heavily on special effects. In this case, the visual style is part of what makes Avatar transformative in terms of its impact on cinematic (and televisual) practices. It is almost certainly the breakthrough film in terms of our acceptance, even anticipation, of 3-d cinematography and we are already seeing films go back to the postproduction facilities to add 3D much as films in the wake of The Jazz Singer went back to see if they could add some soundtrack elements. We are hearing Lucas is already campaigning to release Star Wars in 3D overlooking the fact that Cameron carefully designed every aspect of Avatar for 3D and didn't add it as a layered on after effect.

As such, the technology is necessarily foregrounded in our conversations at the film, even though Cameron's deployment of 3D is striking precisely in the ways he seeks to move it beyond a gimmick and into a technique which makes its own aesthetic contributions to the film. My son points out that while previous 3D films emphasized the projection of things into the space of the audience (with the result that we remain aware of being in a theater at all times), Cameron's approach is to deepen the space behind the screen and thus to pull us into a more immersive relationship to the story space. We never have that moment of wanting to reach out and touch the projected image or seeing it hovering over the head of the person seated in front of us -- both experiences which foreground the space of the theater -- but rather we see the space open up before us and mentally we are drawn deeper into the story. I was lost in the film from the opening shots foreword, feeling a much more immediate relationship to what was happening than I could have imagined in a 2D film.

By the same token, the extensive use of digitally generated characters made them feel much more a part of the landscape of the film as compared to say the stand alone insertion of Golem in the Lord of the Rings series which always remained a self-conscious spectacle, even as I recognized how well executed it was. The story of jacking into an avatar body helped to guide us through the shifts in perception we experienced and soon, I came to accept the aliens as simply part of the reality of the film. They did not feel like cartoon characters inserted into a photorealistic landscape.

Vivian Sobchack has deployed the term, "special affect," to refer to moments in science fiction films where the characters stand slack jawed in wonderment at some special effect which is unfolding around us, often in ways that are abstracted from denotation or physical referent. I am thinking here, for example, of the opening up of Vger in Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, the closing moments of 2001: A Space Oddysey, or the extended human-alien exchange at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are similar moments where the character's wonderment about an alien realm are aligned with our fascination with the special effects in Cameron's The Abyss, which is in some ways his least satisfying contribution to the genre. But, Avatar, by and large, doesn't fall into this trap -- even with the spiritual dimensions that are integral to the narrative. And that's in part because the special effect/affect always maintains an intellectual dimension. In that sense, calling it "eye candy" or "visual spectacle" does not do justice to the film's accomplishments.

Science Fiction as World Building. Pandora is such a fully realized world. Taking a decade to make the film gave Cameron an unprecidented chance to think through every dimension of this world -- the ecological system with complex and plausible constructions of alien fauna and flora, the cultural system of the Na'Vi as seen through the lens of both anthropology and comparative mythology, and the language of this people which was constructed for the film by a USC linguist, Paul R Frommer.

Some critics have noted that science fiction tends to deal with events that occur on a global or cosmic scale -- massive transformations of the established order -- and as a result, the characters are often reduced to secondary importance. They are often witnesses to the unfolding of large-scale change -- in many cases, a visitor from outside the world in question who must learn its contours and come to understand the stakes in the conflict or changes occuring. In some cases, the characters are made to stand in for something larger than themselves (see allegory below) and as a consequence, they become mouthpieces for communicating different thesis or arguments about the nature of the change being depicted.

Those fans interested in world-building do not care, seeing characters as vehicles for exploring the world not for telling a story. In the world building, Cameron is drawn to the epic scope and anthropological focus of a good number of recent science fiction novels -- I am reminded of the works of Octavia Butler, C.J. Cherryh, Orson Scott Card, and Kim Stanley Robinson, mong others, who have depicted alien worlds and their inhabitants in particular rich and vivid ways.

Science Fiction as Allegory Science fiction is a genre that asks questions, probes values, and maps the relationships between core institutions and practices. At its best, it helps us to think in more sophisticated ways about the world around us because it opens us up to new perspectives and imagines what might happen if things we took for granted were destroyed (in appocalyptic stories) or altered (as in stories about alien or future socieities).

In that sense, science fiction stories are often described as utopian or dystopian. Cameron's trick in Avatar is to construct a film which is both -- depicting the Na'vi society as a utopian alternative to what humans have done to Earth (though he cut out the scenes on Earth which were intended to provide some of that contrast). In doing so, science fiction does build on central debates of our time and invites us to read what unfolds as allegorical. There are several debates about the film which circle around this allegorical reading -- such as the question of whether the film is in a tradition of "white messiah" narratives where a liberal white must join causes with minorities or third world populations in order to help them progress to the next level, whether the film is anti-American and anti-business in its depiction of the destruction of Pandora by an Earth-based military-industrial complex, and whether the film is anti-Christian (as the Pope argues) or pro-environmentalist in the ways it depicts a people whose spiritual life centers around their relationship to the natural realm. Those who dislike the film often seem fixated on one or another of these levels, understanding it as offering a simple, one dimensional ideological statement.

I am not going to argue that these questions do not surface around the film, but I think that reading science fiction works as allegories often flattens the characters (so that they confirm more fully to this thesis) and denies the complexity of the work. Clearly, there are some flat characters who embody particular extremes -- the military commander comes to mind here -- but Cameron as a director is strong enough that he offers a more complex picture of the military as a whole and increasingly shows this character as pushing further than the rank and file are ready to follow. True we do not get whole sale mutiny though we do have a notable defection from his ranks and many of the reaction shots show increased discomfort, moral concern, rather than depicting all of the military members in the film as simply gung ho on large scale destruction of a people. There's similar suggestions that the corporate leader here is feeling prickles of consciousness as the events unfold, suggesting a more dynamic character than we would see if we simply described this as an "anti-corporate" title. There are also hints that the anthropologists are not as "purely good" as some readings of the film suggest, especially around the comments that the Na'vi people they had met before had not been able to listen and learn, implying the paternalistic and interventionist values of anthropology in its more colonialist period, though here we get a strong sense of the character's capacity to learn and adapt to their changing understanding of the situation.

Our protagonist is the character who is shown to be most capable of changing and adapting, starting out with a fairly cynical relationship to the mission, more than willing to be a double agent, and only gradually coming to see the world through a very different lens. Cameron's protagonists, then, are not locked into embodying a thesis so much as they show the capacity of learning and adapting, which is often the highest value in science fiction stories of all kinds.

Science Fiction as Speculative Fiction. Science fiction as a genre asks "what if" questions and answers them by envisioning alternative possibilities. Avatar, for example, depicts a world where there is very little technology in our sense of the word yet much of what we use technology for gets performed through the interface between man and nature. There's a long tradition of organic or biological conceptions of technology, which provide the raw materials for Avatar, which uses "network" and "interface" languages throughout to describe the bonds which the Na'vi form with the mother tree or with the Banshii. Though this approach may seem "new agey" when read in relation to our planet where such "communications" are a matter of faith, Avatar changes the terms of this debate because the Na'Vi's ability to communicate with plants is the reality they experience, a reality the Terrans dismiss at their own loss. This is not about faith vs. science, in other words, but rather about the inadequacies of our science to grasp other realities we might encounter. For me, this is what keeps the film from being patronizing to the Na'vi: when Neytiri tells Jake that he needs to learn and really listen before he can understand their people and their planet, she is telling the truth, and by the end of the film, the major failure of the military-industrial complex is that it rejects these claims as superstition without fully investigating them.

Similarly, while the protagonist of Dances with Wolves can not change his race, the protagonist of Avatar can change his species, paving the way for a more sympathetic representation of post-humanism. I was struck by the contrast between the closing battle in Cameron's Aliens where Ripley, in her battle suit, confronts the alien (and we are totally on her side) and the final confrontation here where a similarly armoured Colonel Miles Quaritch does battle with the "monster" and in this case, he is the alien invader while our sympathies lie with the nonhuman character. The first counts on our revulsion over nonhuman biology, while the new film embraces the posthuman. Here, we experience science fiction not as an allegory for our reality but as the mythology for another reality, one which follows its own rules and logics.

Science Fiction as Melodrama. One of Cameron's real strengths as a filmmaker has been his ability to fuse science fiction or action conventions with those from melodrama. I offered a complex analysis of the roles which melodrama played in a single sequence from Aliens in a recent article I wrote with Matt Weise for Cinema Journal.

Cameron's early films in particular spent their first segments setting up an ensemble cast of characters, defining their antagonisms and bonds, and suggesting the dynamics of a particular working group community. That's what comes in the first parts of Aliens and The Abyss in particular, and he does something on a smaller scale in setting up the family unit in Terminator 2 (and adding others to the mix as the film progresses). There's a much more abridged version of this process in Avatar -- basically everything that happens before we leave the compound. From there, Cameron is able to layer reaction shots onto action sequences, allowing us to see how various characters are reacting to what's occurring over time and through this process, reminding us of the stakes of the action for each participant.

Aliens is his most satisfying version of this process at work, where Cameron may juggle more than a dozen character's responses to the first raid of the alien's stronghold. Avatar is not as strong in this regard, but the emotional impact of the final battle sequence occurs because we've formed emotional relationship to a range of human and Na'vi characters and so every moment of physical conflict comes attached to emotional issues.

This focus on the melodramic often sits badly with those who are drawn to science fiction as a genre which celebrates the rational, the intellectual, and the technological. The more a viewer is drawn to science fiction as world building or as speculative fiction, the less likely they are to appreciate the more melodramatic aspects of Cameron's work, yet these techniques open the films to viewers who might well not be engaged by a pure science fiction work. Often, when I hear people smacking down on Avatar's characters, I see signs of this tension, a dislike of the roles that romance, say, plays in the film, or a tendency to see the prologned death scenes as a bit over the top. For me, this stuff is what I love about Cameron -- he's so good at upping the emotional ante in his action scenes compared to most other American directors working in the genre. The closest counterpart might be John Woo.

So, there you have it. Cameron is trying to balance and satisfy at least five different sets of interpretive expectations which sit uneasily in relation to each other. Clearly most viewers experience the film first and foremost on the level of audiovisual spectacle and thus this is often the first thing anyone wants to comment on. How they feel about the plot and characters, though, has to do with which of these other levels enter into our interpretation. I am not saying that the characters and plot here are as good as Cameron's best work -- for my money, Aliens -- but they are better than the general consensus seems to indicate.

For those of you who enjoy my writing about science fiction, check out Religion Dispatches, where I am joining three other scholars for an ongoing conversation about Caprica, the new series from the producers of Battlestar Galactica. So far, the discussion has been fascinating and we are just getting started.