Friday, February 12, 2010

Avatar State, Yip Yip

Kyle and I saw Avatar last weekend, finally, figuring it would be worth seeing it in 3-D. And it was a lot of fun -- James Cameron is a fine director of action setpieces and his visual imagination is broad, if not very deep, and both of those attributes mesh well with aggressive sensory bombardment. Having watched a few episodes of BBC's Planet Earth series recently, it's clear that Cameron's amped up, false-utopian jungle moon setting, for all its bioluminescence and environmental detail, is neither as stately nor as bizarre as actual life on earth. Except for some striking, lyrical jellyfish-seed pod things, his world is mostly populated with dogs/ pumas/ horses/ pterodactyls just like their Earth counterparts, only more badass. The movie envelops you pretty easily, though, and compared with Titanic it has the great advantage of actually being a serviceable movie, in terms of dialog and character, underneath the audiovisual trappings.

What it isn't is a film concerned with building up ideas beyond those it needs to hold up its explosions, and conceptually it's a collage of familiar ideas, both in its sci-fi elements and its take on Western-style colonialism. Still (and here come spoilers) I want to quibble with the last few minutes of the movie. It doesn't fully follow through on its premise, which means it not only leaves some fertile ground unexplored -- and since it's not a thinky film that's okay by me, even if I am going to get my girlfriend's eyes rolled at me during the end credits when I declare the ending to be "a philosophical cop-out" -- but also makes the dramatic conclusion a little bit tonally off.

The plot element in question here is that the moon has on it a sort of Internet Tree that the alien natives (the Na'vi) use to upload their spirits (souls, minds, whatever) into before they die. Jake, the hero, is a paraplegic Marine vet who is running around the world via a VR-type hookup to a remote, hybrid Na'vi / human body (he can connect to it because he has the same DNA as his deceased anthropologist twin, which is a quibble of its own). He leads a rebellion of the natives, and they send all the unfriendly humans home. The moon's atmosphere is toxic to humans, but Jake has fallen in love and wants to stay behind. And it turns out the Na'vi have a ceremony, involving lots of tribal-looking swaying and humming, which they can use to upload a dying individual's mind into the tree and then download it into another body. So they connect Jake to the tree, load his consciousness into the tree, pull it down into the avatar, take the air mask off of human-body Jake and watch avatar-body Jake open his eyes. Boom! Swelling music reaches its peak. End credits. Movie over.

This pretty precisely enacts the teleporter thought experiment that has been considered by the likes of Derek Parfit, Daniel Dennett, and Commander Riker: If you create an exact replica of your body and destroy the original, does your conscious experience flow seamlessly from the old body to the new, or do you die while an exceptionally you-like imposter lives the rest of your life? And if, due to a teleporter accident or to your commitment to applied philosophy, the original body is not destroyed, then what's going on?

I'm enough of a materialist to think that two bodies means two conscious experiences (maybe to start there's only one identity common to the two minds, but I think identity and consciousness are probably more loosely coupled than our bodily, one-brain-one-mind experience usually lets on), and if you ax the first body then you've killed one of them. Avatar, in contrast, sets up the action to look like a mind transplant: The faux spiritualism, human Jake being asleep the whole time, the camera movement among body/tree/body make it look like the essential Jake is moving from the now emptied-out human shell into the big blue guy. And again, rolling these ideas around doesn't need to be the business of a James Cameron movie (the Internet at large does a fine, redundant job on this sort of thing). But the movie shows all of this as a grandiose metamorphosis, and then it's over... And I'm left with this unresolved reaction of, "Wait. They just killed human Jake!" They don't even properly euthanize him, they just take off his mask and let him suffocate in the alien atmosphere. (Don't they have a Death with Dignity law in the future? They have one of those in Oregon right now!)

From a plot perspective, too, I would think there's some utility in leaving your human self alive. You've just led an insurrection on an alien moon against a corporate mining concern, with many lives lost. Although the other humans have been beaten back for now, to ward off future colonization attempts and to keep hostilities from escalating, it would be useful to go back to Earth to plead your case and petition for less destructive diplomatic contacts. Now, you'll probably go to prison. And you'll still be paralyzed from the waist down and permanently removed from the woman and culture you love. But surely you can make those sacrifices for the greater good, and take some cold comfort in that you-nought (who has as much a claim to you-ness as you do) is living the good version of your life. More to the point, it's probably better than being dead; by definition the human you can't be the Na'vi you-nought, so you might as well make the most of it. And if it does turn out that human life isn't worth it then, well, you can kill yourself later on.

I think it's inapt and a little bit grisly for the movie to end on a triumphant note -- the remote user finally, entirely being the avatar! -- while brushing aside its depiction of a crudely implemented assisted suicide.

Meanwhile, none of this considers that there's some third form of Jake stored in the tree, along with all of the Na'vi's ancestors (and also Sigourney Weaver, but that's incidental to my point), which is the most genuinely interesting piece of the scenario to contemplate. Who knows what happens in there -- the movie doesn't try to say -- but I'd like to imagine it as a sort of cognitive Thunderdome where each new uploadee is dissolved into a massively parallel web of consciousnesses, each with access to the contents of every former individual's mind, and individual impulses vie for connectivity and processing time in a Darwinian struggle that vaporizes any coherent sense of self-identity into a constantly shifting cloudscape of disassociated first-person experience. "Hang onto your ego," as Brian Wilson sang on an early version of one of Pet Sounds' druggier tracks, "But I know that you're going to lose the fight." Prescient? Perhaps! In a century and a half we'll know for sure.


Blogger Don said...

First, I think I felt much the same about Avatar, in that it was entertaining, visually pretty cool, but left me wishing that it was a little deeper since they went through all that trouble (and screen time).

Second, it may interest you to read this summary of Cameron's original scriptment, which doesn't really address your main problem, but does sound like a richer movie:

Third, I prefer the Frank Black cover of Hold On To Your Ego.

Fourth, I found myself wishing that I'd watched a 2D screening of Avatar so that I could really evaluate the "graphics" (to resort to the at this time more appropriate video game terminology) properly. I found the 3D a little distracting, especially when the technology clashed with traditional cinematic means of focusing viewer attention and creating depth - namely using a wide aperture to create shallow depth of field. It was really disorienting to try to focus on something that's intentionally blurry when everything is 3D - the parallax between your eyes is telling you that it's THERE, adjust those damned lenses! And your lenses scream, I CAN'T, I FAIL YOU!

2/13/2010 1:38 PM  

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