Avatar Racefail: Now with spoilers

I finally saw Avatar, so I thought I ought to write about that, in addition to the commercial. A lot has been said about the film as an allegory of colonialism, particularly the Europeans-in-Africa variety. Perhaps because I already had that in the back of my mind, I saw another story unfold as I watched.

Avatar is about a disabled veteran, Jake Sully, who takes over his brother’s job after his unexpected death. That job? To inhabit an alien avatar on the planet of Pandora in order to learn about – and try to exploit – the Na’vi, the principal form of alien life on the planet. Over the course of the movie, Sully comes to feel that life in his human body is like a dream – with the unspoken corollary that life in his avatar body is real. Sully also falls in love with one of the Na’vi, and undergoes what is explicitly called out as a permanent mating with her. The movie ends with Sully risking his life in order to permanently inhabit his avatar, and the final shot is of avatar-Sully’s eyes opening and looking directly at the viewer.

You’re probably getting a feel for the story I saw: Jake Sully’s awakening to a new form of life. What really drove it home for me was that final shot. Sully’s eyes open, metaphorically, and what he sees is us. I’m not sure what to do with the fact that he’s looking at us. But the eyes opening? That’s not exactly subtle. There’s also the fact that the movie’s title flashes on the screen not at the beginning of the movie, as is standard, but at the end, after we see Sully’s eyes. So Sully sees life through new eyes, and then we see AVATAR. It’s very suggestive. What is real life? What is living through an avatar? Which is real? And, how can you tell? Sully does not change simply because he inhabits a new body. Instead, he changes because his new body allows him to learn new ways of life, grow and change as a person. At the end of the film, Sully has grasped a greater way of being.

The whole movie is about what constitutes a “self”. Aside from Sully’s journeys between bodies, there are also the soul trees. Throughout the film, the Na’vi connect to various other lifeforms via fibrous extensions that are normally hidden in their hair. When these fibers connect a Na’vi to another animal, the Na’vi is able to feel the animal’s body and order it as though it were part of the Na’vi herself. Eventually we find out that the Na’vi can also connect to special trees, called soul trees. However, where the Na’vi are able to order the animals around through their connections, they can only hear the voices of deceased Na’vi and ask for assistance – which may not be granted – when connected to the trees.

Here I need to get a bit technical. It is developed in the human-only scenes that these trees are connected to each other through fibers much like those the Na’vi and other alien animals have. Basically, the human scientists posit that the trees are a sort of biochemical computer/life form. So we’ve got some Gaia theory going on. It’s mentioned at one point that the humans who want to strip mine Pandora have already destroyed their own planet, so we have some symmetry there as well.

Ooookay then, we’ve got Sully learning about a new way of living as a Na’vi, and we’ve got an entire other life form – the planet Pandora – that is so far beyond the human characters’ reckoning most of them can’t believe it exists as anything more than native superstitions. This, to me, was the most interesting part of the story. What is life? What constitutes one’s self? Can one’s self continue after one’s life ends, as those Na’vi whose voices and memories are recorded in the soul trees’ databases continue to speak to the Na’vi and act to preserve their world? There are some other questions you could ask (When we look for other intelligent life in the universe, will we even be able to recognize it?), but those more post-structuralist questions are what popped out at me. Those final two shots – Sully’s eyes opening and the word Avatar flashing on the screen – seem designed to make you think not about colonialism, but about what constitutes you.

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