Augmented Reality and Avatar (Part Two)
— By Jose-Luis Moctezuma | January 6, 2010
The genius of James Cameron‘s Avatar lies in its continual reference to its own simulation. The narrative of the film, yet another pastiche of a great many stereotypes that can be gleaned from all the romances, fictional adventures and nonfictional tragedies known to our common history (among them, Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ heroic stories, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, Dances with Wolves, and the genocide of the Native Americans by European colonialists) is not worth recounting in detail, for reason of its delirious ordinariness. Avatar‘s storyline is about as unique or provocative as the ludicrous turn-of-events that shapes most video games like Resident Evil. The real pleasure of the film, rather, emanates like a 3D image from the technology that houses it. To see and understand Avatar is, glibly speaking, to ‘experience’ its technology: there is no easy means of saying anything critical about a movie that is simultaneously, confoundedly, unoriginal and innovative. But its meaningfulness as a statement of where cinema is heading is worth investigating.
Firstly, there is the compacted etymology situated in the film’s title. The anglicized noun avatar originates from the Sanskrit word avatāra which roughly means “crossing over” or “descent.” The word’s application in Hinduism describes more specifically the descent of a god from heaven to earth. As such, avatar can be translated in the extra-sense as the manifestation – or even further, the incarnation – of a god on earth. The purpose of the avatar is to guide and assist sentient beings on the path toward true consciousness or realisation. In Ananda Coomaraswamy‘s definition, “avatars are special incarnations assumed by portions of the Supreme for helping on the processes of evolution and release.” This is the original and more significant meaning of the term that the film implicitly keeps. The central protagonist Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic ex-marine who is given the chance to enter the “avatar” of an alien body. The avatar is designed to be the real copy of an unreal group of native aliens called the Na’vi, who inhabit the jungles of Pandora. The assumption of the avatar body allows Jake Sully to have his legs back (albeit, artificial legs), along with the prowess, speed and blue skin-color of the Na’vi. If Jake Sully ascends into the larger form of the avatar (via a dream-pod), as an avatar he is able to descend on the Na’vi in a kind of “chosen one” moment (which occurs later in the movie). As befits all hero epics it emulates, Jake Sully as the avatar brings release and empowerment to the Na’vi people, in return for forsaking his own human body and race.
The second meaning of the word avatar is a modern one that the film explicitly utilizes. In computing terms, the ‘avatar’ is a representation of the computer user within a program or game environment. As in the video games I described earlier, the avatar may be a three-dimensional character whose actions you control on a keyboard or controller. In a computer program, it could be a two-dimensional picture or ‘icon’ (yet another term whose religious origin has been usurped by computer technology), or in a text-based site like an internet forum it could be as simple as a one-dimensional user-name. The self-aware film makes no secret of the techno-culture responsible for the very technology that makes Avatar possible: Jake Sully is a paraplegic who eventually discovers a more meaningful life in the avatar he adopts, much in the same way that a computer user will often forgo extensive social intercourse in the real world, so that he can enjoy more game-time or web interaction. James Cameron himself has alluded to this perception of the predominating influence computer and web use exert on gamers and people of all types.
If the characters learn to value their avatars over their own bodies in the real world, then we too, engaged with the Disneyfied marvels of Pandora, find ourselves loath to leave so wondrous a universe after the film is over. It may be an artificial world (something which we never lose sight of), but it is perfectly so, and thus Avatar attracts us as any theme park or other station of hyperreality so often does. Cameron goes so far as to depict the verdant jungle-world of Pandora as something more substantial than the actual interior locations in which the human characters reside. Pandora is a pastiche of the Amazon rainforest, the Huang Shan mountain range of China, and the forests of North America, but it is thoroughly artificial, an interactive hologram engineered by CGI specialists.
In contrast to Pandora’s lush verdure and magical glow-in-the-dark flora, the space-age interiors in which the human characters live (they cannot breathe the natural air outside their pressurized cabins) appear drab, mechanical, almost totalitarian. Predictably, when Jake Sully and friends are allowed to escape (via their avatars) into the computer-created wonderland of Pandora, they are ultimately persuaded to trade the real for the artificial. Yet Pandora, more than just a falsely organic manifestation, is subtly technological. Besides being muscular athletic bipeds, the Na’vi are also walking USB flashdrives who use the ends of their hair-dreads and ponytails to ‘plug into’ the wild creatures of the land, almost as if the animals were savage consoles whom one can ‘learn to domesticate’ through a part-New Age, part-technocratic connection. Hence the characters in the film, and especially the spectators who watch it, are subconsciously taught not merely to respect the power of technology to tame the organic world and its organisms, but also to believe in its ability to harmonize with nature by way of socio-religious peaceability. In sum, Cameron manufactures a future-shock parable that prophesizes the synthesis of the organic world with the inorganic, a new continent that can be equally bucolic and wild as it is hi-tech and hyperreal.
Cameron’s vision is one that demands a reality augmented by its fictions. It isn’t enough that things stand as they are in our world, we must create a new one as good or better than what has been given us: another green world. A world in which products by Coca-Cola or McDonald’s are doorways into Pandora, so long as you flash them on the webcam; in which cinema is no longer just a spectacle, nor a praxis of art in collusion with its ancestral mediums to shape society; more than that, a hyperreal cinema that won’t permit us (as books permitted Thomas Wolfe) to escape into life, but escape from and forsake it, for a less tangible CGI heaven.