Avatar: the End of the World as We Know It

January 23, 2010

I’ve been sick and busy lately – so not a lot of posting. Got some good posts (in my mind) in the works, so stick around. In the meantime, here’s some more or less stream-of-consciousness musing from the CVT:

Okay. I saw "Avatar." I admit it. And yeah, yeah – I knew all about what everyone is saying about just one more "white savior" flick and all that. But it was in 3D. The next generation of 3D. And I wanted to take part in that.

So this post isn’t going to be about the movie on a racial/cultural level. Plenty of other folks have picked it apart on that level, and I have nothing new to add to that.* And no, we don’t need more "white savior" movies in the world, but this movie disturbed me on a totally different level (because it’s not like this movie is any worse than so many other "white savior" storylines), and I want to address that here.

It goes like this: the movie really was gorgeous, visually. The 3D technology really WAS that good. Like other people have said, it DID feel like I physically travelled to another world for this film. And that blew me away. I got a kick out of that.**

But it also terrified me. And made me really sad.

Because it clearly demonstrated our arrival in the next phase of the digital "future." All those pre-mature debuts of "virtual reality" have finally come through – because we’re there. In the making of this movie, the design team completely fabricated a believable (in a physical, mind-acceptance sense) alien world, complete with novel creatures and plants. It was eye-candy to the nth degree. But on top of that, it was in 3D that felt damn close to reality.

And, suddenly, the question hit me: does this mark the end of physically traveling to "sight-see"? I mean, honestly – why travel somewhere (like the Grand Canyon, for instance) to see it, when you can spend $20 and see it – from a better angle – from the safety and comfort of your own home (or a nearby theatre)? Hell – why go someplace on Earth at all, when you can go see a completely novel alien planet? Why meet real human beings and their cultures when you can "meet" artificial cultures which have been custom-designed to help you feel less like an "outsider"?

For the children of privilege born today (because, who are we kidding, we know this technology – or the privilege of traveling, in general – is never going to touch a large proportion of this world), what is going to push them to want to "see the world"? It will be impossible to make them understand why they should.

Because it’s hard enough as it is. And, of course, there’s different ways to look at this. If these privileged kids aren’t being cultural tourists and treating poverty-stricken countries as their playgrounds, that might not be the worst thing. On the flip side, though, I strongly believe in the power of exposure to different ways of being – to being outside the norm, learning other languages – and I wonder if the inclination to do so will lessen.

And the fact is – it’s already hard enough in today’s internet-connected world to truly immerse yourself in a different culture (Lord knows that’s a difficulty I’ve faced out here), so add to that the fact that kids will be able to get the awe of new surroundings without actually having to put in the effort to enter them, physically . . . The whole point and thrill and edification of travel is already so changed.

Then I start thinking about World of Warcraft, and what’s going to happen to kids who can now truly live in those worlds on a 3D-level. Why compete in real athletics, when you can have more abilities in a different world – without having to earn them and go through the struggle of working towards it? Goodbye physical health – who needs it?

I don’t know. I feel like some old man prognosticating the end of the world and "the problem with today’s youth." And yet, I believe what I’m saying. If I ever have kids, how am I going to convey to them the thrill of physical accomplishment? The satisfaction of struggling through the isolation and confusion and awkwardness of living amongst people that grew up under different rules than you did? All my greatest joys and achievements have come from me disconnecting, in some ways. Is that even going to be possible by the time my (theoretical) kids reach my age? If so, will they have any motivation to do so?

And, I know – every new innovation has a generation of doomsayers to go with it. We’re not all going to die. We’re not going to lose all of our moral fabric (not that I believe we have a lot to lose, anyway). But it scares me. I hate to say it, but the world changed yesterday – just through watching a movie. And I’m simultaneously excited and terrified to see what that really means . . .

* One thing, though – do you really have to combine EVERY non-white "primitive" cultural identity into one here, as if they’re all interchangeable (the Caribbean-ish non-native English of the Navi, with the distinct voice of a famous Native American representative as their chief, with SE Asian references in their cultural rites . . . come on).

** I’ve long-since mastered the "enjoy aspects of the movie even while your racial consciousness is being assaulted" technique.



  1. This post sounds like the premise for Wall-E. And, I think this conversation is similar to the one surrounding the Kindle. I basically think that nothing can replace the actual experience, so the people who want to take part in that experience won’t stop. And like you said, privileged people traipsing around to marvel at the primitive (read: non-white) cultures coming to a minimum wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

  2. I watched it too, to see what all the fuss was about (on race blogs). And the obvious race issues aside, even the artistic side raised me eyebrow. It was like Pocahontas plus several of Miyazaki Hayao’s famous animation feature films: e.g. The big tree from (I believe) Princess Mononoke and the floating mountains from Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

    And is it just me, or that scene where the lead tries to ‘conquer’ the big bird – bird is vicious and angry and tries to fight the guy, guy gets on top of her to tame her, then without her consent makes a spiritual/emotional bond with her by forcing onto her a physical bond – can remind you of rape.

    And my male friend who has recently become a father to a baby girl said, what’s with the bigger bird? What’s it teaching girls? That a guy is not good enough if he comes in a Honda (average bird) but good enough if he switches to a Ferari (big bird)? I thought that was a funny take on it.

    I mean, it was entertaining, but…

    • ps. Apart from the special effects, the main thing I liked about the story was how the lead (female…I can’t remember anyone’s name in that movie) got vicious when her loved ones got hurt.

  3. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the premise, and I will say that for me at least, this is part of the reason why I don’t really take photos anymore because no matter what (even looking at photos of “professional” photographers and even pro-ams who are way better than me), photographs simply cannot capture the *experience* of being there (be it the Grand Canyon or even a beautiful rainbow.) No matter what, I don’t think these representations can ever truly capture the experience of actually being there.

    And that’s somewhat of how I felt while watching Avatar, it was only visually stunning and impactful because I knew it wasn’t real.

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