All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2017:

What is a Supercivilisation? (Aug.)

Quantifying the Assumptions Behind the METI Debate (July)

Five Principles of a Sustainable Manned Mars Programme (June)

Pale Red Dot: Mars comes to Oxford (May)


Back to 2016:

Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect (Oct.)

New in 2015:

Short story The Marchioness


AE posts:

2017: Mars…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index


General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


James Cameron’s “Avatar” – film review

Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK

28 February 2010


Avatar is a dazzling movie. Set a few centuries into our spacefaring future, it dazzles with technique: firstly with its new 3D effect, then with the lush panoramas and luxuriant fauna and flora of its alien world, Pandora.

Avatar image, 20th Century Fox

But as soon as the house lights came up at the end, the wrongs righted, the lovers reunited, etc., I put my brain back into gear and found I was thinking: this is hackneyed, trite and nonsensical!

Don’t get me wrong: the movie is entertaining, emotionally engaging, action-packed and a visual feast. The effort and care that have gone into its making are stunning. But the pessimistic script concept makes no sense. And as for the aliens – Star-Trek standard-issue English-speaking humans with coloured skin and funny ears…

If this is really the public image of our future in space, then space advocates have a lot of explaining to do.

Pandora is an earthlike world, smaller than Earth, and itself satellite to an extrasolar giant planet, which looms hugely in the distance over the forest panoramas, together with more of its moons. No doubt many such worlds exist. (The same concept was used by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes in their 1996 novel Encounter with Tiber.)

A colony has been established by Earth with the purpose of mining Pandora, and the US marines stationed there to protect it are in conflict with the indigenous inhabitants, the Na’vi, who are humanoid and, like aboriginal peoples on Earth, trying to defend their land against exploitation while possessing only stone-age weapons and social organisation.

First problem: what is a mining company doing on a planet like that?

Digging for “unobtanium”, we are told, the richest deposit of which, inevitably, lies directly underneath the aliens’ settlement (they are not house-builders, but live in the base of an enormous tree). This is preposterous: no mineral could possibly be worth the cost of shipping over an interstellar distance. Cameron does not tell us what the stuff really is and why it’s so valuable back on Earth (at least the movie Moon, which also demonised “the corporation”, offered the viewer this information). There is a hint that it might be connected with some floating mountains, which are spectacularly levitating high above ground level, and thus it might have anti-gravity properties, but this is not made explicit, probably because it sounds highly implausible.

(The official website offers the view that “unobtanium” is “key to solving Earth’s energy crisis”, blissfully unaware that a society with an energy crisis would hardly be in any position to muster the gigantic energies needed to propel manned starships, which add up to around a century’s worth of global industrial energy production at the current level, per ship, per one-way journey.)

This is more than a mere quibble. The writers’ attitude is that simply identifying the owner of the colony as a mining corporation is enough to damn it. The company boss only has to smile a wicked smile and say “the bottom line” to reserve his place in infamy alongside Hitler and Osama bin Laden. Never mind that the modern way of life would fall apart very quickly without metals and oil; never mind that we’ll get nowhere in space without lunar and asteroid mining companies: the writers are promoting the view that a mining corporation is by definition an icon of evil which needs no further justification.

Nobody feels they have to explain the motivations of the Nazis, or the Daleks, or Sigourney Weaver’s Alien-film aliens, or terrorists – or mining corporations. They are just out on a mission to destroy because that is their evil nature. The second outing for the Daleks, back in 1964 – sorry, that was 2064 of course – had them mining our Earth for its core, combining the “exterminate!” theme with the mining theme. And “the corporation” was the villain in the Alien films, Moon, Total Recall, and others. But I would suggest that creating characters who are not sufficiently motivated to play their roles is not good scriptwriting.

The focal character in Avatar, a wheelchair-bound ex-marine called Jake Sully, is put into an interesting situation of conflicting loyalties. He is assigned to assist the scientific research on Pandora (led by a scientist played by Sigourney Weaver), and for this he lies in a machine which transfers his consciousness to a replica alien, his avatar. (The replica has been grown by artificially combining human and alien DNA – biologists among us will just have to stop complaining and live with that theme, it’s so deeply ingrained into the popular culture by now.)

The purpose of the avatars is to mingle with the real aliens, communicate with them and gain their trust, with the ultimate objective of persuading them peacefully to move away from the mother lode of “unobtanium” so that the bulldozers can move in. Needless to say, the mission is a total failure, and the helicopter gunships are sent in to gas and machine-gun the alien tribe and blow up their cherished tree.

Jake, however, is really making a success of his alien alter ego. He picks up an alien girlfriend and masters their warrior arts of archery, horseriding and dragon flying. In the end he goes native: his loyalties shift from intelligence-gathering for the sinister marine colonel to a desire to protect the aliens from the coming attack, while the aliens are left wondering whether he’s really friend or foe.

And here’s my second big problem: the viewer’s sympathies are manipulated into cheering on the stone-age tribe against the military might of the modern American war machine. There are no other cultural options – Sigourney Weaver’s scientist is a marginal figure, collecting samples and helping Jake on his way, but powerless to offer an alternative way of life.

The tribe is romantically idealised. It has warriors, but we never see them fighting other tribes (or torturing captives the way American tribes used to). The forest environment is a lush spring paradise: it has fierce animals, but as soon as they’ve been brought in to give Jake a fright they’re shunted out of the way until they’re required to do battle against the invading marines. The Na’vi have a forest deity, in which the trees are all connected up to one another through their roots to make a sort of planetary brain. The tribal life is beautiful and complete – life, that is, without writing (let alone movies), without antibiotics, without protection against cold or storms or famine, without understanding of astronomy or evolution.

Earth civilisation is, on the other hand, anti-idealised: represented by the (boo! hiss!) mining corporation and the (boo! hiss!) US marines, who can only destroy without understanding (because they’re not listening to their token scientist). All the opportunities and advantages of the modern way of life are rejected by our writers, and so by our hero. But worse than that is the fact that the exploration and colonisation of space, which ought to be understood as the natural opportunity for the renewed creativity of technology-enabled terrestrial life, is ignored in this film.

How often have I argued that our role in space is bound to be a creative one! And how often have people responded with the self-flagellating, kneejerk cliché that – oh, dear! – we’re destroying our own planet, and we should not be going out into the universe and destroying other planets as well! How I wanted to find a movie that gave an intelligent, optimistic picture of the future that demolished this tired cliché! So I went and watched Avatar. D’oh!

I remain convinced that, if our civilisation acquires the power of interstellar travel, perhaps about a millennium from now, then its dominant mode of life will by then have shifted from a planetary one to one based on space settlement using asteroidal materials. For unless substantial numbers of people are living permanently in artificial space colonies, entrusting a crew to a space vehicle in which they will have to live essentially the rest of their lives – with no possibility of resupply from Earth whenever a piece of equipment went wrong – would be inconceivable. And without large-scale space colonisation, with consequent population and economic growth by many orders of magnitude beyond today’s levels, access to the immense energy needed for starflight would also be inconceivable.

When we do eventually find a system containing an earthlike living planet like Pandora, our descendants’ primary material interest will therefore be in colonising the orbital space in that planetary system using local asteroidal materials (which are probably to be found orbiting all suitable stars, even ones without any major planets of their own).

A world like Pandora will thus be intrinsically of far more value as a place for scientific research than as a material resource.

Some reviewers, for example David Brooks, op-ed columnist in The New York Times, have accused the film of racism by promoting an offensive “White Messiah” myth. I disagree. Describing an extrovert culture as “rationalist and technocratic” and an introvert culture, its colonial victim, as “spiritual and athletic” is not to peddle stereotypes, but simply to state facts about the general characteristics intrinsic to growth-oriented and static cultures. Jake Sully’s “Messiah” role in this film is a logical outcome of the wide disparity in cultural levels built into the story from the outset, combined with his role as hero. Racism has nothing to do with it.

(The characters of the aggressive marine colonel and the greedy company boss, however, are stereotypes, because although they play key roles in the story, their motivations are not explained.)

So what would I have done with Avatar, if James Cameron had called me in to fix the script?

Firstly, I would have evened up the playing-field. The aliens’ garden of Eden would be found to have problems – disease, bad weather, hunger, war, cruelty, plain unanswered curiosity – that the “sky people” could have helped with. Meanwhile the Earthlings’ main and legitimate mining interest would have been in space, where it interfered in no way with indigenous low-tech planet-bound life, but where wondrous artificial creations to match the Alice-in-wonderland scenery on Pandora could have been shown off.

The scientist could easily have demonstrated that the mining corporation’s greed for “unobtanium” was based on flawed accounting: when transport costs are factored in – not to mention the set-up costs of shipping mining equipment, a fleet of attack helicopters and a regiment of marines out to Pandora – the stuff becomes “unprofitabilium”.

The extreme isolation of the stars is hard for us to imagine. The associated Pandorapedia website supplies the location of Pandora and its Saturn-sized giant planet, orbiting Alpha Centauri A, 4.4 light-years distant from Earth.

Sending equipment and personnel across the 41.7 trillion kilometre gulf of space (41,700,000,000,000 km) would take 30 or 40 years travel time on any half-way reasonable assumptions, with a similar time period before supplies of the mineral started to arrive back at Earth. The movie respected this in so far as its first scene showed the arriving marines being woken out of hibernation, implying a long journey. But the idea that the shareholders would have been prepared to wait at least twice as long for the first results from their investment is among the movie’s more daring assumptions. (NewSpace could do with a few investors like that right now!)

From the director whose attention to detail on Titanic was legendary, this is surprisingly careless.

What then of the plot, without an “evil” mining corporation to battle against? What conflicts might our descendants really encounter, a millennium or so hence, when star-travellers from our Solar System (some from Earth, some from Mars, but even more from space colonies) meet humanoid beings living a tribal hunter-gatherer existence on other worlds?

Clearly, like all living creatures, the locals will have problems. For example, they may be at war with neighbouring tribes. Our human visitors will be impelled to help them, but others will argue that we should just observe and leave them alone. Our human hero’s alien friend is captured by the opposition and is about to be tortured and executed: does he stand aside, observing the principle of non-interference, or does he get involved in the morass of tribal politics? And where does the global forest brain fit into this – does it always know what’s best, or do the locals need to overthrow its benevolent dictatorship (just as gods were overthrown on Earth)?

One way and another, there is plenty of scope for a climactic battle between fleets of attack helicopters and dragon-mounted warriors (if you really want that Lord of the Rings look) without undermining a basically positive vision of the future.

But in making these changes I would have destroyed the nature of the film. I would have made Avatar a movie about the future in space; it is in reality a movie about the past on Earth ... or is it ...?

Postscript

I have seen the light! Mr Cameron, I salute your vision, your wisdom and your genius!

(But not your arithmetic – on the question of transport costs I remain unmoved.)

You have fooled us all! You led us to believe Avatar is the tale of an encounter between high-tech humans and the primitive tribespeople of another world. You led us to imagine that you were peddling the tired old breast-beating, tree-hugging crap about how material wealth and technology make us lose our souls, and only a monastic retreat to the purity and poverty of a humble communion with nature, renouncing all worldly goods, was worth living!

How could I have believed for one minute that such a message could have come from a director who delivers such soulful beauty through ground-breaking new technology?

The first clue was the perfection of the life of the Na’vi. It was just a little too perfect to be true. Even Jake Sully must have realised that, if he crippled himself again in his avatar form, or even developed a painful abscess under one tooth, a genuine primitive tribe would have had little help to offer.

The next clue was the networking organ through which a Na’vi could communicate their thoughts to a horse, a dragon, even the global planetary tree-brain. How could such a device have evolved biologically, across species, even between the animal and plant kingdoms? Unlikely. Surely it was deliberately genetically engineered into them? But that implies…

Then there’s the uncanny resemblance of the elflike Na’vi to our own species – on a planet where, the website informs us, most of the creatures have six limbs. Is Cameron resorting to the tired cliché of humans with pointy ears because that’s all he can think of, or because he thinks the audience won’t recognise them as aliens unless they look almost like us? I think not!

And what about the way the avatars were created, by combining human and Na’vi DNA? Is Cameron having a joke with us? – making us think he’s resorting to another piece of pop-culture pseudo-scientific nonsense, when in reality his elf-Na’vi are actually close enough to us genetically to make a hybrid possible?

There is only one logical solution: Avatar is a tale of a human encounter with an even more highly technologically developed alien species, one which originated on Earth!

Having turned Pandora into a lush garden, with just enough wildness to keep the locals on their mettle but not enough to seriously inconvenience them, the high-tech branch of the species remained in space, while those remaining on Pandora forgot their origins and reverted to a low-tech, pre-civilised (meaning: pre-city-building) state.

I eagerly await a sequel movie which reveals who the high-tech aliens are (surely a different branch of the genus Homo, now extinct on Earth?), when their civilisation existed on Earth (surely one or two million years ago?), where they are now (still somewhere in the Alpha Centauri system? – they could have spread their presence halfway around the Galaxy by now!), and what they think of the presence of modern humans on their theme-park planet.

I can guess its themes already: only when an intelligent species develops science and technology and embarks upon exponential economic growth to the stars – and only when it sends mining corporations to strip-mine other continents and other worlds – is it really fulfilling its true role in the evolution of life and communing genuinely with nature!

Meanwhile, for my own take on this question in an original movie scenario about an alien encounter in our future (not to mention human and alien spirituality), please visit The Cetaceans!