In reading reviews of James Cameron’s alien-centric opus Avatar, I feel like I’ve been seeing the same things over and over. Most criticism comes from the fact that audiences simply don’t identify with characters or find the story simple, contrived, or cliche.
And they’ve got a good point. In the end, Avatar comes down to a story of good nature-oriented guys fighting off the bad, mechanized humans. It’s more than a little on-the-nose.
Even the self-proclaimed “Green” population will complain about being preached to about environmental issues, and Cameron is most definitely on his soap-box. In watching Avatar, though, my mind began to drift toward a slightly different (but admittedly conected) theme–that of a unitive consciousness.
This idea is not in any way new. In fact, it is, in some ways, the oldest form of religion and spirituality. Nearly all major world religions preach this idea in one form or another…that the world is connected in some unseen way through a collective consciousness. Buddhism attacks this problem most directly, in my opinion, arguing that what we perceive as our “self” is not our true self, but is actually just our ego manifest with thoughts and emotions and conditioned responses. In reality, our minds and personalities and thoughts and worldly desires are like a computer. We run programs and compute data, but that data has no meaning without the person running the computer–our true self–who cannot be “witnessed” by us because…well…who would be doing the witnessing?
Of course, I’m wildly simplifying these ideas for the sake of brevity…the purpose of this article is not to explain unitive consciousness or to convince you readers of its merit or silliness. Instead, I wanted to look at how this generally Eastern idea was used by Cameron and twisted in a decidedly Western way.
On Padora, the Na’vi live their lives in harmony with nature–all plants, animals, and each other. They, too, believe in a unitive consciousness, complete with interconnection with animal and plant life and a union with their goddess Eywa. Na’vi can even commune with their dead.
Where Cameron adds his Western twist, however, is in the form this collective consciousness takes. Where as Buddhists would argue that the unitive consciousness must exist spiritually, outside space-time and unable to be observed or measured via material instruments, Cameron’s version is very definitively prove-able. The entire planet of Pandora exists as a kind of neural network that connects the roots of the trees to cable-like branches (that glow in a way that reminds us of modern optical storage technology). This network extends to the animals who can be “plugged into” and even to the Na’vi who seem to have a built-in USB port at the end of their ponytails.
The Na’vi can “connect with” an animal by plugging in, and communing with the dead means downloading the spirits/memories/whatever of ancestors directly into your mind. The idea is cool science fiction that on Pandora has developed naturally.
Where Cameron goes “wrong,” though, is to assign a spiritual value to this very scientific and limited version of a collective consciousness. It’s even stated in the movie that the fate of the planet and the Na’vi, themselves, is tied to the fate of this fragile neural planet-wide network. In other words, everything valuable and meaningful about the Na’vi can be destroyed via bombs. The “eternal soul” of these creatures seems to be tied into the fate of a tree. If it is destroyed, so is the consciousness of the ancestors and the living Na’vi. I ask you, James, what kind of a religion is that?
The whole point of Unitive conciousness is that the true self–the consciousness of the world–exists outside of space-time and so is immortal and greater than all things earthly. By defining the world of Pandora as a storage-based computer, Cameron has undercut his environmental and spiritual themes. These places aren’t “sacred,” they’re just important to the survival of the species and the planet. All the spiritual, other-worldly mumbo jumbo loses its meaning and we’re left with a race fighting for survival in the protection of their giant biological supercomputer.
But that doesn’t stop Avatar from delving into spiritual silliness–such as the moment where Neytiri decides not to kill Jake because of an air-borne jellyfish landing on her arrow. In the world of the movie, though, we must assume that this jellyfish was sent by the computer program of the collective consciousness in order to ensure its own survival. Not really that deep.
It’s a wildly western and borderline atheist idea to reduce all forms of spirituality to a massive machine that acts as if it has some deeper meaning, but that’s what Cameron has done. Regardless of your religious leanings (or lack thereof), you kind of have to call bullshit on Cameron’s preachiness in light of his all-too-easy and ultimately shallow spiritual explanation for Pandora. I have no problem with any of the cool interconnectedness of the planet that Cameron shows us, and I think it’s beautiful and wonderful. But to elevate it to the level of ultimate religious truth is insulting.
I mean, eventually the universe will thin out into a gaseous state. It will then (arguably) collapse into a singularity. The point is, Pandora will be destroyed, and all the ancestral memories of the Na’vi and the life-force of its people will die. So these blue aliens are fighting an ultimately losing battle, no matter how many US marine warships they defeat.
In existential literature they call this absurdity. While the Na’vi preach their connection to something beyond the physical, they worship the physical as the end-all be-all. Is that really an idea worth giving one’s life for?