Friday, March 27, 2015

Perils of Pandora IV: An unofficial, speculative addendum

Okay, I am almost finished here.

It is a tribute to James Cameron that he provokes careful, even critical, appraisals of his work, which I tried to do in my riffs on Avatar. In Part III, I offered one proposal for a three-minute tweak -- possibly in a director's cut  -- that might repair the core, moral heart of this great-but-flawed film. 

Will that happen? When it snows on Pandora! ;-)
I also alluded to some other, even more far-out-meddlesome ideas. Just for fun, in this unofficial addendum... one writer having fun, playing in another fellow's sand box... why don't we look at a concept that isn't even my own! It is yet another, larger tweak that could both surprise audiences and really make them think, suggested by one of my readers -- Matthew Bell:

  "All the amazing aspects of Pandora, all the magical exaggerations, along with its strangely un-biological biology and the behavior of its natives can be explained if you assume that the planet is a post-singularity world."
Now, some of you may be unfamiliar with the "singularity" as it was first laid out by the great science fiction author Vernor Vinge, later now pushed hard by Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near. This notion -- much discussed among the world's nerds -- is both simple yet profoundly intricate.  It takes the fact that human skill and knowledge are accumulating at not just an accelerating rate -- but the rate of acceleration is itself accelerating.
The most familiar sign of this acceleration is Moore's Law, under which computing power doubles every 18 months or so. At this pace, it should be possible to emulate human intelligence in a box, within 20 years or so. Then that artificially intelligent (AI) box can design a new, improved one, which designs the next and so on, in a sequence that rapidly takes off. In mathematical terms, a "singularity" is what happens when such trends accelerate beyond any ability to predict outcomes. All bets are off, when everything you took for granted has changed.
Now, a number of authors (including me) have tried to picture what life might be like on the other side of a singularity (see my novella Stones of Significance). If the huge brains we create turn out to be monstrous and unsympathetic, they may try to stomp us, as in the Teminator and Matrix flicks. Or they could become loyal assistants to human ambition, helping us span the starways, as in Luc Besson's Lucy or in Her, or in the Culture novels of Iain Banks. There are so many possible ways that this transition might work out – and I cover a number of them in my novel, Existence.
But one is especially enticing when it comes to Avatar. The possibility -- suggested by Matthew Bell, but really kind of an obvious possible riff, and subsequently proposed by others -- is that we and our super-mind computer friends might use immense new "godlike" powers the way today's teenagers use the spectacular computers in their homes. 

                  To play.

Okay then, picture this…
…the Na'vi are dashing about and flying through Pandora's vivid, colorful forests as kids -- young minds -- immersed in a game. Their true selves are rooted in the planetary mainframe, which manifests at the surface as a white tree. (How very Tolkien-esque!) This could explain why the biology and ethnography and all other features seem exaggerated for effect, including the internet-like rapid communion network that laces everything from the animals to the Tree of Life. Including the way Pandoran creatures can plug-in.
If we play along with this post-singularity notion a bit, we realize that Avatar isn’t Dances with Wolves at all! It’s more like Star Trek’s “Errand of Mercy.” In this famous example of a frequent plot in SF, humans encounter a "primitive folk," and don’t understand them. Over time, it is revealed the primitives are actually vastly more advanced people who have decided to live in a rustic manner, either for their own reasons, or in order not to reveal the truth to young races out exploring. In that one memorable episode, the Organians are energy beings who get the Federation and Klingons to stop fighting. One of the recent Star Trek films had a similar theme.
Let's go a bit with this notion that Pandora's biosphere (and "unobtainium") turn out to be the result of a post-singularity super-civilization. Then the story that we all got to watch in Avatar might conceal one of three sub-plots.

1) Visiting humans were the primitives, in technology as well as culture! The "war" was a test, which those who sided with the Na'vi passed on our behalf. It ends with the soldiers/scientists "going back to school." 

 2) The Na'vi -- helped by Jake -- win the war. They then hit pause and evaluate the terrific game they all just played… only to be horrified! To learn that humans who are killed stay dead!  (Their own dead just reboot.) "Why didn't you tell us you were mortal?" they cry out in angst. Though also impressed that human warriors would be willing to stake so much on the line, in battle.

3) The great simulation of Pandora, while beautiful, has a deeper purpose. A real foe is coming.  This is training. And humanity is now embroiled, like it or not.

 As Matthew Bell put it: "The Colonel’s bomb mission was never going to succeed. The only question was in what subtle way would it be averted. Eywa, or should I say AI-wa, had it worked out well in advance, and sent the seeds to tag Jake Sully so that he could play this role, and thus both find somebody who would be human enough to arrange expulsion of the humans, and also join the Na’vi and fight for their side. Indeed, you could say that Jake was AI-wa’s avatar, or at least instrument, as is clear from the very start."

Yipe! That may be drifting way too far, even for me. After all, despite the many elements that he borrowed, Avatar is James Cameron's story to tell. These are just fannish daydreams, then. My own readers send them to me all the time.  

If Mr. Cameron reacts as I do, then he feels flattered and pleased.  I am always a sucker to talk story, and then try to find some new story, that breaks with the cliches.

And on that final note, let us bid fond farewell to Planet Pandora and its very very very tall... Until we all great the great pleasure of visiting again, anon.


Return to Part I: Perils of Pandora: Why Avatar (Tragically) Fails to Make us Better

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Perils of Pandora, Part III: Can Avatar be 'fixed?'

Following on my earlier analyses of James Cameron's Avatar, please let me reiterate that I actually quite like the film!  What's not to like about such a feast for the eye that's also packed with terrific action, and that tries so hard for goodness?  Well, as I have shown, it is that last part where Mr. Cameron inadvertently fails, delivering instead a blow to our confidence that we can become better people. That we can make a better civilization,

And here we ponder... 

== Is there a way out? ==

In fact, I believe Avatar's moral flaws could be fixed with only minimal alterations! Maybe five minutes worth of footage, added to a "director's cut," might alleviate many of the problems outlined in my earlier postings Part I: Why Avatar (Tragically) Fails to Make us Better and Part II: How James Cameron can set things right. 

Just five minutes.

Shall I give it a try?
Picture the beginning, as a crippled Jake Sully arrives at the human mining colony exploiting riches from Pandora -- riches that Earth desperately needs, in order to restore its former health. But there are tradeoffs, including an unscrupulous company and a suspicious-dangerous native population.

Only now, let's suppose that Earth civilization is not run by imbeciles who are ignoring history. Instead, our descendants run a generally moral society that established rules for decent treatment of the natives, to be enforced by an honorable governor and her staff.

Have I wrecked Avatar? Not really. Bear with me!
Let's posit that the Company chafes under the governor's restrictions, constantly conniving and conspiring to get around them. To provoke the Na'vi into a war they cannot win, exactly what happened repeatedly, in the American West.
Imagine in the film's first ten minutes, while Jake is literally getting his legs, we see hopeful signs. A meeting is underway, on one of the floating islands, where the good colonial governor is about to sign a treaty with moderates among the Na'vi...
Um, now there's a twist. Moderates among the Na’vi?
Why, I am talking about those among the natives who are guardedly curious, cautiously friendly, determined to preserve their world(!) but also willing to compromise and let Earthlings have resources they need to save their own distant planet. More like the Cherokee and Iroquois, these are the tribesmen who support Sigourney Weaver's school, though they demand Earth send children to Pandora who might be young and flexible enough to absorb Na'vi lessons, too.

            "No, you may not go anywhere near our trees!" they explain.
            "Give us drones and such to help us enforce this!
            “On the other hand, we sure find your spaceships fascinating.
            "And can we try to see if this avatar machine of yours works both ways? So we can feel what it's like to be human?"
All of this could be telescoped into just three minutes of screen time! Things look hopeful... too hopeful! And so the audience knows what to expect.
The conference island blows up!
The governor and her aides -- except Sigourney -- are dead. So are the Na'vi moderates.
The Company guy rubs his hands. Earth won't investigate too hard if he has a mountain-high stack of unobtanium waiting, when the next ship arrives.
At which point... the whole rest of the film can ensue almost exactly as-is!
Obstinate-immature company stooges versus obstinate-immature remnant Na'vi. And we root for the Na'vi, of course!  Because if we must choose between two packs of obstinate-immature jerks, let’s side with the underdogs who are defending their homes.
Only, while the rest of the movie proceeds, it is with this idea planted in the viewers' minds:

            It's a tragedy. We should have taken more precautions, sending more of our best and fewer of our worst. But at least there were real efforts to avoid this, by future humans who might do better next time, learning from this mistake.
            Now let's root for Jake and Neytiri and the obstinate wing of the Na'vi. Because obstinacy is called for now!
And none of this says that all of our descendants will be evil, all of the time.
Only slightly altering its lessons on tolerance and diversity and ecological responsibility, this would dramatically adjust the guilt trip so that it offers a patina of hopefulness, rather than utter despair for despicable humanity.
The moral would be keep trying instead of give up.
== A side note on scale ==

One of the most amazingly silly things about most sci fi is the assumption that a planet, is about the same size as -- say -- Cuba.

That's about the range that one might expect a Na'vi riding a dragon might tell the tale about how his tribe beat the snot out of alien invaders.  Heck, let it be Texas! No matter. 

The point is that all the company really has to do is relocate to another part of Pandora, beyond the range of even dragon-riding news-bearers.  That's an inconvenience that could instead be an asset to good storytellers.  But we have to learn to think scale.
== A Futile Hope ==

Okay... back to my idea about those three-minutes at the beginning, to make Avatar a realistic and effective lesson, and not a berating ruiner-of-confidence.  So. Do I expect James Cameron to make this tweak?  

Of course not. All I can do is carp from the sidelines that "this coulda made it better"...
…and shrug as others attribute it all to jealousy.  Ah well.
Is that proposal the only alternative occurring to me, when I ponder this immensely entertaining and thought-provoking film? Of course not. There are scads of ideas, including a post-singularity riff that could explain so much of why Planet Pandora is the way it is, offering several double-twist, ironic surprises about humanity's interaction with the Na'vi.
Perhaps -- purely for entertainment -- I'll muse on these for you, another time.
None of which matters except for this key point...
... which is to plead with you. Look around yourself at the current flood of film dystopias and novels that wallow in apocalypse.
Hey, I enjoy a good fall-of-civilization tale and I have written some, myself.  But the current obsession-craze is just tedious. Heck, Avatar positively fizzes with subtlety and optimism, by comparison!  
Which makes our conclusion all the more painful. For James Cameron’s grand sci-fi epic could have spread confident determination to seek self-improvement – as individuals and as a civilization -- while delivering entertainment and mind-blowing vision to billions.  It tried hard to do that and came so-close!
Alas, instead, Avatar wound up undermining our confidence in humanity's ability to do that very thing. It did not have to turn out this way.


What follows in Part IV: A Speculative Addendum is not a formal part of my article, but just a writer having fun, playing in another fellow's sand box...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Perils of Pandora, Part II: how James Cameron might still set things right

Last time, I went on a bit, describing some logical faults in a motion picture that -- in fact -- I deeply admire. After all, criticism can be well-intended. And clearly, James Cameron intended his epic film -- Avatar -- to be much more than just an orgy of visual delights. He meant both to provoke discussion and to teach some valuable lessons about our modern, self-critical, technological and grudgingly-progressive society. His intentions were good...

...and (I am forced to assert, alas) the lessons were utterly blown.

But we'll get back to Avatar in a moment.  First, let's step back and study the trap that snared this brilliant director. And clearly, it's not his fault. Because this snare catches almost everyone.

== Civilization (automatically) has to suck! ==

Let's make this even more general. Most Hollywood films (and nearly all dramatic novels) share one central tenet: society doesn't work.

It seems an almost-biblical injunction.

“Thou shalt never show democratic-western civilization functioning well. Especially, its institutions must never be of any help solving the protagonist’s problems.”

In The Idiot Plot: Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools, I describe a core reason for this relentlessly consistent rule. But here's the short of it: Your job as a storyteller, above all, is to get the audience rooting for your heroes by keeping them in pulse-pounding jeopardy for 90 minutes of film -- or 500 pages of a novel -- and that central chore is easiest to achieve if you make sure they never get any useful help from boring professionals.

Suppose our movie's protagonist, the poor schlemiel who stumbles upon a terrible danger-scenario in scene one, were to dial 9-1-1 for help... and help came! Skilled pros rushing in, taking charge, doing their jobs well and honestly, saying "we'll take it from here, sir."

It's the very thing we'd want in real life.

But in an action flick? What a buzz kill! Hence the iron rule for storytellers: you must separate your protagonist from meaningful help!

Think about that. A functioning, decent, competent civilization is a drama killer -- because violent drama is the very last thing that taxpaying citizens want in real life!  So we spend heaps of money hiring savvy pros who use diplomacy to avoid war. We pay taxes to create skilled armed forces whose main job is to deter and thus not to fight. We deploy highly trained police who swiftly answer 9-1-1 calls and chase bad guys. Then we hire attorneys to watch the police, and regulators to watch the attorneys, and activists to watch regulators. (And I have a book about this process, called The Transparent Society.)  

Every hour of every day, emergency professionals stand ready to leap into action because we want most of the danger removed from daily life...

 ... but we don't want it sucked out of our movies and novels! People yearn to have it both ways. They demand that all the cogs and gears of responsible civilization keep turning... but we also want to fantasize that none of it works!

There is, in fact, a sliding scale of how competent our civil servants are allowed to be, in proportion to the power of the villains in a film.

At one extreme -- say, Independence Day -- the heavies are so bad-ass that even the U.S. government and military are allowed to be both good and competent! So they can act as spear-carrier backups to the one or two main heroes.  (When else do you see that happening?)

The Idiot Plot syndrome extends to anyone who might have prevented the problem. They must be either stupid, incompetent or in cahoots with the villains.

Take every Michael Crichton book or film, revolving around some horrible misuse of science. In each case, the calamitous new technology was developed in secret. Why? Because the normal give and take of open scientific transparency would swiftly eliminate nearly all of the dopey failure modes that drive every Crichtonian plot.

("Hey, Jurassic Park dudes. Try this. Only make HERBIVORES first! A billion people will pay to come. And you’ll only have to pay for the lofty-elegiacal half of the John Williams musical score. Not the scary half.") 

You can see why common sense is avoided, at all cost, in Hollywood films.

But does it have to be avoided so completely?

== Our neighbors all go ba-a-a-a! ==

Oh, and this extends beyond public institutions. We also love to fantasize that our neighbors are all fools. How many westerns portrayed the town-full-of-cowards – when in fact nearly every frontier village was packed with Civil War veterans? Why do no brave bystanders rush to tackle the Joker’s henchmen, despite the fact that almost every mass shooter in real life has been brought down that way? (And such heroes thwarted the hijackers of flight UA93, the only action that worked on that awful day - 9/11.) 

Again, this rule has one core purpose, to keep the protagonist in peril by denying her or him storykilling help -- but it also appeals to the viewer's own vanity! Don't we all love picturing ourselves as the savvy ones, surrounded by a myriad neighbors who are clueless as sheep?

There are many help-suppression tricks, and not all of them are cheats! In fact, you must do it, to some extent - as a director or action writer - in order to keep your heroes in jeopardy**. But is it too much to ask you directors out there to do this imaginatively, without preaching that “society and its institutions and citizens are all automatically stupid?”  It has happened, now and then! Films like Ransom, The Fugitive, Sleeping with the Enemy, and so on come up with clever reasons why the heroine cannot call for skilled help from society or neighbors.

A good storyteller will come up with clever, non-cliché ways to keep the hero in jeopardy despite being a member of a pretty decent civilization.  One that's trying to get better all the time. (Or as I depict in The Smartest Mob.) 

The way that citizen James Cameron would personally count on a decent civilization to come rushing to his aid, should he ever need help. Even though he went to great pains, portraying that civilization as vile, in Avatar.

== Avatar did more harm than good ==

Bearing all of that in mind, let's return to my list of ways that this wonderful epic and visual feast - alas - missed its intended goal... coaxing us to be better people.

7) The dramatic situation conveyed by Avatar is both lazy and poisonous… making it typical.

Yes the "dances with others" plot-line works. It takes some of the best aspects of Joseph Campbell’s classic hero's journey, weaves in a love story, hammers the brave-underdogs theme and then does the neo-western thing -- fascination with the alien, the different and foreignAll very well and good. But we’ve seen that when fascination-with-other becomes hatred-of-us, we tread dangerous ground.

Especially when you recall point #2. The major difference between Avatar's scenario and other dances-with tales -- its setting in the future. Our future. The corrupt westerners committing these crimes aren't our benighted ancestors, who -- barely out of the caves -- had a lot to learn. Now it's our descendants doing all the awful, deliberate crimes. Obstinately refusing to see parallels in their own history or to learn from past tragedies.

And heckfire -- it could happen! 

In the world of Avatar, it seems our best efforts did not bring forth new generations raised in good intentions and avoiding mistakes of the past. The human improvability that James Cameron himself represents – a civilization that listened to Ghandi and Martin Luther King and that tries every day to overcome our Cro Magnon flaws -- went no further in the next two centuries.

Doesn't that mean that Avatar itself – and guilt-tripping movies like it -- failed to make those centuries any better? Bummer.

Again, I say all this in all friendship. We must speed up the pace by which we humans improve our ethics, compassion and commitment to responsible care... especially of this magnificent planet! So why does Avatar fail?

Because those who would be persuaded by simple guilt trips already have been converted by past guilt trips... from Soylent Green and Silent Running to Fern Gully and the works of Ursula K. LeGuin.  Guilt flagellations and "we're-all-so-awful" lamentations will not sway the remainder who wallow in blithe shortsightedness. They recognize a finger-wagging lecture and - smirking - turn it off.

Meanwhile, alas, Avatar proclaims, that our children will not learn, despite all we say and do. Our vileness is rooted in inherent human nature.  The best thing is for humanity fail.  And heroic humans ought to help ensure that happens.

Is there a way out?   Next we'll explore some ways that Mr. Cameron might redeem all this, and actually deliver on his good intentions.


** Do movies ever evade the "idiot plot" and show the hero's neighbors NOT as sheep?  But as  brave and decent citizens?  I can think of one worthy and consistent exception. All five of the Spiderman movies kept faith with a delightfully unique tradition. For most of each two-hour film, Spiderman saves New Yorkers. But there is always a thrilling moment when New Yorkers return the favor. When they stand up and save Spidey. Delightful.

Continue to Part III: Can Avatar be 'fixed'?

or return to Part I: Perils of Pandora: How Avatar (tragically) fails to make us better

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Perils of Pandora (Part I) -- why Avatar (tragically) fails to make us any better

Well it seems we're all going back to Planet Pandora. And why not? With the proclamation of a coming sequel to the blockbuster sci-fi epic Avatar -- no, make that three sequels -- the near-universal response from one and all has been "Sure! Just tell me much money to bring and where to stand in line!" 

Even the recent announcement of a one year production delay hasn't dampened the ardor and anticipation.

James Cameron's epic was the most important science fiction film of the first decade of the 21st Century, least of all because it proved that animation tools have matured enough to portray almost any story. For example, the vivid animal characters in Life of Pi. Or else -- perhaps someday soon -- dolphins piloting starships? 

(An aside: I liked Christopher Nolan's Interstellar even more, in part because it contained more for my inner adult... a theme that I'll develop here.)

But of course, Avatar was about much more than special effects. Director-producer James Cameron often conveys fascinating messages. He wants to entertain everyone, but also to make some members of the audience think. Hence, it is the lessons of Avatar that I plan to engage and dissect here, today... and across two more installments.

Specifically, did James Cameron succeed in his blatant goal with Avatar -- to craft a great teaching moment? *

Okay then, regarding Avatar, let's start by admitting that --

1) James Cameron's heart is in the right place.

Hm, well. In a sci fi context, you can't take the clichéd meaning of that statement for granted! In fact, I have no direct knowledge of JC’s cardiopulmonary placement....

Seriously, there's no question that Mr. Cameron means well. He's intent on doing more than just wrestle cash out of the pockets of a billion people. He wants them to behave better. To care more. To broaden their horizons of tolerance, diversity, vision and possibility. Moreover, he's worried about how sketchily we're handling our duty as planetary managers. All of these are causes that I share and that I try (with more limited reach) to convey in works like Earth and Existence

So, I'll not criticize James Cameron for using his art to help make a better world. 

Ah, but with this clear aim, how well did Mr. Cameron succeed? And did this messianic ambition harm his art? Hold that thought.

2) Almost every review of Avatar compares the plot to Dances with Wolves…

…or other classic cautionary tales that preached similar values -- e.g. Pocahantas, Fern Gully, Silent Running, or Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word for World is Forest -- all of them portraying powerfully rapacious and greedy modern people (e.g. male European invaders of North America) in tense conflict with a group or tribe that -- albeit technologically primitive -- possesses superior, earthy wisdom. Whereupon one of the invaders goes native and joins the oppressed tribe, aiming to help them resist his own, morally-misbegotten, original folk.

At surface, that is indeed what we see in Avatar. Some of the sillier, satirical references to this overlap -- such as "Dances with (very tall) Smurfs" or "Lawrence of Ferngully" -- are both snarky and funny. I hear that Cameron takes them in good humor. A successful person can. (Watch: Everything Wrong with Avatar in 4 minutes!)

Now, I prefer storytelling that's less derivative. A bright fellow like James Cameron should be helping to lead Hollywood out of its current creativity-funk -- a dismal cycle of remakes, comic book reworks and rehashing old tropes -- that is resisted with consistency only by Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron. Even Steven Spielberg has retreated (albeit brilliantly) into retelling old tales. Perhaps we just live in cowardly times.

Hence, the derivative-cloned story is not what bothered me about Avatar. When I go see a flick, I adjust expectations and try to enjoy each movie in the spirit that it's offered. Generally, that requires cranking my originality dial way down, along with the logic meter. For Avatar, I then spun up my cool fun and gosh wow and root-for-underdog dials ... and wound up enjoying it immensely!

Alas, A couple of other scales… well… I wish I hadn't been forced to zero them out.

3) A key point: Avatar depicts an evil-westerners-type story unfolding in our future.

Where Dances with Wolves and Pocahantas were set in the past -- and Fern Gully in the approximate-fantasy present -- James Cameron sets his story in a time-to-come, after humanity has had another 200 years of experience, learning and technological progress -- plenty of time to discuss its own flaws, failings and potential for righting wrongs. Its potential for compassion and genius.

Ponder how our own values have grown more broad and subtle, in just the last 50 years, since Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. A journey that’s incomplete! Indeed, Cameron hopes to propel forward our grand conversation about human self-improvement. A conversation that will be taken up by our children, and theirs. A conversation -- and please consider this carefully -- whose past will have included movies like Avatar.

Ponder the irony. Avatar portrays a future in which films like Cameron's have apparently achieved nothing! We have learned zilch, despite the best efforts of billions of sincere people, including James Cameron. The social progress and rising acceptance that emerged from 1945 to 2015 stopped dead, and even reversed.

Oh, there've been changes, between our present and the future shown in Avatar. We've not only become interstellar travelers, but have invented a wondrous method for putting our minds literally into the bodies of other beings and walking around for a mile or more in their skins. (Not too unlike the technology that I posit - but handle very differently - in Kiln People.) The avatar-embedding machinery at the core of the story is potentially the greatest tool for tolerance, empathy and cultural learning imaginable! Indeed, that is how Cameron portrays it being one person. Maybe two.

Indeed, we've just set the stage for Avatar's moral collapse: rooted in the fact that this version of the "dances with others" scenario is set in a depressingly ordained-awful future.
Consider.  With Pocohantas and Dances With Wolves, the audience contemplates the folowing implicit lesson:

"We come from a savage past, when immature ancestors did terrible things, while a few heroes lit candles in the darkness. Those mistakes still cling to us. Let's learn from our past and continue to do better."

In sharp contrast - and without intending it - by setting the very same story in the future, Cameron preaches:

"Humans are hopelessly rotten. They will be oppressors with horrible institutions, no matter how advanced we get and no matter how many tools of empathy we develop.
"Films like this one won’t help, either.
 "Give up."

To be clear -- that's not what he meant to teach!  

But it is exactly how people felt, upon leaving the theaters.

            “I wish I were Na’vi, instead of a cursed human.
            "Or worse – an American.
            “I can’t wait till the next time I can revisit Pandora and pretend I am defeating scuzzy humans!
            "Especially Americans.”

 4)  A movie asserting to be all about native tribal life and ecology ignores everything we know about either. 

While seated in the audience, enjoying the color, beauty and action of Avatar, we are so busy being visually awed -- and receiving let's-all-cooperate-with-nature messages -- that we blithely accept a raft of contradictions. For example:

(a) On Earth, all functioning ecosystems are about competition, predation and death. Animals in nature endure lives that are vastly more tense and fretful than ours, not more placid and relaxed. Hunger lurks just ahead. Brutal attack and death are always on the minds of predator and prey and almost everyone, even the lion, dies violently. In other words, Disney lied to us.

But on Pandora? Sure we do glimpse a couple of predators and some hunting by the Na'vi, but all of it softened and isolated. Nature, for the most part, is a cross between Lewis Carroll and Land of the Sugarplum Fairies.

(b) The Na'vi are a warrior people! Worthy of respect, much as we are taught to respect the Lakota (Sioux) - the tribe that gets all the motion pictures about Native Americans, from Little Big Man to Dances With Wolves. And okay, the Na'vi sure do act like noble warriors cloned from the American plains... except...

... except who have these "warriors" been fighting, all those years and eons before Earthlings came?

At least in Dances With Wolves there's no evasion. The Lakota are shown as what they gladly acknowledged themselves to be, at the time – a brutally violent people, yet somehow noble and endearing -- while the equally violent whites were not.

Okay. Fine. But in Avatar that whole background is wiped away from view. They get to be gruff, adorably macho warriors, without any context of endlessly vicious tribal war.

(c) As if to illustrate that fact, just like in Dances With Wolves, the "noble" natives in Avatar come that close to treacherously slaying the protagonist several times, once by a cowardly arrow in the back, without the slightest personal grievance or provocation from either Lieutenant Dunbar or Jake Sully, offering them no opportunities to honorably defend themselves.  In the Costner film, they are dissuaded by a medicine man saying "let's not kill him today." In Avatar, the same brief mercy derives from magical (or coincidental) symbolism. Ah, how admirably better that is, than -- say -- due process of law.          

There are scads of similar oversimplifications that do not strengthen James Cameron's case. But the key point is that none of them were necessary, even under the pressure of a 3 hour run-time. The story and lessons could have been conveyed, with the same visuals and characters and overall plot, without patronizing us. Without pressing the director's thumb on the scale.

Which brings us to a major point --

5) The Na'vi are portrayed as justified to be both obstinate and incurious. 

Indeed, some of the traits that Hollywood adores in the upper plains nomads were despised by many neighboring tribes of the time. Obdurate insistence on tribal changelessness, macho-male dominance and utter unwillingness to adapt to powerful new ways. (Except adopting the white man's weapons which, of course, the Na'vi do, as well.) Utter contempt for any thought of compromise. Plus a recurring rash impulsiveness that kept giving the most evil-despicable 19th Century white men hypocritical excuses to start the next war. 

Why do no sympathetic Hollywood movies sing paeans to tribes who exhibited traits like calmness, curiosity and adaptability, as shown by the Iroquois and Cherokee nations, who -- by the way -- respected women and who invented democratic methods that were models to the American founders? Tribes whose principal heroes included diplomats, inventors and intellectuals -- like Hiawatha and Sequoia -- instead of always brave, reckless raiders on horseback? Hey, I don’t disdain the admirable qualities of Crazy Horse; he deserves his new monument in the Black Hills! But for Hollywood to fixate only on that kind of Native American hero isn't respectful. It is yet another kind of patronization.

Getting back to Avatar, it is one thing to see a native people who are in tune with their world preaching to us that we should try this at home. Terrific. Yay, that!

But it is quite another to be finger-wagged by folks who never faced the temptations that we faced, and who yawn in complete lack of interest when they meet people who are able to cross the vast gulf between the f%#ng stars!

All right, compassion, love, courage and eco-oneness rank high in the pantheon of traits. But right after those, can you think of any gift more admirable than curiosity? In Avatar, there are humans who express all four!

Show me one Na'vi who does.

6) Other critics: The White Messiah Complex.

This brings us to one of the more obvious criticisms of Avatar, bruited by reviewers like David Brooks and John Podhoretz, who bemoan the “white messiah complex.”

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic... that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades... that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.” -- writes David Brooks.

Hm, well… duh? And you’re shocked, shocked (!) that a film-maker who is gambling hundreds of millions of dollars would go with a core protagonist who is guaranteed familiarity and viewer identification in his core audience? Ever hear of a film called Rapa Nui? I didn’t think so.

No, I won’t carp on James Cameron for centering his story upon Jake Sully. The creator of Sarah Conner and the kickass girl-marines of Aliens has nothing to apologize for.  We owe him some benefit of the doubt.

Indeed, one could reverse the complaint. Clearly, the most relentless preaching in Avatar is not about the technological or tactical or messianic talents of Jake Sully, but the moral and esthetic superiority of the Na’vi, along with the beyond-all-redemption vileness of every aspect of western civilization.

== Sympathy for the alien… and ourselves? ==

Elsewhere I talk about our quirky Western/American habit of relentless self-criticism. Our reflex to dismiss our own culture’s value while extolling the other. (See my essay: The Dogma of Otherness.) Sure, it’s not universal, even among Californians -- we all know plenty of neighbors who display smug insularity, chauvinistic nativism and even xenophobia. But the counter-trend has been powerful for more than two generations, and it has won more battles than it lost.

For example the widespread notion that ‘greater wisdom’ is to be found in eastern mysticism has ranged from the very real value that Steve Jobs got from his years in an ashram, to the mild sense of no-excuses discipline my kids received from their karate instructor... all the way to the hysterically pathetic reverence that Star Wars fans give to a nasty little faux-guru sock puppet named “Yoda,” who never does or says a single thing that’s verifiably wise, or even helpful! At the far extreme are those westerners who reflexively despise everything about their own culture and give unlimited excuses for anything that's not.

Consider how this theme -- “us is bad; others is good” - often plays in science fiction films. Aliens have to be pretty darned vicious and ugly (e.g. Independence Day) in order to fill the villain role. And District Nine showed that even nasty appearance no longer disqualifies the other from sympathetic treatment.        

Look, I know this cultural phase is necessary, in order to help break lots of bad-old habits that go back 60 centuries. My own life-long fascination (in both science and fiction) with the other -- ranging from the expanse of human diversity to animal minds, to possible alien or artificial intelligences -- surely stems from the Otherness meme that I absorbed from an early age. I'm glad of this cultural innovation, and I try my best to help promote it.

Alas, we are prevented from even noticing that this meme is operating. Or the blatant fact that it is special, recent, and mostly unique to the neo-west. Name one another culture that ever preached to its children: “admire any other civilization but always criticize your own!  No prior people did that. Indeed, no other culture benefited as much as we have from relentlessly seeking our own flaws and finding the positive in others. Or incorporating a goulash of cultures within itself.

We now view diversity as strength! And we got to that point by relentlessly self-criticizing 6000 year old habits of intolerance that most cultures took for granted.
All right, that’s a difficult irony to convey. Though the brilliant 1980s sci fi film Alien Nation managed to do it, combining some of the traditional, otherness-moralistic chiding with a few grains of rare praise and approval.

 That film taught the audience a more subtle lesson:

            “You people still have a long, long way to go, before you're truly decent or civilized.
            "But you are getting better! You’ve come far, in fact.
            "And we believe you can go farther still.”
Is that so hard to do? Mix in a little attaboy reinforcement, amid the chiding?

Apparently it is. Because outside of Alien Nation – and Star Trek, of course – I can think of no other example from Hollywood, where the intolerance-scolding message was ever sweetened with a little encouragement. A little hope.

It could easily have been done, in Avatar.  But it wasn’t.


*A personal footnote: I don't hold against Cameron my own temporal misfortune - that Kevin Costner's film version of my novel The Postman opened the same week as -- and was crushed in theaters by Cameron's Titanic! C'est la vie and folks can read elsewhere what I think of Costner's flick


Continue to... Part II: How James Cameron might still set things right...

                 or  Part III: Can Avatar be 'Fixed'?

                     Part IV: A Speculative Addendum