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Monday, March 08, 2010


I finally got around to seeing Avatar, the movie that uses computer technology to produce a film supposedly set on the large moon of a non-solar planet, and with many characters who are depicted as about ten feet tall, blue-skinned, with tails. This is the Wikipedia article on the film. This is the film's official web site. According to that site, it has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film is said to have earned more money than any movie ever made. This is partly because of inflated prices. But let's put it this way. My wife and I saw the movie two months and one day after its release, and there was a pretty good crowd present for a weekday matinee. Most movies are no longer shown, and headed for DVD release, that length of time after their opening.

An Avatar is a physical being, biological, rather than robotic, which is controlled remotely by a human. The hero of the movie, Avatar, is a paraplegic who controls an alien body, or a body that is very much like that of the aliens. One thing that puzzled me about the movie -- perhaps I missed something -- is that the hero is unskilled as a scientist, and, presumably, too handicapped to have been much use as a military person. So why was he on board the ship that went to the alien moon in the first place? (His twin brother was also on the ship, and died in transit, so the hero is drafted to control the avatar that his brother would have controlled.) The concept is not new to Avatar. I remember reading, at least four decades ago, a story about an astronaut who controlled a body down on, or near, the surface of Jupiter, from a base some distance away from that surface. I can't recall the title of the story, nor the author's name.

There have been a number of reviews of the movie, most of which I have not read. Here's the one from Christianity Today movies. The reviewer is especially impressed by the technical excellence of the film. He does mention spiritual matters, and warns about pagan influences in the film, but is not turned off by them. (The Na'vi have a religion, and we see some of their worship.) The reviewer also mentions a key point, in my view, namely that the Na'vi can become physically and mentally linked to the animals they ride, be these land mammals (?) or dragon-like flying creatures. The New York Times reviewer is mostly positive, and lauds James Cameron, the director, producer, and writer, for showing us the beauty of an alien world. A Times op-ed columnist, however, is quite critical of what he sees as the pantheism in the movie, and in Cameron's world-view. Another reviewer is not very concerned about the pantheism in the movie, and praises it for the beauty it shows. I agree that the movie is spectacular. I also agree that it seems to present a non-Christian religion as if the Na'vi believe in it.

I'd like to raise two points about the biology of Cameron's imagined world.

First, there seem to be a lot of animals, more than you'd expect could be supported by the vegetation. In other words, the food pyramid seems to be larger on top than would be realistic. Granted, there are some very large trees, but trees generally aren't good for food, and, besides, most or all of the animals seem to be carnivorous.

Second, did Cameron actually imagine anything new in his biology? Could I, for that matter? Are our imaginations restricted to variations on what life already exists in our world? Has God created any radically different beings on other worlds? (For example, creatures that have more than two sexes, that live backwards in time, or that obtain their energy in ways that no earth organisms do.) There are some variations in Avatar, for sure, such as non-insectoid land animals with six legs, small jellyfish-like creatures that float in the air, and flying animals with four wings, plus the ability to make physical and neural connections with beings of other species.

Now, back to the pantheistic world-view. Part of this is not pantheism, or not just pantheism, but, apparently, an imagined biology. The entire biosphere seems to be connected neurally, as if it were one super-organism, a god, if you will. The trees are said to be in physical contact with each other. (There is more than one species of them.) The small jellyfish-like organisms seem to float around wherever they are needed, and serve to connect animals, and the Na'vi, to this central intelligence.

Four aspects of Cameron's imaginary neurobiology were of interest.

First, as mentioned above, the Na'vi are shown as being able to make temporary neurological connections to animals that they mount. They do this with what looks like a long pony-tail, but which, apparently -- it isn't spelled out -- is actually something like a flexible auxiliary spine coming out of the back of the head. It has small tentacles (?) at its end, and these are able to connect to the tentacles in a similar structure on the mount animals. So far as I know, there's nothing like this in earthly biology. If it really did exist, it would require some sort of conscious connection between two organisms, of different species. Is such a thing possible? I'm not sure.

I am surprised that Cameron didn't have the Na'vi connecting to each other that way, for example during sexual activity, or between parent and offspring. Perhaps he did, and I missed it.

Second, again, as mentioned above, is the implication that a giant superorganism, made up of all of the organisms on the moon, is possible.

Third is the possibility of fine control of an avatar from a remote location. It is not clear how far the avatars are from the controllers, but it must have been at least a number of miles. Is wireless communication, with little or no lag time, from a distance, possible? Would it be possible to control a body not your own? How? What signals must be broadcast, and how would they have to be received?

Last is the notion that the superorganism is somehow able to transplant the personality, or, if you please, the soul, from the paraplegic body of the hero to his avatar, so that he not just controls the avatar, but becomes the avatar. (The superorganism tried this on an aging, and injured, scientist, but the transfer didn't work.)

Quite a bit of the topics in this post remind me of a longish essay that I wrote nearly ten years ago, entitled "Soul uploading: Computers and the mind-body problem." In that essay, I mused about the speculation that it would be possible to transfer a personality, a soul, from a brain to a computer. Cameron's Avatar supposes that an extremely complex supermind would be capable of transferring a personality, a soul, from one body to another.

I fear that much of Avatar is the imaginary equivalent of the Tower of Babel -- look what we humans are capable of doing! We don't need God! I'm not expecting to see any of this in reality, and I am not sure that a lot of what was in the film could ever be possible. But, after all, it's fiction.

Thanks for reading.


Martin LaBar said...

Avatar won three Oscars, for cinematography, visual effects, and art direction.

Julana said...

It gives me the creeps, and I haven't even seen it. :-)

Really liked The Blind Side, though.

Martin LaBar said...

It was a little creepy, I guess. Also loud.

We like The Blind Side, too.


atlibertytosay said...

I thought the effects were great, but you're right, there really wasn't anything new in concept. In fact, it seemed Cameron thought to himself "hmmm, animals have four legs here, let's make Pandora's animals have six."

There was no wireless transmission - the Navi Avatar was a DNA human/navi hybrid. The machine ONLY worked on Pandora because of the element they were mining; (stupidly called) unobtanium.