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Conservative New York Times Columnist David Brooks Nails What’s Wrong With Slightly Misinterprets James Cameron’s Avatar

Jake Sully and Neytiri

Neytiri and Jake Sully (source)

On Saturday night (9 January 2010), I posted and retracted a bits link to the David Brooks article linked in this entry.

I’ve seen James Cameron’s Avatar twice now and both times I liked the film pretty OK. The accolades thundering throughout the blogosphere and echoed by the geekarati are to me just so much noise.

The film’s special effects are great, sure, and the Pandora ecosystem is highly detailed and richly imagined, yes. That still didn’t change my opinion that with the exception of Jake Sully and Neytiri the characters were flat as cardboard cutouts.1 I also hardly believedspoiler»

I also had problems with the film’s colonial narrative, which makes the colonists villians and heroes with the Na’vi caught in between. I’m reminded of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick says about the role women play in homosocial relations. Brooks’s nutshell summary seemed exactly right when I first read it.

(show nutshell/spoiler)

After posting a bits entry with an earlier version of the title of this entry, I unpublished it because I realized Brooks’s excellently conceived analysis neglects a crucial point about the film, namely that Jake Sully uses an avatar in the war between humans and Na’vi. The heroics Jake undertakes are in fact the heroics of someone using a meat puppet, and his successes may partly be due to that fact. Most of what Jake achieves does not require placing his actual body in harm’s way.spoiler» When embodiment can be non-local and temporary, advantage accrues to those who use avatars.

The lesson is clear.»

end of article

1 Trudy Chacon also has a little bit of depth, but only as a cliché. spoiler»



Hmm...knowing little of avatar use, but having recently witnessed humans entering a simulated but quite violent and often fatal battle environment via comuter generated avatars, at least one observation can be made regarding the *avatar advantage*. The context was a first person multiplayer internet game (now famous, and i believe called modern combat).

I haven't played anything like this since doom, and didn't play this time, but, watching my friend play, quickly learned that, with considerable lack of skill, and within his avatar, he was killed so quickly and so often as to pose no danger to anyone but himself. The avatar provided no practical advantage, except, perhaps, to give him more lives to practice with. In his case, that did not amount to much benefit.

Which is to say, for an individual with tremendous skill but either great fear or no confidence, an avatar might be key. But for those with both skill and courage, and those with neither, the avatar adds little advantage.

Sully, clearly, had both--evident in his human scenes as well as his back story. Allowing the avatar to provide him a means to exercise both skill and courage in a way probably equal to his human life but due to his injury, now only available to him in spirit. In this case, the avatar did give him one more chance--but this movie did not make much of the possibility of infinite avatar lives (probably cost prohibitive, anyway, given they rocketed an uneducated jarhead up there rather than make a new avatar for a scientist.)

However, the greater element in tipping the scales in favor of our white hero is a liberal (or, rather, conservative) application of *hollywood courage*. One slip of the pen in any number of scenes and sully would have been doomed.

I think its fair to say, once the story began, so insistent was the narrative force that no technological, primitive, or universal plot decice could have stood in his way.

However given the possibilities hinted at above, if one was to intentionally let that pen slip, enough doors have been opened for avatar to be a game-changer in popular film.