I saw Avatar a second time and was struck by two thematic elements that come up repeatedly in the film.
First, the theme of waking vs. dreaming. The very first lines of the script are Jake relating in voiceover how, while he was in the VA hospital, he had a dream that he was flying and was free, only to wake up and face the harsh reality of his paralysis. The mechanics of sleeping and waking are woven throughout the film, as Jake’s transfer of consciousness between his human body and his avatar body is depicted as falling asleep in one body in order to wake in the other. (In one of the most frightening scenes in the film, Neytiri tries desperately to get Jake to “wake up” in his avatar body as giant human excavating machines grind through the jungle toward them; meanwhile he is eating breakfast in his human body, totally unaware of what is happening for his other self.) The logistics of this process are left vague; Jake never seems to actually sleep in a way that allows his mind to turn off and rest. How does he stay sane? He says at one point late in the movie that he is starting to lose track of which world is the real one. Is his experience as a Na’vi a literal version of the “dreamtime” of the Australian aborigines? The very last image in the film is Jake’s eyes opening in his now permanent avatar body, waking in a sense for the first time in his new identity. There is no way back this time – he has either woken, or abandoned waking life permanently for the dream. Which is it?
Second, the theme of proxies/body doubles. This theme is explicit in the case of the avatars, as they are literally separate bodies operated by the minds of the humans. But it is also implicit in Jake’s role as an identical twin (when he first sees his avatar body he says, “It looks like him,” meaning his brother rather than himself), and the cyborg relationships between the humans and their AMP suits, and the Na’vi and the animals of their world, which they can control with the neural connections in their queues.
James Cameron is fascinated with the relationships of humans to their machines. Starting with The Terminator, in which humanity’s artificial intelligences rise up in an apocalyptic rebellion; and continuing on to Aliens, in which space travel leads humans into deadly contact with an unknown species; and The Abyss, which similarly depicts a “first contact” story enabled by human technology and the complicated outcome of that contact — the director has always been fascinated with the possibilities of engineering and technology even as he shows again and again how destructive they can be. The machines humans use take them repeatedly to places they should not be… and sometimes get them out again.
Avatar is likewise conflicted in its approach to the subject matter. Humanity’s need to fuel its mechanistic societies has led it very far from Earth, to a world with its own life forms and societies, in which all the problems of colonialism apply. And the mining base, with its giant bulldozers and helicopters and gray color palette could hardly be more distinct from the lush jungle the Na’vi inhabit. Colonel Quaritch is an out-and-out villain, transformed into an almost demonic figure when he climbs into his AMP suit near the end of the movie. He is so clearly aligned with the heartless megacorporation that is ripping apart and plundering Pandora that the “machines” in this case seem the very embodiment of evil. But… despite their biological nature, the avatars are no less engineered, and the corporation’s intentions in creating them are no less exploitative. They see them as diplomatic tools that can get them what they want in a way that will be more acceptable to their shareholders back home than outright conquest. And the very concept of “going native” is fraught with colonialist baggage. Yet without the avatars, humans cannot really engage with Pandora; they can only be Others, interfering from the outside. So are these tools bad or good? The movie offers no clear answer.
And then there is the fact that the Na’vi have their own version of the body-enhancing suit technology: they can plug themselves in to many Pandoran creatures and control them with their minds. This ability appears to have evolved in a “natural” rather than a “technological” way, and could be viewed by environmentalists as less objectionable than the humans’ world-trashing machines, but there are many troubling unanswered questions. For example, why is it that the Na’vi have such complete control over the creatures they have bonded with? Once a Na’vi has made “tsahaylu” with a horse or banshee, the creature seems to become just an extension of his/her own body and nervous system, with no control over its own actions — something which would seem to be very dangerous for the creature and not really in its best interest. How does this work on an ecosystem level? And isn’t it somewhat morally suspect? I was struck at the end of the movie by the scene in which Neytiri mounts one of the thanators to fight Quaritch, who is in his powered suit. Each of them makes motions with their hands that then cause their proxy bodies to move in larger, more exaggerated ways; each seems to be controlling an extension of themselves. He’s got a metal machine; she’s got a living creature, but in a way they are equivalent. And at the end, the thanator is dead, whereas the suit has no life to lose. So which approach is better, really?
I appreciate that the movie raises these questions and doesn’t answer them. They make it richer and more thought-provoking… even though I suspect that some of the ambiguity is the unintentional effect of script or editing problems. I’ll be interested to see the “director’s cut”.