Avatar's dream of the ideal self
Avatar lets us return to Eden
Posted January 6, 2010
[Note: see below for a way to win a free copy of the author's book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks!]
Avatar represents a desire for an ideal self. But fantasies about transcending the self have changed. They ain't just for 98-pound weaklings anymore. I think that classic geek dream --- "if I were only not me ... not powerless ... not alone" --- has leaked now into the general culture. Even the jocks want to be someone else.
And there's this twist: we spend so much time in front of our computers, chained there in effect, that we are like much like the paralyzed protagonist of Avatar, Jake Sully, who finds joy and transcendence through his athletic, virtual Na'vi feline body let lose on the jungle planet Pandora, where the movie's action takes place. Sully feels so unleashed, so uninhibited, that his real life pales in comparison. In Sully's words: "Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream."
More than one critic --- and James Cameron himself --- has already compared Avatar to movies like Dances With Wolves and its ilk (Lawrence of Arabia; Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now). It's a classic clash of civilizations or of cultures premise: jaded Western military man crosses to the other side, discovers something untainted and wholesome in a tribal culture, falls for the hot local gal, and thereby completes his "going native" conversion by switching sides and eventually leading the natives to fight their oppressors – his old self.
Sully's journey may be the well-worn hero's journey, but with a new chapter. His journey is not just about saving the day. It's about becoming one with nature, returning to state of Eden, tapping into a wholeness with the world as Mother Nature, God or the deity of your choice meant it to be. To be re-aquainted with our primal selves.
For who doesn't want to be better, faster, stronger (like the Six Million Dollar Man), leaping through the forest and bounding across the jungle canopy, hunting some beasts and conquering others? To be one with mystical forces of healing, the "one-ness" of the living, breathing, interconnected mass of greenness that is the earth? And to be able to do cool stuff like fly dragons and kill the nasties?
The irony here is that it took Cameron a gazillion dollars, 12 years and some very amazing, so-called "cutting-edge" gadgets--- computers, 3D cameras, digital draftsmanship --- to bring us this fantasy tale of how technology threatens the new world, Pandora; how it has wrecked humanity; and how it keeps us from being that lean, mean, agile, fighting machine-nature boy/girl.
Our true selves.
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Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks:
An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.