Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana, and Jake, played by Sam Worthington, in Avatar. Courtesy: WETA and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana, and Jake, played by Sam Worthington, get ready for battle in Avatar. (WETA / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

By Adam Frank

There are not many modern myths. Understood in its full import, Myth means some form of grand narrative that offers meaning by setting human life against its larger, cosmic background. In the new film Avatar one of the few true myths of the modern world - the noble savage - gets updated and transplanted to, of all places, an alien moon. James Cameron's cinematic retelling of this story is not particularly original. Still, in between scenes of soaring dogfights under floating mountains (sweet), the movie does manage to shed some light on our mixed feelings about science, technology and the civilization they engender.

The story of the noble savage is often a meditation on the ways we are corrupted by the civilization we create. It's a myth that tells us only in the more natural state of the hunter-gathering tribe do we retain a pure connection with the world. Science, or at least technology, is often seen as the sharp blade which has cut us off from the roots of that purity.

While the concept and its embodiment in story dates back to the 16th and 17th century, Avatar moves the myth to 2154 AD and adds a significant ecological theme to it's telling. As with many noble savage narratives the main character begins as a member of an advanced civilization but "goes native" after living with the pre-technological tribe. One of the principle science fiction conceits of Cameron's film is in the paraplegic ex-marine who lives among the alien natives in a body, an avatar, he controls from miles away. True to the form of the myth, the marine eventually joins forces with the alien tribe he was supposed to infiltrate turning against his own greed-consumed and spiritually empty civilization.

Cameron's film is almost painfully beautiful to watch and the digital rendering of the alien world takes the use of computer-generated landscapes, creatures and characters to new levels. But the story is fairly standard in its theme of technological civilizations as inherently corrupt -- here represented by corporations rather then governments. The 10-foot high blue Na'Vi aliens (who all look like very tall supermodels) live in a state of ecological grace. They inhabit their Eden-like moon at peace and in balance with the life around them. And it is their world, not ours, that we root for. If I were in a cynical mood I would call it Dances-with-6 Legged-Things-That-Look-Like-Wolves.

Avatar may be a game changer for 3-D hyper-CG movies but, as a story, it raises what is now an old issue for us moderns (which is why it attains the status of myth). What do we gain and what do we lose as we become ever more tied to the complex systems that make technologically advanced cultures function?.

As I watched the eye-popping battles I was struck by how easily anxieties that began with an older era of European colonialism could be morphed into a future of space exploration and exploitation. In spite of the miracles of air travel and antibiotics, computers and cell phones, we clearly retain a sense of having lost something. In a world of rapidly approaching limits to population and resources this anxiety is not a surprise.

Cameron does not give over completely to the "civilization is bad" dictum. He does, in a sense, separate technology from science. Technology, he says, can be a means for exploiting the world, while in science there is the possibility of a purer appreciation. The character of Sigourney Weaver's scientist is one of the few other humans in the film who can see the world as the native Na'Vi do. She alone appreciates the biological interconnections that make the alien world a kind of single sentient creature. Acknowledging this scientifically inspired higher ethical sensibility, the Na'Vi attempt to save her when she is shot by the other human invaders. With this theme Cameron tells a newer story about the way science can be route to an almost pantheistic spiritual sensibilities. (In an excellent piece on the film, Ross Douthat at the New York Times has written about how many Americans are quite willing to see their own religious sensibilities in this way).

I would agree with Cameron that by asking us to pay close attention to the world, its forms and its patterns, science can offer a means of forging stronger connections to the world we inhabit. It can provide a means of seeing more deeply and responding more authentically to that world (though a full-throated pantheism would likely be stretching things). In a film like Avatar we see hints of that view.

More than anything though, this particular resurrection of the noble savage myth, shows how ambiguous we remain about the tools we have build our culture upon and our continue attempts to find meaning in stories of our own unmooring.

categories: Science and Culture

3:19 - December 22, 2009