Jake (Sam Worthington) gets his first look at his avatar -- a human-alien hybrid bred from Jake's own DNA. Photo credit: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

By Dustin Griffin.

In Avatar, it is easier to believe in the marriage and integration of living and non-living and the world that was created a lot more than other contemporary CGI fests like say Alice. This is due to how the creative team structured the visuals and the storyline.

The production of Alice was understandably different, and it was going for a different contrast of reality versus the other or “Under” world as it may be. However, when CGI is overused without an interrogation of practicality and realism, it ineffectively stands out too much and takes away from the viewing experience; it hinders the suspension of disbelief.  I could tell all of Alice was green screen, compared to say knowing that Avatar was. However, while watching Avatar, I was constantly drawn to the how and wow of the world, due to the texture and structure that was built on top of something real. While with a film like Alice, it was much more obvious that the environments and characters were artificial creations standing against artificial backgrounds; the film had no depth, physically or emotionally.

The problem with Alice also comes down to flat acting, and the lack of practical versus CGI effects. This is why Cameron’s effects work so much better. He integrates the real with the unreal to create a seamless whole that is grounded in a sense of realism, whereas in Alice everything was unreal, even the flowers. Thus viewers are forced to accept these noticeably fake objects as being part of a reality with living breathing people. It just doesn’t work. There is no sense of life in the creation of articles when you can see the pixels on the screen. This is a problem I feel is undoing the art of large-scale filmmaking. Who cares how many digital dummies an actor can take down? Where is the skill in it if one can tell it’s not real? It takes away from the “wow” effect of epic filmmaking. In the end it comes down to how much we as viewers are willing to turn our brains off and buy into our chosen realities; which, as technology improves along with audience expectations and savvy, is a task that will continue to increase in difficulty for filmmakers on budgets. As great as Avatar was as a spectacle and as a showcase for technology in motion, the film can also be read on a darker level as an allegory for the addictions associated with the active assimilation of individual identity into alternate reality.

Outwardly Cameron’s film is an allegory for the struggle of Native Americans and the concepts of genocide for the sake of human/corporate greed.  However, at the same time, it was three hours of watching a man’s life deteriorate because he had chosen to live as a virtual copy of himself, as another species, instead of facing his own plight in his own reality. Jake starts off using his virtual body as a means to help him re-enter a more active life in his own, being told that, if he agrees to do his superiors’ bidding, he will get new legs, and thereby a new lease on life. Jake instead gives himself over to his outer body, choosing to live his life through a machine. The end of Avatar is only a few steps removed from the concepts and themes of Ghost in the Shell, but with more spirituality attached.

Cameron’s surface text is overbearingly obvious, but his sub-textual point touches on a theme also used in the movie Surrogates. The principle, that we in today’s society would rather live our lives out virtually and vicariously through something created by our own hands; something that we personally had a hand in making the rules of, the look of, and the structure of; creating wholly the reality which we are choosing to inhabit. All virtual choices come at the hands of the creator(s) of said virtual realm. The choices we make in virtual reality are not “Free,” they are pre-programmed into the simulation before it is patented, packaged and presented for our consumption; all of our virtual worlds of choice are more controlled and deterministic than the “real” one we all share.

So much of our lives have been given over to mediums with even more strict regulations of rules and laws than that of our own world.  If you break the law in real life and no one sees you, nothing happens with the exception of possible moral guilt; however break a “law” in a virtual realm and you are instantly penalized due to the cause-and-reaction nature of computer programming. Our own reality is becoming more computerized by the day in the same reactionary senses as how programmers use code to catch “law breakers,” as we continue to allow our privacy to be stripped away in the name of our own “protection.” Example: run a red light recently? How long did it take for your local government to mail you a ticket with a nice digital photo of you on your cell phone and picking your nose as you ran through the intersection? Your mother would be so proud.

We now spend more time interacting virtually, within the confines of technology than we do participating one-on-one under the natural blue sky. In life not everyone accepts the idea of a Christian God and the rules of His law as part of our reality. However some of the same people, who renounce faith and spirituality within the confines of our own existence as animals on this planet, have no problems wasting copious amounts of time parading around in tights and wielding a battle ax as a dwarf in games like “World of Warcraft”; whilst using the rationale that it’s an escape from “reality.” All of us have a hand in creating and shaping our reality just as man has a hand in creating and shaping (Or rendering if you wish) the one you are choosing to escape too.  It is a simple matter of  renouncing one God for another. Choosing not to believe in the existence of a God in our own shared reality is often due to the lack of proof and lack of rationale in such a being’s existence; this can be, and usually is, coupled with the belief in the logic behind scientific convection.  Yet some of these same people who choose to renounce some version of our reality’s God also choose to live their lives vicariously through their pixilated pals, slaying dragons and drinking health potions on a server run by an Admin; and to those in question I say to you, behold your God!

Understandably it is easier to swallow the existence of the “Admin God.” You know his origins. They can be traced back to the source code. But Christians could say the same thing about their God; although I doubt they would use the phrase “Source Code.”The Admin God shows himself more often and with more wrath, striking down unfair play and banishing your existence from your alternate reality at the drop of a hat (if you choose to ignore his laws), forcing you to cope with what you have become in your new alternate universe, your own non-digital life. You accept him because he has shown himself to be real through his actions in a virtual reality. Yet you have never met him and don’t even know his name; and under these conditions he could not even get into “Cheers” for you to buy him a drink. You have made your choice, renouncing one God to accept another much in the same way Jake Sully renounces his own humanity to join his virtual reality with the Navi. He chooses his alternate, virtual life over his real one, and thus it becomes his actual reality while his old physical body dies. In doing so, Jake also fully embraces his new God, the Navi God Eywa.

It could be argued that Jake was never living a virtual life, but a parallel one. In actuality, within the film, the Navi are not virtual creatures, they are real. However Sully’s life as a Navi is both parallel and virtual, just like our own are online.

We should all take a long hard look at where we choose to put our faiths; are they really where we intended? We as individuals choose to accept which Gods we hold as part of our own reality, whose rules we choose to follow while renouncing others as artifice. Just keep in mind that your Gods are just as artificial to others who choose to believe in different ones. Long live the “Admin God”, long live Eywa, and long live Papa Smurf.

Dustin Griffin is an independent scholar.

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