Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘Avatar’ and the War of Genres

with 18 comments

(now crossposted at The Valve)

We saw Avatar last night and I thought at first I didn’t have all that much to say about it. I was prepared to shamelessly steal Vu’s thesis that this is really all about video games, but I see Kotaku already did that. In the face of column after column centered around a nominally leftist reading of the film as Dances with Wolves… in Space!, SEK has already provided a more nuanced consideration of the films racial—and racist—dimensions. Posts about the backlash of the backlash and the backlash of the backlash of the backlash have already been taken care of.

I’m not all that interested in the special effects, which, perhaps due to some projection issues in our theater, didn’t seem to be quite as spellbinding as advertised. The language stuff interests me more, but seems ultimately somewhat empty. “And congratulations to Cameron for taking us from a figuratively to a literally inhuman standard of slenderness for women” seems to cover it with regards to feminist critique of the Barbie-doll-shaped Na’vi.

The religious element, while not especially original, is, from a materialist standpoint, pretty deeply problematic, and badly damages the film’s ecological politics, which frankly are not all that well thought-out in the first place.

But in the theater and as I sat down to write this post I mostly found myself preoccupied with the genre question. I don’t want to recapitulate the genre post I wrote for Infinite Summer, but in brief this is how Darko Suvin approaches SF:

SF is, then, a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment. (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction 7-8)

Carl Freedman in Critical Theory and Science Fiction reframes this idea slightly as what he calls the “cognition effect”:

The crucial issue for generic discrimination is not any epistemological judgment external to the text itself or the rationality or irrationality of the latter’s imaginings, but rather … the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed. (18)

This is to say, more or less, that whether or not the science in science fiction is plausible from the standpoint of contemporary science it adopts a rhetoric of scientific plausibility to motivate the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

In the beginning Avatar seems to situate itself firmly within this generic mode, with a group of scientists and mercenaries from Earth who have arrived on Pandora in spaceships to study the natives and drill for valuable minerals (not necessarily in that order). But by the end, while Avatar certainly remains an alternative to our empirical environment, it no longer operates as any kind of framework. Neither the biological/ecological systems present on the planet Pandora, nor the ability of our biological structures and technological apparatuses to interface with them, are remotely plausible from the perspective of either evolutionary biology or cognitive science without inventing some sort of massive hidden backstory for the Na’vi that involves incredible prehistoric genetic engineering on the planetary scale—and really not even then. (And of course Fridge Logic just makes it worse.)

In Suvinian/Freedmanian terms, then, Avatar isn’t really science fiction at all, because the type of imagination involved in its reception isn’t cognition. And by the end of the film any pretense of scientific plausibility or internal logical coherence has been abandoned altogether: telepathy and transmigration of souls are real, MechWarriors pull Bowie knives from their belts, and not even gravity seems to work anymore.

But this, I suggest, goes quite a bit further. Far from merely nerdy nitpicking of the sort I am famous for, the abandonment of scientific plausibility is actually the film’s central thematic conceit. The narrative turning point of the film hinges, after all, on the moment we hop generic tracks from science fiction to fantasy, and perhaps even (as Sigourney Weaver’s character suggests in dialogue) to fairy tale. Other people have framed this moment as the anthropologist characters’ “going native,” but within the film’s terms this is just another way of saying the same thing—these characters drop a scientific perspective in favor of a religious one and, in so doing, gain access to a wide portfolio of impossible superpowers.

That Pandora features staggeringly improbable lifeforms and impossible physical structures isn’t, therefore, any sort of narrative failure; rather, the complete abandonment of science fictional “explanation” in favor of unabashed fantasy is part and parcel of the war of genres that structures the film.

The climactic battle turns out, accordingly, to be this generic tension between science fiction and fantasy made hyperbolically literal: it’s a war in which blue-skinned, dragon-riding elves armed with bows and arrows attack spaceships owned by a version of the Company from Aliens—and the elves win precisely because within the genre of fantasy [spoiler]magic exists. [/spoiler]

And these are exactly the two alternatives offered by the tagline in the poster above: “Avatar: Believe it, or not.” (And please note that it’s the science fictional frame that is “believable”; the fantastic/religious frame becomes dominant at the precise moment in which we can no longer “believe” what we are seeing.) That generic divide, SF vs. fantasy, is the film’s narrative and thematic fuel.

So, yes, the film is fun, the spectacle is large, and the good guys manage to pull off the Battle of Endor a second time. But as a unreconstructed Asimovian and a good Suvinian I worry about the consequences of an ideology in which science and military aggression are bound up tightly together through a science fictional aesthetic of extrapolative realism—against which any form of resistance, alas, is just pure fantasy. If this is our binary—science fiction and disaster vs. fantasy and hope—outside the narrative’s terms it’s science fiction and disaster that emerges victorious. After all, as we leave the theater, recycle our 3-D glasses, and rub our eyes to adjust to the light outside the theater, it’s Colonel Quaritch’s world, not Neytiri’s, into which we must make our exit—and this, after the fact, is his extratextual triumph.

Written by gerrycanavan

December 21, 2009 at 1:50 pm

18 Responses

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  1. The other extratextual triumph, of course, is that the humans will be back for more unobtainium in Avatars, and back in force — and that this time they may even remember the sacred truth Cameron himself once taught us: that space marines don’t need to invade, they can nuke a site from orbit, just to be sure.


    December 21, 2009 at 3:17 pm

  2. “the humans will be back for more unobtainium in Avatars, and back in force”

    Yeah, but I am assuming that they negotiated for the release of the base personnel to at least guarantee that the U.S, err, I mean the company would do no further harm.
    Obviously, that is a huge plot hole though.


    December 21, 2009 at 4:17 pm

  3. I thought the dialogue at the beginning suggested that the planet was six years from (and therefore six years out of contact) with Earth — and so I took from the ending that the Company would be back in the twelve years needed for a round-trip.

    I’m not sure they made any kind of deal with the home office at all.


    December 21, 2009 at 4:22 pm

  4. I hadn’t considered it in terms of SF vs. fantasy. Nicely done. Though I’d argue that Col Quaritch’s world is pretty effing fantastic too (how, exactly, are they dealing with the relativistic effects of interstellar travel, for example, or the nifty neural interface with the avatars?). SF shorthand (the rhetoric of which you speak) is pretty universal to SF film as a form, as opposed to novels, where these ideas are explained, explored and fleshed out more fully. Don’t blame Cameron for doing what’s basically standard operating procedure in SF filmmaking. Either way, we should withhold judgment until the 4.5 hour director’s cut drops. Who knows how much exposition is on the cutting room floor? Of the unexplained bits, I find the mind-transfer magic to be the most problematic and tacked-on.

    Bill Simmon

    December 21, 2009 at 4:40 pm

  5. Of the unexplained bits, I find the mind-transfer magic to be the most problematic and tacked-on.

    The director’s cut version of this post deals with that particular problem more directly. What seems at first to be an at least marginally plausible [tech] becomes very problematic as the film goes on — how does this work, exactly, over what distances, and through what sort of electromagnetic phenomenon? It works just as well, with no lag, even in the Magic Floating Mountain Zone we already know kills radar.

    Sigourney Weaver has a line about “glitches” at one point, but that never pays off. The [tech] is always totally reliable as long as no one hits the big red button.

    My general reply would be that this too fits with the film’s general shift of allegiance towards fantasy as it goes on; this is how the film is able to drop even the pretense of SF shorthand and just go nuts. Which is why at the end of the film the [tech] is able to be abandoned altogether (spoiler coming) — because it turns out that if you lay the two bodies side by side the transfer can happen just by magic, and permanently at that…


    December 21, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    • by “mind transfer magic” I was actually specifically referring to the Na’vi tree’s ability to link the minds — there’s no attempt at explanation or example of it working within the Na’vi culture. It’s such a glaring narrative omission that I have to assume it was there at one time and cut. Similarly, the “glitches” throw-away you mentioned. I think Cameron has this all sorted out, it just didn’t make it to the screen. His explanations might not be satisfactory for Asimov heads like you and me but I bet they exist.

      And it’s not like Cameron hasn’t committed this sin before. Remember the “they musta’ done somethin’ to us” ending of The Abyss? That was another SF/tech adventure that resorted to fantasy in a spectacular narrative failure.

      Bill Simmon

      December 21, 2009 at 5:02 pm

      • Oh, *THAT* mind transfer magic. I thought you meant how the Avatars themselves functioned. Yes, that’s just zany.


        December 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm

  6. I was too busy looking at the colors to remember any real plot details. I think that may be the point though. This movie can never be viewed at home, the whole all-containing world of the movie theater is what makes the film. It makes movie theaters essential again. That is of course if you can afford make the most expensive movie ever.


    December 21, 2009 at 4:54 pm

  7. sorry to carry my recent contrarianism vis-a-vis this blog even into the movies, but i have to disagree with the idea that the film shifts into fantasy. they maintain the pseudo-scientific explanations of pandora’s psychic network (including body switching which in the film’s terms is no more or less magical than the avatar technology, just more ‘organic’) and use a more blatantly sf version of the gaia hypothesis to explain the nature goddess. framing implausible and only loosely science fictional tropes in religious/spiritual terms is done in sf all the time. and the gaping logical inconsistencies are par for the course for both sf and fantasy, especially when further modified by ‘blockbuster’ status, where the focus is on spectacle and not speculation.

    i think the video game structure of the film actually breaks down what was always IMO the weak suvinian dichtomy between sf and fantasy on the basis of ‘cognition’ which IMO is just whatever happens to be able to convince the reader that it’s sf and not fantasy. nothing happens that the scientist characters absolutely cannot explain. it’s just that their explanations are only useful to the military-industrial complex (‘we don’t have anything they want’), and less so the more they learn about pandora’s psychic network. particularly in the change in medium of the body switching (avatar tech to tree of souls), the film presents ‘scientific plausibility’ as just a pretense all along, ontologically subordinate to bio-technologically enabled wonder/affect/etc. for which there exist multiple explanations (the na’vi’s relationships with their animals are technological as well as spiritual and biological). as john points out, like jake sully what you’re really here for is technological spectacle – a world you want to play in – and can via the huge IMAX 3-D specatcle, video games, toys, etc. logic, character, and narrative are entirely secondary.

    it’s a breakdown that had already begun and culminated with star wars – avatar is just transparently trying to recreate what took 30-odd years to establish itself (the multi-media experience of a fully realized alternate universe/playground with no relation to ‘reality,’ such that the terms fantasy and sf have no weight) in one fell swoop. i think far from being naive and hopeful it’s a profoundly cynical film, much more so than disaster sf.


    December 21, 2009 at 5:45 pm

  8. “bio-technologically enabled wonder/affect/etc.”

    might as well add to the list “social connections/politics/romance/etc.”


    December 21, 2009 at 5:47 pm

  9. hmmm.


    December 21, 2009 at 8:01 pm

  10. Kate

    December 21, 2009 at 9:54 pm

  11. ugh, third comment in a row, and i apologize if anyone is getting email notifications of these besides gerry, but that post was almost entirely a quotation of the gawker post. though it does have new comments to read!


    December 21, 2009 at 9:57 pm

  12. Hey Gerry, great job! I’ve read a dozen or so commentaries on Avatar (which I saw last night), and find them mostly as dull and obvious as the rotten film itself. Luckily, I had read a number of them before going to see the film, so my expectations were appropriately low.

    Your post, characteristically, is by far the best of the bunch, and helps to bring out the most interesting dimension of the film – the conflict of warcraft, birds against planes, genre battle writ large. Since today’s fiction and reality are already science fiction and science reality, it’s actually quite powerful when, as you say, we exit the filmic fantasy into a world of victorious realism.


    December 22, 2009 at 12:47 am

  13. […] Mark C Newton on Thoughts on 2009. Randy Susan Meyers on Books on Writing. Gerry Canavan on Avatar and the War of Genres. Win Scott Eckert on Amazon fails again–and contributors to anthologies get punished. OF Blog […]

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  15. […] Žižek begins with something not entirely unlike my “war of genres” analysis of Avatar and goes someplace pretty interesting with it: At the same time as Avatar is making money all […]

  16. […] provides his own terrific roundup of quotes and links related to the film, with an outstanding blog post that moves swiftly through its racial, gender, and religious problems before developing an […]

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