‘Avatar’ and the War of Genres
(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.