Having seen Avatar recently, I was struck not only by it’s visual virtuosity , but even more so by what is says about humanity’s moral thinking of these days.
Avatar wasn’t made to promote a social message – Cameron isn’t known for his political activism. He is a gifted movie director with a narrow interest in his trade, and Avatar is Cameron’s exercise in imagination and mastery. What strikes me about the movie is that it’s underlying message is not so much promoted by a liberal agenda, as it reflects the state of our current moral thinking in the West. The fact that the movie was received almost universally warmly, without creating any controversy, despite it’s seemingly harsh view of the humanity of the future, goes to show that it’s message sits well with our internal beliefs and values.
Equality and Universalism
Since the Enlightenment the idea that all men deserve respect and dignity, unevenly but steadily won ground in the Western thinking. Slavery has been slowly abolished, women have been given the right to vote, homosexuality has been decriminalized. Today we live in a world in which racial, sexual and religious prosecution has given away to tolerance. Minorities still endure difficulties , but more so from archaic perceptions (“physicist is an unfeminine profession”) than from actual inequality (a woman can be a physicist, if she wants to).
Avatar signals the latest development of our moral thinking: as long as they seem anthropomorphic, behave rationally (in terms of human logic) and show human emotions, all species (including alien ones) deserve the same freedom and respect, humans do. Even though the creators went a long way to make N’avi noble and likeable, it’s still says something about our ability to empathize with an alien culture. Comparing Avatar’s N’avi with District 9’s “prawns”, shows (unsurprisingly) that it’s easier for us to empathize with aesthetically-beautiful culture whose motives we understand than with an alien society that has a complicated social hierarchy and unattractive looks.
Mind vs. Body
Through the movie the protagonist’s mind is shared by two bodies. It constantly shifts from controlling the body of human marine to that of a young N’avi warrior. We receive without hesitation the fact that it is the same person that inhabits these bodies. And that means that in our technological age, we believe that our personality is not defined nor limited by the human body, but rather resides solely in the mind, which can be copied and transferred . In a way, this is a return to the christian dichotomy of the body and the soul. But while christian thought dictates that the body is impure and sinful, our thinking regards it simply as a dumb shell that can be substituted, or even done without. The ideas of cyberpunk, virtual reality and mind uploading have apparently prepared us to accept this line of thought.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that we totally disregard the body – face is the last remnant of our attachment of the personality to the body. That’s why the creators had to make N’avi face somewhat similar to it’s human counterpart.
Avatar’s ecological theme shows that ecological sensitivity lies in the heart of the Western consensus of today. Surely it doesn’t mean that we are all tree-huggers, far from it. But it does say something about our level of awareness of the issue. If in the 70’s Dune’s ecological message was breaking new ground , Avatar’s reflection on the subject lies in the mainstream.
Hollywood’s treatment of these subjects is obviously superficial, but never the less it is useful as a mirror for our state of moral thinking. And it indicates that despite a natural skepticism we all share, our technological progress is accompanied by a moral one.