‘Avatar’ neglects a few interesting ethical questions

NOTE: This post contains a few slight SPOILERS about “Avatar.” I’m sure you can guess the plot of the movie based on the trailers, but if you’re scared at all, you may want to refrain.

Is it OK to take over another thing's body if it's comatose whenever you don't? The huge IMAX-projected blue hand twitched as the alien drifted in a giant, fluid-filled incubation tube, and my very first thought was, “So – is it alive?”

Such a question is never addressed in the whole of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” which I finally got around to seeing this week. A quick rundown for those of you who are living in Afghani caves or have been in hypersleep for the last few months:

“Avatar” takes place on a distant planet called Pandora, which has lots of multi-legged animals; huge deposits of some kind of awesome, possibly floating mineral (which will remain nameless due to its incredibly stupid name); and an indigenous population of 10- or 12-foot-tall aliens called the Na’vi.

In order to study, deal with, educate or subvert the Na’vi (the motivation changes with the wind) as well as to easily breathe in the Pandoran atmosphere, human nerds have cooked up half-human, half-alien hybrids called avatars. These avatars function generally as living robots. A human lays down in a machine and, through magical technology, has her consciousness or neural connections or something transmitted to the avatar, effectively becoming it. The connection is not unlike what’s seen in “The Matrix.”

The avatars are genetically aligned with their human “drivers.” The DNA used to make them is specific to the person who uses the avatar. Once linked in to an avatar, it seems the only way to pull a person back out is to hit a special, shiny red button (this is apparently dangerous) or to go to sleep. When an avatar sleeps, the person is automatically kicked back out, and the avatar essentially looks like it is sleeping. It’s completely unresponsive and is more or less dead or comatose until the driver links back in with it.

But it twitches, right? The avatar twitches when you’re not in it, and when you’re in it, it breathes, and it seems to sleep, and it lives, and it can die – we see it happen at one point. It’s not a robot. It’s biological.

So is it alive? And if it’s alive, does that make it okay to just jack into a computer and take it over and use it, and use it up?

My biggest problem with “Avatar” was that while science fiction as a genre routinely seeks out and takes on such ethical quandaries, this film dodges the vast majority of them. Primarily, the movie’s message is environmental – the main character finds himself drawn to the natives’ life of living without technology in harmony with the planet around them, and the bad-guy humans are trying to strip and destroy the Pandoran forests, out of, what else, greed.

Robin Williams' stunning CGI alter-ego in "Avatar." Fine, fair enough. Given the societal climate right now, the stage was set for a “Fern Gully” remake and Cameron’s the right guy to make this movie, as the box office figures are bearing out.

But what about all the other interesting questions “Avatar” could answer?

For instance, the eventual heartless-military-guys-attacking-poor-aliens plot turn leads to several human characters standing with the aliens, but when it all goes to war, there’s a great deal of random soldiers getting just as massacred as the aliens had been.

So it’s war, and I get that, but the question of being a “human race traitor” – and in many ways, that’s what main character Jake Sully becomes – is never really addressed. It’s more thrown around as an epithet. Obviously Jake’s taking the right position in the film (mass murder always being the wrong position). But for the common human on Pandora, it’s the decisions (and propaganda) of a few honchos that leads a lot of people to their deaths.

Greed and murder are apparently the only things 99% of humanity is capable of in Cameron's film. Cameron’s movie never has Jake wrestling with the idea of killing his former comrades. His lot is cast with the Na’vi and everyone else is cannon fodder. But isn’t it as big an issue that to save one people, you’re killing another, most of whom are just misinformed?

Meantime, those unabridged jackasses behind the slash-and-burn blow-up-the-savages game plan have only the faintest glimmer of conscience (Giovanni Ribisi gives us one frown. Thanks, guy.) before they go on a tech-fueled killing spree. Yeah, I know what we’re getting at here thematically, but we couldn’t see a couple corporate/military lackies who might actually be, you know, human? Not everyone is a corrupt jerk who thinks only about money and golf – can we maybe ask the question of ourselves of what values we have as a people? Could the characters of this movie ask that question before they start indiscriminately killing one another?

Where “Avatar” pushes the envelope visually, it plays it safe in story and commentary. For a movie that harps on the value of life, there’s a lot of life that gets almost no value. A scenario such as that of “Pandorahontus” gives us an opportunity to think about these questions and our values. Is it really okay to use virtual reality to ride around in a living robot, even if that robot has no mind of its own?

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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