Avatar: ‘A Spectacular World Beyond Imagination’?

One part Matrix, one part Alien, one part thinly-veiled critique of colonization, a fair share of myth and ritual, and a whole lot of CGI, James Cameron’s Avatar is quite a ride, a marvelous 3-D perceptual entanglement with another world. I have elsewhere argued that films, like religions, function to create alternative worlds for those who interact with them. There is the screen/altar which offers a version of a world, and then there are the viewers/practitioners who engage the screen and altar. These new worlds take shape somewhere in the connection between the two; not in the mind-body of the audience members, nor merely “on screen,” but in a negotiable space between.

Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo offers a delightful representation of this negotiable space when the actor named Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps down off the screen and enters the “real world” to hook up with Cecilia (Mia Farrow), one of the movie-goers. Cecilia has gone to the theater to seek relief from her own world, to share in another, perhaps more glamorous and trouble-free world. In Allen’s film, two worlds cross and both characters are altered because of their shared desires that transcend the boundaries of the screen. “Nonetheless,” as I state in my book:

The Purple Rose of Cairo does not let go of the fact that there is a screen in place between Tom and Cecilia. The screen is a border that is crossable, yet there are distinctions between the two sides, for example when Tom enters Cecilia’s world and takes her out for a night on the town and tries to pay for dinner with the fake prop money he has in his pocket. They eventually come to realize they live in two worlds and a permanent connection is impossible. Of course, all this takes place on screen, and not in the real world per se.

The “two worlds” view supposedly collapses in Avatar. The website for the film tells us that viewers are taken “to a spectacular world beyond imagination.” This is an incredible statement. The suggestion is that we, the viewers, no longer think or imagine anything for ourselves. The negotiable space between viewer and film is closed up. The film takes over for us. Like Jake Sully, we just lay there and let the electronic hookups do our work for us, in this case aided by our funky 3-D glasses.

Just as apocalypse is a revealing, leaving nothing left to tell, and no secrets to be had, so does the new film technology promise/threaten to leave us beyond imagination. The media of the film envelops the viewer so that the other world is experienced immediately. The two worlds are conjoined. We are there, on Pandora. The film itself is our avatar.

But of course it isn’t true. The human imagination, rooted in the body, goes far beyond all this. The production and exhibition of Avatar tries to work like the network seen within The Matrix, but all it can do is give us some highly modified sights and sounds. There is no smell here; the popcorn of the person next to me smells strangely out of place while I’m flying in my glasses through Pandora. There is nothing to taste, and ultimately nothing to touch. This doesn’t deny the possible synaesthetic operations that occur (my body does move in response to the viewed images on screen, even though I know it is only an image), but sensually speaking we are a long way from fully-embodied experience-sharing. We are a long way from being “beyond imagination,” and turning ourselves into avatars.