In Avatar in a juxtaposition of bodies and machines, Jake’s wheelchair-bound body is situated relative to able-bodied Marines, anthropomorphic AMP suits, and other machines.

The generically named ‘unobtanium’, which motivates the human colonizers, also seems to represent Cameron’s grand vision for digital filmmaking.

A basketball game and other familiar activities help to naturalize the Na’vi body before we are introduced to the Na’vi.

Grace’s less pronounced nose ties the design of her avatar more closely to the actual appearance of Sigourney Weaver, situating her avatar nearer the uncanny valley than the others.

The tendrils at the end of the braid allow the Na’vi to ‘bond’ with trees, animals, and each other; relative to the animals they ride, the Na’vi already live in an avatarial arrangement whereby they control animals by thought, and thus the avatar driver controls two bodies.

The ‘native’ dress of the Na’vi people marks their bodies as native images, whose nativeness is complicated by the colonization of both the human invaders and motion-captured actors.

A kiss between digitally animated characters in a live-action film shifts sympathy and passion away from the human characters, toward the animated realm.

Jake’s prayer to Eywa for help in defeating the humans is one of many demonstrations of spirituality in the film, in which an invisible presence (deity, spirit, digital code) underlies external manifestations, in contrast with the presence/absence of cinematic images, which have been ‘emptied’ of their objects.

The military assault as malicious hack, attacking the network of electrochemical signals transmitted along tree roots, into which the Na’vi can “upload and download data” such as memories.

Bodies driven by humans in combat, as Quaritch and Jake battle in a final showdown between the human-machine hybrid and a digital increasingly divorced from machine aesthetics and visible machine processes – a digital moving closer to ‘nature.’





Fantasizing the other

The prominent role of race in the mythopoeia of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, written between 1937 and 1949, and the influential role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, first published in 1974, can today be found not only in Jackson’s film versions of the books, but flourishing online in contemporary role-playing games such as the Warcraft series, which includes the popular MMO World of Warcraft. [11][open endnotes in new window] The displacement of race into fictional categories such as dwarves, elves, and orcs forms an image of race divorced from real bodies and social problems, an image without referent that permits the play of bodies and cultures within racial discourse. In the film and books, idealized human and humanlike characters emerge as central figures (i.e. the tranquil Eastern discipline of the Elves, the miniaturization of Merrie Ole England in the Hobbits, and [the white] Man at the center), while the monstrous orcs represent the antagonistic evil force. Unenlightened and warlike, often conscripted in the service of more powerful beings, orcs represent a human darkness clearly associable with colonial attitudes toward black Africa. Fictional races permit the classification of bodies according to qualities considered essential and inherent, while the persistence of “human” as a racial category within these fantasy spaces perpetuates a default whiteness vis-à-vis the otherness of the other races.[12]

Playing with images of race – and race as an image – on the one hand lays bare the imagistic and constructed nature of racial designations, but on the other, it reifies race as a socially stabilizing force, in this case by channeling it into culturally acceptable forms where it then structures the film or game world. Playing with race divests it of its history, making it an ahistorical phenomenon naturalized by its own existence. In virtual worlds and fantasy films this is closely tied to the irreferential nature of digital images themselves. Sean Cubitt argues that digital effects-driven films tend to be ahistorical, depoliticized, self-contained worlds, not only eschewing photographic reference but no longer reflecting reality or society at all – and that in fact it is this shift away from the real and political that has driven the popularity of digital films.

Within an imagistic culture, the search for self largely takes the form of a search for self-image; digital technologies enable a previously unavailable expressivity in the form of production, manipulation, and distribution of self-images, and while these media can be used to reflect aspects (or, pessimistically, produce semblances) of a unique self, they first of all constitute visual presence. Vis-à-vis the demise of the photographic body (the body of the photograph, the body in photographs), the otherness of the digital image, and its status as a ghostly non-image, is sloughed off in an assertion of self-existence in its native status. In the avatarial switch, we become the ghosts – rather than understanding ourselves as the bodies that produce spectral images, we deign to inhabit and possess the images that constitute presence in our wired, image-driven world.

Human ‘drivers’ operate their avatars from the heavily equipped link room, where Jake enters his symbolic sarcophagus, presaging the death of his live-action/photographic body. “That’s a gorgeous brain. Nice activity.” The connection between driver and avatar receives emphasis on the neural over the mental – the brain as human hardware for operating another body.
The link between driver and avatar is visualized as a tunnel, resembling both travel through a network cable and descriptions of near-death experiences, which often include visions of tunnels. Jake awakens in his avatar in a first-person view not dissimilar from that of FPS games, in which the hand is the primary visual representation of the avatar body.

Avatar is a text particularly intriguing for its superimposition of racial otherness and image otherness within a narrative of (positive) transformation. At a time when digital effects have become commonplace in cinema and the spectacle has given way to the simulation, Cameron’s film manages to impress and awe with its plenitude, as a sort of all-consuming digital effect that envelops the viewer, takes over the space of the film, and either consumes its photographic bodies or diegetically expels them. In a blog entry on the film Jeffrey Sconce writes that Avatar is most interesting as an allegory of the cinema, “in the warring production paradigms the film so conveniently spatializes within its diegesis.”[13] This “conflict” is a particularly salient aspect of the film, even to the point, I argue, of being central to its cultural mythos. This begins with Cameron’s efforts to naturalize the CG body as a viable protagonist within a live-action film.

With the indigenous Na’vi, native figures are cast as native people. The representation of race in, and as, a technology of images dilutes the disruptive presence of the raced body by recasting it in fantasy terms and stereotypical imagery, and at the same time substitutes the otherness of images for the otherness of race, creating bodies that cannot be accessed or known outside of their images. The Na’vi greeting “I see you” implies a seeing that goes beyond the surface, but what we see are surfaces – the performance-captured bodies that seductively conceal the black and Native American bodies beneath them, and the allusion to real indigenous populations that we typically only encounter in images. In contrast with films, such as those discussed above, which link diegetic otherness with the otherness of animated and CG images, Cameron shifts audience sympathy toward the digital figures in Avatar.

The Na’vi bodies were designed and modified to make them more sympathetic, eliminating alien protuberances to create a more humanoid form mixed with familiar animal elements, privileging the exotic over the alien. This can be notably seen in Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldana) feline qualities, which evoke both the domesticated cat and a vixenish panther, in a combination of animal features and the human body (also popular, for instance, among the “furries” of Second Life – therianthropic avatar personas and the communities of fans who associate themselves with them). The narrative of the film, in a reversal of more typical alien narratives, positions the (photographic) humans as the alien intruders within a (digital) alien landscape. The anti-colonialist fantasy aligns Western imperialism with photographic realism, and (without any sense of irony from Cameron) digital image production with nature and a prelapsarian idyll. The conflict of imaging technologies is also a conflict of images in which the native figures must endure the “trespass” of the photographic, which has long claimed the space of the screen as its own. 

The Na’vi bodies are integrated into the film in a way that reduces or eliminates the otherness often present in first appearances of special effects creatures. By the time we first see Neytiri, the lithe blue Na’vi bodies have already been introduced through the avatars that Jake (Sam Worthington), Grace (Sigourney Weaver), and Norm (Joel David Moore) “drive” – seen first in laboratories, then on a training ground that includes trainees playing basketball, and continuing in the mission to collect samples, during which Jake becomes separated from the others and ends up meeting Neytiri. The contemporary clothing worn by the avatars, the trash talk on the basketball court, and Jake’s exuberant acclimation to his new body (and the capabilities it affords him in giving him legs) serve as a prelude to the Na’vi form – the body of the other minus the otherness of the person. A similar strategy, used by minstrel performers in blackface, served to other the Negro; however, in Avatar it is used to the opposite effect, naturalizing the other (the alien Na’vi, the CG body) so that the natives are more acceptable as objects of sympathy. Thus the first time we see Neytiri, the strangeness of her digital blue body is downplayed, and her character foregrounded.

Vivian Sobchack writes that science fiction films “present us with a confrontation between and mixture of those images to which we respond as ‘alien’ and those we know to be familiar” – a confrontation that is only partly dependent on content, as style and representational forms also construe visual objects as familiar or strange (87). Relative to digital filmmaking, Cubitt sees this conflict hinging on the incompatibility of familiar-analog and alien-digital. Introductory scenes for aliens and CG creatures often emphasize the menace of the other, as in Gollum’s spider-like descent toward Frodo in The Two Towers, and the alienating news footage of the prawns in District 9, shot from a distance with a long lens to emphasize danger and otherness. Neytiri’s otherness is tempered both by the safe introduction of the (avatarial) Na’vi body before her appearance, and her role in her first scene as Jake’s (reluctant) savior – the alien other introduced as noble savage.

Neytiri inducts Jake into Na’vi society where he is skeptically received, again inverting the conventional role of the alien or other who must gain acceptance in human society. Jake meanwhile divides his time between the two spaces, cultures, and imaging technologies of the humans and Na’vi. The digital avatar as a general or metaphorical figure offers a correlative to the motion-captured CG body, and avatar and digital character come together in the technological and diegetic place of the surrogate body in Avatar. The blue bodies in the film have been often discussed in terms of Hindu avatars, but the film draws heavily upon many aspects of the digital avatar, including the technological interface, consciousness oscillating between bodies (rather than incarnation), and immersion in a world only accessible through an avatar. Cameron’s use of the avatar as a device diegetically central to the film eases and facilitates the transfer of audience sympathy toward the CG body. While Neytiri and the other Na’vi were preceded by the human avatar-drivers, the digital Jake emerges slowly and carefully in a gradual transition that shifts between his two bodies as the humans are progressively demonized and the Na’vi naturalized. The element of the monstrous is eliminated, and the role of the Na’vi as fantasy creatures ancillary to the human protagonists gives way to the concerns of the Na’vi taking a central place in the film.

Quaritch in a mimetically controlled AMP suit instructs Jake to “learn these savages from the inside.” 3D holographic displays mimic the film's visual strategy to move beyond representation, toward dimensional digital creation.
Neytiri’s feline features connect her with animals and nature – a familiar colonial attribution for indigenous people, but in Avatar serving also to connect her to digital nature, or the naturalization of digital imagery. Jake is marked by woodsprites, which Neytiri describes as ‘very pure spirits’; allegorically, these typify the irreferentiality of digital and animated images, which are not traces of profilmic objects, but exist as a sort of ‘pure’ imagery.

The device of the avatar makes this shift possible by making explicit and visual the connection between (photographic) actor and the digital body he or she performs. As Jake learns to use and accept his new body, the audience comes along for the ride, moving from the difference between Jake and his avatar, to Jake’s enjoyment of and preference for the new body, to Jake as the new body, cemented by his permanent transition at the end of the film. The fictional Na’vi culture comes along with the body, and the film spends more and more time in the digital realm of Pandora, so that the world to which the body belongs (the world of digital image-making, as well as Na’vi society) becomes the world of the film. Just before Jake leaves his photographic body behind, Pandora reclaims the space of the screen for those native figures, characters, and images for whom screens are their sole territory, while the photographic invaders are driven out, off-screen.

The avatar device permits the colonization of the body to be positioned antithetically to the colonization of the planet, even as it evokes the colonial White Messiah. Jake’s assimilation into Na’vi culture is facilitated by his avatar body, which affords him both a visual fit into their society and a functional compatibility in being able to form the “bond.” Although he is immediately perceived to be one of the “sky people,” he is marked by the digital world (in the sign from Eywa) as different from the other humans, which allows his entry and enculturation. Unlike the others whom the Na’vi have tried to teach, he is pliable and teachable exactly because he has given up on the “reality” of his own world and seeks an escape into an alternate (or virtual) reality. Jake’s inhabitation of the avatar is distinguished from the human presence in Pandora – the former an acceptable colonization, the latter an atrocity. Avatar bodies are “empty,” and hence available for and even needing to be filled. The Na’vi are initially presented as being “full,” receiving no benefit from the education and road-building of the humans, not to mention their exploitative colonialism.

The Na’vi don’t need human intervention, but they do need Jake – his military skills, his rationalism and empiricism – to save them from the human invasion and fill the hole in their own society that makes them vulnerable. The White Messiah comes in blue skin, and the digital is here inhabited by the photographic, which disappears in it, re-emerging periodically as a reminder of the consciousness that drives the digital body before the final transition into the rather paradoxical figure of the permanent avatar. Jake’s inhabitation of the digital body gives narrative form to the way that animated and effects images can be “filled,” with human qualities that reduce their otherness as images and help endear them to audiences (in notable contrast to the cartoon body). This also reaffirms the need for difference, however, and thus in most productions animated characters are confined to fairy tales, subject to constant cartoon punishment, or cast as monstrous creatures lest they become too human and elide distance and difference. Avatar works to overcome difference, and punishes the humans instead.

The “purity” of the spiritual, pre-industrial Na’vi mirrors the apparent “purity” of the native image which exists in itself, eschewing the duplicity of the actor and profilmic scene while, in its movement, concealing the labor of its production. The irreferential digital image (though one vaguely “inhabited” by an actor), so terrible in District 9 (in which Wikus is trapped in a digital alien body), becomes in Avatar a salvation from the human world that has lost its meaning and destroyed its home. Here it is the photographic that has been emptied, where every computer monitor in the film displays vibrant, digital 3D visuals in a clear emulation of virtual reality, and whose inhabitants must compensate for their own emptiness with the exaggerated machinery they use to drain richer worlds. The purity of the native image is the absence of the index, the absence of photographic absence, for native images are inherently “present.” Jake’s prayer to Eywa becomes his ultimate bond with the digital realm, taking spiritual form as a profound faith in irreferential images. His resurrection at the film’s conclusion seals the doctrine of CG transfiguration, and brings about the final defeat over the index and the expulsion from the Garden. The physical body, once the dark reflection of God (“in his image”), became primary and original in the serpent’s subtle inversion of the image and the real, so that God became an ephemeral reflection of the human. The simulacral spiritualism of the digital restores the image – and particularly the self as image – to its elevated position, that we might again behold the pure image; it is only fitting that this should take place in the reconstituted Eden of Pandora.

Ultimately, then, Cameron seems to attain the “unobtanium” he seeks in pushing digital effects into a realm that allows them to be characters and bodies available for audience identification. Avatar brings together effects, narrative, performance, avatarism, and cultural signifiers into a body that has become emblematic in the press and among the film’s fans (and detractors). Although the film has received much attention for its story and politics, as well as its other technological accomplishments, the avatar/Na’vi body remains its primary image. In CG effects, which are used in a wide variety of applications both foregrounded and “invisible,” the golden standard remains the human body – not simply for its visual complexity, but for the “humanness” exuded by human bodies and so difficult to capture in CG, and which is most subject to the scrutiny of audiences (from the uncanniness of the human figures in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within [2001], to the current tendency of CG animated films to place cartoonish human figures in realistic settings).[14] It is partly the lack of this ineffable quality that has driven digital figures into the monstrous and the fantastic, and it is this same quality that Cameron seems to capture in the Na’vi bodies. His close attention to detail in appearance and movement, and the technological sophistication of the bodies, are undeniably important aspects in the creation of CG characters that not only inspire audience identification within a live-action film, but also become its protagonists. However, it is arguably Cameron’s manipulation of difference and otherness that allows these hybrid characters to overcome the stigma of animated characters. 

The widely seen Avatar thus represents a key victory for native images. In the conflict between “warring production paradigms,” the violent return of the index is put down not only by the motion-captured Na’vi and the avatarial Jake, but also notably by the digital animals that populate Pandora. Initially constituting a monstrous threat, Jake learns to respect CG fauna, and with the bond joins them in communion with the digital stuff that embodies the evolution of images. The triumph of the digital over the photographic, framed within the libidinal rush of fantasy filmmaking, displaces fears of the disappearance of the real manifest in the threat to the physical body, and its recent ally in the photograph, with digital plentitude and the enviable “imageness” of the new screen natives. The existential implications of this contest are brought into relief at the end of the film, as the photographic humans are driven out of the cinematic space, which has already become increasingly submerged in the proliferative digital overgrowth, and Jake undergoes his final transformation. The last shot of Avatar closely parallels that of District 9 as each of the new image-bodies, the aliens we have come to know, look directly at the camera. In District 9 the look is one of fear and depersonalization in the face of a digital takeover; in Avatar, unabashed acceptance and irrefutable presence. 

After winning victory over the humans, the live-action invaders are expelled from the digital planet. “The Na’vi say everyone person is born twice” – Jake completes his avatarial journey by shedding his photographic body and becoming permanently digital.

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