Saturday, March 28, 2015

At last! No more Atlas!

Let's conclude this series about sci fi films that exaggerate human error, in order to make a polemical point. 

Exaggeration-of-error was understandable in the otherwise wonderful movie, Avatar. (Though it still should have been done even-better.)  Now let's sweep all the way to the opposite end of the quality spectrum -- from the sublime to the absurd.

== Okay, we had to == 

It was required and behooved. I had no choice. We rented… and watched… Who is John Galt? Part III of ATLAS SHRUGGED.

Oh, oh my, how did they manage?  This episode was spectacularly worse than the other two, proving that there are no limits to execrable. 

Oh sure, I took into account that this was the portion of the book wherein Ayn Rand launches into a 60 page speech, one that has helped lure two generations of angry, young-white underachievers away from any sensible (Smithian) version of libertarianism – (based on flat-open-fair creative competition and rooted in actual human nature) - toward a life hating rant-fest of ingrate solipsism.

In fact, though, the movie version of John Galt’s speech was the best part of this awful trudge, wherein dialogue, acting and even the sets sank below minimum standards for a high school film project. Distilled to a few minutes, at least the speech had a decent stab at doing what Vonnegut aimed for in the vastly more intelligent and effective libertarian-satire tale "Harrison Bergeron." 

Indeed, if we ever did make a society as deliberately debased and wretched as the strawman People's Republic of America portrayed in Rand's book and film, well, I might have said a few of the same things Galt growled, in this hyper digested version.

But that's the point, eh? As I said, in my earlier essay about Atlas Shrugged (one that's more carefully parsed and analytical, revealing parallels between Rand and her mentor, Karl Marx), the strawman notion that Ayn Rand and her followers erect in their minds – an oligarchic-socialist cesspool that punishes every innovator and steals everything from creators - is hallucinatory, bearing only slivers of glancing overlap with the USA of her time...

...and even less with today's era of Elon Musk and Google and Richard Branson and Whole Foods and Uber and university-spinoff startups and privately-invented self-driving cars.

Never once do Randians address the question: "compared to what?" Across 6000 years of awful rule by feudal lord-cheaters, can they point to a society that was friendlier to inventive entrepreneurs than this one? Or a society that ever engendered so many libertarians?  Oh, I am all for enhancing some pro-liberty-and-competitive-ingenuity trends. But to assume that this narrow renaissance should be hated, when the alternative attractor state of feudal repression looms from all sides? Oy, silly guys.

But I've shown all that, already.  Moreover, in the case of A.S. Part III, there's much worse – so much worse - than just piling up resentment based on (mostly) delusional grievances.

== Do these folks even pay attention? ==

For example, the makers of this film don’t even try to soft-pedal the volcanically blatant evil of Rand's top hero - John Galt - who demands that the outer civilization "get out of my way," and stop aggressing his ubermensch Nietzchean demigods... while he’s hypocritically cheating and aggressing like mad! Committing nearly all of the deadly destruction in the story, blowing up critical infrastructure, consigning millions to starvation and darkness with acts of sabotage on a scale that would make Al Qaeda and every terrorist group in history envious. All of them, combined.

Note, this isn’t soft-pedaled or disguised, but avowed openly, in the movie's very first scene! The elite of Galt’s Gulch cannot win on their virtues, so they murderously cheat.

(Indeed, if you know a thing about iron cantilever construction, the Taggert Bridge could have fallen - in the time allotted - in no other way.)

Then there is the blatant way that Ayn Rand imitates -- in the Passion of The Galt -- the dramatic arc of Jesus, from his betrayal by an apostle, to the Temptation, to the Torment and Crucifixion... followed by a kind of resurrection. Hey, copy and crib from the best.  That's what she did with Marx.

I just had to smile when the director and producer of this film version went out of their way to include a minor, one page scene from the book, during Dagny's tour of Galt's Gulch, when she speaks to a lower-caste baker woman who happens to have... (shudder)... procreated!  The only character to have or even mention children in Ayn Rand's entire, vast canon -- indeed across all of her works about the "life-oriented philosophy." 

I had to wonder, was this obscure scene included because for years I've rubbed Randian noses in the utterly impotent sterility of their uber-demigod role models? Several dozen archetype "ideal humans." Not one of whom, at any point or at any level, engages in the most basic human activity: bearing and raising children. 

Not even the somewhat admirable - or at least respect-worthy - architect, Howard Roark, from The Fountainhead, can spare a glance toward the future. How very un-darwinian, for social darwinists.

(Research call: can anyone cite a previous Rand critic who pointed this out? It is so glaring, there has to be! I just want to know.)

== Rise of the looter-manipulators ==

Oh, ironies abound! Like the cameo appearances of Sean Hannity and Glen Beck in this spew. Part and parcel of the central Fox narrative – they admit that libertarians have every reason to be disgusted with the Republican Party, which has never, ever, ever done a single thing to help small business, or innovators, or flat-open-fair capitalism.

But… but Goppers say libertarian-sounding things! And doesn’t that matter far more than substance or statistics or other sciencey things like facts? Or actual, actual outcomes?  So come on home, every election (you fools)! And ignore the plain truth: that markets and innovation, productivity and small business, deregulation and every other thing that libertarians should care about actually do far, far better under democrats. 

Indeed, democrats have deregulated ten times as many industries as republicans have ever even tried to do.

Such facts would matter to a Smithian libertarian, who might have the guts to face information-contrary-to-narrative. But Randians? They want the world of feudal oligarchs that Fox is striving to bring back. (Come on guys, admit it.)

== The core question ==

Oh, but here's the crux, guys.

Why have you not already built Galt's Gulch? 

Seriously, it’s been ages.  Republicans spent 6 years (2001-2007) controlling every branch of government including the courts, and have had a pretty strong lock since, especially in half the states, where the Randian rhetoric has risen ever-stronger. But... well... do you see any pro-competition measures from them?

All right, forget the GOP – they are in the pockets of oligarchic “looters” who Rand portrays as vastly worse than mere unionized-socialists. (Though you will always, always, always trudge back to vote republican, won’t you, dope?) 

No, even if you toss aside the undead were-elephant, we are left demanding of you why you haven’t built your paradise already, the way Ayn Rand's heroic John Galt insisted you should?  By yourselves?

There are plenty of places, all over the U.S., where some money and a bunch of inventive uber-guys could take over a county and start running it according to Randian principles. Maybe not quite as “liberated” as Galt’s Gulch - perhaps having to obey eco-laws, for example, and paying taxes (big deal), but still pretty far along the spectrum!  (Heck, wasn’t there an idea, years back, for libertarians to move to New Hampshire and take over? Idaho would seem a better bet, though….)

Seasteading Institute
Even more so in some capital-hungry small nation. I could name a dozen where, backed by real investment, a colony could set up to start doing what they please, unfettered by all those compromises made by the People’s Republic of America. So why haven’t you put your money and effort where your mouth is?

Only Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman and a few of their pals have done this with some tepid sincerity, slipping a tiny sliver of actual money into Seasteading, sketching grand images of what it might look like, if someone else were to create new principalities with sovereign rights somewhere out on the open ocean.  I offered some advice as to how to do it right… advice that was not appreciated, even though it was sincere and practical and covered bases that any non-hallucinatory seasteading project would have to, if it meant business. 

But never mind, I re-cycled the ideas and showed the way-to-do-it in Existence. Indeed, the only places where Randians have actually stood up to emulate Galt and openly out-compete those dreary mixed-economy compromisers are... in fiction.

== Which is beside the point ==

What is the point?

If fact, I do agree with these fellows on one crucial matter. The Randians are right to fear a particular failure mode: that “looters” – mostly established oligarchs but also socialists – might wreck the flat-open-fair civilization that brings creative miracles into the world, through the marvelous fecundity of flat-open-fair competition. 

Neither oligarchs nor socialists like competition (though the former lie, and claim that they do.) So yes, that kind of enemy is worth guarding against!  Indeed, that is one set of directions where-from a collapse of our enlightenment revolution might come.  

What they neglect is to notice there are others, indeed a myriad ways that cheaters could ruin our brilliant oasis in the bleak horror of human history. 

Others are right, too, in their own fixated notions of where Big Brother might come from! Our renaissance could fall to religious zealots, faceless corporations, manipulative media, dogmatic movements, Crichtonian science-gone-mad scenarios, Matrix-style machine gods… or ingrate-solipsist demigods who rationalize that sabotaging civilization is the best option, practically and morally.

If only we weren’t so all-fired eager to declare "only my side’s enemies are dangerous!" In fact, you paranoids out there… you’re all partly right!  And, by dismissing the notion that your own side’s elites might also be dangerous, you are also insanely wrong.

Me? I find appealing the much more nuanced and generous libertarianism of Adam Smith, who liberals and more subtle libertarians should both embrace for his incrementalist care to nurture the best of competition, while evading the relentless cheating that ruined competition for 60 centuries.

But this here screed of mine started out about an awful, awful movie, based on a tedious, life-hating book, written by a hysterical Russian émigré and acolyte of Karl Marx. And despite this cult’s rare glimmers of on-target criticism, its potential to change a damned thing was cauterized, long ago, by fanatic over-simplification.

Except perhaps for Peter Thiel, the correlation of Randianism with impotent under-achievement is just too blatant for us to ignore any longer, or to take seriously and the preachings of its maniacal guru.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Perils of Pandora IV: An unofficial, speculative addendum

Okay, I am almost finished here.

It is a tribute to James Cameron that he provokes careful, even critical, appraisals of his work, which I tried to do in my riffs on Avatar. In Part III, I offered one proposal for a three-minute tweak -- possibly in a director's cut  -- that might repair the core, moral heart of this great-but-flawed film. 

Will that happen? When it snows on Pandora! ;-)
I also alluded to some other, even more far-out-meddlesome ideas. Just for fun, in this unofficial addendum... one writer having fun, playing in another fellow's sand box... why don't we look at a concept that isn't even my own! It is yet another, larger tweak that could both surprise audiences and really make them think, suggested by one of my readers -- Matthew Bell:

  "All the amazing aspects of Pandora, all the magical exaggerations, along with its strangely un-biological biology and the behavior of its natives can be explained if you assume that the planet is a post-singularity world."
Now, some of you may be unfamiliar with the "singularity" as it was first laid out by the great science fiction author Vernor Vinge, later now pushed hard by Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near. This notion -- much discussed among the world's nerds -- is both simple yet profoundly intricate.  It takes the fact that human skill and knowledge are accumulating at not just an accelerating rate -- but the rate of acceleration is itself accelerating.
The most familiar sign of this acceleration is Moore's Law, under which computing power doubles every 18 months or so. At this pace, it should be possible to emulate human intelligence in a box, within 20 years or so. Then that artificially intelligent (AI) box can design a new, improved one, which designs the next and so on, in a sequence that rapidly takes off. In mathematical terms, a "singularity" is what happens when such trends accelerate beyond any ability to predict outcomes. All bets are off, when everything you took for granted has changed.
Now, a number of authors (including me) have tried to picture what life might be like on the other side of a singularity (see my novella Stones of Significance). If the huge brains we create turn out to be monstrous and unsympathetic, they may try to stomp us, as in the Teminator and Matrix flicks. Or they could become loyal assistants to human ambition, helping us span the starways, as in Luc Besson's Lucy or in Her, or in the Culture novels of Iain Banks. There are so many possible ways that this transition might work out – and I cover a number of them in my novel, Existence.
But one is especially enticing when it comes to Avatar. The possibility -- suggested by Matthew Bell, but really kind of an obvious possible riff, and subsequently proposed by others -- is that we and our super-mind computer friends might use immense new "godlike" powers the way today's teenagers use the spectacular computers in their homes. 

                  To play.

Okay then, picture this…
…the Na'vi are dashing about and flying through Pandora's vivid, colorful forests as kids -- young minds -- immersed in a game. Their true selves are rooted in the planetary mainframe, which manifests at the surface as a white tree. (How very Tolkien-esque!) This could explain why the biology and ethnography and all other features seem exaggerated for effect, including the internet-like rapid communion network that laces everything from the animals to the Tree of Life. Including the way Pandoran creatures can plug-in.
If we play along with this post-singularity notion a bit, we realize that Avatar isn’t Dances with Wolves at all! It’s more like Star Trek’s “Errand of Mercy.” In this famous example of a frequent plot in SF, humans encounter a "primitive folk," and don’t understand them. Over time, it is revealed the primitives are actually vastly more advanced people who have decided to live in a rustic manner, either for their own reasons, or in order not to reveal the truth to young races out exploring. In that one memorable episode, the Organians are energy beings who get the Federation and Klingons to stop fighting. One of the recent Star Trek films had a similar theme.
Let's go a bit with this notion that Pandora's biosphere (and "unobtainium") turn out to be the result of a post-singularity super-civilization. Then the story that we all got to watch in Avatar might conceal one of three sub-plots.

1) Visiting humans were the primitives, in technology as well as culture! The "war" was a test, which those who sided with the Na'vi passed on our behalf. It ends with the soldiers/scientists "going back to school." 

 2) The Na'vi -- helped by Jake -- win the war. They then hit pause and evaluate the terrific game they all just played… only to be horrified! To learn that humans who are killed stay dead!  (Their own dead just reboot.) "Why didn't you tell us you were mortal?" they cry out in angst. Though also impressed that human warriors would be willing to stake so much on the line, in battle.

3) The great simulation of Pandora, while beautiful, has a deeper purpose. A real foe is coming.  This is training. And humanity is now embroiled, like it or not.

 As Matthew Bell put it: "The Colonel’s bomb mission was never going to succeed. The only question was in what subtle way would it be averted. Eywa, or should I say AI-wa, had it worked out well in advance, and sent the seeds to tag Jake Sully so that he could play this role, and thus both find somebody who would be human enough to arrange expulsion of the humans, and also join the Na’vi and fight for their side. Indeed, you could say that Jake was AI-wa’s avatar, or at least instrument, as is clear from the very start."

Yipe! That may be drifting way too far, even for me. After all, despite the many elements that he borrowed, Avatar is James Cameron's story to tell. These are just fannish daydreams, then. My own readers send them to me all the time.  

If Mr. Cameron reacts as I do, then he feels flattered and pleased.  I am always a sucker to talk story, and then try to find some new story, that breaks with the cliches.

And on that final note, let us bid fond farewell to Planet Pandora and its very very very tall... Until we all great the great pleasure of visiting again, anon.


Return to Part I: Perils of Pandora: Why Avatar (Tragically) Fails to Make us Better

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Perils of Pandora, Part III: Can Avatar be 'fixed?'

Following on my earlier analyses of James Cameron's Avatar, please let me reiterate that I actually quite like the film!  What's not to like about such a feast for the eye that's also packed with terrific action, and that tries so hard for goodness?  Well, as I have shown, it is that last part where Mr. Cameron inadvertently fails, delivering instead a blow to our confidence that we can become better people. That we can make a better civilization,

And here we ponder... 

== Is there a way out? ==

In fact, I believe Avatar's moral flaws could be fixed with only minimal alterations! Maybe five minutes worth of footage, added to a "director's cut," might alleviate many of the problems outlined in my earlier postings Part I: Why Avatar (Tragically) Fails to Make us Better and Part II: How James Cameron can set things right. 

Just five minutes.

Shall I give it a try?
Picture the beginning, as a crippled Jake Sully arrives at the human mining colony exploiting riches from Pandora -- riches that Earth desperately needs, in order to restore its former health. But there are tradeoffs, including an unscrupulous company and a suspicious-dangerous native population.

Only now, let's suppose that Earth civilization is not run by imbeciles who are ignoring history. Instead, our descendants run a generally moral society that established rules for decent treatment of the natives, to be enforced by an honorable governor and her staff.

Have I wrecked Avatar? Not really. Bear with me!
Let's posit that the Company chafes under the governor's restrictions, constantly conniving and conspiring to get around them. To provoke the Na'vi into a war they cannot win, exactly what happened repeatedly, in the American West.
Imagine in the film's first ten minutes, while Jake is literally getting his legs, we see hopeful signs. A meeting is underway, on one of the floating islands, where the good colonial governor is about to sign a treaty with moderates among the Na'vi...
Um, now there's a twist. Moderates among the Na’vi?
Why, I am talking about those among the natives who are guardedly curious, cautiously friendly, determined to preserve their world(!) but also willing to compromise and let Earthlings have resources they need to save their own distant planet. More like the Cherokee and Iroquois, these are the tribesmen who support Sigourney Weaver's school, though they demand Earth send children to Pandora who might be young and flexible enough to absorb Na'vi lessons, too.

            "No, you may not go anywhere near our trees!" they explain.
            "Give us drones and such to help us enforce this!
            “On the other hand, we sure find your spaceships fascinating.
            "And can we try to see if this avatar machine of yours works both ways? So we can feel what it's like to be human?"
All of this could be telescoped into just three minutes of screen time! Things look hopeful... too hopeful! And so the audience knows what to expect.
The conference island blows up!
The governor and her aides -- except Sigourney -- are dead. So are the Na'vi moderates.
The Company guy rubs his hands. Earth won't investigate too hard if he has a mountain-high stack of unobtanium waiting, when the next ship arrives.
At which point... the whole rest of the film can ensue almost exactly as-is!
Obstinate-immature company stooges versus obstinate-immature remnant Na'vi. And we root for the Na'vi, of course!  Because if we must choose between two packs of obstinate-immature jerks, let’s side with the underdogs who are defending their homes.
Only, while the rest of the movie proceeds, it is with this idea planted in the viewers' minds:

            It's a tragedy. We should have taken more precautions, sending more of our best and fewer of our worst. But at least there were real efforts to avoid this, by future humans who might do better next time, learning from this mistake.
            Now let's root for Jake and Neytiri and the obstinate wing of the Na'vi. Because obstinacy is called for now!
And none of this says that all of our descendants will be evil, all of the time.
Only slightly altering its lessons on tolerance and diversity and ecological responsibility, this would dramatically adjust the guilt trip so that it offers a patina of hopefulness, rather than utter despair for despicable humanity.
The moral would be keep trying instead of give up.
== A side note on scale ==

One of the most amazingly silly things about most sci fi is the assumption that a planet, is about the same size as -- say -- Cuba.

That's about the range that one might expect a Na'vi riding a dragon might tell the tale about how his tribe beat the snot out of alien invaders.  Heck, let it be Texas! No matter. 

The point is that all the company really has to do is relocate to another part of Pandora, beyond the range of even dragon-riding news-bearers.  That's an inconvenience that could instead be an asset to good storytellers.  But we have to learn to think scale.
== A Futile Hope ==

Okay... back to my idea about those three-minutes at the beginning, to make Avatar a realistic and effective lesson, and not a berating ruiner-of-confidence.  So. Do I expect James Cameron to make this tweak?  

Of course not. All I can do is carp from the sidelines that "this coulda made it better"...
…and shrug as others attribute it all to jealousy.  Ah well.
Is that proposal the only alternative occurring to me, when I ponder this immensely entertaining and thought-provoking film? Of course not. There are scads of ideas, including a post-singularity riff that could explain so much of why Planet Pandora is the way it is, offering several double-twist, ironic surprises about humanity's interaction with the Na'vi.
Perhaps -- purely for entertainment -- I'll muse on these for you, another time.
None of which matters except for this key point...
... which is to plead with you. Look around yourself at the current flood of film dystopias and novels that wallow in apocalypse.
Hey, I enjoy a good fall-of-civilization tale and I have written some, myself.  But the current obsession-craze is just tedious. Heck, Avatar positively fizzes with subtlety and optimism, by comparison!  
Which makes our conclusion all the more painful. For James Cameron’s grand sci-fi epic could have spread confident determination to seek self-improvement – as individuals and as a civilization -- while delivering entertainment and mind-blowing vision to billions.  It tried hard to do that and came so-close!
Alas, instead, Avatar wound up undermining our confidence in humanity's ability to do that very thing. It did not have to turn out this way.


What follows in Part IV: A Speculative Addendum is not a formal part of my article, but just a writer having fun, playing in another fellow's sand box...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Perils of Pandora, Part II: how James Cameron might still set things right

Last time, I went on a bit, describing some logical faults in a motion picture that -- in fact -- I deeply admire. After all, criticism can be well-intended. And clearly, James Cameron intended his epic film -- Avatar -- to be much more than just an orgy of visual delights. He meant both to provoke discussion and to teach some valuable lessons about our modern, self-critical, technological and grudgingly-progressive society. His intentions were good...

...and (I am forced to assert, alas) the lessons were utterly blown.

But we'll get back to Avatar in a moment.  First, let's step back and study the trap that snared this brilliant director. And clearly, it's not his fault. Because this snare catches almost everyone.

== Civilization (automatically) has to suck! ==

Let's make this even more general. Most Hollywood films (and nearly all dramatic novels) share one central tenet: society doesn't work.

It seems an almost-biblical injunction.

“Thou shalt never show democratic-western civilization functioning well. Especially, its institutions must never be of any help solving the protagonist’s problems.”

In The Idiot Plot: Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools, I describe a core reason for this relentlessly consistent rule. But here's the short of it: Your job as a storyteller, above all, is to get the audience rooting for your heroes by keeping them in pulse-pounding jeopardy for 90 minutes of film -- or 500 pages of a novel -- and that central chore is easiest to achieve if you make sure they never get any useful help from boring professionals.

Suppose our movie's protagonist, the poor schlemiel who stumbles upon a terrible danger-scenario in scene one, were to dial 9-1-1 for help... and help came! Skilled pros rushing in, taking charge, doing their jobs well and honestly, saying "we'll take it from here, sir."

It's the very thing we'd want in real life.

But in an action flick? What a buzz kill! Hence the iron rule for storytellers: you must separate your protagonist from meaningful help!

Think about that. A functioning, decent, competent civilization is a drama killer -- because violent drama is the very last thing that taxpaying citizens want in real life!  So we spend heaps of money hiring savvy pros who use diplomacy to avoid war. We pay taxes to create skilled armed forces whose main job is to deter and thus not to fight. We deploy highly trained police who swiftly answer 9-1-1 calls and chase bad guys. Then we hire attorneys to watch the police, and regulators to watch the attorneys, and activists to watch regulators. (And I have a book about this process, called The Transparent Society.)  

Every hour of every day, emergency professionals stand ready to leap into action because we want most of the danger removed from daily life...

 ... but we don't want it sucked out of our movies and novels! People yearn to have it both ways. They demand that all the cogs and gears of responsible civilization keep turning... but we also want to fantasize that none of it works!

There is, in fact, a sliding scale of how competent our civil servants are allowed to be, in proportion to the power of the villains in a film.

At one extreme -- say, Independence Day -- the heavies are so bad-ass that even the U.S. government and military are allowed to be both good and competent! So they can act as spear-carrier backups to the one or two main heroes.  (When else do you see that happening?)

The Idiot Plot syndrome extends to anyone who might have prevented the problem. They must be either stupid, incompetent or in cahoots with the villains.

Take every Michael Crichton book or film, revolving around some horrible misuse of science. In each case, the calamitous new technology was developed in secret. Why? Because the normal give and take of open scientific transparency would swiftly eliminate nearly all of the dopey failure modes that drive every Crichtonian plot.

("Hey, Jurassic Park dudes. Try this. Only make HERBIVORES first! A billion people will pay to come. And you’ll only have to pay for the lofty-elegiacal half of the John Williams musical score. Not the scary half.") 

You can see why common sense is avoided, at all cost, in Hollywood films.

But does it have to be avoided so completely?

== Our neighbors all go ba-a-a-a! ==

Oh, and this extends beyond public institutions. We also love to fantasize that our neighbors are all fools. How many westerns portrayed the town-full-of-cowards – when in fact nearly every frontier village was packed with Civil War veterans? Why do no brave bystanders rush to tackle the Joker’s henchmen, despite the fact that almost every mass shooter in real life has been brought down that way? (And such heroes thwarted the hijackers of flight UA93, the only action that worked on that awful day - 9/11.) 

Again, this rule has one core purpose, to keep the protagonist in peril by denying her or him storykilling help -- but it also appeals to the viewer's own vanity! Don't we all love picturing ourselves as the savvy ones, surrounded by a myriad neighbors who are clueless as sheep?

There are many help-suppression tricks, and not all of them are cheats! In fact, you must do it, to some extent - as a director or action writer - in order to keep your heroes in jeopardy**. But is it too much to ask you directors out there to do this imaginatively, without preaching that “society and its institutions and citizens are all automatically stupid?”  It has happened, now and then! Films like Ransom, The Fugitive, Sleeping with the Enemy, and so on come up with clever reasons why the heroine cannot call for skilled help from society or neighbors.

A good storyteller will come up with clever, non-cliché ways to keep the hero in jeopardy despite being a member of a pretty decent civilization.  One that's trying to get better all the time. (Or as I depict in The Smartest Mob.) 

The way that citizen James Cameron would personally count on a decent civilization to come rushing to his aid, should he ever need help. Even though he went to great pains, portraying that civilization as vile, in Avatar.

== Avatar did more harm than good ==

Bearing all of that in mind, let's return to my list of ways that this wonderful epic and visual feast - alas - missed its intended goal... coaxing us to be better people.

7) The dramatic situation conveyed by Avatar is both lazy and poisonous… making it typical.

Yes the "dances with others" plot-line works. It takes some of the best aspects of Joseph Campbell’s classic hero's journey, weaves in a love story, hammers the brave-underdogs theme and then does the neo-western thing -- fascination with the alien, the different and foreignAll very well and good. But we’ve seen that when fascination-with-other becomes hatred-of-us, we tread dangerous ground.

Especially when you recall point #2. The major difference between Avatar's scenario and other dances-with tales -- its setting in the future. Our future. The corrupt westerners committing these crimes aren't our benighted ancestors, who -- barely out of the caves -- had a lot to learn. Now it's our descendants doing all the awful, deliberate crimes. Obstinately refusing to see parallels in their own history or to learn from past tragedies.

And heckfire -- it could happen! 

In the world of Avatar, it seems our best efforts did not bring forth new generations raised in good intentions and avoiding mistakes of the past. The human improvability that James Cameron himself represents – a civilization that listened to Ghandi and Martin Luther King and that tries every day to overcome our Cro Magnon flaws -- went no further in the next two centuries.

Doesn't that mean that Avatar itself – and guilt-tripping movies like it -- failed to make those centuries any better? Bummer.

Again, I say all this in all friendship. We must speed up the pace by which we humans improve our ethics, compassion and commitment to responsible care... especially of this magnificent planet! So why does Avatar fail?

Because those who would be persuaded by simple guilt trips already have been converted by past guilt trips... from Soylent Green and Silent Running to Fern Gully and the works of Ursula K. LeGuin.  Guilt flagellations and "we're-all-so-awful" lamentations will not sway the remainder who wallow in blithe shortsightedness. They recognize a finger-wagging lecture and - smirking - turn it off.

Meanwhile, alas, Avatar proclaims, that our children will not learn, despite all we say and do. Our vileness is rooted in inherent human nature.  The best thing is for humanity fail.  And heroic humans ought to help ensure that happens.

Is there a way out?   Next we'll explore some ways that Mr. Cameron might redeem all this, and actually deliver on his good intentions.


** Do movies ever evade the "idiot plot" and show the hero's neighbors NOT as sheep?  But as  brave and decent citizens?  I can think of one worthy and consistent exception. All five of the Spiderman movies kept faith with a delightfully unique tradition. For most of each two-hour film, Spiderman saves New Yorkers. But there is always a thrilling moment when New Yorkers return the favor. When they stand up and save Spidey. Delightful.

Continue to Part III: Can Avatar be 'fixed'?

or return to Part I: Perils of Pandora: How Avatar (tragically) fails to make us better