Friday, February 19, 2010

Why Avatar Is Apocalypse Now Again

Why Avatar Is Apocalypse Now

I saw the new sensation in film in the new video game-like 3-D medium, so after watching Avatar I was trying to think of the film that it reminded me of the most, and what came to mind was Apocalypse Now. In Apocalypse Now a kind of lone but skilled outcast captain whose best days seem behind him is sent on a mission far beyond the lines of combat in Vietnam (itself a kind of faraway mysterious land for us Americans) where he encounters a people who appear to us as very uncivilized and mysterious. The movie frames it as though he is sent on the mission by his superiors who don’t appear to have an actual military reason for the mission, but are simply interested holding on to established and apparently dead capitalist power and moral structures that have been not only stretched but broken by the target of the mission, a rogue general living amongst the perceived-to-be less than human savages and apparently being worshipped by them as a god.

It is also set in the midst such apocalyptic chaos that it takes on an other-worldly feel. In order to complete his mission, which is to assassinate the rogue general, the captain slowly takes on a kind of ancient ritual-like mask in action and personality that seems to fit his environment. When the captain finally arrives at the village where the general has been living, he is regarded by the local savages as a kind of alien being. They just step back and clear the way for him as he makes his way to the power center of the village to talk to the captain. He does not complete his mission at this time, and its almost as if its simply because his masking is not complete. After the culmination of this process, the moment when the mask finally comes on and the mission is completed, the captain again makes his way amongst the villagers, this time regarded as the new god, but with a strange similarity to how he was treated when he arrived at the village. He is no longer the man he was when he started the mission. He is something or someone new. But it is not possible to live out his new personhood in its proper context. All there is to do is leave behind this other world, and return to where he came from, a new alien in his new home.

In Avatar a loner and handicapped but very strong willed young ex-marine who gets around in a wheel chair is sent out on a reconnaissance mission amongst the mysterious, uncivilized and perceived-to-be less than human savage aliens. A huge private company of the future has occupied a faraway planet in the hopes of mining some highly valuable underground…stuff. Of course the savage aliens’ village sits right on top of the biggest underground field of this….stuff. So as in Apocalypse Now, the military figure head of this private company who sends the young man on his mission represents some capitalist power structures or forces that are taken to be not only less fixed-in-place than we often take them to be but also a bit frivolous, hypocritical, or even evil.

As in Apocalypse Now, the young man has to put on a kind of mask in order to carry out his mission. When he first arrives on the new planet, he has to wear an actual breathing mask and tank to get from space shuttle to base. So the mining company has developed a technology whereby humans can become their own “avatar”, which is a kind of simulation or replica of the form of the alien beings. The humans can lay inside of a kind of portal that also resembles a coffin. They in a sense go to sleep, and essentially become their avatar, in much the same way that the captain in Apocalypse Now lost himself and became a new person in order to carry out his mission and live amongst the alien people. In fact in Avatar there is a strange scene that parallels the two in Apocalypse Now when the captain first arrives at the village and just after carrying out his mission. The main character’s avatar actually flies in the midst of a sacred gathering of the alien people on the wings of a giant bird that they all regard as in a way sacred. He climbs off its back and just like on Apocalypse Now he walks straight to the power center of the gathering and is regarded in exactly the same way by the alien beings, as a kind of god.

Also as in Apocalypse Now, the young ex marine is no longer his former self at the end of the film. He actually becomes his avatar. Unlike in Apocalypse Now he does not return to his home as a new man, but he stays in his new alien land as a new alien. This is easily accepted, because the whole presumption of the film is that there is no home for him to return to. This is the shift from the early ‘70’s to the present.

Why Apocalypse Now and Avatar Are History

Here you can read the famous Cartography story by Jorge Luis Borges. In the story, the rise of Cartography corresponds historically to the rise of modern science and modernity in general (Cartography actually did become popular with modernity!). The ability and drive to build an exact scientific model or representation of the universe without gaps, whether mental or metaphysical or otherwise (like maybe an actual physical planetary model), and to map all the faraway distant corners of the earth.

In the story, the later generations let the map be destroyed by the elements. This corresponds to postmodernity. Everything has been found, so all that's left is to either loose it or live in fear of loosing it. This is our time, which had seeds much earlier but became popular conversation around the time when Apocalypse Now came out. When things became digital, TV became popular, and everyone could essentially be everywhere at once. The internet was inevitable at this point.

Why Avatar Is Apocalypse Now Again

Here you can read the first part of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. You only have to read the first page to get the idea and to see how it relates to this very blog post. Like Borges' Cartography story, it talks about the decline of the Empire, its ruins. These ruins are the chaos that is the context in which the captain swims in Apocalypse Now, as well as the presumption in Avatar that there is no home to return to. Now the map does not represent the territory, but the map precedes it. Now the avatar does not represent the man who it simulates, but the person is the person of the avatar. Interestingly, the title of chapter 5 of Simulacra and Simulation is….Apocalypse Now.

And remember that in both Apocalypse Now and Avatar the (military) forces that be represent decaying or dying capitalist power structures. In Avatar its even more pointed, because the military is actually a department of a giant private mining company which has gone to mine some crazy material under the surface of some faraway planet in another glaxy. Chapter 7 of Simulacra and Simulation, interestingly, is called “Hypermarket and Hypercommodity.” And again, Simulacra and Simulation begins by talking about our ruins. This is why I say that Avatar is Apocalypse Now again.

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