Saturday, January 20, 2018

Alien Minds: Avatar and Making Aliens Human


In 2009, director James Cameron finally brought a long-term project to fruition, with the release of the science fiction film Avatar, and audiences were introduced to a species of blue-skinned alien giants called the na’vi. Through the course of the film, the human protagonist, Jake (Sam Worthington) transitions to being one of these aliens, first physically and then socially, through the film’s namesake and devotes himself to protecting the planet from voracious humans.

According to fan theory, Avatar is a remake of Fern Gully
According to fan theory, Avatar is a remake of Fern Gully

Critics of the derivative elements of Avatar‘s storyline have compared it to other environmentally-focused films, such as Dances with Wolves or Fern Gully with aliens. The na’vi are a vital part of Avatar‘s environmentalist argument and also an example of how any story can best ease an audience into identifying with nonhuman characters. The na’vi are highly relatable because of several reasons, including that the audience can see themselves in these aliens. There are three big, design-oriented reasons the na’vi were successful in not raising the hackles of the overwhelmingly human audience despite the broad message of the film being that na’vi are good and humans are bad:

  1. The na’vi aren’t all that weird looking.
  2. The na’vi society is attractive despite being primitive.
  3. The na’vi can be differentiated as individuals on a few different levels.

In the case of the na’vi’s physiology, Meredith Woerner wrote an io9 article in 2009 about how James Cameron apparently fought to keep the na’vi from becoming too human during the design phase for the film. How successful he was is up for debate, as, if anything, the na’vi are out of place among the denizens of their world, Pandora. Where the animals of Pandora have six limbs and lack noses in favor of gills, the na’vi have two arms and two legs (and a tail). Na’vi also have noses. Why is this?

In Woerner’s article, a quote from one of the design team tells us at every stage of design of the film’s alien heroine, the team asked, “Well, would you want to do it?” Thus gills did not make the cut and the na’vi lost a set of limbs. They became nearly human in shape, except for their physical scale. By making the na’vi look like humans, even physically attractive to humans, the team made them easier to identify with as people. Even in films where voices are given to live animals, such as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, the viewer does not identify the way they do with physically identifiable characters, whether they be human or alien.

As a side note, Homeward Bound has an intended audience of children. That may be how the film was made at all because such a form of storytelling is largely unknown in cinema intended for adults. However, in Avatar the na’vi are identifiable not only as humanoid, but as people in a way that dogs and cats generally are not.  For many viewers a sentient alien is more important than an animal by default. Even the nature-loving na’vi seem to agree with this, as they are willing to take animals under their control into battle, especially at the end of the film during the final conflict.

Na’vi have a language and a society. However strange the language they speak, it shows them to be a species with evolution parallel to humans, and they are even physically capable of speaking English as presented in the film. However primitive their society appears, the na’vi are always shown as understandable beings. The resemblance their culture bears to Native Americans in film may be what led to the widespread comparisons to Dances with Wolves. One of the strengths of the na’vi cultural design is this resonance.

Through the creation of this resonance with a well-known set of tropes, the na’vi become more accessible to the viewer. However, the differences between them and Native Americans on-screen are the most important aspects that set the aliens apart from humanity. The na’vi possess a cluster of nerves that form a structure that resembles a straight braid of hair down their backs. When they connect this nerve cluster to similar structures grown by many species of animal on Pandora, they can communicate with and control those animals. The na’vi are shown throughout the film to use this ability to access steeds for traveling quickly and for fighting.

This ability to control animals is the primary means by which the na’vi rise above a primitive state. However, it also brings a kind of economics to mind. The na’vi have access to a form of labor that requires little investment from them and costs virtually nothing. On the one hand, this means animal labor has little outright value, but their whole society benefits from the use of animals as labor. In Episode 26 of the podcast “Hardcore History” by Dan Carlin, the subject of human slavery is discussed, but an analogy from that episode seems appropriate to this side of the na’vi. “The original labor-saving device is not some technological instrument, it’s another person to do [things] for you.” The na’vi do not enslave each other, but the animals they control make their lives easier, simpler, and less brutal than they would be given the technological level of their society. Most commonly they use this to control steeds.

The human audience of Avatar belongs to the Twenty-First Century, and the very existence of movie theaters and the digital technology that creates the film is a separation from the low-tech aliens of Pandora. The average viewer lives a life of luxury compared to the non-industrial cultures of Earth’s past. The na’vi having the form of convenience provided by their physiology is a way to take something incredible and strange (the ability to mind-control animals) and convert it into a way to ease the audience into understanding the alien characters. The na’vi are certainly able to be differentiated as individuals. In the film, the leader of the Omataciya clan dies and is succeeded by the notable warrior, Tsu-tey, showing the importance of different traits to the clan members. They decide among each other and clearly have opinions of their own.

Cosplayers jumping into the na'vi skin
Cosplayers jumping into the na’vi skin

The na’vi live in an Eden-esque paradise, deadly to humans or, as the protagonist finds out when lost at night, an untrained na’vi, but utopia for the natural born na’vi. Yet they are far from monolithic. A few different worldviews are on display among them, but if the na’vi were only displayed as members of categories, they would not work nearly as well as they do. The na’vi come from several distinct clans, but the film focuses largely one: the Omaticaya. There are divisions in status, as Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) is considered a princess. Rivalries and differences of opinion exist. Lots of variety are presented considering the length of the film. Vitally, the most important na’vi characters change throughout the film. Neytiri falls in love with the protagonist, Jake. Others begin with an even more hostile attitude toward the protagonist, but later come to accept him as one of their own. Change shows them as understandable characters.

The na’vi prove an accessible set of aliens, not only because of direct relationships with existing tropes, but also because of twists on their own strangeness. Mind control goes from strange to natural. Fear changes to understanding. Aliens become increasingly human. The essence of the conflict in Avatar exists in the audience, and the film serves as an argument that people can understand creatures superficially unlike themselves. Similarities between the na’vi and humanity act as catalysts for the transformation of an audience used to seeing the outsider and the alien as evil into one that sees the definition of personhood more broadly.


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