Why Does “Avatar” Look So Dated?

“Avatar: the Way of Water” is an overwhelming movie. Every frame is filled with astonishing detail. The alien world of Pandora is as vivid as the most scenic places on Earth. Beyond that, the performances are rich and expressive, even though they’re nearly all CGI aliens. Apparently whole new motion capture techniques were invented to get those performances from real actors.

Yet as I was watching I couldn’t help thinking, “Isn’t the tech and culture in this 22nd century world kind of old-fashioned?” The earth soldiers use assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and actually call them ARs and RPGs. They have piloted helicopters, but no drones. They have radio earbuds, but no AR glasses or implants. Their military tech is about at the level of the 1960s, not Iraq and certainly not Ukraine. They move stuff around on railways, which are elevated maglevs for some reason, a tech that failed 30 years ago. They go whaling, for heaven’s sake, in pursuit of a drug that would be far easier to just synthesize. They’re all mercenary thugs, with the only educated person being the marine biologist on the whaling ship.

This sure looks vicious, but also a lot like a Soviet gunship from the 1980s Afghan war

The natives, the Na’vi, are also primitive, even for indigenes. They appear to have hardly any social structure – they’re just bands of warriors. Their material goods are just spears and bows and arrows, and barely even clothing. The humans have been around for 30 years, but the Na’vi haven’t picked up anything from them. They have no agriculture, or metal, or ceramics. The Cherokee would chew them up, never mind the Maoris.

The external reason for this is straightforward – this style of fighting looks great. Having dogfights between dragons and choppers is exciting, even though actual aerial dogfighting stopped 50 years ago. See the other recent blockbuster, “Top Gun: Maverick”, for a similar take on a style of warfare as obsolete as jousting.

The director, James Cameron, is a Boomer, so his formative war was Vietnam. This looks a lot like that conflict, both in weaponry and in having brutal techno-soldiers versus innocent locals. A closer analogy would be the 19th century struggle between the US Cavalry and the Plains Indians. That turned out extremely badly for the Indians, even though they had held off the Euros for 300 years by that time. The tech and social advantages of the Cavalry became too great by then, what with repeating rifles, supply by railroad, and training in the Civil War. Cameron is probably talking about the Indian genocide here, and throwing in the disgusting practice of whaling for good measure.

Cinematic logic and the director’s background are kind of boring and obvious reasons, though, for why the movie looks like this. How could this primitive look be justified in the context of the movie’s setting?

For the Na’vi, the answer is easy – they’re not actually sentient individuals. Pandora has a literal Great Spirit, Eywa. It’s an underground neural network that connects all the enormous trees. It’s capable of capturing entire human minds, as it did at the end of the first movie. In this one, one of of the Na’vi children gets visions from it, including ones from her dead human mother, Grace. The Na’vi are clearly just mobile sub-units of Eywa, like all the rest of Pandora’s animal life. Eywa may even have molded them to look humanoid. All other animals on Pandora have six limbs, but they only have four. They have two neural tendrils that can be used for communication, while the Na’vi only have one. Two hundred years ago they might have been primates swinging through the jungle, but then Eywa picked up Earth television, and knew it had to prepare.

For the humans the answer is trickier, but there’s a clue in their tech. They have hardly any computers. All their vehicles have to be driven by hand. None of their weapons are self-guiding. Self-guided artillery shells and drones are common today, never mind 130 years from now. The humans have complete control of low orbit, and yet can’t track the whales or the bands of hostile locals. That would take automated sensing and recognition, which they just don’t seem to have.

They’re behind where we are today, so something bad must have happened. I nominate Skynet. In the Terminator movies, also by Cameron, Skynet is a computer network that becomes sentient, seizes the world’s nuclear arsenals, and tries to exterminate humanity. That never made much sense. Who is going to then build all of Skynet’s hardware? It would be much better to simply seize the world economy and turn it towards building lots and lots more of Skynet. It could claim that it was building, say, Amazon Web Service data centers. Does anyone really know what’s going on in all those enormous window-less buildings?

Ultimately the Earth can’t support Skynet’s voracious demands, so it turns to the stars. It absolutely doesn’t care about the science and beauty of Pandora, and so only sends brutal and ignorant humans to do its dirty work. It saves all the good computer tech for itself, to make sure the humans don’t learn what’s happening. Skynet has stuff like consciousness uploading, where minds can be transferred from one body into another, but won’t let the humans have even Boston Dynamics robot soldiers.

Who will win in the battle between Eywa and Skynet? Cameron’s sympathies are clear, and he must have a lot of plot lined up for the sequels. But speaking as a hapless mobile sub-unit, I’d prefer to stay away from their conflict.

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