Episode 77: Avatar – Are We Human, or Are We Panther?

The Overthinkers tackle James Cameron’s Avatar.

Matthew Wrather hosts with Peter Fenzel, Ryan Sheely, and Jordan Stokes to overthink James Cameron’s Avatar, from the visuals to the narrative to the cat boobies to the political message.

Want new episodes of the Overthinking It Podcast to download automatically? Subscribe in iTunes! (Or grab the podcast RSS feed directly.)

Tell us what you think! Leave a comment, use the contact form, email us or call 20-EAT-LOG-01—that’s (203) 285-6401.

Download Episode 77 (MP3)

10 Comments on “Episode 77: Avatar – Are We Human, or Are We Panther?”

  1. josh #

    Great podcast. You had me at “Air Bud”. Granted, that was near the end, but still.

    Would love to see an essay on Avatar’s rejection of Cartesian duality.

    Any thoughts on how or why technophiles like Cameron and Lucas tie their most mystical elements to some material phenomenon? The mitichlorians in Star Wars were probably the biggest subversion of the idea of The Force possible. Similarly Avatar kinda starts with the “we are all connected” stuff which you think is expressing some deep insight about the nature of reality, until you find out that they actually are literally connected, with cables.

    Many have remarked on the contradiction inherent in Cameron/Lucas trying to defend “spirit” (for lack of a better term) with the use of technology. Has anyone called them out on their total cynicism even just within the terms of their own stories? They ultimately don’t believe in spirit and keep tying it to meat, but keep making movies about the triumph of spirit because they know that’s what gets asses in seats. As a side note, its also impressively self-aggrandizing. The Force turns out to be a genetic gift. So personal worth is tied to biological accident. In Avatar the value of persons is tied to computing power. Or at least one’s ability to interface with the biggest computer. Sounds a lot like…Cameron himself.

    Rereading mlawski’s comment on the Mighty Whitey Problem I’m impressed with her prescience. Spot on. Although I’ll attempt a meagre defense: Even though Jake is the bestest cat warrior evar, the thing that really saves the day at the end is the God Tree. Granted, if Mighty Whitey hadn’t talked to the God Tree, the God Tree wouldn’t have saved the day. But he only talked to it because he was desperate and ignorant about the God Tree “not working that way”, not because he was super clever and thinking creatively.

    With only Mighty Whitey, they would have all just died a more noble death. But God Tree actually saves the day. And Mighty Whitey has to “believe” in the power of God Tree for that to happen. So he has to change his worldview. So maybe the Navi world actually does beat the human world on its own terms sort of.

    But he doesn’t really because basically he’s talking to God Tree on the “fuck it, maybe it’ll work”, Pascal’s wager type of faith. And since God Tree is a big computer its really not different enough from his presumably materialist metaphysics to constitute a spiritual transformation. And God Tree couldn’t have saved the day without Sigourney’s human knowledge. So nevermind. Hey, I tried.

    What a mess. Even worse at the end when Quaritch asks “what is it like to betray your race?” Even though he should have said “species”. So now Quaritch recognizes the personhood of the Navi? And his whole line about fighting terror with terror was supposed to be commentary, but was just downright stupid since the Navi hadn’t attacked the humans at all. The whole critique of the War on Terror thing is nonsensical because…

    …oh why am I bothering?

    This movie actually made me less hopeful that there’s any chance of stopping the Quaritches and Ribisi’s of the world. At least without a sentient AI opposing them. We need Skynet to save the Earth! Whaaaaa….??????

    The pictures were pretty though.


  2. pFranks #

    i couldn’t see it yet, but did they explained why or how can mountains F**KING FLY.


  3. josh #

    @pFranks: haha. no, they didn’t. although it is supposed to be a lower-gravity world.


  4. RiderIon #

    On the topic of the aliens being too human, I’d like to point to Bioware’s Mass Effect as an example of sci-fi that touches both end of the spectrum. You have the asari which are essentially blue women with some head ridges a la the low end sci-fi shows like Star Trek and Stargate. Then we have a middle ground with the krogan, the salarians and the turians which are humanoid in that the have 1 head, two eyes, two arms and two legs. However, they’re each a different enough from humans and the asari to make them alien enough. Then we have the hanar which are essentially 8 foot tall jellyfish. I think Wrather would appreciate the them most as it shows you that sci-fi writers are willing to go to the extreme of the spectrum as to what we expect in our aliens.


  5. stokes OTI Staff #

    I feel like video game designers have a leg up on people working in film and tv, because they don’t have to worry about getting an actor into the rubber suit. Like, take Star Control II. That’s an old, old game, but it has some deeply alien aliens in it.


  6. tony-with-an-i #

    Just a quick point.

    Instead of seeing mecha vs avatar as mechanical vs scientific use of a different body I would say this: mecha vs avatar vs navis’ braid as mechanical vs scientific vs biological ways to connect with other beings.

    And also about the pacing of the movie: the first act was okay, there wasn’t enough conflict in the middle and there was too much “boring” stuff between the first bombing and the big fight in the end.

    By boring I mean that we all know that the big fight is coming, why can’t we get there already?


  7. Megan from Lombard #

    I actually had some interest in seeing the movie until I listened to the podcast and now have little/no desire to see it (that and the fact that by the time I’ll get around to seeing it the movie’ll be out of the major theatres).

    On the topic of who’s actually pulling the strings, has anyone on the panel/site read ‘Jennifer Government’ by Max Barry? It’s a book about consumerism and how in the future corporations run life and everything is based on consumerism( your last name is where you work, insider trading is legal, you belong to one “points” system or another) and after reading it I can see that we’re heading in that direction.


  8. Gab #

    Finally had time to listen, yay!

    I haven’t looked for it, but I bet somebody, somewhere, has made an “Eye of the Tiger” remix of the training montage.

    Can’t remember who “didn’t buy” that the Navi win in the end. Would it have been easier on you if the movie had stopped during the “Gathering the Clans” (a la _Braveheart_- fodder for another remix, no doubt) montage? I actually thought it was about to end there, myself.

    My feeling on the exotic-hippie-native aspect (and coming from an American Indian perspective, mind you, so take it with a grain of salt if you so choose) is that yeah, he was trying to make it positive, but it was done so in a very stereotypical and yes, dehumanizing fashion. A stereotype, even a positive one, is still a stereotype. Cliché is cliché. They *were* too human not to seem racist; and I also noticed the “betray your RACE” (emphasis mine) moment (mentioned by josh ^up there^), to the point where I actually scoffed out loud in the theater (a reaction I am, honestly, somewhat ashamed of, and for more than one reason). I could ramble more myself, but there is actually a very thoughtful piece on Cinematical that expresses exactly what I was thinking when I left the theater (and I must give the author lots of props, since as far as I can tell, she isn’t even descended from Indian country):


    I was thinking about Ribisi’s character, and I wonder if perhaps he isn’t *quite* a cutout because he realizes that, indeed, if he did resign his position, his company would stick someone else willing to blow up the Navi in his place. What if he took that and thought, “Well, better me than someone else,” kind of playing the martyr so nobody else would get that huge moral stain?

    The last bits at the end of the podcast, the little extra… That’s fodder for a lot of talk. So when they ride the horses, not the flying ones, is that rape, too? Since the Big Dog bows and lets Neytiri ride him/her (can’t tell the sex…), does that mean it’s totally consensual, nay, even submissive?

    And yeah, mlawski totally gets a bonus next month, right? I mean, day-um, gal…


Add a Comment