Movie released: 2009 | Set in: 2154
|Alien contact||very low||at any time|
|Fast interstellar travel||low?||2070+|
Historical fable placed in futuristic setting.
The future depicted is incoherent, with the culture and values of the past and present, information technology of the near-future, and advanced interstellar travel.
The visuals are great, but the story is a highly familiar mix of “Dances with Wolves” (and other tales about Native Americans including “Pocahontas”) with a standard ecological warning. The needlessly black-and-white nature of the issues and characters makes the plot even more predictable.
The aliens are not very alien (see below) and little in human society or technology has changed in 150 years.
The blue Na’vi are alien only in name; their culture, language, and ways of thinking are all within the human range — director Cameron may owe royalties to the Lakota — and their bodies are highly similar to ours as well.
The intriguing exception to this is that life on the moon Pandora is truly all connected: their Gaia is real. Plants form a vast network through their roots, and animals, including the Na’vi, can link in via biological interfaces. There are hints that the moon’s ecosystem may form a kind of brain, perhaps even an entity with awareness.
This is curiously plausible. A web of organisms might evolve to use light signals rather than sound or pheromones, for instance, and there is no limit to the kind of network they might form. This network might indeed aggregate into some kind of sentience.
See the note on alien life for more on the topic.
Military technology in the film is closely akin to today’s, with helicopter gunships and guns firing unguided projectiles. Perhaps this can be explained by the low level of opposition the humans expect; they may be using basic weaponry because they think it will be sufficient. Real military tech is likely to advance far beyond what we see in the movie, especially if wars remain common, as they seem to be in this future.
Powered battlesuits are the one area of innovation, but aren’t terribly likely. Assistive exoskeletons — now under development — might be useful, but large armored fighting suits would be highly vulnerable even on today’s battlefields. They could not be armored to withstand RPGs or heavy machineguns, and Iron Man noted another problem: usable portable power sources are lacking. Power packs might be developed, but armor is not likely to stay ahead of precision weapons.
Perhaps the battlesuits are deployed to Pandora because of its low gravity and the primitive weapons used by the Na’vi.
Biotechnology is extremely advanced, and people can create human-alien hybrids compatible both with both our own information technology and Pandora’s networked ecology.
The ability to interpret neural activity is rising, and even being used for rudimentary brain control of machine systems, so is at least imaginable that complex monitoring of the mind may be possible some decades from now.
The use of the hybrid avatars adds two layers of challenge: the “operators” brain signals are transmitted to the avatar brain and made compatible with an alien brain that must differ significantly from human brains in structure and function.
Transmission of activity to any other brain may be highly difficult, given that each brain is unique, and lack of information about Na’vi brains seems daunting in this instance.
Not much seems to have changed: there are still greedy corporations, wars on Earth, and people deprived of basic medical care based on cost. Sully has been fighting wars in Venezuela and Nigeria, conflicts which sound suspiciously like those considered plausible in the early 21st century.
Perhaps Cameron wanted it this way, so he could comment more readily on the past and present. Or he may simply not have thought about this facet much — that Sully’s brother was killed in a mugging for the “paper in his wallet” suggests this: we’re going to be using paper in wallets in the mid-22nd century?
The humans act like European colonialists circa 1900, and treat the Na’vi in ways that would be considered a moral scandal in all but a few countries today. This defies real trends toward a more peaceful and gentle world, but there are hints at an explanation: Earth’s environment has been destroyed, and humanity may be deprived and desperate, pushing people back down the ladder of social development.