James Cameron’s Avatar really is as good and as awful as everyone says it is. The visuals are eye-melting and captivating. The plot is hackneyed. Charlie Jane Anders, Annalee Newitz, and George Dvorsky cover nearly every point worth covering and strike the perfect tones in their review/critiques. All three, however, left out one problem with the film that drove me crazy: the sentient ecology of Pandora. Spoilers follow.

Both Dvorsky and Anders briefly mention this curious aspect of the Pandora ecology:

Dvorsky – Okay, some credit where credit is due. Given that the story is, whether I liked it or not, a Gaianist treatise, I did appreciate how Cameron achieved the sense of interconnectedness between the characters and Pandora. The ability of the Na’vi to link with other animals in a symbiotic fusion was very cool, as was the ability to upload conscious thought through the very fabric of the planet.

Anders – The Na’Vi are animalistic and in tune with nature, and they’re good-hearted in direct proportion to their simplicity. They worship a mystical world-mind and its messengers, magic happy tree spirits that connect them to their ancestors — through their magical native-people hair. (Their tree/ancestor religion turns out to have a scientific basis, to be fair.)

Early on in the very long Avatar, we are given clues that everything on Pandora is literally connected. All the animals possess neural connection jacks (appendages that end in tiny, tentacle-like exposed nerve endings) that allow Na’vi to mentally command their mounts, effectively domesticating a creature in a matter of seconds. The plant life is shown to have similar properties, both by the actions of the Na’vi (who connect their exposed dendrites to dangling vines) and by the observations of human scientists. The human scientists, lead by Dr. Grace “Sigourney Weaver” Augustine, suspect that all the plant life on Pandora is connected the way neurons in the brain are connected, with certain trees acting as ganglion or memory banks. Over the course of the film, we are confronted with the possibility that the flora is involved in a kind of biological cloud-computing.

If the system were merely passive, something the Na’vi were taking advantage of, Cameron’s neglect his own ecological neurology concept would be forgivable. But it isn’t. Pandora is possessed by a spirit, Eywa, that exists within this planetary network. Grace, before her death, acknowledges the reality of Eywa. Furthermore, Eywa demonstrates some form of active decision making, in that she must be asked to defend herself at the behest of the Na’vi and then answers that request in the form of total ecological rebellion against the human incursion. So not only is Pandora a planet-wide neural network, it is also, apparently sentient.

This thing is called a "Hammerhead Titanothere"

And yet the biggest payoffs we get from a sentient planet in the film are hammer-headed rhinos bashing through exo-suits (an admittedly awesome payoff) and a mind-transfer from paraplegic human body to lithe, Na’vi body for Jake Sully. I am aware of how cool those two things are, but when they are done by a sentient planet with an external, independent (?) biosphere, one begins to realize things are able to get way more awesome than hammer-headed forest rhinos fighting robots (I can’t believe I wrote that).

Imagine the following: halfway through Avatar, Dr. Grace Augustine and her forgettable team of boffin-stereotypes discover that just as the plants on Pandora exhibit features similar to a nervous system, the animal life exhibit features similar to an immune system. Perhaps they discover that, in one of the Pandoran creatures, the immune system works not by identifying and destroying the invading disease, like a human’s; instead a Pandoran immune system captures and reprograms individual disease agents and turns them into double-agents. Just a few double agents weaken the disease sufficiently to allow the immune system to obliterate it. No antibodies, but a few conversion agents get the job done. Instead of a disease giving a creature an auto-immune disorder, the creature’s immune system gives the disease an auto-pathogenic disorder. Extrapolate that to the Na’vi and their benevolent acceptance of just a few humans into the fold. What if Jake Sully’s entire magical conversion experience was really an immune response from Pandora itself?

And that’s only one crazy idea I came up with just now. How a sentient ecological system would respond to an invading species or what kind of thoughts it would think are questions that I wanted Avatar to ask, but it didn’t. My only consolation is that James Cameron is definitely going to make a sequel and when he made a sequel to Terminator, it was better than the original in almost every way. Keep your fingers crossed for Avatar 2: The Eye of Eywa.

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