Avatar: fundraising for outer space

With his epic movie Avatar, the American film director James Cameron broke through all sales barriers. In most contexts, the movie is highlighted as an environmentalist allegory, which deals critically with the human exploitation of Earth’s resources and indigenous peoples. Cameron himself does what he can to exploit the film’s fascination in this direction and has become an outspoken environmentalist. The director’s passion for space exploration, however, is less known.

Starstruck

From an early age Cameron was fascinated by space. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey ignited the young boy’s dreams of becoming a movie maker. Cameron has made several science fiction films, of which the Terminator movies are probably best known – but many may also remember The Abyss (1989). In the latter, Cameron combines his fascination with outer space with his passion for deep-sea diving in a sci-fi thriller containing both Cold War conflict and angelic aliens, who act in the role of divine beings that both judge and offer salvation to humanity at the end of the movie. Cameron is an ardent proponent of space exploration and believes it is essential to mobilise people’s imagination to achieve the kind of broad support among the population, which is necessary for big space exploration endeavours. As he graphically put it in a speech to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) in 2005, rockets run on dreams. Cameron is a member of space lobby organisations such as The Mars Society and The Planetary Society, and from 2003 to 2005 he was a member of the NASA Advisory Council. 3D cameras developed by Cameron were supposed to have been mounted on the Mars rover Curiosity – an idea that was, however, scrapped by NASA due to lack of time. At one point Cameron also considered making a movie about an expedition to Mars, a project that has been shelved for now.

Exoplanets

With Avatar, Cameron hit right in the centre of the astronomical revolution that’s rolling off just now. More and more exoplanets – planets in other solar systems than ours – are being identified and catalogued. Presently, the numbers have exceeded 750 and the Kepler satellite telescope appears to be increasing the number on an almost daily basis. Recently, the discovery of exoplanet Kepler 22b created considerable attention around the world. In this connection, the central question was asked once again: are some of these exoplanets abodes of life? It is an issue that is becoming increasingly urgent. Avatar offers a compelling vision of how an exoplanet habouring life could be like.

The Pandora effect

When browsing through www.avatar-forums.com, the official forum for Avatar enthusiasts, one cannot help noticing how powerful a proselytising tool Cameron has created with his epic. Especially by browsing the thread “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora Being Intangible” one can learn about the power of fiction and the degree to which it can affect reality. People in the thread are desperate that Pandora is not a real place, and many are plunged into deep depression over Pandora’s unattainability, a condition which fans have dubbed “the Pandora Effect.” As a result of the Pandora Effect, many feel themselves called to realise the Pandoran Ecotopia on Earth through environmental activism. But some also channel their frustration into dreams of conquering and colonising space – and it cannot go fast enough.

Outer Space Religion

By creating such an effective ‘cognitive dissonance’ between earthbound realities and a heavenly, paradisiacal world, Cameron has created a highly effective recruiting tool. Not only for environmentalism, but also for his other interest: the human conquest of space. As such, Avatar is an exponent for what one might term "Outer Space Religion" and illustrates a fact which tends to be overlooked: that the seeds of great technological and scientific enterprises often are conceived in the minds of creative dreamers with their imagination in interstellar overdrive.

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A version of this blog entry was published on www.videnskab.dk on 5 January 2012.