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What mindset are you wearing?

I saw an amazing movie, but found no reviews that saw it my way…

The movie in question is Avatar. If you haven’t seen the movie and want to see it, stop here. Keep your mind open and free of any influence to make your movie experience your own. That’s how I like my movies!

After watching the movie, I read the reviews in The New York Times, the Marginal Utility’s blog on PopMatters called “Avatar and Invisible Republic”, and Jan Karlsbjerg’s blog.

These reviews surprised me because I had not seen the movie from their point of view. For example, I rarely think about the practical side of science fiction movies anymore. I go in to be entertained, and I park any remnants of logic I may have in my brain outside the door. I was aware of gender issues and stereotypes, but I didn’t think about “white man’s guilt”.

What I saw was a message about the environment – about being more in tune with the environment. I saw a holistic view of the environment. That’s what I saw. I know it was a big Hollywood movie. I went in to be entertained. I also enjoyed the visuals, both because I love eye-candy, but also in admiration for the artists telling a story visually and the technology used to do so. I loved the Pandora concept – the making of a language and a history – fleshing out the characters. I had fun at the movies, and the message I took away was the environmental one.

In other words, the perceptions or mindset you have influence your perception of the movie.

You see, I saw it on the last day of the Copenhagen Climate Conference. I had been working as a volunteer at the Fresh Air Center listening to talk about the environment for 10 days. Of course, the environment was on my mind all the time. While I was watching the movie, I was very conscious that people were struggling over the issues in Bella Center. To get to the cinema, I walked past a giant display on the Copenhagen Town Hall Square called Hopenhagen that was set up to involve the general public in debate about the conference.

Inside the cinema, I was getting a message about the environment in a two-and-a-half-hour Hollywood film. That fascinated me. For all the Hollywood bashing that goes on, it does help when important topics are delivered to the general public along with all the glitter. The general public might otherwise miss them. (A quick side note: Jake Scully’s disability is also an issue that I have yet to see anyone mention. Tiny scenes show prejudice toward his need for a wheelchair, and there is the overlying message that health care is available, but not to him in his financial state. I leave it to more qualified bloggers to comment on the important topic of disability and disabled characters in films.)

Having these different mindsets is what is making the discussion so interesting. And we can still agree to disagree! For example, the Eywa concept in Avatar is that we are all interconnected. Here is where I disgree with a comment from the Marginal Utility blog post. I quote:

Weaver’s character tries to counter the already confusing insistence on resource extraction with a non sequitur about how the “real value” of the planet the humans are pillaging lies in the fact that the trees are networked together to form a giant bio-Internet. (Great. The last thing we need is metaphors that glorify and naturalize digital, mediatized interconnectedness.) What is valuable about that? It’s regarded as unimportant by the film’s producers.

This is probably where I am getting some of my key environmental messages. In my opinion, many terms used with computers and digital concepts come from our biological world. Look at our brains. Look at our bodies. Their construction is what we feebly try to emulate in our technology. After all, we don’t think outside the box – we tend to copy what we know! We take the language, the representative systems that we know and apply them to the new things we encounter, and I think that is common. For me, the tree is not a metaphor. It is doing what it has always done. Our digital world just takes its terms from the organic world.

The big corporation just wants “unobtainium”; Weaver sees the true treasure in the way the tree and planet function. I don’t know that the film producers ignore that. Again, from my point of view, I think that is one of their messages to the audience.

I see an environmental message. Others see gender issues. It all comes down to our mindsets. You might say that it is just a movie and will be forgotten in the not-so-distant future, so who cares about mindsets. Lighten up, Karen. Well, I thought it was an interesting example of how we do view the world using our mindsets. Humans are funny creatures that way….

What is crucial is that we acknowledge the existence of these mindsets and stay open to learning from other people’s mindsets, or points of view. Since I started this post, I came across two more reviews, and I found them fascinating because they brought new ideas (to me) to the discussion.

In Kel Smith’s review, he writes

Since James Cameron’s Avatar hit the screens, it seems that there is no lack of discussion about the role virtual worlds play within the greater consciousness. What does this mean for user experience and accessibility professionals?

Then, thanks to @musingvirtual, I came across this Avatar review on why critics are missing the point. This view was new to me because I don’t normally think along these lines, but it made sense and provided yet another fascinating aspect of the film. These two reviews take the entire discussion in a very exciting, and possibly uncharted, direction, which should be very exciting for user experience and accessibility professionals to explore. I feel my mindset being enhanced …

You know, the fact that Avatar is sparking all these conversations is what I find truly valuable. For that, I say congratulations – and thank you – to James Cameron.

PS For those who love spoofs, watch Avatar The Bootleg. 🙂


  1. Jan Karlsbjerg
    Jan Karlsbjerg 10 January 2010

    Hi Karen

    Interesting with other interpretations / takes / mindsets on the movie. Especially the “why critics of Avatar are missing the point”. It’s a funny read, clearly caught up in its own culture of academic terms, etc. But it doesn’t really provide much evidence or arguments for its point of view, just puts it out there as THE correct take on the movie. Funny.

    I like your description of the context in which you saw the movie (having volunteered for a cause for a few days, walking past huge signs on your way into the cinema, etc.). Obviously you were primed to focus on the movie’s environmental story. Do you think you would have been “wearing a different mindset” if you had seen the movie last year / next year / away from Copenhagen and the constant COP15 news focus?

  2. Karen
    Karen 11 January 2010

    Hej Jan – thanks for stopping by.

    I could easily see different circumstances influencing my perception of the movie. I am interested in environmental issues in general, but my attention to those details was extreme that day. I am also interested in issues about disability. Maybe if I wasn’t so focused on the environment, I’d be more focused on Jake’s situation. I also suspect that if I had not focused on the environment so much, I would be annoyed at some stereotypes a lot more. I was forgiving of many shortcomings because I had a message that appealed to me.

  3. Jan Karlsbjerg
    Jan Karlsbjerg 17 January 2010

    I’m going to watch it a second time one of these days. Will try to look under/behind the “Dances with Wolves” and environment story lines and see if things weren’t described and played out a little bit more nuanced than what I retained from my first viewing of it.

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