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Ecological suicide as subtextual plotline.

Fabricating utopia. Cinematic playgrounds

Movies can be perceived as the epitome of contemporary media cultural texts, which means that they are articulations of the dreams and nightmares of each culture (Kellner 1995: 121). Whether utopias, dystopias or complex combinations between the two concepts, movies act as cultural manifestoes, trend setters or public educators. Each utopian model is based on a particular manner of decrypting objective reality, and the concepts that are instrumental in articulating it are metamorphosized so that they illustrate the utopian scenario as convincingly as possibly. Since our point of concern here is ecological suicide, first we shall dwell on the evolution of ecotopia in the space of postmodern thought: the signs used to convey the ecotopian scenario are nothing else than means of obstructing access to any form of immediate reality (Baudrillard 1994: 20). Doing much more than merely masking the presence of the real, the sign ultimately hides the absence of the real, thus suppressing any coherent system of reference.

Once the simulacrum is identical in sign-value with objective reality, the representation of the ecological crisis itself is constructed, right from the start, of media-induced and televisionfabricated imagery, together with the objective reports of the various scientific fields that deal with the research related to environmental impact and ecology. Nature itself is transformed within the collective unconscious through technology and science, being gradually integrated into human culture, reduced to a simplistic element of a social and cultural life which represents the absolute limit of any interrogation. The present condition of nature--that of cultural construct, socially defined according to human rules of systemic functionality--is an integral part of an anthropocentric ideology, visible in "Avatar" through repeated allusions to humans having killed Mother Nature on their home planet and in "The Matrix" through an imagery of desolation and all-conquering machines.

In both movies, through the deletion of a systemic reliance on the natural environment, humanity has replaced the wild with an assemblage of spectacle-producing features, able to attenuate or even dissolve man's alienation and preserve the efficiency of the simulation.

Eco-vision through techno-lens

James Cameron's "Avatar" is an illustrative example of the resonating antennae stretching out between postmodern utopia and technological dystopia. The obvious narrative is the salvation of an ecologically perfect, naturally balanced planet from the destructive influence of technology. With the entire action taking place on Pandora, a planet far away from Earth, the focus is on the structurally different philosophy of the Na'vi, the indigenous population of Pandora, opposed to that of the humans. While the Na'vi live in perfect equilibrium with a sentient nature, with whom they perpetually exchange information and vital energy, humans come to Pandora with an essentially materialistic purpose--the unobtanium. Even the name of the rock humans are after suggests the impossibility of the ultimate utopia of mankind portrayed in the movie wealth, material possessions at all costs. With a reversed polarity regarding all things material, the Na'vi consider themselves an integral part of a living, sentient nature.

It seems like the indigenous population is already living its own ecotopian dream complete, flawless balance between themselves and their planet. Their peaceful culture eventually responds with war to human aggression, recovering its equilibrium. Staying true to the postmodern shift of perspective, the movie focuses on the transformation in the functionality and use of technology. What was technotopia back on Earth becomes techno-dystopia on Pandora, after having already turned Earth into an ecological nightmare. After the initial man/ machine symbiosis, with technology assisting humanity in its fast-forwarded evolution, man now depends on the machine, even for mere survival. Coupled with the ruthless pragmatics of a system that thrives on consumerism, this dependence inherently becomes conflictual; the hybrid man-machine, possessing the lucrative greed of the former and the seemingly endless potential of the latter, is doomed to push the limits of its own survival, ignoring the fundamental rules of adequate adaptation to the environment.

Also illustrative for the concept of the man/ machine hybridization of the characters is the central character, Jake Sully, who is a disabled war veteran, but makes the transition from a wheelchair to manoeuvering mentally an avatar, an accurate duplication of a Na'vi organism blended with its human "driver"s thoughts. Using his avatar and the growing knowledge regarding the indigenous population, Jake reaches a level of intellectual and physical development that allows him to comprehend the complex, organic relationship between the Na'vi and their planet. The Na'vi population, completely rejecting any form of technology, is an integral part of the ecosystem, intimately connected to nature and being able to communicate using energies that humans are unable to perceive. Even though in the end Jake becomes a genuine Na'vi and at the same time the hero who saves the planet, paradoxically, he is only able to connect to his Na'vi identity through technology. Without the machines that allow him to transfer his consciousness and will to his avatar, he would not be able to reach his ecotopian identity. Through a plea to Pandora herself, Jake's consciousness is transferred to his Na'vi avatarbody for good. After fighting his own kind to protect his regained ecological ideology, he goes through the ultimate metamorphosis: he changes his species.

The nature of the self-Constructing identity

Jake's fragmented identity is continuously challenged, as he begins to mould his consciousness according to the Na'vi spirituality, while simultaneosly striving to fulfill his duty to the humankind. Eventually his dillemma is solved through a profound understanding of the Na'vi way of life. Immersed in their ideology, Jake Sully is no longer able to relate to the dysfunctional utopian discourse of mankind, even though his physical survival still depends, up to a point, simultaneously on his human body and his avatar. The reality of each body is shifting, as the two identities are inherently opposed, but also unavoidably interconnected. In the end, Jake's disparate identities merge, after his revaluation of the philosophy behind each side; as the spirituality of the Na'vi makes more sense than the cynical materialism of his own kind, he transforms himself irreversably, embracing his Na'vi alterego as unequivocal identity and rejecting his human ancestry. The civilization he chooses is primitive according to Earth-norms, but superior to that of humanity as far as moral evolution is involved. The Na'vi leave no place for political or economic progress, because they already inhabit an ecotopia that is incomprehensible to humans. The ethics of the Na'vi, perceived by their opponents as simplistic and inscribed within a non-progressive pattern of evolution, represents the basic need for perfect symbiosis with the environment, coupled with an elaborate articulation of individual evolution inside the community. The Na'vi seem to reject any progress, according to the perspective of their counterpart, disruptively biased by commodification and a perpetual willingness to ignore other cultures.

At the point where his human identity becomes alienating, Jake's metamorphosis consists in the complete assimilation of the ecologically reasonable utopian discourse of the Na'vi. However, his initial identity take-over through his avatar had only been possible through the same technology he ends up fighting against, so in a way, his eventual ecotopian transformation is fueled by techno-dystopia.

Utopia imposed and alternate (pseudo)life

Unlike "Avatar," which insists upon the ambivalent relationship between creatures (humans and / or aliens) and nature, "The Matrix" places the focus on the role of technology. The narration of future does not reflect over-technologization as necessarily apocalyptic; the invidiual is not threatened by technology itself, or, at least, he is uncapable of interiorizing such fears due to the particularities of his environment. Within the duality manmachine, it is not technology that can be interpreted as the ultimate experiment of mankind, it is human identity that is the ultimate experiment of technology, a hypostasis made abundantly clear in various instances of postmodern technotopia. Human existence itself is another element which is being put to the test of survival, along with identity. In the line of evolution drawn by technological excess there is a shift in the formation of personal identity as well, as the individual cannot validate his position in an artificial world without constant reference to this very artificiality. The roles of man and machine become interchangeable, as reality can no longer be mapped through a singular view, neither human--nor technology-generated.

Besides the dialectic utopianism/technology, the distinguishable influence of postmodernism has led to the appearance of certain ambivalence in the perception of the human being as part of the narrative. As opposed to the modernist approach, the intention of the individual is represented in ambiguous or even contradicting terms in the texts influenced by postmodernism; from doom to hope, visions vary greatly, allowing for an articulation of the human in a broader range of contexts. (Heise 1992)


"The Matrix" undergoes a discursive pattern that articulates a distinction between the real and the virtual. Simulation is not just a process here, but a space-time continuum with its own reality, albeit artificial and engineered. The permanent metaphor of life and sleep actually functions as a borderline between two separate worlds, since living in one or the other is just a matter of choice. Neither one holds any promise of ultimate truth, nor does it certify a coherent manner of perception.

Baudrillard's theory of simulation is clearly at play along the entire plot development, but the events themselves do not refer to the phases of simulation, but rather to a more abrupt process, an electronic illusion, served to humans as a form of food substitute to keep their brains functioning. Providing them with a reality is not a gift to humanity from a benevolent artificial intelligence that searches for some form of technological utopia, it is a mere instrument for the final purpose of the machines: to use humans as energy sources. The embodiment of people as mere crops, waiting to be harvested, unfolds a utilitarian ideology: the machine does to the human what humanity had previously done to nature. Neo's dark dream is actually the somber reality itself, a reality he could not access any way else, a reality that he couldn't grasp, only feel, as his senses are connected to the version of the world projected by the machines. The virtuality of one world is the reality of the other, but the two are not interchangeable. His world, whose proximity is perceived through struggle and suffering, called the "Desert of the Real" by the machines, does not act as a substitute for his personal agony--on the contrary, it perpetually deepens his inevitable progression towards selfsacrifice.

However, the illusion of utopia provided to humans is scaled down, as the machines have understood one thing about the human mind: it could not find perfection of any sort truly believable, so that perfection has to be attenuated in order to achieve credibility. The utopian ideals of humanity only achieve meaning if they are not reached; they have to remain a dream in order to be believed. Paradoxically, once transformed into reality, they have lost their substance and become inadequate. The virtual reality that people are to perceive as genuine needed a systemic adjustment, as if humans only aim for utopia, but cannot cope with any articulation of it. The computerized version of social perfection has to be extremely transformed, camouflaged by allegedly negative elements; flawlessness is simply not believable enough. The faulty representation of life, as opposed to the utopian one, is found to be more appealling--or at least more comprehensible--by the human mind. Along the borderline between simulation and illusion, the world rendered by the invisible binary code of the matrix is a mere extrapolation, since it has lost any connection with a model. People do not possess any valid memory of life on Earth before, and the machines have sketched it using fragmented bits and pieces of digital information. Humanity or artificial intelligence, neither one can create an objective interface between their own existence and an outside, inexorable reality; instead, each one tries to protect its own simulacrum while dematerializing the other. When the two worlds inevitably collapse, since they are inherently bound together by an uncontrolable net of need and purpose, they suddenly become identifiable, self-conscious in a way that includes alterity--neither world can be replaced by the other, so they both have to continue their existence.

Each side's version of utopia undergoes a metamorphosis: for humans, from the social perfection provided in virtuality, to the mere survival of the species.; for the machines, from absolute, uncontested supremacy, to coexistence. The very premise of utopia encompasses a certain dose of virtuality for both worlds, as not even humans can survive without the use of technology, or, at least, the idealized illusion provided by it. There is no absolute objectivity in either version of reality; perception is inherently subversive, while the interface between the two allegedly separate and reciprocally exclusive realms is much too complex for an adequate apprehension, so that both humans and machines remain tributary to the same binary code, to the same collective hallucination. The intricate pattern of simulacrum makes both man and machine translucid, disarticulated, programmatically marginalized within each universe, irrespective of its definition.

Unable to relate to a coherent, stable perspective among the successively changing layers of reality, the individual is forced to change the cynical disbelief about the core of the surrounding environment into an anticipatory state of mind, a certain hope regarding the possibility of freedom. Freedom is, in "The Matrix," the ultimate goal of humanity, even if it means a dark, almost schematic reality, reduced to an enclave in the middle of an apocalyptical world. In this case, the desire for freedom means a deliberate departure from the idea of utopia, whether real or virtual. The possibility of rebirth, for a progressively decaying world, is no equivalent to any utopian vision, there is no correlation between the future of mankind and any viable potentiality of a normal existence--a normality shaped by the previous configuration of life on Earth.

What humans are basically trying to do is give up the already scaled-down illusion of virtual utopia provided by the machines in exchange for the actual survival of the species in its authentic form. They try to replace digital, artificial happiness with real misery, even though this means the dematerialization of all utopian visions. The sophistication of the virtual world does not correspond to the representation of happiness articulated by humans. Even when virtuality ultimately achieves the status of hyperreal, its authenticity is still questioned, while the neurosis caused by the loss of adequacy dissolves the experiential features of a seemingly lost reality.

Reality dismantled. Inner nature(s) versus environmental strings

Each reality is gradually dispersed, as the mechanisms of perception and signification are too abruptly transferred from one environment to another. Inside the matrix, the reality people take for granted is an elaborate combination of simulacra and illusion, specifically designed to prevent any individual from seeing beyond the multiplicity of simulation. The dominance of illusion is based on the humans' need for it, thus making the task much easier for the machines. Within this framework of absolute simulation and illusion, the individual is consistently absorbed into a meaningless series of events meant to hypostasize his existence as meaningful: this very contradiction eventually leads to Neo's awakening and concurrently his refusal to accept the illusion. The protagonist proceeds to deconstruct his reality--or the reality assigned to him by the machines--and succeeds in rendering his own simulation as transparent. His perception goes beyond the simulacrum itself to see the binary code to project it.

The implicit conflictual state persistent throughout the entire trilogy is basically articulated by the transfer from the man-machine dichotomy to a clash between utopian illusion and dystopian reality. As the former is reducible to a series of codes, humanity elaborates its trajectory towards the latter through cynical awareness and permanent inquiry. Neo's enlightenment is a mere sample of the firm separation from the illusion employed by machines to feed the human intellect. Passed over to all individuals, even to those in a state of unconscious denial of reality, revolt becomes an ideology, more meaningful than the concept of utopia, however successful its replication might appear.


At first, the perspective is unidimensional, there is no debate whether the seemingly real life of the protagonist is actually a fake, the only hints at a possibly self-delusional mechanism being provided by Neo's dreams that he finds as real as his day-time existence. Having to decide which one is true is difficult in a world shaped by virtuality, cybernetics and biotechnology. As opposed to the others around him, Neo already lives in a technology-driven reality, his life is deliberately linked to computers, to virtual reality; he is already on the borderline between the simulation offered to him as a substitute for the real and virtuality. His personal quest is to find freedom, even at the expense of happiness. The matrix becomes a prison for his thoughts not a virtual one, but a real one, since its effects are more and more visible. However, he will end up sacrificing himself for a humanity imprisoned in virtual reality, not even knowing that its own dreams of technological utopia have turned the real world into a place of almost complete destruction.

Neo's day-time existence is basically a persistent simulation of a long lost reality, preventing him from perceiving his objective environment: a post-apocalyptical scenery, with humans kept suspended in a vegetative state so that the machines can harvest their electricity. Willing to verify his assumptions on his apparently real dreams, the protagonist tries to validate his existence through ethics, even by imposing his newly acquired vision of truth to the other captives of the matrix.

With virtuality as basic narrative, the plot of "The Matrix" is inherently based on the particular functionality of cyberspace--namely, the boundless digital simulation of the real, with shifting points of reference and a perspective blurred by a continuous metamorphosis of the digital self. The illusion served to the humans in "The Matrix" is double-coded. It is the utopia of reality, the tangible dream of having a real existence, yet it is not "utopian" in the literal meaning of the term, since the simulated dream is by no means flawless. The connection to nature is not even part of the equation anymore, since it has already been deleted from the consciousness of mankind; no clear reference to the natural environment is made, outside the underlying assumption of a nature erased by the battle between people and machines.

In "Avatar", humanity destroys nature on its home planet and tries to do the same on Pandora. In "The Matrix", humanity has lost contact with nature for so long, that ecological meaning has been completely erased from the consciousness of the human race. Even though both movies have as a starting point in their plot development the premise of a nature destroyed, "Avatar" reconstructs the idea of belonging to nature, while "The Matrix" cancels all possible attempts of reconnecting--nature is non-existent, and humans build their utopia on top of an ecological dystopia.

Haralambie Athes

Alexandru loan Cuza University

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to


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Avatar. Dir. by James Cameron. 20th Century Fox, 2009

Matrix Reloaded. Dir. by Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski. Warner Bros Pictures, 2003

Matrix Revolutions. Dir. by Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski. Warner Bros Pictures, 2003

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Author:Athes, Haralambie
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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