James Cameron's Avatar is old wine in a brand new and spectacularly brilliant bottle. There is nothing new in the plot -- especially for those of us in India who have been following land acquisition battles in the tribal belt -- that pits the indigenous people as the underdogs who are battling to save their forest-based way of life from the clutches of a global ( universal ?) megacorp. Latched on to this main plot is a cameo sub-plot of a cute little love story between two individuals Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) from the two opposing camps, which again is nothing to write home about.
But what makes the movie remarkable and memorable is the concept of transferring identity and consciousness ( "soul" ? ) across two bodies -- one of which is a genuine human and the other a synthetic Na'vi humanoid. Cameron has referred to this synthetic humanoid as an Avatar which periodically receives -- and is animated by -- the hero, Jake's soul. The avatar analogy that Cameron has adopted from the world of Second Life and equilvalent MMORPG platforms is perhaps incorrect here. In an MMORPG, we have a physical entity ( the player ) and a virtual digital entity ( the avatar ) and both are ( or could be ) simultaenously active. In this movie, both entities are "real", physical entities only one of which is active at any time and this situation is referred to in Hindu mythology as the process of Parakaya Pravesha -- or entering into another body. Sankara is supposed to have done this when he was challenged with a question on sexuality, that a celibate like him should have failed to answer. However he is said to have temporarily left his body, entered that of near-dead king, learnt enough to answer the question and then left the king to die, reentered his own body and concluded the debate.
The concept of transmigration of the soul is also addressed with the injured bodies of Grace ( Sigourney Weaver) and Jake the paraplegic ex-marine who is the hero of the story. It fails in the first case -- Grace dies and her soul merges with the infinite, but is successful in the second and Jake's soul leaves his damaged human body and takes refuge in his Na'vi Avatar.
The chinese philosopher Zhuangzi had written about a dream that he once had of being a butterfly and when he woke up he was left wondering whether he was a man dreaming that he was a butterfly or whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he is a man. If you follow the dialogue carefully you will realise that Jake has the same dilemma -- whether he is human or whether he is Na'vi -- and asks the question just before the intermission.
So much for the philosophy of Avatar but what made all this philosophy palatable -- actually quite enjoyable -- is the superb special effects with which the world is recreated. I wish I could have done a trillionth part of all this in my own movie Are You Real ? but then, I am no James Cameron
Post Script :
Another interpretation of this movie in terms of the Hindu concept of Avatar is available in this subsequent post. You may also consider buying a copy of the Road to pSingularity, that explores Hindu philosophy in terms of modern science and technology from my Bookshop@Yantrajaal.