If the aliens won't come to us , we can go to them — as in the latest blockbuster, Avatar

“Where are they?” asks the succinct version of the Fermi Paradox. In other words, while human-alien interactions are full of dizzying possibilities, where on earth are these extraterrestrial creatures? If the universe is as large and old as we believe it to be, then alien civilisations should logically be present. However, we see no signs of their existence, with all due respect to fuzzy pictures of flying saucers and dramatic accounts of alien abductors armed with rectal probes.

Still, if they won't come to us, we can go to them — cinematically. As in Avatar, the newest blockbuster in town. In it, director James Cameron transports earthmen — actors and viewers alike — to Pandora, a gorgeously imagined, Gaia-like world, where all beings are interconnected and in harmony with nature. If the human race is very much the serpent slithering into this Eden, at least one man gets a shot at starting over.

Avatar isn't an adventure that happens to be placed in another galaxy or civilisation for greater opportunities to create CG effects; the essence of the Avatar story is the contact between human and alien, and the bridging of that gap. Avatar is not a movie about the magical instance of first contact between human and alien as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Contact. Yet we do see glimpses of that wonderment through the eyes of Sam Worthington's genetically engineered character.

Ideas about aliens are by no means an invention of our times, thinkers as ancient as Plutarch have argued in favour of extraterrestrial intelligence. The absence of any empirical evidence to this effect, despite such sustained programmes as SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), has been a bit of a dampener. On the flip side, this has allowed free rein to writers and filmmakers to imagine what such aliens might look like, and what might be the consequences of human-alien interactions.

While aliens of some kind are the basis of most sci-fi movies and books, it is a matter of philosophical debate whether we are actually able to imagine life of any kind that is not influenced by anthropomorphism. For this purpose of cinematic experience, this isn't necessarily a drawback: aliens work as mirrors that reflect back to us what we are as humans, and how we define ourselves. The recent District 9, for example, was a barely disguised commentary on xenophobia. If our fear of the Other led to Apartheid, why should our reaction be any different when we encounter alien life?

Through the course of his filmmaking career, James Cameron has been fascinated by such ideas of the human-non-human interface. He's explored a range of reactions by nonhumans to humans from the purely hostile as in Aliens, to watchkeepers of the human civilisation as in The Abyss, to both deadly and sympathetic as in Terminator. Admittedly, as conflict of some kind is needed to power a good movie, it's inevitable that the engagement between humans and non-humans involve some level of discord.

Philosophy — and psychobabble — aside, the introduction of the nonhuman intelligence into the picture allows for a change in the rules of the entertainment game as well. Acid for blood, a glowing heartlight, chameleon-like camouflage (Alien/ET/Predator) all made for some memorable cinema. Alien rules add to the sense of adventure and danger, and offer unexpected plot twists, though it's most satisfying when the aliens and/or the world they live in, are created within a consistent and believable framework — as in Avatar.

Like many movies in the genre, Avatar is only superficially about aliens; underneath, it questions where the human race is heading and what alternative paths we could take instead. Cameron uses the loaded Sanskrit word of the movie's title to talk of a possible future manifestation of man. A next step in our evolution, if you like, that results from man's interaction with an emotionally superior — but technologically inferior — form of alien. Can we integrate and change, rather than conquer and destroy? Does the transplanting of human memory and consciousness into another receptacle still retain a sense of humanness in the new creature?

Part thought experiment, part entertainment, imaginative tales about human-nonhuman relationships give us something to chew on.