Earlier this week, I watched the new movie, Avatar, and I wanted to share my thoughts about the work. Originally the title struck me as a bit odd. I think the first time I heard the word “avatar” was in a class in Hinduism. In Hindu theology, from time to time the gods take mortal forms and walk about the Earth. They engage in all sorts of behavior such as: imparting wisdom, participating in battles, getting into fights, and even partaking in lewd and potentially immoral acts. Perhaps the most celebrated avatar was Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu who you can find in the great Indian epic story, the Mahabharata. Nevertheless, it is important to note that while the avatar can die, the god remains. The reason I mention this tidbit of information was that it was the only insight I had about this movie beforehand. I read no spoilers and I saw no trailers and so went into the theater not really knowing what to expect.
But back to the film…the basic storyline is as follows: On a planet called Pandora live a species of bluish humanoids called the Na’vi. Also on this world is a rare and extremely valuable substance ironically named unobtainium. Although we are never told the uses for this mineral, we discover that the largest deposit lies beneath the Na’vi settlements. As a way to gain access to the natives, and reap their rich natural resources, a mining corporation creates Na’vi/human hybrids that are controlled remotely through a form of mental link. These creatures are a Na’vi-looking embodiment of the humans that operate them. Although radically different physically, they share the same thoughts, experiences, and emotions, with their human consciousness hence, like in the Hindu stories, they are avatars.
Visually Avatar is a very rich experience. There is an abundance of vibrant colors, lush and exotic scenery, and even the 3-D experience was well done, though I did have a bit of a headache to show for it. Although certainly alien, the Na’vi physically, thematically, and styles of dress appeared to be some sort of cross between cats, Native Americans, and African tribesmen. For what it is worth, they were fairly attractive, with the notable exception of Sigourney Weaver. Although I would argue that she looks pretty good for a woman of 60, her avatar was quite unappealing.
Unlike traditional movie reviews, my central interest was in Avatar’s underlying political message(s). It examines the plight of the naturalistic natives against the technologically advanced invaders, a page ripped from history: Native Americans versus the United States, Indians versus the British Empire, Germanic tribes versus Rome, just to name a few. Given the Na’vi’s Native American traits, throughout the movie I couldn’t help but think about the events leading up to Custer’s last stand. It strikes an anti-imperialistic chord, which I can appreciate, as well as nativist, environmentalist, and anti-militaristic tones. I’m going to delve a bit further into the plot, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want me to give it away, I suggest skipping ahead to the final paragraph.
Still with me then? Very well. So, as stated earlier, these avatars are physical copies of the Na’vi, but with a human mind. The scientists create these beings in order to gain a better understanding of this species and also to begin meaningful diplomacy. At the same time, however, the hired muscle seeks to use the avatars merely as a tool to spy upon the Na’vi and learn how to best conquer them. Both the commander and the soldiers in the film are portrayed in a generally negative light, as most treat the native population as mere savages unworthy of discourse, their land, or even their very lives. The corporation, that finances and heads up this operation, is driven solely by its profit margin. As we learn more about the Na’vi, peaceful talks seem increasingly fruitless as the Na’vi view their homeland as sacred and have no interest in bartering away their land. They reject the supposedly superior goods and education offered to them in favor of their own traditional ways. And so, motivated by money, the corporation resorts to plan B, sending their paramilitary army to claim the land by force. Thus, in a not-so-subtle fashion, the film simultaneously warns against the dangers of the military-industrial complex, corporate greed, consumerism, and even neo-conservatism.
Avatar was persistent in its environmental message. The natives appear to live in near perfect harmony with the planet in much the same way that we are told that the Native Americans did and supposedly still do. They seem to go out of their way to preserve both plant and animal life, their structures blend with the natural surroundings, and they spiritually bond with both nature and the planet. I’m not looking to get into an argument over this point, but I don’t think such a way of life is either practical or religiously correct. Nevertheless, should a society choose to organize in such a fashion, I would not advocate changing their lifestyle or relocating them through force. The greatest problem lies when they compel their neighbors to act likewise through a heavy-handed government. Oh wait…the Na’vi don’t act that way in the movie, but modern American environmentalists certainly do. The horror! The horror! Anyway, the movie then seems to go out of its way to validate these beliefs through the supposed scientific findings of the head researcher just as many environmentalists do in our society. If you need more proof of the pro-green message, in the final battle sequence all of the creatures of the jungle rally in defense of the Na’vi as if guided by the will of nature itself. After the humans lose, a vast majority of the wicked and thoughtless human race is exiled. To top it off, the main character casts off his human body to become one of the Na’vi. Therefore, we are led to believe that only by rejecting our humanity can we save the planet. Lastly, one of the final lines in the film, when the main character mentioned that humans had previously destroyed the environment on Earth, smacked of rhetoric worthy of Al Gore himself.
How is the film nativist? Although I couldn’t real see any difference, the Na’vi could easily differentiate between themselves and the lab created avatars. At first, everyone in their encampment treated the main character as an interloper who neither understood their culture, nor appreciated their lifestyle. In addition, they feared he would try to infiltrate them, which is exactly what he ended up doing by revealing weaknesses in their defenses to the Colonel. Both the Na’vi and the humans were, for the most part, ethnocentric. Neither cared really to learn about the other, thought of themselves and their ways as superior, and both viewed the other with distrust and great suspicion. At the end of the day, one has to wonder what would have happened if the Na’vi never accepted Jake, the main character, as one of their own and maintained their xenophobic ways. Would the first military attack have been successful if not for the intel that he gave them? Would the lost of life been far less? Or would the humans, pressured by the tremendous costs of maintaining their presence, simply have given up and left? Who can say? Then again, if both sides had viewed each other with respect, perhaps the corporation could have extracted the unobtainium without disrupting the lives and homes of the natives.
Apparently Avatar had at least one conservative message too. Although I didn’t see it, after discussing the film with my cousin, he pointed it out with the plight of the main character. You see, Jake is a wheelchair-bound former marine. Not only does the desire to regain his mobility serve as a motivation, it also fuels his rugged self-reliance. Despite his physical limitations, he displays a high level of personal responsibility. He never gives up, never insists on others to help him, and never expects handouts or special favors from his associates. Rather than stay at home and collect disability from a nanny state government, he instead chooses to live life to the fullest and explore life on a new world.
Overall, I enjoyed the Avatar experience and I would recommend the film. Sure, the movie has some awkward and questionable dialogue and yes, the plot twists are easily predictable. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn about the fascinating, colorful, and bioluminescent world of Pandora and it’s inhabitants. A word of warning to you impressionable folks…although some misguided people tend to take cues from movies on how to think, act, and even live their lives (the Jedi Church anyone?), one should value this movie for its storyline and amazing visual scenery and effects. Be mindful of the liberal politics, of course, and don’t use them as a motivating tool for action. Otherwise you’ll likely find yourself hugging trees, dancing in the woods with a loincloth, singing kumbaya, and worshiping Eywa…I mean “mother Earth”.