A Humanist Call from Mt. Hollywood

Avatar may well be the biggest anti War film of all time. It stands against everything the West is identified with. It is against greed and capitalism, it is against interventionism, it is against colonialism and imperialism, it is against technological orientation, it is against the crimes of America and Britain. It puts Wolfowitz, Blair and Bush on trial without even mentioning their names. It enlightens the true meaning of ethics as a dynamic judgmental process rather than fixed moral guidelines (such as the Ten Commandments or the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights). It throws a very dark light on our murderous tendencies towards other people, their belief and rituals. But it doesn’t just stop there. In the same breath, very much like German Leben philosophers,1 it praises the power of nature and the attempt to bond in harmony with soil, the forest and the wildlife. It advises us all to integrate with our surrounding reality rather than impose ourselves on it. Very much like German Idealists and early Romanticists, it raises questions to do with essence, existence and the absolute. It celebrates the true meaning of life and livelihood.

It is pretty astonishing and cheering to discover Hollywood paving the way to the victorious return of German philosophical thought.

[spoiler alert]

The year is 2154 and the RDA corporation is mining planet Pandora for Unobtanium, a unique mineral that defies gravity and sells for top cash. Pandora is a remote planet inhabited by the Na’vi, a species that shares some human features. Like humans, the Na’vi have their own developed language and high culture. Yet unlike westerners they integrate with their surrounding reality searching for harmony in nature rather than looking for a means to exploit it. The Na’vi are a few feet taller than humans, they are extremely strong, they also possess a long impressive tail and a long plait with a unique bond at its end that operate as an organic USB connection. The bond allows the Na’vi to form a mental and spiritual union with their surrounding organic reality. The Na’vi cherish their planet, they look after it. They also worship a mother goddess called Eywa, who encompasses the integrated spiritual and physical centre of their universe and it’s past.

In order to penetrate into the Na’vi, human scientists genetically engineered human-na’vi hybrid bodies called Avatars. Like in all Western interventionist and colonial wars, the foreign invader insists on convincing itself that it can create some false needs amongst the indigenous population. The RDA corporation takes pride in its attempt ‘to bring culture to Pandora’. The Avatars are there to communicate with the Na’vi. They are there to teach them English and Western values. They are there to maintain order so that the Na’vi fail to notice that their soil is raped and robbed by the Humans. But as we soon learn, such an attempt is in vein. The Humans have nothing to offer which the Na’vi are willing to take.

Jake Sully a paraplegic former marine is an Avatar. With the support of the appropriate advanced technology and machinery he operates a Na’vi/Avatar hybrid.

Pretty soon Jake, as an Avatar, manages to make contact with the Na’vi. He even manages to infiltrate into their civilisation. Colonel Miles Quaritch, the fierce mercenary leader of the security forces, offers Jake to have his legs repaired in exchange for providing intelligence about the Na’vi.

Though Jake is initially happy to provide the goods, it is just a question of time before the ex-marine, changes his league. Through the eyes of the Avatar, Jake sees truthfulness in harmony. However, through his training and life experience he knows what Human genocidal brutality is all about. He prefers harmony over racial brotherhood.

As the plot evolves, both Jake and the Avatar scientific team understand that the corporation and Colonel Quaritch are preparing for a total war against the Na’vi and their civilization. The scientific team unite together with Jake against the corporation and the mercenary force. They are committed to save the Na’vi. Augustine, the professor behind the Avatar project who is genuinely fascinated by the Pandora magic and motivated by true knowledge-seeking, makes up her mind; she says NO to technology. She betrays the company that finances her research and eventually gives her life to her subject of research instead.

As the movie reaches its dramatic peak, Jake, the Avatar, the ex-human spy is leading the Na’vi defensive war against the Humans. As the mercenary colonel is closing in on the sacred site, the Na’vi fight back fiercely against the superior technological might. The Na’vi suffer heavy casualties. When all hope seems lost, the Pandoran wildlife joins the Na’vi and attack the humans in great numbers, overwhelming them in the air and on the ground.

The film ends with Jake being successfully transplanted into his Na’vi Avatar. We also see the remnants of the human army marching to a sky shuttle that will transport them out of Pandora. The message of the 300 million cinematic spectacle is clear: NO to war, NO to greed, NO to intervention, No to throwing bombs, YES to nature, harmony and respecting the beliefs of others.

I recently learned that Avatar drew some criticism for its alleged ‘racist subtext’. “Na’vi might be blue aliens” says one British commentator “but they’re also blue aliens with Masai-style necklaces… acted by mostly black actors. They’re also rescued from destruction by a white character – played, of course, by a white actor – who becomes one of them”. The idea of a “white liberal man as the saviour of the so-called primitive natives” seems to deliver a ‘patronising’ message.

I find it hard to take these arguments seriously. The Sci-fi genre is creating an imaginary fantastic reality that thrives on familiarity. James Cameron, the man behind the Avatar spectacle, based the Na’vi on an amalgam of many non-white aspects: African tribal markings, Native American settings, Jamaican hair styles and so on. Yet, he manages to evoke empathy in us towards the so-called ‘alien’ rather than towards the Human. This alone should be enough to defy the politically correct accusation of ‘racist subtext’ behind the film.

However, the criticism against Cameron drew my attention to the role of the Avatar as a double agent. Towards the final scene Colonel Quaritch blames Jake for “betraying his race”. Jake indeed changes sides; he is doing it for a good cause. And as it seems, the Na’vi and Pandora couldn’t prevail without him, they needed his leadership. In order to win the battle they needed a leader that is deeply familiar with the enemy’s tactics and mode of thought.

One of the reasons that America is defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan is the obvious fact that many Iraqis and Afghanis had been educated in American universities and are familiar with the American way, yet, not many within the American elite or military command understand Islam. Not many amongst the American or British leadership are graduates of Kabul or Baghdad universities.

However, as in the case of Avatar, by the time America and Britain will start to train its forces to understand Islam, it may as well be ready for its new enlightened soldiers to change sides once they arrive on the battlefield.

I would maintain that to stand up against your own people for an ethical cause is the real meaning of humanism and liberty. Yet, it is pretty astonishing that such an inspiring message is delivered by Hollywood. We may have to admit, once again, that it is the artist and creative mind (rather than the politician) who is there to shape our reality and present a prospect of a better amicable future by the means of aesthetics.

  1. Lebensphilosophie: German, life philosophy, or philosophy of life. A term for the general emphasis on ‘life’ as an important philosophical vocabulary. Generally speaking the LebenPhilosophers stood for paying philosophical attention to life as it is lived ‘from the inside’, as opposed to Kantian abstractions, scientific reductions, positivism and naturalism. []

Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached at: atz@onetel.net.uk. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. anthony innes said on December 30th, 2009 at 8:49pm #

    Atzman is kidding himself and is part of the growing publicity for this glitzy,special effects drenched fable that does little to lift human awareness .
    “Colonel Quaritch blames Jake for “betraying his race”. Jake indeed changes sides; he is doing it for a good cause.” Cameron wrote this turkey and it shows.The concept of race died with DNA .Rather than take Joseph Campbell’s “heroes Journey ” analysis of myth further Cameron gives us the same tired Bruckheimeresque crap extolling the military’s overwhelming dominance in the creation of the avatar. Another faceless corporation screwing everything for “unobtainium”. Give us a break!.
    This is pathetic comic book cliched entertainment reinforcing the worn stereotypes which continue to drain the chance of real thinking from an audience getting enough propaganda as it is.
    Confusing technical and production cleverness with culture and genuine breakthrough-thinking is what got us the military/police state we are struggling to bring to rule of LAW today. We do not need reductionist rubbish to be extolled as something great.
    338 million dollars for this dud. This was thin fare and shows the creative bankruptcy of the studio system and its inability to deliver real impact with new insight. Compared with King Kong or Shrek (unabashed romps) Avatar hit the wall with its pretentious preaching. Any film that opens with hype for its computer game should give you an idea of the audience it aims at. Ascribing lofty ideals to Avatar misleads unwary filmgoers completely. A” humanist call” be buggered this was a commercial for its game and merchandising.

  2. Tonyandoc said on December 31st, 2009 at 9:36pm #

    Anthony, I consider myself human and my awareness was lifted. As soon as I started watching the movie I saw all the messages that Atzman lists. Further, I saw the Avatars as a simile for drones; high-tech disposable artifacts, controlled by remote “warriors”, safe from danger, preying on relatively defenseless indigenous population. I was excited to think that some real life drone pilots might decide that “this is not what they signed on for” as well.
    I have to admit that when I raised this with the others who saw the movie with me, I got some strange looks. So maybe, like beauty, the message is in the eye of the beholder.

  3. kalidas said on January 1st, 2010 at 10:47am #

    Wow!

    German philosophical thought. Perhaps a good intentioned usurping. (Vedanta?)

    Bluish folks. (Krishna?)

    V shaped tilaka markings on forehead. (Vaishnavism?)

    Dredlocks worn for thousands of years. (Sadhus?)

    Invaded and occupied country. (India?)

    Mother Goddess. (Maa, Kali, Durga?)

    “transplanted into his Na’vi Avatar” (transmigration?)

    And I haven’t even seen the movie yet.

  4. Maryb said on January 1st, 2010 at 11:31am #

    I wonder what the esteemed leader of the US of A thought of the film and whether he picked up its meaning.

    ‘But it wasn’t all sports for the Obamas – the family did find time to relax at the cinema also, with a private showing of James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.
    The Obamas visited a cinema near their rented house yesterday morning for a screening of the 3-D hit, before the day’s regular screening’s began.
    Mr Obama, a self-described film buff, left his compound with Sasha, Malia and wife Michelle before noon on New Year’s Eve.
    The family have been in Hawaii since Christmas. They are set to return to Washington in the new year.’

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1239816/Surfin-USA-Obamas-daughters-hit-waves-Hawaii-dad-hits-links.html

  5. anthony innes said on January 1st, 2010 at 5:21pm #

    Tony an Doc thanks for the reply.Beauty is something that should not be exploited .Kalidas shows that the producers thast worked this rip were quite prepared to borrow all they could from classic hero worship (no intellectual copyright infringement)to suspend disbelief so they could make a buck.No arguement there.What I object to is that Atzmon is gatekeeping : real discussion about the movie would be that the sentience on Avatar in real life would go to earth and have this corporation up before the International Criminal Court .Maryb ‘s comment would have an extra sting if Obama had to explain that to his kids.
    One more thing: “real life drone pilots ” are soldiers sitting somehwere safe while they bomb,weddings,funerals schools and hospitals etc .These “soldiers ” are selected on their ability to play electronic games and I would say are definitely screened for a complete lack of empathy with the targets.
    Suspension of disbelief is a strong tool and I love clever fantasy,beauty and this planet,and alas as human also would like to see artist craft used to educate that war is a crime and punishable by LAW.You see I am getting at real fantasy not more of the same mindless violence and fairy stories of the indigenous winning any battles. In real life you die in wars and the victories go to the those who fight in court.

  6. kalidas said on January 1st, 2010 at 8:02pm #

    The majority of people commenting here have zero interest, let alone faith, in any Avatar.

    The jokers who made this movie don’t either. Even if they might grasp what the word Avatar truly means, this would only disturb them immensely.

  7. Maryb said on January 12th, 2010 at 4:37am #

    George Monbiot’s review of the film in the Guardian yesterday –

    ‘Mawkish, maybe. But Avatar is a profound, insightful, important filmCameron’s blockbuster offers a chilling metaphor for European butchery of the Americas. No wonder the US right hates it.’

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/jan/11/mawkish-maybe-avatar-profound-important
    ~~~~~~~~~~
    I think I will have to see it to see which of these differing opinions I agree with.