First, a disclaimer. I’m no film critic. I might see one film a year, and I had no intention of seeing James Cameron’s Avatar.
In the Age of Twitter, who could miss the descriptions, the accolades and admonitions?
Hoping to fall asleep on my transatlantic flight, I unwrapped the headset. On came channel one, and the 20th Century Fox icon–and there it was.
If you’ve ever met a vegan, you’ll know how I am. We read the ingredients. A seal of approval, then, for Avatar’s 100% human cast. Some pointy-nosed, nectar-slurping horses appear, get ridden into a fiery battle, and fall over. But they, and all the other odd, semi-Earthly animals of Cameron’s planet Pandora, are artists’ work. I’ve read since, though, that the actors underwent professional training specific to their characters: hand-to-hand combat, arrow or rifle use, horseback riding. Caveat emptor.
But what of the broader view? What’s the message of this film? One of my friends sums it up as “bio-engineered beings, pious hunting rituals; a white guy to the rescue.” Yet Evo Morales praised Avatar for confronting capitalist exploitation.
Yes, there’s a contradiction embedded in this admittedly fascinating film. An animal-rights perspective can shed light on this. Let’s do it.
Avatar’s central personality is Jake, an action figure deployed to infiltrate, yet destined to save, the Na’vi race (“race” is the word used in the film). Pandora’s people aren’t fair-haired. They run through the jungles with bare feet and feathered arrows; they have tails and the glowing eyes of wildcats. Jake, their human champion, was trained by the U.S. Marines. But I’m staying awake.
Jake enters the scene on a wheelchair. It won’t matter. A human would die in Pandora’s atmosphere within four minutes, so Jake will use a remotely controlled stand-in: the tall, blue, carbon-reinforced “avatar” body. The invasion will pay well, but it’s the hardest gig a mercenary could imagine. According to the ruthless Colonel Quaritch — who serves the corporate operation to snatch the mineral “unobtanium” (coveted as an energy source on Earth) from under the locals — Pandora would make Hell look like a resort.
But at least Jake can alight on the planet in a durable body. The avatar — laboratory-made, in Frankenstein fashion, from human and Pandoran DNA — receives its connection with Jake’s brain. Then, the wide-eyed ex-Marine, ten feet tall with gleaming eyes, arrives on Pandora, swashbuckling, barging headlong into the foliage, and into some displeased and extremely strong Pandoran animals.
Jake is open to risk and learning from any able teacher. This, it turns out, is the key to survival and personal development on the largely untamed planet.
Grace Augustine, the principle scientist overseeing the avatar project, is Jake’s first guide on Pandora. The next mentor will be Neytiri, a Native Pandoran hunter destined to become Jake’s mate.
Neytiri’s parents are true partners: one, a respected chief; the other, the people’s spiritual leader. Eywa, the great mother, is the universal intelligence connecting all beings, sending out wood sprites, resembling luminescent dandelion seeds, as communiqués. There is gender in the film. There is heteronormativity. On the plus side, these aren’t used by the filmmaker to titillate the audience, or to rile feminist thinkers. Well, maybe I’m a bit generous. Caveat emptor.
Dominion: On Pandora as on Earth
There’s also a sharp dichotomy separating the humanoid Na’vi and all other Pandoran life. Yes, the Na’vi have several nonhuman traits, but they’re thoroughly human in their dominion addiction.
The Na’vi are animal trainers. Just as we do, the Na’vi expect other animals to bow to them when challenged. The Na’vi traditions presume a special right to use the others to serve them, and they use other animals as weapons of war. The Na’vi even train some Pandoran animals to help them kill others. And they call the training and use a bond.
It seems natural on Pandora. The Na’vi have tails they can connect, like extension cords, into other animals. But when a Na’vi hunter sets out to bond with an animal to ride for life, the animal will try to kill the hunter first. Notwithstanding this resistance, James Cameron makes Na’vi dominion appear benign and natural — by rendering the animals’ own daily lives and desires invisible.
“I see you” is the Na’vi greeting, conveying respect, understanding, and love. Neytiri and Jake connect in this way, making the military invasion impossible for Jake to continue. But the lives of other animals are foreign and unseen.
Avatar does not address extinctions (which, our Earthly biologists now know, comprise the greatest threat to survival of all known life). But to reinforce the dichotomy between one special species and all others is, arguably, to promote the worldview that hastens extinctions.
Avatar clearly ridicules humanity’s continual battles and Hollywood’s lust for them; and yet, Jake’s ability as a warrior and a hunter is — just as clearly — valuable to the Na’vi.
Author and indigenous rights advocate George Monbiot notes that Avatar has a justly critical message regarding the violent conquest of the Americas for land and gold; Colonel Quaritch’s “pre-emptive” attack on the Na’vi, who won’t leave their cultural home, fits the same pattern of dominance. And Cameron has indeed persuaded film-goers to cheer for the indigenous people, not the US military. But war is one group’s seizure of another, often presented as necessary, even benign. Monbiot doesn’t notice, but that’s just how the Pandoran animals are treated.
Avatar never visits the deep level where all oppressions connect, from whence they spawn social injustice, ecological injustice, and the degradation of the environment and all living beings. Cameron intentionally presents the Na’vi as a community we can understand, but that will subliminally reinforce the idea that we’re at the top of the food chain — and, for starters, that’s biologically incorrect.
Maybe I’m too demanding. But I think this constant assumption of human supremacy keeps our messages from being as nuanced, complex, reality-oriented and powerful as they could be. Respecting other animals would mean respecting the land they inhabit, and that would present an environmental platform of viable strength.
A place in history
Grace Augustine’s avatar project is biologically brilliant. But Earth-based technology can’t overcome the self-contained Na’vi. The biggest flop of all is the hideous force of Colonel Quaritch’s shock-and-awe bomb attack.
When the Colonel moves in to destroy the tree that connects the Na’vi culture directly with the life force of its ancestors, the daring pilot Trudy Chacón is next to rescue Jake. And the dashing Neytiri overpowers the Colonel. Pandora’s free-living animals, too, join the climactic battle.
Of course, the animals might well sense their own interest in helping the Na’vi. But no one says that. Why is it all framed around Jake and the Na’vi? (It’s not enough to reply that they’re the more advanced species, given Avatar’s obvious message that our idea of what’s advanced is a problem.)
In the end, to demonstrate a complete commitment to Pandora, Jake must perform the Herculean task of taming a Toruk — an immense flying predator that only five Na’vi have ever managed to ride. It is an act of dominion, of taming, then, that wins Jake a place in Na’vi history.
That finally allows Jake to abandon the body of the ex-Marine. While most of the vanquished Earthfolk prepare to return to their dying planet, it will be the Na’vi who enable Jake to convert permanently into the avatar body, and escape a moribund Earth.
The humans didn’t rescue anyone.
So…was Evo Morales right?
Yes and no. The message that Earth is doomed and we must escape to another planet is more Stephen Hawking than Evo Morales. Moreover, the film cost hundreds of millions; and a whole lot of carbon-emitting travel (not just mine) has been involved in the making and viewing of it.
The film is generating a lucrative trend in computer games. Avatar’s Twitterer urges you to “maximize your Avatar Blu-ray experience” by getting all the latest gizmos, and has announced Avatar events at Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart. Mattel jumped in with high-tech Avatar toys that “trigger special features like attack mode.” McDonald’s put Avatar figures into Happy Meals. Chip York, Coca-Cola’s Worldwide Entertainment Marketing Director, announced “authentic and exclusive” Avatar gadgets, proclaiming, “Avatar shares the same aspirational, edgy and unconventional brand values as Coca-Cola Zero.”
None of this is surprising; the film’s hallmark is ambivalence. James Cameron is following it up by visiting the Amazon rainforest (via aircraft, we can assume) to oppose the culturally and ecologically troubling Belo Monte dam project. Tom Philips, in The Guardian Observer, recounts Cameron’s impression of the scene: a real-life Avatar confrontation in progress!
OK, but the kids won’t see what animal agribusiness has done to our world’s rainforests when they grab Avatar toys from their Happy Meals.
With producer Jon Landau and 20th Century Fox, Cameron has also partnered with the Earth Day Network to plant trees. I say to myself, this is not a bad thing. Cameron might be able to put all that wealth and influence where it can do the most good.
And yet, my ambivalence won’t go away. It’s difficult not to be haunted by the same feeling that animated David Byrne’s view of Eminem: “I find rebellion packaged by a major corporation a little hard to take seriously.”