A Naturalist Looks at Avatar

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Maybe you’ve seen the first billion dollar movie. Maybe you saw it in 3-D, at an IMAX theater, with Dolby Surround Sound. Maybe you saw that movie and wondered what James Cameron was trying to say, if anything, and whether it was just another popcorn matinee movie with little substance behind the special effects. 

Avatar might be one of those movies discussed in film and video classes in the future. Or maybe not. I asked a couple of twelve-year old kids--immersed in the spin off Avatar game--what the movie meant to them. No answer. Armed only with a bow and arrow, the Avatar warrior in their video game was busy slaying faceless soldiers armed with superior firepower. 

Yet Avatar resembles a subversive movie. The indigenous people of the planetoid Pandora live in surreal harmony with the plants and animals. No towering skyscrapers, no sprawling concrete super cities ringed with twelve lanes of traffic-clogged freeways for these thong-clad bluemanoids. Instead they live in an enormous tree. Unfortunately that tree sits atop the largest deposit of a mineral called “Unobtanium.” Somehow that mineral is necessary for the life on good old planet Earth and is so scarce that a kilo sells for $20 million, which doesn’t really seem like a lot of money in the year 2154.  

Cameron sides with the indigenous people, the underdogs. Early on we witness a former US Marine, in the ultimate outer body experience, sharing the life of a Pandoran, as a native Na Vi. As a moviegoer you are struck immediately by a feeling of déjà vu. Avatar is a futuristic version of that Disney story of Pocahontas with more impressive special effects, complete with a wise old chieftain, not unlike Powhatan.  

Through his “avatar” the former soldier, Sully, experiences forest life, village life, young warrior life among the Afghanistan—I mean Na Vi tribesmen and women. His mentor, the Pandoran Pocahontas, scolds and berates him like a lumbering child until he finally sees the light. To live well and wisely on Pandora, one must live in harmony with nature. The natives become so connected they possess a fiber-optic tail that can plug into plant or animal and become compatible enough with the inner computer system of any living entity. Even compatible enough with ferocious predators or ancient trees that they may commune with them through thought waves.  

Imagine that concept: We are all connected. The planetary biosphere is alive and attuned. The electro-magnetic pulse, the harmonic convergence, the huge reservoir of untapped energy surrounding us all on Earth or the universe is available to download! At no extra charge! Talk about a subversive idea. 

Of course, the Military Industrial Complex stands ready to wreck that harmony, and either dispossess or destroy the natives. The chief authority figure, Colonel Miles Quaritch, symbolizes all that is wrong and right about the US military. A battle-scarred, tough but fair minded tactician, he lives and breaths The Mission. On Pandora that mission means to subdue the natives, bend them to a higher authority subservient to the whims and dictates of a distant empire--or destroy them. His troops follow him with the intention to seek and destroy, to “get some,” and get back to the base for a round of drinks.  

One hardly needs a McChrystal ball to see where Cameron wants us to set our sympathies. The tree-dwellers of Pandora, fast sleek and sexy, hardly resemble any Third World humans. These are idealized American Indians without the petty, tribal divisiveness that made them easy prey to Europeans after 1492--and make them easy prey to the heavily armed and armored troops here. The brutal but efficient former US Marine Colonel represents the US Empire. He represents the US Cavalry at Wounded Knee. Cameron holds a mirror up to Americans and says: This is you and this is the policy of your armchair warriors in Washington DC for more than one hundred years. You’ve always brutalized indigenous tribes. 

Curious indeed how most American citizens today pay lip service to the noble underdog but justify (and pay heavy taxes to) almost any spiritually and economically energy-sapping folly of their imperial bully of a government.  

Wholly preoccupied with extracting the mineral and making a profit for wealthy investors back home, the soldiers in the movie resemble the bulky, muscular US troops policing the world. One wonders whether American viewers can perceive exactly how subversive Avatar really is. Worldwide perception of our empire must certainly coincide with that seen onscreen. Cameron calls the occupying troops “hired guns,” and certainly that is how much of the world perceives our young troops, as hired guns brainwashed by the mainstream media, propagandized as flag-waving patriots rather than cruel subjugators. US troops policing the world must wonder whether they are the good guys or bad guys as they watch Cameron’s movie.  

If CNN and FOX had reported this episode on Pandora, with embedded reporters following the troops, imagine the version sold to us back home. “An uprising of warlike fanatics wounded and killed numerous US security personnel yesterday on the planet of Pandora. After terrorizing a peaceful colony of researchers and developers, the savage tribesmen sent waves of suicide bombers to eradicate the RDA outpost. Only the brave, concerted effort of courageous troops led by Colonel Quaritch kept the fierce and hostile natives from imposing their cruel dictates. Early reports of a terrorist leader, alleged to be a former US Marine, leading waves of suicide bombers called Banshees, proved untrue.

The defeat of these terrorist tribes, said the US president later in a speech, would be of worldwide precedence and require a coalition of civilized nations to suppress. Congress hurriedly voted another $65 trillion for the mission to civilize Pandora and eradicate all treetop terrorist bases of operation.” 

James Cameron missed an opportunity to feature mainstream newsmen in all their glory. 

The planetoid imagined by Cameron is nearer our legends of paradise than reality. A huge tree, HomeTree, or the tree of life, stands as a symbol of life on Pandora until it is overturned, set afire and destroyed. Opening Pandora’s Box meant opening the world to all the evils that existed within. We cannot go back to some idealized harmonic world that never existed, but we could tread far more gently and really connect with the one world we have. No iPod or Blackberry or cell phone or computer--or mineral called Unobtainium--will offer anything resembling a harmonic connection. That’s what Avatar seems to be saying, from a naturalist point of view. 

One Footnote: Years ago I did a loose anthropological study of all the types of homeless in Los Angeles. Of the four types I observed, Tree Dwellers ranked just below the Rolling Homeless. Curiously, many of these Tree Dwellers lived not far from the VA hospital and consisted of former US servicemen, with their inner circuits damaged and now seeking solace and comfort, hidden away among the modern highways beneath bushes and trees.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @ Gmail.com


Glen Allport's picture

Terrific column, Douglas. I especially enjoyed your "news coverage" comments -- right on the mark. I hadn't noticed it while watching the film, but now it's obvious that indeed Cameron missed an opportunity there. (Perhaps on purpose; filmmakers have to contend with running-time and other constraints). In any case I'd have enjoyed seeing CNN and FOX newsies reporting the Pandoran War to the folks back home.

Avatar is doing more than twice as much business overseas as it is in the US, although even here it's setting records. I think you are right that a bigger percentage of the public in other nations sees Avatar as an only slightly-disguised look at the U.S. empire.

Avatar receipts as posted at http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=avatar.htm, as of 1/10/2010:

Domestic: $430,846,514 -- 32.1%
+ Foreign: $910,847,633 -- 67.9%

= Worldwide: $1,341,694,147

This is after only 24 days, and the movie is STILL #1 in theaters world-wide by a solid margin.

Bill Ross's picture

Its just a matter of presenting the truth to the sheeple in a form they may get. Luckily, Hollywood still has ideological faction wars and has not fully succumbed to the "dark side".
Our tyrants are toast if MSM ever figures out a way to make truth profitable. Currently, lies sell. Here's how and why:


albergine's picture

i see the point but on reading numerous reviews fail to get what the big deal is about this pic, no i haven't seen it but have seen bucket loads of films from either the big timers or small fry that make their point in a much more obvious manner, those i have in mind are set in the 'now' not in some fictional nowhere, are much more hard hitting and give no illusion as to there meaning, after the view (unless comatose) the watcher will know the sickness that the truth makes them feel rather than do a happy feely jig with big smiles after seeing the likes of Av*tar.

Fraxdablue's picture

"Happy feely jig with big smiles after seeing the likes of Avatar" ??? Read this article from the UK where viewers are feeling depressed and suicidal after seeing the film. Maybe coming to terms with what we have done to our planet? I think the candy coated vitamin pill is the only way to get the message to where it needs to be heard. Reminds me of the Idaho logging communities who attempted to get the school system to ban Dr. Seuss's Lorax Tree books from classes because their 6 years olds were coming home in tears and asking Daddy why he was cutting down all the trees.


albergine's picture

Well the brit's are mostly a depressive bunch and very easily confused so would imagine that a soft number of them would fall into desperation after leaving the sanctuary of illusion that's pandora, could also be that the linked to article is from a comic written by juveniles or that kid's suffering from withdrawal just wanted to get home and blast away on their vid game, have they all fallen into a well of tears over the current Haitian disaster i wonder.
All they get is candy coated, there lives are candy coated, that's why they'd steer clear of a hard hitting smack in the face film with it's feet sunk firmly in fact in favour of fuzzy narnia fiction that look's for no commitment other than to buy the stuffed teddy, I become very irritated when mature people are offered and take sweet flavour to suck on to disguise any bitterness that may awake their better sense.

PasserBy's picture

Well, Albergine, if you had bothered to actually read the linked article before making your offensive comments about us Brits, you might have noticed that all the references in it are to identified Americans who are feeling depressed and suicidal after watching Avatar.