Since I’ve already written one Avatar review while I was sober, I decided to take a crack at part two of my “Defense Against Religious Environmentalism” (DARE) writeup whilst under the influence of at least half (if not more) of a bottle of fantastic Malbec from Argentina. If I can stumble through with a modicum of my original thesis under wraps, I’ll consider it a good week.
I’ve discussed the logical and consistency errors that mounted in my mind as I was watching Avatar, as well as rudimentary philosophical issues I had with it upon reflection. My inclination is to throw in a few snarky comments to ease you into part 2, and the angel of my better nature has signaled to me, permitting one or two in this transmission. So wait for it. And read on.
It’s already been discussed elsewhere that Cameron’s screenplay falls neatly into the “White Savior Movie” (hereby designated as WSM) dilemma that seems to trap Hollywood (dare I say, liberal Hollywood?) from time to time. From Dances With Wolves to Pocahontas to To Kill a Mockingbird, Hollywood and progressive literates in general have tended to romanticize the somewhat staid and antiquated social position of the white man as both villain and hero of his own intrusive story. The mythos, as it’s been presented in popular entertainment and even lauded literary works, is that of a hungry, ambitious, and ultimately destructive race (the Whites) who invade, plunder, and overwhelm the simpler (yes) but nobler natives of North America/The Southern Courtroom/Pandora, who by themselves are incapable of rousing their own salvation. But the incursion of a curious White into the midst of the strange and beautiful foreigners (to him) renders a transformation, by which the White learns, sympathizes with, and eventually converts–goes Na’vi, if you will–and in so doing, is able to carry the day against his own people. By joining with the savages, the White (and it’s usually a white Man) achieves heroic status and salves his own colonial conscience.
That Avatar is, almost worshipfully, a model White Savior movie, may not need to be pointed out. One thing needs to be said, however. WSM and books are, typically, and ultimately, about the individual white man’s moral salvation. By joining with the savage, he himself is redeemed from the destructive pattern of his white, oppressor race. In that sense, WSM are doubly insensitive and doubly clueless–by turning the hero inward, WSM manage to make even the nobility of the savage a minor role in its own film–co-opting that in favor of the individual’s rise to awareness. The White Man thus manages to make his own story more important than that of the nobler race he has chosen to join. Even white colonial guilt is no match for the self-centered nature of the creator of the guilt-ridden story.
That aside, we should examine the exact relationship between Jake Sully (White Savior) and his adoptive brethren, the Na’vi. Much like Davy Crocket or John Smith, Jake learns to live within the Na’vi community while simultaneously maintaining his separate and distinct human identity. This is a classic identification problem–empathy with one’s fellow being is a difficult task without actually walking in the shoes of that fellow. Thankfully, Jake Sully gets to have his cake and eat it too, a situation exploited by both Colonel Miles Quaritch and by Dr. Grace Augustine, who are both interested in how the Na’vi think and act.
The interesting parallel I find between Jake’s training to become a Na’vi warrior and James Cameron’s wielding of technology is that neither demonstrate a true awakening of self. I’ll tackle Cameron first. With Avatar, James Cameron, a noted techno-buff and tinkerer, developed or introduced a number of innovative filmmaking tricks and techniques which no doubt will be utilized in more and more films in coming years. Likewise, Jake Sully spends three months developing and learning Na’vi skills–hunting, running, balance, fighting, as well as the more intimate issues–communing with the cattle-like beasts of Pandora through the creepy mind-control tendrils. Three months. Jake is so good in his proxy role of human-as-Na’vi that he is able to displace the native-born warrior Tsu’tey, who understandably takes a dislike to Jake, especially after Jake-as-Na’vi manages to bed Neytiri, the beautiful princess and Tsu’tey’s rightful bride (how patriarchal and quaint, Mr. Cameron!).
Cameron’s wielding of technology to achieve his master vision of this utopian conquistatador making ultimate contact with an alien race of advanced intelligence took significantly longer than three months, but its effect is nearly as schizophrenic as Sully’s bi-polar existence as human and alien. On the one hand, Cameron pits a race of technologically inferior aliens deeply in tune with their biological station battling to save their voodoo-computer-planetoid against the corporate, militarily (and by extension, technologically) advanced humans. And on the other, he gives us his fantastic vision by utilizing… technologically advanced filmmaking techniques and a lot of money (maybe he sold an unobtanium mine).
Oddly, while the humans have advanced so far as to achieve multi-light year space travel and successful cryogenics and hypersleep technology, they apparently didn’t advance much in the way of mining developments. I suppose to get the shiny rocks one must dig, but one guesses there should have been advances in the methodology. Even today, there are quite efficient and economic ways at getting to precious ores and natural resources we crave here on earth. One hundred and forty years from now, I have a difficult time imagining that our primary approach is still just “blow it up.” An opening shot in the film shows an advanced ship or space station of enormous scale deploying a solar sail, presumably used for propulsion, and the thought occurred that if human beings have this kind of technology, is there even a so-called energy crisis, as the token Republican tool Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) calls it? We see the disparity between Cameron’s techno-vision of future-world making and his philosophy–he conveniently allows for growth in certain areas (space travel) but not in another (mining) in order to make his bloody Fern Gully work.
But of course, technology isn’t really the problem in Avatar. Rather, it’s humankind’s inherent greed and bloodlust that Cameron wants to showcase. And showcase it he does. Explosions, bombs, laser-precise missiles, ships that can turn on a dime, and infantry-men who seem to have been born for a shaved head and single-track killer mind; Cameron makes sure we see every pixel of gleaming, computer-generated mayhem and massacre–in fact, he was so obsessed at us being able to watch his opus that he filmed the entire thing with two cameras, so we could see it in three dimensions, as if the flat version didn’t provide the obsessive fidelity to his philosophic interests that Cameron demanded.
And philosophically, Avatar runs into real headaches. Theologically, it’s all over the place. The Tree of Souls, where all the Na’vi commune with each other and the dear departed dead ancestors, seems to be a spiritual entity. Indeed, the Na’vi synthesize a communal sense of belonging to, if not outright worship of, an entity called Eywa, the “All Mother,” which is variously a tree spirit and the embodiment of all the energy of all living things in one construct. But as Dr. Augustine points out, it’s also like a computer network, a data center or cloud computing cluster where the Na’vi go to process. Is it spirituality or just an Internet forum for Pandorans? I’ll grant you a phosphorescent tree is better than a cubicle any day of the week (except for Casual Fridays, maybe), but let’s define the terms before we start with the mumbo jumbo. The Na’vi communicate with each tree, each living creature on the planet, and indeed, with the planet itself, via their neural connecting tails. Being the master race (apparently), they are able to control other Pandoran creatures with their minds.
In the end, it’s the Na’vi’s ability–or rather, the one human avatar–who is able to tap into the planetary network, harness the resources, and lead the fight against the predatory humans. So, is Pandora a spiritual place? And what is its relation to Earth, as Cameron would have us gather from the film? The self-sustaining Na’vi rely on intimate symbiosis with Pandora for survival, and if Avatar is remotely Green, as it seems to be, the call would seem to be for humans to adopt a more connective, conservative role with nature. Yet the Na’vi, with their mind-tendrils, seem specifically adapted for a more naturalistic existence. Indeed, if it weren’t for the mind relationship they have with the beasts they control, the Na’vi seem likely doomed as a species, or at least destined for evolutionary marginalization.
In the end Jake, as a human being, ultimately rejects his humanity and joins his mind with his avatar’s body to forever stay with the Na’vi. Humans, with their non-tendril polluting presence, are sent away, presumably to a dying and broken Earth, while Jake, reborn, gets to stay on Pandora. Is all this just evolutionary penis-envy? Humans, lacking in stature and spiritual symbiosis, are sent packing while the big blue forest dwellers maintain their pleasant, indolent lives. Notably, the reformed human gets the hot girl alien warrior while his one-time rival has to suck it up and hope one of the cheerleaders is available.
The critiques of Avatar upon contemporary Western life, especially or perhaps exclusively for the United States, tend to lapse into caricature, weakening Cameron’s evident enthusiasm for a more Eastern approach to existence. What might have been a truly delicate blend of characters with depth and emotion instead are stereotypically one-sided. Cameron’s apparent interest in Taoist philosophy, and a potentially pantheistic spiritual theme is lost without an underlying foundation. By excluding humans from the natural world (even that of Pandora), Cameron seems to indicate that humans are actually separate, distinct, and outside the realm of nature, and therefore acceptable to destroy (at least if they invade your homeland). At the very least, Avatar represents Western Man’s inability to reconcile his existence with his behavior. As Ross Douthat writes, “We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.”
But the fetishizing and spiritualizing of Nature has its consequences. We want to worship Nature, but Nature is violent, “red in tooth and claw”–even life on Pandora has its dangers–and the closer we get to Nature, the closer we are to our own mortality, and indeed, the mortality of other beings. So the double-edged sword that Cameron wields clumsily is this: get back to Nature in its bloody harmony, or you will be destroyed.
And here I was thinking the Na’vi just needed to open a few casinos.