"The first people totalitarians destroy or silence are men of ideas and free minds." ~ Isaiah Berlin
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.