AVATAR IS a visually stunning marvel of film technology, as many reviewers will tell you, but what really stands out in James Cameron's newest film is its unabashed critique of corporate greed and its inspiring tale of solidarity and resistance against occupation.
Set on a distant planet called Pandora, Avatar re-enacts the genocide of indigenous populations by colonial capitalism, and links this history to the rapacious resource wars of our own times. The film is not a moralistic wringing of hands that relies on "white-guilt fantasies" as some commentators have claimed; rather, it is an uncompromising defense of the principle of self-determination and the right to resist exploitation and plunder.
Listing some of Cameron's blockbuster films – The Abyss, Aliens, the Terminator films and The Titanic – is enough to remind us that we are dealing with a master of visual effects technology. Fans of his earlier work won't be disappointed with Avatar's special effects – the 3-D version in particular is a breathtaking experience. As the New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis writes:
This isn't the 3-D of the 1950s or even contemporary films, those flicks that try to give you a virtual poke in the eye with flying spears. Rather, Mr. Cameron uses 3-D to amplify the immersive experience of spectacle cinema...After a few minutes the novelty of people and objects hovering above the row in front of you wears off, and you tend not to notice the 3-D, which speaks to the subtlety of its use...
Similarly, we find ourselves dazzled by the brilliantly rendered planet of Pandora, replete with bioluminescent flora and fauna, ethereal floating mountains and touch-me-nots that look like giant seashells. All of this, no doubt, represents advances in special effects not seen since the Wachowski brothers invented "Bullet Time" for The Matrix, and Peter Jackson brought Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings. Only the most jaded and cynical of moviegoers would deny Cameron's accomplishments in this area.
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HOWEVER, FOR all the gushing praise that Cameron has received from critics for the film's technological accomplishments, reviewers have been less enthusiastic about Avatar's political message. Some of them seem to be so dazzled by the spectacle that they don't even notice its ideological significance.
In the New York Times, Ross Douthat dismisses it as a "long apologia for pantheism--a faith that equates God with Nature." Similarly, while Dargis' review acknowledges the film's "anti-corporate message," she seems unmoved by its uncompromising anti-imperialist message.
On the other hand, left-wing critics have panned the film's politics for its director's "banal and conformist outlook" (David Walsh's review at wsws.org) and as "a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people" (Annalee Newitz's much-circulated post for the sci-fi Web site io9.com).
Let's concede a couple of points at the outset. James Cameron isn't Gillo Pontecorvo, and Avatar is no Battle of Algiers. It's a popular science fiction thriller, and a damn good one at that. It thus conforms to some of the conventions of the genre, employing stock characters like the mercenary Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and predictable plotlines such as the romance that ensures a happy ending.
No doubt the dialogue is, at times, contrived and clichéd, and the film could have used a better script. Nevertheless, its narrative arc is compelling, and the transformation of its central character, disabled marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is convincing.
Jake is your archetypal warrior hero, except for his disability (he is paralyzed from the waist down), which draws sneers from the other marines (one refers to him as "meals on wheels"). When we first encounter him, he is awakened from a state of hibernation in the gravity-free environment of a spaceship. Here, as the characters hover and float around, we fail to notice Jake's paralysis.
When we see him in his wheelchair for the first time, his comrades taunt him, and we see, through his eyes and from his perspective, the mammoth scale of the war machines and armaments being deployed by the mercenary forces on Pandora.
His disability, in other words, isn't incidental. It's central to his character, because his disability marks him out as an underdog among the top dogs, so to speak. His disability sets him apart as someone who might not necessarily conform to all that he sees around him. Moreover, as the plot unfolds, we learn that his colonel is trying to hold him hostage to his disability, promising him the use of his legs in return for acting as the colonel's stooge.
Early in the film, we learn that Jake cannot afford the medical care he needs to be able to walk again, and that although he isn't looking forward to the mission on Pandora, he can do little else, given the state of the economy.
White man though he is, Jake Sully is nevertheless himself a victim of oppression. And crucially, Jake's liberation is contingent upon his identification with the natives of Pandora, the Na'vi, a tribe of 12-feet tall, blue-skinned humanoids with prehensile tails.
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IN THIS sense, Avatar can't simply be dismissed as a "white man's guilt" narrative, as Annalee Newitz does in her post on the sci-fi Web site io9.com. Newitz rightly points out that the trope of the white man who "goes native" is an old one, which has its origins in European colonial ideology.
Sure enough, as Newitz points out, in contemporary Western culture in general and Hollywood in particular, the fantasy of "going native" often ends with the white man not only assimilating into the "native" culture, but emerging as their leader in their quest for salvation or liberation from some oppressive force or circumstance. Think here of films as diverse as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Last Samurai and City of God.
Certainly, Jake feels conflicted and guilty about what his comrades are about to do to the Na'vi and to Pandora. And certainly, this is at least partially a result of his falling in love with Nyteri (Zoe Saldana), the female Na'vi warrior. And yes, Jake's avatar emerges as the leader of the Na'vi in their struggle against the human plunderers. But surely this in itself is insufficient grounds to condemn the film as just so much unreconstructed Orientalism.
By plugging into the avatar, Jake's consciousness is quite literally embodied in the "other"; in this sense, he comes closer to genuine empathy with the Na'vi than can be realistically conceived (hence the term "science fiction"). If we grant this central premise of the film, then it seems to me somewhat churlish to suggest that Jake Sully is nothing but a 21st century T.E. Lawrence or Indiana Jones.
Furthermore, Jake's Na'vi self initially rebels against the human incursion into Pandora as an act of self-preservation. He attacks the giant bulldozers that arrive on the scene while he is asleep (and back in his human incarnation) with a desperation that the audience can identify with, as they seem intent on mowing down everything in their path, including Jake and Nyteri.
It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that the bulldozers destroying the Na'vi forests are like the Israeli bulldozers in occupied Palestine, and that Jake's defiance of them is like the courageous stance of activists like Rachel Corrie.
By slow degrees, Jake comes to identify with the "other" and their way of life. Once he becomes fully aware of the mercenary calculations of the corporation that will stop at nothing in its bid to extract the precious "unobtanium," Jake switches sides, as do the team of scientists led by the strong-willed Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). To suggest that this act is little more than a demonstration of "white man's guilt" is, I think, to render meaningless the idea of solidarity.
Jake's speech rallying the Na'vi, and calling on them to reach out to the other tribes reminded me of Tecumseh and of later anti-colonial revolutionaries who rallied diverse colonized peoples against their common oppressors. The conclusion of the film, which shows the chastened humans being escorted back to their waiting spaceship, just as surely harkens back to the images of the withdrawal of the defeated American forces from Vietnam.
In the context of the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is cultural dynamite. And in the context of Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize lecture on "just war," Jake Sully's wry admission is timely: "I was a soldier who tried to bring peace, but sooner or later everyone has to wake up."
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ANOTHER ELEMENT of the film's anti-imperialism that critics seem to have missed is its subtle criticism of the negative historical role played by anthropologists and other social scientists working for colonial powers. Grace and her team of scientists are employed by the same corporate entity that has hired Col. Quaritch and his trigger-happy mercenaries.
In this respect, the scientists in the film are like those employed by the U.S. Army's "Human Terrain System," whose stated purpose is to "improve the military's ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed."
But Grace is no military lackey, and her team's meticulous attention to the scientific project, as well as their moral and ethical sensibilities drive them to oppose Col. Quaritch and their corporate sponsor, in the form of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). The film's insistence that the aims of social science can't be reconciled with those of imperialism stands in stark contrast to the complicity of academics currently involved in the Human Terrain System program.
Like most sci-fi films, Avatar offers a withering critique of the world that we live in. But unlike most recent sci-fi films, it is filled with a utopianism that we haven't seen in a while. Is this a nostalgic longing for lost innocence? By presenting the Na'vi and their way of life as akin to indigenous cultures destroyed by colonialism, does the film run the risk of grasping at an irrecoverable past?
Perhaps here too Avatar offers more than at first meets the eye. There is something undeniably futuristic about Pandora itself, where flora and fauna alike are interconnected as if part of one gigantic neural network. The network of energy that binds everything on Pandora is ultimately responsible for Jake's resurrection as his Na'vi avatar.
The process that transfers his consciousness from his human body to his Na'vi body seems to involve millions of tendrils that resemble tiny optical fibers. Interestingly enough, this postmodern, high-tech aesthetic stands in stark contrast to the decidedly modernist, industrial design of the humans' arms and armaments, which recalls the gritty and clunky aesthetic of Battlestar Galactica.
Such utopianism in our time might seem unjustified, if not incongruous, but it is certainly a breath of fresh air. There are those who will squirm at the film's obvious references to our contemporary reality (as when the campaign against the Na'vi is referred to as "shock and awe"), and those who will wince at its sometimes clumsy dialogue.
But there's no denying that millions of moviegoers around the world are flocking to a film that unflinchingly indicts imperialism and corporate greed, defends the right of the oppressed to fight back, and holds open the potential for solidarity between people on opposite sides of a conflict not of their choosing.