The Plot as Avatar
An avatar is, originally, the embodiment of a Hindu god. Today the term also refers to an embodiment or personification of some principle, attitude, or view of life; online it’s a graphic image that represents some person or thing. Cameron’s movie is filled with avatars, but not just the strange, hybrid creatures to which the title refers. We also see them in the silly, subtle-as-a-brick-to-the-head parallels that he makes between current events and his imagined world. Let’s turn to the story. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
The planet Pandora, a beautiful, verdant jungle paradise, is an avatar for anywhere the American military might show up. It contains the costly and rare substance Unobtainium, an avatar for oil, which is critical to the Earth’s economy. The private company Resources Development Administration, an avatar for Halliburton, has set up operations to ravage the planet to extract that substance. The problem is that this planet is inhabited by ten-foot-tall blue aliens called the Na’vi, living in primitive, pre-technological conditions.
Cameron makes silly, subtle-as-a-brick-to-the-head parallels between current events and his imagined world.
The company employs a private army, an avatar for Blackwater as well as the American military. As is explained, “Back home they fight for freedom. Here they’re hired guns for the corporation.” The mercenaries are led by the evil Colonel Quaritch ( Stephen Lang
), who gives cartoon villains a bad name. He’s gung ho simply to clean out the “savages” by force, an attitude avatar representing how Cameron and his ilk see American history and foreign policy. See, it’s the evil military-industrial complex in your face!
The company’s administrator on Pandora says that the corporation’s investors would prefer to avoid the bad PR that they’d garner by killing off all the Na’vi, but they’re even more concerned about avoiding a bad balance sheet. See, capitalism leads to killing!
The corporation has made half-hearted attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Na’vi by teaching them English and setting up schools and roads for them. How white of them! But it hasn’t worked. Still, it would be better to figure out what the “blue monkeys” (see, Americans are racist!) want and somehow to get them to leave the potential prospecting property.
Mind to Body
Enter the scientists. A team led by Dr. Grace Augustine ( Sigourney Weaver
) has mixed human and Na’vi DNA to produce avatars. These Na’vi bodies can be operated by the human whose DNA is used. The human’s mind is linked to and controls the avatar as the human rests on a techno-bed to which he or she is wired. Humans can’t breathe the atmosphere of Pandora, but their avatars can. So perhaps an avatar can re-contact the Na’vi, who aren’t very fond of the nasty, callous, heartless American—err, sorry, Earthling--soldiers who tend to gun them down at the least imagined provocation.
Jake Sully ( Sam Worthington
) is a crippled ex-Marine who volunteers to operate an avatar. His dual mission is to look for a peaceful way to move the Na’vi out and to provide military intelligence to the evil colonel for the probable removal of the Na’vi by force.
Pandora Living Paradise
Jake is thrilled with his avatar body, which allows him to walk and run again on healthy albeit alien legs. But he becomes lost in the jungle and captured by the Na’vi who, rather than execute him, decide to show him their ways in spite of their suspicions about this “dreamwalker,” this demon who’s part human and somehow controlled from afar.
You can predict the rest of the story from here. Jake goes native in an interplanetary Dances with Wolves. Here Cameron can’t offer a parallel with the real targets of America and its military today. After all, Islamists are bloodthirsty fanatics who will chop off your head for having ideas that differ from their own primitive superstitions, who treat women like chattel, and who see it as the height of virtue to blow up other people’s children. Cameron instead gives us (in the Na’vi) a cross between how he imagines American Indians and tribes of the rain forest to be. Much more sympathetic!
Jake wins the trust and respect of the Na’vi by passing all the challenges required to be a warrior. He is declared one of The People. And he falls in love with the Na’vi woman who helped him along his path.
One with the World
In the process, Jake learns about the Na’vis’ religion and their unique relationship to their world. When they hunt and kill an animal they thank it for its body as its spirit goes to Eyra, their god. When they ride or fly on the backs of Pandora’s fantastic fauna, the Na’vi must entwine special nerve threads at the ends of their long hair with those of the animals in order to form a mental and spiritual bond. They also can entwine their nerve hairs with a tree that allows them to hear the memories of their ancestors. They are literally one with nature!
The Na’vi talk incessantly about flows of energy. And there’s the Tree of Souls at the center of their world. The scientists who created the avatars find that it has a strange, unexplainable flux field around it. Can you say, “May the Force be with you?”
Needless to say, the military moves in with helicopter gunships and heavily armed infantry to lay waste to the forest and the Na’vi. So the Na’vi, lead by Jake in his avatar, unite with other tribes and, like the army of primitive desert “Fremen” in Dune or the teddy-bear Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, use their command of the environment and its animals to beat the evil masters of technology. In the end, the Na’vi load the captured Earthlings onto their ships to send them back to their dying world on which all that was green has been destroyed.
In Avatar Cameron perpetuates the enduring, seductive, yet morally false myth of a Garden of Eden or lost paradise inhabited by noble savages. This myth has done no end of harm to humanity. In modern times, it found its voice in Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In the eighteenth century the Enlightenment had dragged Europe out of the Dark Ages, setting individual happiness as a legitimate moral goal, showing that the human mind could understand the movements of the planets and the biology of the human body, and discovering ways to produce the material means for prosperity. Then Rousseau stood before human progress and shouted, “Stop!”
He argued that in the state of nature humans were governed by two instincts: self-preservation and pity for others. We thus lived in idyllic harmony with our fellows and our world. But when we started to think, to use our minds, we worried about the future. That’s when all the trouble began. We sought private property to give us personal security. In the process, we became selfish and put ourselves as individuals in conflict with others. We created creature comforts that cut us off from our natural world and our natural selves. Civilization was the enemy of our virtue.
Avatar perpetuates the enduring, seductive, yet morally false myth of a Garden of Eden or lost paradise inhabited by noble savages.
This, of course, is moral nonsense. A look at primitive peoples from the prehistoric to the original inhabitants of America to the odd jungle tribe today shows brutality, superstition that leads to ostracism and murder, and institutionalized human sacrifice along with the occasional “respect” for animal spirits. And, in fact, virtue consists in disciplining our appetites and urges, in the light of reason, toward our individual well-being, which will also lead us to respect our fellows and deal with them based on mutual consent.
There are noble and virtuous individuals in primitive as well as advanced societies. But there’s nothing noble about ignorance of one’s world. There’s nothing noble about the impotence over one’s world that comes from one’s ignorance. There’s nothing noble about being unable to build adequate shelters against the forces of nature, produce adequate food against famines, or discover adequate medicines against illness.
It is the height of irony—to say nothing of hypocrisy—for Cameron, the master of movie-making technology, to have as the theme of this movie the utter evil of technology.
Talk to the Trees
In Avatar, Cameron helps the modern environmental movement continue to morph into a new religion of Gaia worship that, disguised as a love for nature, is anti-human in its essence.
This new cult treats “nature” itself as a conscious, living entity at odds with and morally superior to human beings. Of course, a strong counterargument is that the world itself, the environment itself, is not a conscious entity. Only we humans are self-conscious, living, breathing creatures with free will who must choose to act and to seek values. Human life is our standard of value, and to survive and flourish we must make use of the materials of our world.
In Avatar, Cameron gives us a sci-fi version of the Gaia superstition, showing the Na’vi living in an animate and conscious world, in which animal and human minds can join, in which we can talk to the trees as we would with our friends and family. Of course, that’s not the reality. That’s not the world. But powerful images like those in Avatar have nothing to do with reality. Unlike rational arguments, they can create and reinforce deadly ideas in a culture.
If you want great special effects and an action-packed popcorn thriller, you’ll certainly enjoy Avatar. But hopefully Cameron has so overplayed his hand with his politically correct plot that audiences will leave the comfort of the theater with an appreciation for technology and no desire to flee to a jungle or support the sort of public policies that would reduce our civilization to savagery.