Avatar, if you've been living under a rock, is the blockbuster movie written, directed, and produced by James Cameron (Titanic, Terminator, Aliens...) and released last month, which is now the highest grossing movie of all time (taking in $2.1 billion as of this writing - admittedly these comparisons are not adjusted for inflation, which is tricky to do right because of the 3-D). It's becoming one of those must see events in which people are compelled to go a second and third time to take their friends, and just to see the movie again.
Here I'm going to assume the reader has seen the movie and I will try to analyze the strength of the feelings most of us have had to it - love it or hate it. If you haven't seen it yet, just go do it, ok? It's an amazing experience, and you're not going to be altogether culturally literate in future if you haven't seen it.
To some viewers, the success of the movie is deeply mysterious. The movie does have a number of obvious flaws, ably dissected for example by conservative commentator John Podhoretz in a review at the Weekly Standard. He hated the movie:
Avatar, we are told, does things with cameras and computers and actors that have never been done before. Its painstaking combination of real-life action and animation has, we are told, taken cinema to a new level. It cost anywhere from $328 million to $500 million, we are told, and took four years to make. It is a breakthrough, we are told, the boldest step into the future of filmmaking, an unparalleled achievement.Many people have argued the movie is derivative and unoriginal. Here's David Brooks in the New York Times who also clearly disliked it, though with Podhoretz's passionate indignation toned down to a world-weary cynicism:
What they didn't tell us is that Avatar is blitheringly stupid; indeed, it's among the dumbest movies I've ever seen. Avatar is an undigested mass of clichés nearly three hours in length taken directly from the revisionist westerns of the 1960s-the ones in which the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys. Only here the West is a planet called Pandora, the time is the 22nd century rather than the 19th, and the Indians have blue skin and tails, and are 10 feet tall.
Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.I loved the movie overall, but I don't think either of these critiques is altogether wrong on the facts. In addition, most of the movie's characters struck me as fairly one dimensional caricatures. Sigourney Weaver was not very convincing to me as Dr. Grace Augustine, a senior scientist - I've known a lot of scientists and I've never met one who would have been as outrageously rude to Jake Sullivan as she is on meeting him. I imagine if I was a Marine Colonel, I might feel the same way about Stephen Lang's performance as Colonel Quaritch (though there was something about the sheer exuberance of the latter that still haunts me). A lot of the dialogue I found to be clunky and hackneyed. It's noticeable that while the movie has a lot of Oscar nominations, none of them are for the actors.
This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.
Avid moviegoers will remember “A Man Called Horse,” which began to establish the pattern, and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” More people will have seen “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Samurai.”
Kids have been given their own pure versions of the fable, like “Pocahontas” and “FernGully.”
It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen.
But at the same time, the movie's massive sales and extended box office performance suggest it's striking a chord:
Since the film's release and unusually strong box office performance, it has been debated as the one film capable of surpassing Titanic's worldwide gross, and its seemingly surreal strength has perplexed box office analysts. "Most films are considered to be healthy if they manage anything less than a 50% drop from their first weekend to their second. Dipping just 11% from the first to the third is unheard of," relayed Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office analysis for Hollywood.com. "This is just unprecedented," he said. "I had to do a double take. I thought it was a miscalculation." Though other films in recent years have been cited as contenders for surpassing Titanic, most recently The Dark Knight, Avatar is considered the first film with a genuine chance at doing so, and its numbers being aided by higher ticket prices for 3D screenings has failed to explain its thorough success to box office analysts. "What's also impressive is that Avatar made it through the holiday season in first place three consecutive weekends with a number of other highly competitive titles standing in its way," stated Dergarabedian. "Everyone stayed out of the way for Dark Knight. But nobody got out of the way for Avatar."Furthermore, many people are having profound emotional reactions to the movie. One response has been christened by CNN as the "Avatar Blues":
James Cameron's completely immersive spectacle "Avatar" may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.Around where I live (Marin County, admittedly a major center of warm fuzzy New-Agism), it's at the point where if you are in a cafe talking about the movie, the waitress might well overhear you and join in with her thoughts on the merits of seeing it a third time versus stopping at two.
On the fan forum site "Avatar Forums," a topic thread entitled "Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible," has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope. The topic became so popular last month that forum administrator Philippe Baghdassarian had to create a second thread so people could continue to post their confused feelings about the movie.
"I wasn't depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy ," Baghdassarian said. "But I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don't have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed."
A post by a user called Elequin expresses an almost obsessive relationship with the film.
"That's all I have been doing as of late, searching the Internet for more info about 'Avatar.' I guess that helps. It's so hard I can't force myself to think that it's just a movie, and to get over it, that living like the Na'vi will never happen. I think I need a rebound movie," Elequin posted.
So what's going on with this movie - why does it provoke such a massive reaction?
Let me warn the reader up front: if you hated the movie, you're not going to like my analysis of it any better. Also, I'm going to go very long in this series. The reason is this: in my view, the movie is operating mainly on the mythological level, and is tapping into powerful psychological archetypes and themes that for most people are largely unconscious. So folks have no idea what just hit them when they walk out the theater, whether whooping jubilantly, crying hysterically, or angrily seething. I think Cameron is doing this, at least in part, deliberately, though he may not have realized the full power of what he was playing with - I very much doubt, for example, that he intended for some of his viewers to end up depressed and with suicidal ideations.
Given this, it's impossible for me to explain or talk about the movie without breaking out my inner Jungian, which I haven't done in public before. I don't see how to talk with any depth about this movie without using Jung's concept of the shadow (the concept is really Freud's in outline but the term is Jung's and it is Jung's formulation of it that will be most relevant here). That, in turn, requires that I justify myself, since Jung is not very scientifically respectable these days, and as a card-carrying member of the PhD-graph-wielding-rationocracy, I feel the need to justify my views at length to some of my likely suspicious readers.
But let's try to work into this in easy stages. Let's start with the political viewpoint of the movie. When I watched it the first time, I was amazed that I was watching a major Hollywood movie with such a radical message, expressed so overtly. The movie doesn't go in for a lot of moral ambiguity: it's really clear that Sully, Trudy, Grace and the Na'vi are the good guys, who we are expected to view as moral and heroic. Meanwhile, Quaritch and Parker Selfridge are the bad guys, who we are expected to see as in the wrong. Let's break down a bit what the moral rules are behind the behavior of the characters. I took away the following points:
- It's wrong to desecrate natural beauty in order to get natural resources (the bulldozers destroying the Tree of Voices are clearly in the wrong in the movie's moral universe).
- It's wrong to displace native people in order to get natural resources (even Parker is shown shaken and uncertain of himself at what is required to get the Na'vi away from their Home Tree).
- Native people are more spiritually advanced and morally better than civilized people (the main arc of Jake's spiritual growth in the movie is to become one of them).
- If civilized people do, nonetheless, come to desecrate the natural environment and take the resources, native people are justified in violently resisting that effort (this is what the Na'vi do, and we are encouraged to root for them).
- If you, as a member of the civilized society, find yourself in the position of being part of such a resource extraction effort, the morally correct thing to do is turn traitor to your own society and help the native people in their violent resistance (the moment when Trudy says "I didn't sign up for this shit" and turns her guns on her own side).
- Civilization is destroying all other life on the Earth (the movie reports that Earth is no longer a green planet by 2154).
If you want to place this viewpoint on the contemporary political spectrum, I think you have to go out past liberal democratic environmentalists, past the Green Party, past Earth First, and out to the Earth Liberation Front. In fact, I think one of the clearer expositions of the moral viewpoint of the characters in Avatar was this:
183. But an ideology, in order to gain enthusiastic support, must haveThat's from the Unabomber's manifesto. We put him in jail because he started killing technologists, stating as his reason that he hated industrial society and wanted to return to a more natural and free state of humanity. He was less successful in the execution than Jake/Trudy/Grace and the Na'vi - who actually succeed in ejecting Parker and Co. from Pandora - but it seems to me that the moral logic is exactly the same. Nature good, technology bad, violent opposition justified.
a positive ideals well as a negative one; it must be FOR something as
well as AGAINST something. The positive ideal that we propose is
Nature. That is , WILD nature; those aspects of the functioning of the
Earth and its living things that are independent of human management
and free of human interference and control. And with wild nature we
include human nature, by which we mean those aspects of the
functioning of the human individual that are not subject to regulation
by organized society but are products of chance, or free will, or God
(depending on your religious or philosophical opinions).
184. Nature makes a perfect counter-ideal to technology for several
reasons. Nature (that which is outside the power of the system) is the
opposite of technology (which seeks to expand indefinitely the power
of the system). Most people will agree that nature is beautiful;
certainly it has tremendous popular appeal. The radical
environmentalists ALREADY hold an ideology that exalts nature and
opposes technology.  It is not necessary for the sake of nature to
set up some chimerical utopia or any new kind of social order. Nature
takes care of itself: It was a spontaneous creation that existed long
before any human society, and for countless centuries many different
kinds of human societies coexisted with nature without doing it an
excessive amount of damage. Only with the Industrial Revolution did
the effect of human society on nature become really devastating. To
relieve the pressure on nature it is not necessary to create a special
kind of social system, it is only necessary to get rid of industrial
society. Granted, this will not solve all problems. Industrial society
has already done tremendous damage to nature and it will take a very
long time for the scars to heal. Besides, even pre-industrial
societies can do significant damage to nature. Nevertheless, getting
rid of industrial society will accomplish a great deal. It will
relieve the worst of the pressure on nature so that the scars can
begin to heal. It will remove the capacity of organized society to
keep increasing its control over nature (including human nature).
Whatever kind of society may exist after the demise of the industrial
system, it is certain that most people will live close to nature,
because in the absence of advanced technology there is not other way
that people CAN live. To feed themselves they must be peasants or
herdsmen or fishermen or hunter, etc., And, generally speaking, local
autonomy should tend to increase, because lack of advanced technology
and rapid communications will limit the capacity of governments or
other large organizations to control local communities.
So, you might want to stop a minute and ask yourself: how exactly does Cameron get mainstream American audiences to root for the Unabomber side in this conflict?
That's quite a trick, isn't it?
No, STOP before you skim over this point. I really want you think about it: do you approve of the Unabomber's actions? If not, but you liked the movie, do you know how Cameron got you to root for that side?
Stated quite so baldly, and stripped of the dressing of stunning CGI and exciting action sequences, I think it's clear that the movie's moral position is a rather extreme and absolutist position. Extracting resources from the natural environment and turning them into tangible wealth or capital - houses and their furnishings, wagons/cars, workshops/factories/offices is what civilizations do. It's not an accidental or optional feature of civilization that could easily be dispensed with if we were only a little more reasonable. Instead, it's absolutely basic to the nature of the beast. Ever since the Natufians started building houses and farming wild grasses, through the Sumerians irrigating the Mesopotamian plains, and the Romans deforesting the Italian countryside and mining Britain, to our modern extraction of all manner of metals and fossil fuels from the earth, cutting of forests for timber, and farming of most of the best soils on the planet, civilizations have extracted resources and done so in ever increasing quantities.
The process generally isn't pretty:
Now, it can be done with more or less concern for the side-effects and the environmental impact. It can be done faster or slower. We can choose to leave some portions of the natural environment alone. We can choose to fix up the sites of our natural resource extraction afterward. We can (and should!) control our emissions. But if billions of us want to live in warm houses, still less drive cars, carry computers and iPhones, or read books and watch movies, then it's a given that somewhere there must be huge machines digging up the ground and big saws cutting down trees:
...and all the rest of the ugly panoply. Houses and cars cannot be summoned out of thin air. There's about three thousand board-feet of lumber in a 1000 square foot American house, and 130 million housing units in this country. There's no way that could possibly have been done without cutting down a hell of a lot of trees. The details are different in other developed countries, but the general idea is the same. You, the reader, sitting right now in your more-or-less comfortable surroundings, reading these words on the metal-and-plastic computer, own a part share in the moral responsibility for all of this, as do I.
And given that there were hunter-gatherer tribes in pretty much every remotely usable habitat on planet Earth before the invention of agriculture and civilization, it's also a given that almost all expansion of civilization comes at the expense of these people, who are either displaced or co-opted in some fashion. Neolithic farmers displaced the neolithic hunter gatherers in Europe, European settlers did very unpleasant things to the native Americans dressed up in rationalizations about Manifest Destiny, and the exact same processes are alive and well today from the jungles of the Amazon to Indonesia.
Civilizations pretty much all have some idea of property rights and the view that taking things by force without some kind of legal process is not generally right and proper, and yet they could not exist had they not originally taken the jungles/swamps/plains/forests/mountains/rivers/beaches from some native tribe that was already there before. And, this almost always has to be done by some combination of force and trickery. It's a kind of original sin at the very beating heart of civilization.
I use the loaded phrase original sin advisedly: I suggest it's perhaps not an accident that in the Old Testament, the original sin is to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, become aware of one's nakedness, and then be cast out of the garden of Eden. This can be seen as a metaphor for the transition from hunter-gathering to that of civilization, with all its complex rules for maintaining the social order, and it's less-than-Edenic effects on the natural environment.
So when Avatar poses the situation of what happens when an industrial civilization runs into a tribe of hunter gatherers and wants resources from under their land, it's not a fringe irrelevant concern. It's basic to the nature of civilization that this kind of thing happens, and what are we going to do? When is it justified?
So I suggest that's what it means to take the movie's politics literally. In the rest of the series, I'll argue that the movie shouldn't be taken that literally, and should be thought about mainly on the mythological level, which I'll try to explain as best I can determine it.