Untied States

Avatar, Art and Revolution

A Movie Review by Bonnie Weinstein


Written and directed by James Cameron. Cast members are Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoë Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (Carter Selfridge), Joel David Moore (Norm), C C H Pounder (Mo’at), Wes Studi (Eytukan) and Laz Alonso (Tsu’Tey).

It is not often that art and politics come together to dazzle the imagination and show what is and what can be. Some, like the Orwell classic, 1984 are prescient—exposing the inevitable character of future capitalism that has so astonishingly been repeated most recently by President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech. Some, like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (the novel and the film) not only exposes capitalism’s exploitation of the most downtrodden, but also reaffirms the power of the oppressed when they embrace solidarity and unity in the struggle for the common good. The film also packs a visually powerful punch. John Lennon’s Imagine—the music, poetry and video—reminds us of what a paradise sharing the Earth could be.

James Cameron’s Avatar does all this and more. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful films ever made. In fact, one of the most beautiful works of art. (I must add, here, that it must be viewed on an IMAX 3D screen. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the 3D visual effects are worth billions. Seeing it on a regular screen would be like reading a Reader’s Digest abridged version of a novel. A work of art must be considered in its whole form.) This is 3D like you’ve never imagined it could be.

The film has been criticized from the right for having a simplistic story line and dialogue consisting of nothing but “anti-imperialist clichés;” from the left for being racist—likening it to Tarzan, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Pocahontas. It’s also criticized for being an artistic contradiction between the favorable depiction of a seemingly primitive lifestyle in contrast to the highly technical nature of the production of the film itself—implying some sort of hypocrisy on Cameron’s part. I disagree with all these criticisms but I do have a few of my own.

“Simplistic anti-imperialist clichés”

The story line (and I’m not going to give the whole story away) is not only unambiguous—but it’s highly believable. Capitalist, profit-driven Earth, in the 22nd century, has plundered and used up its natural resources. Earth has been turned into a barren land run by corporations with mercenary armies vying for resources wherever they can find it, and find it they do, on a far-away planet they call Pandora.

Earth corporations discover “Unobtainium,” a precious mineral buried under Pandora’s lush and teaming-with-life rainforests and home to the ten-foot-tall Na’vi people, its indigenous and highly intelligent population. After having established a small base on Pandora, the corporation’s scientists create “avatars” from half human/half Na’vi DNA through genetic engineering, into which they can plant a fully conscious human. The avatars look identical to the Na’vi and can breathe the atmosphere of Pandora, which is fatal to humans. Humans must wear a breathing apparatus on Pandora or will die in a matter of minutes.

The purpose of the avatars is to infiltrate the Na’vi people and either convince them to move from the “Unobtainium” fields voluntarily or, to spy on them to move them by force.

It’s clear from the start that the corporations and their mercenary army have no faith that the Na’vi people will leave their land voluntarily. But they go along, superficially, with Earth scientists who want to give the avatars a chance to move the Na’vi people peacefully, just so they can gather the intelligence needed to destroy them.

Jake Sully, a paraplegic war veteran, was recruited to take the place of his identical twin brother, who had trained to be one of the avatars, and who was killed in a mugging. Jake Sully became the only candidate to do the job since his DNA was identical to his brother’s and, therefore, the only human compatible with his brother’s avatar. As an incentive for him to “take the job” of an under-cover mercenary operative, he is promised by his commanding officer, Colonel Miles Quaritch—not a stereotypic cliché of an imperialist military commander but a quintessential example of one—that the corporations will pay to have his legs restored to normal when the mission is completed. It’s explained from the outset that although they do have a cure for paraplegics in the 22nd century it’s very expensive and veteran’s benefits do not cover the procedure. This is what prompts Sully to take on the job his brother could not fulfill.

The dialogue and visual effects

The dialogue in the film serves to establish parameters and clarify the story line. The dialogue, it’s true, is not a vehicle for deep character development. Instead, it stands as a framework for the rich visual images that complete the story.

The rainforest of the Na’vi people is fantastically lush and filled with mostly beautiful, startling and sometimes terrifying life forms.

Cameron’s imagination went full-tilt, yet his creatures were clearly derived from the myriad of life forms on Earth—with twists—like horse-like animals with six legs that feed on nectar; and glowing, jelly-fish looking creatures—seeds from a sort of “tree of life” that can float in the air, land on any creature and transmit information about them to the trees. The roots of the trees interconnect with a massive underground network. The Na’vi people can also connect to and communicate with the trees as well as other animals. They can physically plug into other species with fine filaments that extend from the ends of their thick braids and that intertwine with similar structures in other species. The entire life-system of Pandora is interconnected.

Through these trees, the Na’vi can actually speak with “Eywa”—the life force that the Earthlings have labeled the Na’vi God. But, as apposed to human Gods, Eywa can actually talk back. And although the dead cannot come to life again, they can communicate and offer advice and guidance to their living offspring. The trees also have healing powers drawn from the planet itself. Fine filaments come up out of the ground and engulf the injured or sick life placed under the trees, either to heal, or absorb their life energy in Eywa for all time.

There is stupendous variety of form, color and pattern in the plants and other species. Many of the plants and animals are phosphorescent—including the Na’vi people who have tiny phosphorescent spots on their faces. Each individual has his or her own, non-random, decorative pattern of spots. This makes not only for dramatic scenes in the forest—a veritable light show of beauty and fantastic creatures including the Na’vi—but clearly shows the Na’vi as unique individuals. The new digital photography techniques Cameron developed helped to further define this individuality. Each of the Na’vi has the distinct features and facial expressions of emotions of their human actors.

Sully trains closely with scientist and developer of the avatars, Dr. Grace Augustine. She does not want to see a military solution and doesn’t take seriously the goal of convincing the Na’vi to move voluntarily. Her motive is her scientific curiosity to understand this newly discovered planet and its mysterious life network. She has no interest in “Unobtainium” or in displacing the Na’vi. She would rather just study them as they are without interference. But she can’t speak of this openly since the company is funding her avatar project.

The first time Sully inhabits his avatar he’s ecstatic. Not only is he ten feet tall and strong as an ox (the Na’vi have silicone-based bones far stronger than the bones of Earthlings) but he can walk again.

He wakes up in a hospital bed and feels himself pulsate with the energy of his new avatar body. Against the advice of the medical personnel he leaps out of bed, stumbling on his new legs and trying to balance his huge body. But he easily breezes past hospital security and out into the Pandoran landscape. He runs full-tilt into the forest to gain a feel for his new legs and promptly falls off a cliff. But miraculously, he lands safely on the bottom of the forest floor. (As it turns out, without knowing it, he actually “falls” upon a means of transport in the forest.) But, he is now out of contact with the base and Dr. Augustine and alone in this new world—and ignorant about it. This is where his education begins.

While he is in the avatar, his human form remains on the base inside a capsule, asleep. When he is awakened out of the capsule, his avatar suddenly goes to sleep and he is awake on the base.

Tarzan, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Pocahontas

I don’t want to give the whole movie away. But the criticism that the film is a re-run of the “great white hope” theme—that the ignorant natives must depend on the “white man/turned avatar/turned Na’vi” to deliver them to safety is simplistic. Sully is no Tarzan bringing “magic” gifts to the ignorant natives to get them to accept the “good white hunters.” Nor does he act as a go-between between the “good natives and good white men” like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. And there is no Pocahontas leading Earth settlers to colonize new lands on Pandora. (No one, by the way, can claim this film is sexist. Na’vi women are portrayed as equal partners to the men—just as intelligent, strong and agile and, by the way, far more capable than Sully.)

Sully has to be taught. Then he must prove himself. And while it’s true that he rises to leadership status among the Na’vi it is not so he can change them or make them adapt to the presence of Earthlings. On the contrary, he changes sides to drive the Earthlings away. Sully wins none of these battles single-handedly. His material advantage is that he knows the Earthling’s weaknesses and knows how the Na’vi can use these weaknesses to save their planet.

And Sully knows how ruthless the corporations and their mercenary army really are. After the first attempt of the Na’vi to go up against Earth weapons with only their bows and arrows, Colonel Quaritch declares, “We’re gonna fight terror with terror.” Any ambiguity about the brutal force the Colonel intends to use against the Na’vi—in clear reference to the launching of the “shock and awe” air campaign that began the war against Iraq March 20, 2003—is dispelled.

On primitivism and technology

There are obvious similarities between the Na’vi people and the indigenous populations of Earth—not just in their overall “tribal” appearance—but their similar experience of being exterminated, dispossessed and oppressed for profit.

The Na’vi are not that primitive either. After all, they have instant neural-network communication with others—even other species. They have, so to speak, (I don’t want to give it away) domesticated animals for travel on land and air. They have conquered hunger and starvation and live in a land of plenty—a veritable Utopia.

Cameron’s groundbreaking 3D technology makes it possible for the viewer to experience this intensely. One of the early scenes of the film is Sully pushing himself in his wheelchair off the space transport ship and into the corporation’s mining base-camp. The camp is located on an already barren strip-mined section of land surrounded by chain-link fences topped by barbed razor wire. They have giant strip-mining machines as big as apartment buildings. A security force of giant, two-legged, super-robot weapons of mass destruction protects the base. As in the film, Aliens, these robots are controlled by mercenary soldiers who sit inside them. There are helicopter-like vehicles that carry artillery; and ground, and air transport vehicles that can launch torpedoes, bunker busters and daisy cutters. They are ugly. Life-killers. Capitalism’s legacy.

Cameron’s stroke of genius was to contrast this brutal ugliness to the most pristine, lush, intricately layered, stunningly and strangely realistic and beautiful landscapes. In every niche and cranny the most wonderful and beautiful life forms add their balance to Pandoran nature. The visual contrast between Earth’s death-machines and Pandora’s lush life exposes the brutality of war far more powerfully than any words could. Technology tells this story.

The feeling of being in the midst of the beauty of this natural habitat reaffirms the audience’s allegiance to the Na’vi people–it’s what makes us root for them. The physical, and biological inter-connection between this sentient living world suggests fantastic and imaginative possibilities for the future of humanity and life on Earth.

Imagine if we could plug into a whale and know how it feels trying to survive in increasingly polluted seas? Or the joy it feels when surfing through pristine waters. Perhaps it will be possible one day to develop a kind of “biological technology” that will interconnect Earth species. Perhaps Pandora’s biologically wired network was the result of the Na’vi’s own genetic engineering—changing themselves to suite the environment instead of the other way around.

Filming the audience viewpoint

The filming places the audience into this new world in a new way. The painstakingly created, multilayered, 3D images on the giant IMAX screen seem to transport the viewer right into the film. It’s so real that I found myself batting fireflies from my peripheral view. The viewpoint of the camera and the characters on the screen are in proportion to the audience. The 3D envelops us, pulls us in, and transforms us into Na’vi people—finally, a movie that shows what its like from the other side of the torpedo!

If there is a criticism of this technology, it’s that we have to go to a 3D science fiction movie just to get a glimpse of a virtual rainforest. And how much longer will there be real rainforests on Earth? Will Cameron’s Avatar be our closest example of one in the near future?

Some criticism

Again, without giving too much away, I think that there could have been more resistance among the ranks of the mercenaries written into the story. The mercenaries were a part of, or had witnessed from the base, a particularly brutal attack on the Na’vi people and one of their most cherished trees. Many watching from the base were shown to have looks of horror on their faces as they observed the destruction they were responsible for. For this reason I hoped there would have been more of an uprising among those ranks than the film told.

I also thought there were too many fighting scenes. And some of them went on too long. I would rather of had more visions of the beauty of the forest and its network. I would like to have spent more time there. Experiencing this fantastic world felt like the satiation of hunger. We are green-starved! As the old Joni Mitchell song goes, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The relevance of art

Art is a window into reality when it’s really good, as this film is. It can play an important role in revolution because it speaks the universal language of human emotion. At its best it can truthfully show us who we are and what we look like objectively.

No one comes out of this film rooting for Colonel Quaritch because we know he’s no cliche. The drones are flying now. The bombs are dropping now. The corporations, their military and their mercenaries are carrying out assassinations, murders, kidnappings, the building of walls of separation, the oil drilling and strip-mining, water stealing, selling off of the rainforests, carbon-trading, polluting and plundering. All these things are happening now and for the very same reason—for the sole benefit of the very few who profit from the private accumulation of masses of amounts of “Unobtainium” at the expense of life itself.

This film may not make people revolutionaries. But is can reaffirm who’s side we should be on.

It’s a revolutionary feast for the soul.