According to Miranda Devine, one of Australia’s loony right newspaper commentators, watching AVATAR felt like being “hit with a leftie sledgehammer”. It appears that in America too, the loony right has been severely irked by the immense popularity of James Cameron’s epic hi-tech science fiction film. Devine tips her hat to the talent involved in the visual art of the technological advances in the film; but she can’t stand its ideology. This is the same syndrome exhibited by the US loony right. Devine gives a list of the film’s alleged leftie clichés where she includes “Humans bad”, “Capitalism bad”, “America bad” and “noble savages good”. One example from the US is American loony right commentator John Podhoretz, of the Weekly Standard’s film critic, complaining that the “conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism.”
I think it is not hard to see why the film is so popular – almost already the most popular film ever. It is stunning visually, luminescent, beautiful and realistic despite the sense of fantasy. In the context of 21st century imperialism, it is also a fundamentally realistic depiction of the reality of how power works and what motivates it. Some critics, including on the Left, have mentioned how throwing in the phrase “shock and awe”, when the mining company’s private army decides to attack the Na’vi peoples habitat on the planet Pandora, may grate as too crude. But shock and awe – the deployment of overwhelming firepower at all levels against an enemy – IS a real characteristic of contemporary imperialism, even down to the video games used to prepare children to see it as normal.
The film is not directly challenging although it contains some disguised indirect challenges. The plot is familiar now as the corrupt and violent corporation is the villain in a myriad of films. So too is the renegade hero – someone who deserts the oppressor’s side to fight against them. The depiction of the oppressed too is not unfamiliar in the liberal romanticisation of a pre-technological people, still at one with Mother Nature and with each other (more-or-less). In these regards, Cameron’s creation at the level of plot and characterization are only moderately above the norm for Hollywood. It is their visualization that lifts it to the higher level.
At the same time there are some metaphors in the film, or rather a single metaphor with double aspects, where both the film’s ideological strong and weak points are located. This is not the part of the plot where the renegade human assumes leadership of the Na’vi as this does not take place as a result of the human’s possession of something superior to the Na’vi, but rather his discovery that he can only be truly human by becoming fully one of them, fighting oppression and defending solidarity. Furthermore, his conversion, his partisanship is total, as he becomes physically an alien, unable ever to return to the other side. In this respect, Devine’s inventory item “humans are bad” misses the point. In Cameron’s film both the humans and aliens are in fact human – it just that those humans assimilated into the culture of capitalism have lost their humanity.
The more contradictory – and interesting – metaphor is embodied in the materiality of Pandora’s equivalent of Gaia – a mother nature “deity”. I place deity in quotation marks because in the film this “deity” is not spirit, nor a supernatural being. Cameron’s fantasy planet is indeed physically one, united by a network of neural-style tendons and fine tentacles. Everything is spiritually interlinked because it is materially interlinked. This is a wonderful fantasy metaphor for the real physical interlinkedness of the human habitat of Earth. The necessity for a spiritual solidarity among humans and with the earth, that can only be manifested in collective activity in defence of the human habitat will be destroyed and humanity with it. A beautiful natural world and the capacity to behold its beauty will disappear if humans disappear or are forced back into a state of barbarity. Through the visual metaphor of the united physical neural network Cameron gives “Mother Earth” a material meaning.
At the same time, this metaphor allows a logic which provides a resolution to the conflict between humanity-less corporation and humanity-filled Pandorans which contains a disguised and dangerous element. The Na’vi raise up in united action, taking up arms too, to fight their enemy when it moves in on them for a final onslaught. The film comes out on the side of a united, collective, militant and even armed resistance (so much for flaky hippy ideology that Devine et al also accuse it of.)
However, despite the final scenes where the audience has the satisfaction of seeing the corporate-ised and militaristic humans being escorted off the planet by the Navi and their human allies, the film very vividly shows the rebellion of the Na’vi and their few human allies as failing, of being defeated. It is important not to miss this point. The corporatist military, with their shock and awe fire-power, were defeating the Na’vi’s resistance. Victory did not come from the Navi’s resistance. Victory was delivered by the last minute intervention of the planet itself as its real, physical consciousness directed its animal life to turn against the mercenaries.
In our 21st century reality, however, humanity will not be saved by nature – the reverse is true. Cameron’s film captures the surface reality of the shock and awe imperialism of the century and the connection between the materiality of the human-earth habitat connection and the spirituality – i.e. humanity and solidarity – needed to protect it, as well as the willingness to struggle. Much of this can be negated, however, while ultimate victory is depicted as depending on what in our reality would still be a miracle.