Monday, January 18, 2010

17. "Avatar" Blues

By Kamran Nayeri, January 8, 2010

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a hot topic in popular culture these days. Its 3D technology offers a scenic delight and, as of this writing, it has brought in $1.4 billion in ticket sales. There also are reports of “Avatar” blues in the media. Thousands are reported to have become depressed after seeing the movie, some contemplating suicide. Typical is Ian Hill, a 17 year old student from Sweden, who told CNN: “"One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality.”

A similar, milder, yet milder reaction is probably more common among millions of viewers. A middle-aged friend from Costa Rica wrote to me that she cried when U.S. Marines destroyed the “Tree of Life” where the Na’vi people resided. A biologist, she identifies strongly with the “Tree of Life” on this plant currently under siege. I too felt choked up when the U.S. Marine forces set the beautiful Na’vi habitat ablaze. Millions probably identified with a fictional ecocenteric humanoid society and wilderness that Pandora represents. These depart radically from our daily grind of our society at war with itself and with Mother Nature.

Let me explain in more detail.

It is clear from the outset that Cameron wanted “Avatar” to speak against U.S. exploitation of native people and their natural resources. The movie also speaks against corporate greed and militarism.

The story is set somewhere in the space in 2154, some years after Earth has been destroyed by plunder, climate change and disease. However, capitalism survives in the outer space. A space station circling Pandora includes a scientific group and a military command assisting the corporate staff preoccupied with putting its hand on a highly prized mineral found in Pandora. However, Pandora is inhibited by beautiful, blue skinned, 10 foot tall, dreadlock wearing Na’vi people. It so happens that the region the Na’vi people reside sits on top of the much-prized mineral. The corporate strategy is to move the Na’vi people using “carrots,” or if need be, “sticks.” To get this done, a technology is employed by which human DNA is mixed with Na’vi DNA to create a Na’vi body that can be controlled by the donating human when placed inside a special chamber in the space station. These avatars are to help the corporate strategists reach their goal.

Jake Sulley, a Marine who has lost his legs in a previous war, is part of a group that serves as avatars. Two others are Grace (the head scientist) and her assistant Norm. In his first adventure on Pandora, avatar Jake gets lost and has to spend the night in the forest. He is soon besieged by various animals and finds himself in mortal danger. However, Neyriti, the daughter of Na’vi tribal leaders, saves Jake’s life and takes him to her people.

The Na’vi tribe appears similar in many ways to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. They have a deep spiritual bond with their land and all its beings. Through the medium of 3D technology, the audience in drawn into the Na’vi’s world. Jake and others who are exposed to the Na’vi and their world are similarly drawn to it. In contrast, the culture in the space station is a repulsive mixture of corporate greed and brute militarism with no respect for the beautiful Pandora and its species. Their instrumentalism is even echoed when Grace, the scientists, responds to every wonder of Pandora by a command: “take me a sample of that!” Life on Pandora appears as means to the space station’s groups’ goals and not an end in itself.

While this is clearly a dream world, the movie does not really depart much from life on present day Earth. Yes, technology appears to be much more advanced. But human relations on the space station are very similar to the capitalist world we live in, in the U.S., but also elsewhere. Upon closer inspection, Pandora’s nature is also very similar to what we can find on Earth—animals and plants included.

The only significant difference lies in Na’vi life and how it relates to rest of Pandora’s nature. The notion of human superiority and the derive to control and dominate nature is scaled back. The Na’vi people live in harmony with their surrounding. Their tribal structure seems somewhat egalitarian or at least does not project social conflict. It is this that finally wins the hearts and minds of Jake, Grace and Norm and a couple of others from the space station. So, they willingly join in the defensive war of the Na’vi against the invading U.S. forces. Even though their arms a far inferior to the Marines, the Na’vi overcome them when Pandora nature rebels against the invaders. As Grace, the scientist, notices, it is as if the entire forest in one living organism. It is a familiar idea—like the Gaia theory of the planet Earth.

Depression sets in for some people when they return to the daily reality grind of capitalism and environmental destruction it brings and find themselves politically helpless. This year we reach a watershed: about half the Earth’s population will be living in urban center away from access to any significant natural setting. Otherwise, it is easy to see that Earth’s nature, where it has not been decimated, is far more beautiful than any fictional imagery.

What is needed is to find a way to replace capitalism with a democratic and egalitarian society, i.e., to radically transform our social relations, and to replace our anthropocentric approach to the rest of the nature with an ecocenteric one. At the same time, we can begin this transformation by the way each and every one of us live. The two process are intertwined and both necessary to change the world. And, this is the promise of ecosocialism.


frmurph1 said...

Kamran Nayeri said...

Thank you Fred. I also urge everyone to read the article "Luminous 3-D Jungle Is Biologist's Dream" in today's New York Times.

Robin said...

I agree that it basically has an o.k. message. I want to voice criticism of Avatar as a film.

To be clear, I was not impressed nor drawn into the film, unlike most, but not all people. Therefore, what I say has to be taken with a grain of salt, meaning some of what I say is out of anger.

I thought it was, as a film, absolutely awful, even for Hollywood standards. Much too long, incredibly poor quality dialogue, very much an orgy of special effects, leaving nothing subtle. This applies to the plotting of the story, one that is predictable, with good and bad painted white and black. The economist wants also to look at how much resources were poured into the production of the film, and for what? Let's also remember the tragedy of Haiti.

I did not appreciate the ethnic stereotyping of the natives on the planet, clearly a combination of "African" and Native American - noble savage - sources. Recall also that the natives on the blue planet did not liberate themselves. That required the intervention of well-meaning liberals from the imperial planet.

I am aware that being an effective radical requires working at whatever level of consciousness society currently tends. Given that, perhaps it will stimulate or reinforce critical thinking about the war on terror and the environmental crisis.

Kamran Nayeri said...

Thanks Robin. The piece I wrote was neither a film critique nor a statement of what I like or dislike about Avatar. It was rather a suggestion that the reported "Avatar" Blues or the fleeing of empathy with the Na'vi culture or Pandora's nature probably is a reflection of our longing for a less alienated world.

I have read leftist critique of Avatar. But there is mostly rightist attacks on it. See today's New York Times front page article ( here:

Cameron himself says that Avatar has a broad environmental message.