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A Viewing of ‘Avatar’

I’ve just been to see Avatar, the new James Cameron 3D science-fiction movie blockbuster, here in Sydney where I am on a short conference and family visit. It was an intriguing evening in the cinema, especially given what was happening out there in the ‘real world’: the sorry and disappointing non-agreement from the Copenhagen climate change talks was struggling to gain some kind of limited endorsement from the UN Assembly.

Technology aside (the 3D visuals are of course breathtaking and technically very impressive), much of Avatar is standard contemporary mass entertainment aimed at the usual youth demographic. The central message though is an anti-colonial one in which a ruthless corporation from Earth is attempting to subjugate and exploit a peaceful, harmonious planet (“Pandora”). Life on Pandora is centred around a religion of ecological awareness and intimate connection between humanoids (the Na’vi), animals and plants. The film’s hero, Jake Sully, is a former US marine who has inhabited the body (the ‘avatar’ of the title) of one of the athletic blue nine-foot high Na’vi. He switches sides and leads the defeat of the Earth’s helicopter gunships and other high technology at the head of a motley collection of tribal dragon-riders armed mostly with bows and arrows.

There are similarities between Cameron’s film and Ursula LeGuin’s 1972 novella, The Word for World Is Forest, a book I wrote about many years ago in a paper on anthropology and science fiction. Le Guin’s story featured little green men, not tall blue ones, and a less upbeat ending, but the central story was much the same, including the shamanic technology, and the ecofeminist vision of a planet whose plant life formed a single vast conscious organism. Le Guin’s people had to learn to kill, however; the Na’vi are already quite effective warriors, even if they prefer to avoid killing when possible.

Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film, Princess Mononoke (1997) makes another interesting comparison, with a similar plot (here set in the past) about early industrialism destroying a harmonious forest-centred society. Avatar has pretty obvious visual echoes of Miyazaki’s movie, especially in the fight scenes between soldiers and forest animals. Both Le Guin’s novella and Miyazaki’s movie are more morally complex than the James Cameron movie, but perhaps a more important difference is the size of the audience: James Cameron’s last movie was Titanic, and Avatar is clearly aiming at a repeat of that film’s massive success. Not that Princess Mononoke did badly; it was the highest-grossing movie in Japan before Titanic came along later the same year. If nothing else, a lot of people are seeing these films and encountering this particular ecological message.

There are plenty of other cinematic echoes in Cameron’s film. The Lothlorien scenes in Lord of the Rings come to mind; another magical forest people threatened by the military-industrial complex. The world of Star Wars with its general mise-en-scene of mystically-inclined warriors from a heavily forested planet fighting the good fight against the Evil Empire often feels close at hand.

For an anthropologist, Na’vi culture is on the thin side. Their major shamanic ritual involves a lot of swaying and chanting which looks as if it is modelled on Balinese kecak, a ritual dance form largely invented for tourists in the 1930’s. The difficult issue of the nature of the psychic bond between Na’vi and their environment is fudged by having them plug in physically to their horse and dragon mounts and to the tree which conveys messages from their ancestors. We are left with some ambiguity as to whether we are dealing with mystical participation or a biologically-evolved computer connection.

The avatar theme is another intriguing side of James Cameron’s new movie. There are plenty of echoes here of the use of avatars in computer games and other on-line contexts. I find this aspect of the film somewhat troubling. Jake Sully chooses at the end of the movie to remain an avatar rather than return to his ‘normal’ life. Since he’s paralyzed from the waist down in his human form, and his avatar has by this stage mated with the daughter of the tribal leader and become a planetary hero, that’s an understandable enough decision, but then being paralysed from the waist down could be a fair enough analogy for spending much of your life in virtual reality.

This side of Avatar also picks up on some of The Matrix‘s problematic appropriation of Asian philosophy. It’s one thing to assert that much of our experience of life is a largely illusory construction, another to imply that the underlying ‘reality’ is a straightforward Manichaean struggle between goodies and baddies. In the end, that is Avatar‘s message as well. Here some of Miyazaki’s moral subtlety might have made Avatar a more interesting film, and a more valuable educational experience for its younger viewers. For all the visually-stunning 3D colour visuals, Avatar‘s fundamental story is in black and white. As the unfolding events in Copenhagen have been demonstrating, reality is rarely that simple.

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