Avatar is touted by some as an environmental movie, and thus several people encouraged me to see it. And in some ways it is, but not in the most instructive, sophisticated or inspiring of ways.
I see three over-arching themes in this movie, none of which leaves me particularly upbeat:
1) yes, there is an environmental, nature-is-not-commodity message
2) there is an anti-colonial, anti-rapacious bully invader message
3) and there is pro multi-cultural message including cross-racial romance
It is the subtext of these messages, however, that disturbs.
Let’s start with the last point:
3) One of the grand messages of the movie is that tribalism is both a blessing and a danger. Allegiance to one’s own group is an expected, even necessary, aspect of survival, but it should not be pursued at the expense of demonizing or oppressing or patronizing the other. The movie however fails to show us how we can reach across demographic lines and embrace the other and even love the other, without betraying those we come from. The story depicts a world in which personal identity is either/or, with loyalty to one group leading to alienation from the other. That is hardly a message of hope in this already fractious world. Rather I would have loved to have seen a story that allows us to both take pride in our identities and heritage and transcend our prejudices and commingle in a harmonious civilization.
2) The invaders in the movie - the folks we in the audience first identify with - are depicted as gluttonous interlopers using ugly brute force to steal the natural resources from this foreign land and the land’s indigenous inhabitants. In an effort to take what they want simply because they want it, the invaders are prepared to destroy an entire ecological community, including all the living creatures that rely on it, and the civilization that thrives in its midst. You can’t argue with the moral message embedded here. It is clear who the good guys and who the bad guys are.
Which is why it is somewhat alarming that right-wing commentators such as John Nolte and John Podhoretz (as reported in the Baltimore Sun) lambast the film precisely on these points. If we cannot recognize and acknowledge the places where we have unleashed our destructive, excessive appetite, then we are a poor and dangerous nation indeed. Thankfully, most movie-goers who have made Avatar the fourth highest grossing movie of all time don’t have any trouble telling the good guys from the bad guys.
1) Then we come to the environmental message. Yes, the movie tries to teach us that all creation is bound together in one interwoven network of life, pulsing with a vibrancy that transcends the daily dramas of life and death. But it also seems to tell us that we must choose between advanced civilization: hospitals, stores, mass transportation, literature, museums, etc on the one hand, and living in concert with the rest of nature on the other; that we must either remain happy primitives living directly off the land, relying on our individual and immediate relations with nature to survive, or we will become ruthless, heartless predators consuming all within reach. This is neither an accurate nor helpful message. We needed to see soaring models of both social and ecological flourishing, with the human being fully human living in harmony with other species, races, types and the natural, unhurried flow of the physical world.
It would have been better if James Cameron spent a bit more of his immense talent and money on that.