J.T. Welsch

Avatar (2009), dir. James Cameron

According to the inverse law of action movie length vs. depth, every too familiar nuance of this nearly three-hour ‘epic’ can be recounted in a couple of breaths: A disabled ex-soldier is sent in to improve relations with an indigenous population who stand in the way of some economically precious natural resource. Inevitably, he grows to love the savages, the whole community and the daughter of the chief in particular, so much so that when his technologically advanced side gives up on diplomacy and invades, he can’t help leading the resistance. The ever-prescient South Park has already beaten me to the punch here, flagging up the two most trite resonances in a recent South Park episode called ‘Dances with Smurfs,’ in reference to the identical plot of Costner’s even longer epic and the pretty color of Cameron’s “Na’Vi” people. (I’m also not the only one to have caught echoes of a 1992 animated film called “FernGully: The Last Rainforest”.)

As a pure piece of entertainment, after all the hype and early hyperbole from the high priests Stevens Spielberg and Soderbergh, Avatar does not fail to disappoint. A more difficult question, however, which has been niggling me since the sold-out crowd began applauding the end credits last Friday night, is more ethical than aesthetic. By now, we all know that the advances in 3-D filmmaking on display here are certain to change cinema as we know it, whatever that might mean. But what about the content? A number of right-wing critics have condemned what they see as the film’s “anti-American” plot, and director James Cameron has also been playing up an allegorical relationship to the Iraq War.

So one question might be “Just how progressive is it?” Not very, I think. For all the superficial “critique” of galactic imperialism, and the ostensibly green agenda written into a plot about people just trying to save their sacred trees, and without a whiff of irony, Avatar is just as grossly xenophobic, sexist, ageist, and homophobic as you’d expect from a purportedly $600 gazillion sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster. As many other critics have also already pointed out, a gauche, Conradian otherness is woven into every aspect of the design of the subaltern sub-human race here – a totally different species, complete with prehensile devil’s tail and the abovementioned blueness. And yet, the question bugging me is partly this: Would we be chasing our own tail to spend even more than the film’s running time dissecting the ignorant conflation of African and native North and South American signifiers attributed to the very “spiritual”, animalistic, and crudely sexualized Na’vi?

To this end, the postcolonial-minded critic has much obvious fodder in these aspects, down to the number of fingers on the Na’vi’s hands – only four, it seems, as opposed to the full set for the white impersonator’s otherwise perfect genetically-engineered “avatars”. Likewise, contrary to the reputation Cameron supposedly built with earlier projects such as “Terminator” and “Dark Angel”, feminist critics can deal with the irony of Sigourney “Ripley” Weaver’s utterly ineffectual “strong female” alongside the director’s discussion in this month’s Playboy of the chief’s daughter CGI “tits”. (Rest assured, he tells us, nipple shots removed for the PG-13/12A rating will be reinserted for DVD.)

Furthermore, those specifically interested in the ideology of sexual identity can add Avatar to the long list of blockbusters in which a hero’s journey to true manhood is ratified by a silly on-screen consummation of heterosexual norms. Critics looking for ageist biases will have plenty to say about the creepily uniform age (25ish?) of the entire Na’vi population. And, to boot, those viewing as critics of disabilities narratives will be eager to note the plot’s dependence on the paraplegic protagonist’s assumed resentment of his condition.

Despite all of these valid grounds for dismissal of a film that I have already dismissed on the grounds of lax entertainment value, I would suggest, however cynically, that to expect any better from a film with such box office ambitions is to indulge in another kind sort of self-delusion. Thus, while other reviews take these specific aspects (and others) to task, my own critique, and the thing I have realized most annoyed me about this film, is its general attitude towards “science.”

Far too familiarly, a small bunch of brave scientists is meant to function as the ethical core of Avatar, both in their resistance to the ruthless corporatism of “the company” which is anxious from the start to send in hired guns, and in their humanitarian efforts on the ground. Despite the heavy-handed liberal parable, the real message throughout this film – in its content as well as its groundbreaking form – is that “science” is inherently on the side of morality, power, and truth, and in direct opposition to mindless militaristic factions. Beyond the assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, and so on, this faith in scientific reason is the one thing never even superficially questioned in Avatar. As Cameron argues in the same Playboy interview, “You can’t write a review of the laws of thermodynamics.” Yet I would argue that the idea of science’s infallibility is very much related to the more plainly problematic cultural assumptions mentioned above, and in many ways just as insidious.

The basic problem becomes glaringly apparent in the plot’s great blind spots regarding the complicity of “science” in the evil corporate military schemes. No one dares to mention the fact that the valiant scientists are on the same payroll, or, more broadly, the science behind the technology fueling the Company’s imperialism, both in terms of weaponry and whatever the use for the rare mineral on this distant planet might be. Of course, throughout American culture, the suggestion of any direct relationship between repressive ideologies and the unwavering faith in technological progress has been just as unmentionable since probably even before the nuking of Japan was willfully obscured by the glorious defeat of those industrious Nazis. It’s an extreme comparison, but this is precisely the hypocritical narrative Cameron seems to be tapping into.

Only slightly more distinctively, the film’s reverence for the authority of science is also explicitly related to the Na’vi’s worship of what at times sounds suspiciously like the Jedi’s Force and other times is depicted as a Mother Earth deity. Weaver’s character – pointedly called “Dr. Augustine” – also effects this alliance of science and religion versus the fascist Company in her last ditch appeal to that straw man on the basis of some crass mish-mash of Gaia theory and buzzwords from homespun cognitivism. (Something about tree roots and “neural networks”.)

Although it hasn’t emerged to the point of critique in popular discourse yet, beyond Friday-night cinema, the impulse towards reconciling technologically prowess and hard Enlightenment rationality with some abstract faith in the beauty and mystery of the natural world is hardly unique to Avatar. Any advert, whether for phones or cars, will tell you that innovation is fundamentally good for the planet and humanity as a whole. Even atheist par excellence, Richard Dawkins, has admitted that what used to be called “new age” pantheism might be a permissible mode of spiritual wonderment. (Ross Douthat’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times discusses the accessibility of this aspect of Avatar. And there’s a thoughtful response on HuffPo.) Anyone who might have been carrying around “The Celestine Prophecy” in the early 90’s is just as likely to be drawn today to more “scientifically” grounded testaments like the recent bestseller “The Evolution of God: The Origin of Our Beliefs”, where Robert Wright suggests that science “is actually compatible with a truly religious worldview and is part of the process that refines a religious worldview, moving it closer to truth.”

The fact that such an emphasis on science and truth might seem so harmless is at the heart of the problem. And although I haven’t seen anyone else discussing it yet, I would argue that the extensive focus on more obvious points of offense in a film like Avatar, while important in their own right, might be considered in relation to the underlying and more presumptuous notion of “unreviewable” truths invoked in the name of science. From this angle, we might consider that Avatar’s real leap forward is in its explicitness regarding the reconciliation of a broader sense of essentialist, scientific truths with religious rhetoric, and in its perhaps unprecedented clarity about how this combined ideology can license a whole spectrum of haphazard, but troublingly acceptable assumptions about the “true nature” of all humans.

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