Avatar: visual shock and awe

Written & directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana & Stephen Lang
Runtime: 162 minutes
In cinemas now

Avatar has been, rightfully so, the talk of cinemagoers for a number of months now. The anticipation of the film’s release was a long one since director James Cameron’s last outing in 1997’s Titanic. Clearly setting the bar to a new level in terms of visual effects, there is no doubt the film will walk away with a swag of Hollywood awards in the months to come. But beyond the visuals (which really are that stunning), lies critiques from the both the right and the left.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine, one of Australia’s loony right newspaper commentators, watching Avatar felt like being “hit with a leftie sledgehammer”. Here, as in the United States, the rabid right has been severely irked by the immense popularity of Cameron’s epic 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 social message. She gives a list of the film’s alleged leftie cliches where she includes “Humans bad”, “Capitalism bad”, “America bad” and “noble savages good”. One example from the US right-wing comes from commentator John Podhoretz, of the Weekly Standard, 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.”

Of course, some of these right-wing criticisms are correct — the film does have an anti-imperialist message. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Amerindian president, was not mistaken when praised the film for its theme of “resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defence of nature”. The right-wing criticisms fall in jarring contrast to those from some on the left — equating the film as a high-tech version of Dances With Wolves or the kid-friendly Pocahontas. These films share the “white soldier joins the brown (or in Avatar’s case, blue) natives to rise up against colonialist conquest theme”— leading some to criticise Avatar as being “racist” (“the white hero once again saving the primitive natives”, as Associated Press’ Jesse Washington summarised this critique). This view however misses the message that for the white soldier to become the film’s “hero” he must fully commit himself to the non-white people’s struggle.

It’s not hard to see why the film is so popular — quickly advancing to the standing of the highest grossing film of all time. It is visually stunning, luminescent, beautiful and realistic despite the sense of fantasy. The script and the acting are, at times, more wooden than a Redwood, but at least the CGI-rendered actors are gorgeous while doing so.

In the context of 21st century imperialist capitalism, it is also a fundamentally realistic depiction of the reality of how power works and what motivates it. Some critics, including those 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 people’s 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 imperialist militarism, even down to the video games used to prepare children to see it as normal.

Since the film’s release, director James Cameron has made it clear that he intentionally set up Avatar to have some clear parallels to Washington’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the London premiere, he said: “We went down a path that cost several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. I don’t think the American people even know why it was done. So it’s all about opinion in your eyes. … We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America. I think there’s a moral responsibility to understand that.” Whether Cameron succeeded in making make clear all the points he intended to, is up for debate, but it would be a challenge for any viewer to not be moved by the heartbreaking scenes when the Na’vi’s homeland is finally attacked.

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 soldier assumes leadership of the Na’vi, as this does not take place as a result of the human’s possession of something inherently 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 social solidarity. Furthermore, his conversion, his partisanship, is total, as he becomes physically an alien, unable ever to return to the his “own” side. In this respect, Devine’s inventory item “humans are bad” completely misses the point. In Cameron’s film both the humans and the “aliens” are in fact human — it’s 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 Earth “deity”. Deity is placed in quotation marks because in the film this “deity” is not a supernatural being. Cameron’s fantasy planet is indeed physically a whole, united by a network of neural-style tendons and fine tentacles. Everything is “spiritually” interconnected because it is materially interconnected.

This is a wonderful fantasy metaphor for the real physical interconnectedness of the human habitat of planet 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. A beautiful natural world and the capacity to behold its beauty will disappear if humans exterminate themselves by destroying the natural environment upon which human life depends. Through the visual metaphor of the united physical neural network Cameron gives the spiritual concept “Mother Earth” a material meaning.

At the same time, this metaphor allows a logic which provides a resolution to the conflict between humanity-less profit-oriented corporation and humanity-filled Pandorans which contains a disguised and dangerous element. The Na’vi rise 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 pacifist ideology that Devine et al also accuse it of.)

However, despite the final scenes where the audience has the satisfaction of seeing the corporatised and militaristic humans being escorted off the planet by the Na’vi 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 Na’vi’s resistance. Victory was delivered by the last minute intervention of the planet itself as its “collective 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. While Cameron’s film captures the surface reality of shock and awe imperialism, a connectedness to the Earth will not be enough to save it. The willingness of humans to engage in conscious collective struggle to destroy a human-created socio-economic system — capitalism — is the way to save Mother Earth.