On Avatar (the movie and 1,000 blog entry)

What can one really say about this strange movie about conquest, conquistadors, and a native population that fights back? James Cameron’s 2009 film is about intertextuality and dialogues directly with the ghosts of Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, and Ferdinand Magellan as they conquer and subdue the native population of the New World. The premise of the film is simple: the Earth is dying from mistreatment and overpopulation and the Earthlings are on the war path to find a rare element “unobtanium” (get it?) which they might then use to refuel their own burned out planet. They know that this element is on a moon called Pandora (another dialogue). The problem is that people are living on top of this element, and unless you move the people, you can’t get to the element. The conflict of the film the mirrors all stories of conquest and diaspora which are economically driven, giving rise to military invasions and crusades that litter human history with death, destruction, chaos, mayhem, and tragedy. Whether it was the Christian conquest of Jerusalem during the crusades, the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492, or the conquest of the Americas, military might has been employed to displace the weak, eliminate less developed cultures, and persecute religious minorities. Watching a couple of the battle scenes I thought the movie was eerily reminiscent of the jungles of Vietnam in which American troops labored in vain to fight off the Communist threat in Southeast Asia. The problem that the American/Earth forces face in Avatar is that they not only don’t understand who the enemy is, they underestimate the complexity of their opponent’s strength by imagining that the “other” is inferior because they live in harmony with nature and not at odds with it. The “natives” live outdoors with few or no structures, they wear almost no clothing, and their society is not mechanized at all. The invaders imagine, then, that the natives are barbarians who will be easy to defeat. Guns and bullets have always solved everything, so why shouldn’t that be the case this time as well. The movie strongly criticizes the military option as barbaric, inhuman, ruthless, and stupid. Again, the movie dialogues with all wars, invasions, police actions and military occupations as it criticizes the use of brute force to displace an already settled population, creating an intertextuality with the displacement of native Americans in both North and South America. Military action is justified against these people because the invaders ironically place themselves in the role of the culturally superior, rationalizing the death and violence they will use to subjugate another group of humans. The invaders have no idea, in the end, that the people they are killing enjoy a rich, complex life which is only different, essentially, in one way–window dressing. In this fable, the natives drive off and defeat the invaders, which is a fairy tale ending, but it is also highly satisfying. The subplot of the paraplegic marine who gets to experience life as the “other” is a quirky anti-war commentary about the soldier who is “humanized” and meets the enemy. Here he gets the chance to be the enemy, to experience the world first hand as they would experience the world–a curious tip-of-the-hat to Borges’ short story, “The Ethnographer.” In the end, the cannibals are not natives living in the trees, but instead are the gun-toting goons that have been sent to rid the planet of a humanoid infestation. A final note: Sigourney Weaver of Alien fame plays a misplaced scientist in charge of the Avatar project, which in turn dialogues with the entire Alien series, a cautionary tale about messing with things you don’t know about and can’t understand. You can’t always reach out and take just anything you want. Ethnocentrism can be a very bad thing. As an epilogue, I am sure that the damage done by the invading forces is irreversible and that permanent damage has been done–the locals, as it were, have been thrust from Eden never to return, and this is the great tragedy of Avatar.