This strange little film came out at a time when the world was wondering if it would have to duck and cover, and the world’s leaders were all caught up in dreams nuclear war, atom bombs, and anti-communist rhetoric. The whole world was Cold War obsessed, and the crazy senator from Wisconsin was carrying around lists of all the communists that worked in the State Department. Unsure of either the science or the ethics surrounding the nuclear age, people lived in fear that today might be their last day on earth if someone got crazy and punched the wrong button, sending nuclear weapons flying, helter-skelter, across the world and obliterating every living thing. So this archetypal ghost story comes with an interesting twist: one of our Cold War outposts in Alaska find a flying saucer in the ice near the North Pole, and they bring back, frozen in ice as if he were some wooly mammoth or something, an alien. This alien, played by Gun Smoke’s James Arness, is a rather blood-thirsty and violent creature who wants to wipe out the men and woman who are temporarily stranded in the Arctic wasteland. In the true spirit of American bootstrap initiatives, they fight back and (spoiler alert!) and defeat said creature. When I first saw this film back in the sixties, I was just a kid and it scared the heebie-jeebies out of me. Now I can listen to characters talk, understand their fear of the unknown, and experience their total blind panic in a very direct fashion. This film gives a strange vicarious thrill, but it is not cathartic, and the ending leaves one feeling both incomplete and nervous. This movie predates Alien by almost thirty years, but the story is there. There is a direct threat to the security and well-being of the people at the outpost, and those in command must do something to resolve the situation. What I found incredibly creepy about this film is this: the difference between life and death is very fine, and it doesn’t take much to move from one to the other. The intensity of the film, the nervous tension among the characters, the fear, and the violent nature of the human response drain the viewer of energy because the emotional response to this film is extreme. The fear of the unknown is strong, overwhelming, intimidating, reckless, chaotic, unpredictable, and powerful. People do crazy things when they must confront their fears, and unsurprisingly, most of the time they turn tale and run. This movie is a Cold War product because it reflected both the Cold War fears of the unknown and American bravery and ingenuity for dealing with an unknown and dangerous power. The movie shows these good intentioned, but violent, soldiers working for their country. They and their reaction to the situation is heroic and exemplary, even in the face of certain death in an isolated and inhospitable location thousands of miles from civilization. There’s even an embedded newspaper man with the troops to shout about the first amendment, free speech, and freedom of the press. Though the film is shot in glorious black and white, it’s really rather red, white, and blue.
He claimed he was crazy so he wouldn’t have to go on any more bombing missions, but his self-proclaimed insanity is a sign of self-preservation and mental health, so he had to keep on flying the bombing missions. That’s Catch-22. That’s the best there is. I totally empathize with both sides: Yossarian is afraid of dying, so he claims to be insane. The doctor recognizes this as the work of a rational brain, so he sends him back to fly more missions. The logic is inscrutable, but the irony is diabolic. I guess the problem is war and how pointless most wars are. People have fought wars for most of the history of mankind, but after the blood has dried and the dead buried, the only thing that has really changed are the increases in widows and a decrease in sons. Politics, ideologies, economics, geo-political domino theories are all washed downstream so that something new may take its place–a new religious fanaticism, other ethnic rivalries, extreme political infighting, fratricide. The reasons for sending Yossarian back up in his plane so he can bomb people without ever really seeing them are almost always irrelevant, or perhaps even trivial, perhaps non-existent. Revenge, hate, conflict, jealousy, irrelevant meta-narratives, petty thinking have always driven conflict to the extreme of killing. This is an old song for humanity, but the problem has never been a lack of new verses. Yossarian understands the pointlessness of what he is doing. He understands that you can bomb, and bomb, and bomb, and you change nothing except the number of dead. War is an insanity that cures no evils, solves no problems, does not increase the standard of living for anyone, does not prevent the sowing of new evils, new ire, new hatreds, new violence, and so the wheel turns but nothing changes. Peace can only exist as a state of mind when all sides decide that there are no sides, that humanity must stand together and accept the “other” as brother and sister and not as foe. When color and religion and gender and age and politics and sexual orientation cease to define who we are, then war does not stand a chance. Peace cannot be dictated by peace accords, or summed up in a treaty, it is not compromise to disagree. Peace exists when humans can get past their differences and find their commonalities. Yossarian is not less patriotic because he doesn’t want to kill anonymously, he is more human because the killing is entirely senseless. The war against Hitler and his ilk seemed to have a point–destroy Hitler–but in the end, it was a war of attrition that killed millions and solved none of the problems that Hitler developed and kindled. Hitler was inevitably destroyed because he engendered war, and there would be no other outcome. What is entirely tragic is the idea that a good man such as Yossarian had to do what they did–kill–to bring him down.
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.