Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Avatar as Metaphor

Avatar, James Cameron’s latest blockbuster movie that depicts humans in conflict with aliens on a distant world, has smashed box office records. As described in a recent New York Times article (1), it has also struck a cultural nerve, offending a diverse range of special interest groups. Among those critical of the film are political conservatives (who balk at the supposed critique of American imperialism), feminists (who feel that the female avatars not sufficiently muscular), antismoking advocates (who note that one lead character is a smoker), and the Vatican (objecting to the fact that spiritual animism fares better than monotheism). In China, many see the movie as an allegory for the forced relocation of thousands of people in the face of burgeoning construction projects. Amidst this diversity of interpretations, Cameron himself has been relatively silent, except to say that Avatar is a metaphor for “how we treat the natural world.”

Despite its blockbuster budget and runaway success, in the end it’s good to remember that we’re talking about a movie rather than a philosophical treatise. Yet once in a while a popular film comes along with the potential to help refocus our thinking about a pressing societal issue. Although Avatar is loaded with clichés, including the predictable complement of brave heroes and evil villains, as an environmental parable it is nonetheless valuable (at least as I see it), and well worth unpacking. (Warning: If you are one of the few who has not seen this film, and plan to, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs.)

Having ransacked Earth’s natural “resources,” imperialist humans in the mid-22nd Century are now looking to do much the same to other worlds. A corporate interstellar convoy backed by heavily armed marines has landed on a distant moon, Pandora, which contains an abundant supply of energy-rich (and ironically-named) “Unobtanium.” The only problem is the Na’vi, 10 foot tall natives for whom the land and its inhabitants are sacred. Enter ex-marine Jake Sully, who, as an avatar—a human mind in an alien body—infiltrates the locals in order to seek a solution. Sully is soon torn between two worlds, the human world of his birth and the alien world of his “re-birth.” Insert a love story, plenty of explosive battle scenes, and a culminating victory for the good guys, and you have the gist of the plot.

For me (and many others), the most remarkable aspect of this film are the alien landscapes. Hundreds of millions of dollars, great heaps of imagination, and a modicum of science were combined to yield a stunning world, at once wondrous and familiar. In contrast to Earth’s array of four-legged, back-boned land-dwellers, Pandora is inhabited by multiple varieties of six-legged beasts reminiscent of horses, coyotes, rhinos, and other earth-like forms, all presumably descended from a common ancestor with six legs. Unsurprisingly, the alien protagonists are bipeds that appear remarkably human, an unlikely state of affairs biologically, yet understandable from a cinematic perspective. Also present are leathery-winged creatures with more than a passing resemblance to Mesozoic flying reptiles (pterosaurs). But most stunning of all are the plants. I can’t think of another film where the plants upstage many of the film’s stars, but this statement applies to Avatar. Movie-goers are treated to an astonishing forest landscape that drips with greenery by day and fluoresces to the touch by night.

Returning to the film’s message, Avatar tells a story of colliding worldviews. The imperialist-minded humans lack any form of spiritualism, viewing nature as something to be controlled and exploited—by force if necessary. The Na’vi, in stark contrast, practice a form of naturalism; they inhabit a world teeming with animistic spirits and see themselves as intricately interwoven into their land and its history. These lanky blue beings even possess the ability to establish a physical link with other Pandoran life forms. In short, whereas the invading humans regard themselves as outside nature, mirroring the current Western mindset, the Na’vi worldview embeds them deeply within nature, as is true for virtually all indigenous peoples on Earth today.

Although grossly caricatured in this Hollywood dramatization, the inside and outside perspectives of nature may just represent a critical choice that we must soon make as a species. Our current worldview as conquerors of an external nature seems to lead ineluctably down the path of destruction, as evidenced by the many environmental catastrophes of the past century. Conversely, the notion of participants within nature--co-creating a sustainable world with the rest of our biological relatives—although revolutionary and unfamiliar to the Western mind, may just be essential to making us viable once again.

Importantly, the “insider’s” view is entirely consistent not only with ancient wisdom but with modern science, from ecology and evolution to chemistry and physics. Indigenous peoples (whether on Earth or on Pandora) have it right. In order to be whole, we need to feel like we are a part of nature, literally inside the natural world. We need firsthand experiences with the nonhuman world that inspire feelings of awe, wonder, and reverence. We need to live in a meaningful relationship with the rest of nature. To be clear, I’m not advocating a return to tribal living or to some form of animistic religion. In the wake of centuries of science and technology, it would be impossible for industrialized cultures to adopt a pre-modern understanding of the world. Nor am I suggesting that we try to define a single, one-size-fits-all worldview. Instead we must combine insights derived from science with those from wisdom traditions in order to bring alive the notion of humanity existing inside nature. This revolutionary idea can then be accommodated within a wide spectrum of worldviews, both religious and secular.

In Avatar, Cameron’s Na’vi ultimately prevail through violence, meeting force with force. However, in our search to achieve sustainability, violence is not going to win the day. Domination is the tool of the “outsider’s” perspective. The profound challenge we now face is triggering a peaceful revolution, a consciously driven transformation of mind and culture. Momentum for just such a transformation is now building around the world. But success will require that we work quickly to break free from the bonds of outsider thinking and seek sustainable alternatives that (re-)place us firmly within nature.

One of the most unrealistic aspects of Avatar is the ruthless, imperialist mindset of the invading humans. If this outsider, conqueror mentality persists, civilization as we know it likely won't survive the 21st century, let alone maintain the same outdated worldview into the 22nd Century. The destruction of Earth's living systems, on which we depend, simply won't allow it. For now at least, there are no Pandora’s available to us for pillaging (thank goodness). Our home planet, the world that birthed us over a period of almost 4 billion years, is the only one we’ve got. So we’d best concern ourselves less with alternative worlds and concentrate more on alternative perspectives.

1. New York Times, January 20, 2010, front page article by Dave Itzkoff: "You Saw What in “Avatar”? Pass Those Glasses.”


  1. The thing I found most unrealistic about Avatar, and my major qualm with the movie, is that it ignores the interconnection between insider and outsider. There aren't a whole lot of situations where there's a clear dichotomy. Modern exploitation of natural resources is done not to profit the wealthy and oppress minorities, but rather to provide goods for the masses. In fact, the audiences watching Avatar contribute to the very environmental problems that the movie rails against (not to mention the process of making the movie, which I'm sure had a huge environmental impact). Like oil, Unobtanium provides people with luxuries they don't want to surrender. Even in the remotest parts of the world, in primitive "Navi-like" tribes (and I have visited several), villagers generally want better houses and education, not the status quo. To refer to the example cited above, the majority of Chinese are in fact quite happy with the Communist government precisely because it has improved living standards and access to commercial goods immeasurably. In short, the Navi vs corporations dichotomy doesn't exist, but rather we have a "Jekyll and Hyde" interdependence. The trick finding a way to convince the "masses" or the majority of people to be satisfied with less.

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  3. Dominic,
    I would counter that there was a line in the movie where one of the characters says (I've forgotten which one) "You have nothing they want." As you say, the trick is to convince the masses to be satisfied with less, but (pick your "evil" entity here: corporations, media, advertising) is always trying to convince us we need more; that we aren't "whole" until we have more. In the movie the Na'vi already have it all. They are in Eden. They don't need goods provided by the outsider. I'll grant you that we can't return to that Eden, but as Dr. Sampson and others have made pretty darn clear, we better start trying. My wife had a very emotional reaction to this movie, as have many others. I believe its because our belief system teaches a connection between the earth and and all its creations.

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  5. I loved Avatar since the first time, I think it was the most important film in this decade, we can't ignore this main point: the human as a predator, I think Cameron did a wonderful work and most of the viewers can support me, as Generic Viagra does in the official website.

  6. What I liked about the movie is that it puts us as the bad guys, with our destructive behavior and always shooting and asking question later.

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