James Cameron’s Avatar has quickly become one of the biggest hits of cinema history, attracting millions of viewers and receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews (and grossing over $1bn in its first three weeks).
Avatar is set in the year 2154 on Pandora, a moon populated by a species called the Na’vi – large, blue humanoid creatures with a deep understanding of their natural habitat.
A mining corporation from Earth (the US, of course) has established a base on Pandora, and is busily mining Pandora’s reserves of the precious mineral ‘unobtanium’. The brutal expansion of the corporation’s activities start to threaten the existence of the Na’vi and the Pandoran ecosystem.
Meanwhile, a group of human scientists are working to better understand the complex Pandoran ecosystem. They have developed ‘avatars’ – genetically engineered Na’vi bodies that can be controlled by human minds. Although the scientists are themselves motivated by ‘pure’ science and simply want to improve their understanding of this incredibly rich ecosystem, they are under pressure from the corporation (which funds their activities) to gather the ‘right’ kind of information about the Na’vi – anything that will help get them away from the area of Pandora with the richest unobtanium reserves.
Jake Sully, the film’s main protagonist, is a paraplegic former marine called to Pandora to take over from his murdered identical twin brother, a scientist trained to be an avatar operator. Having lost the use of one leg in his previous mission, Jake quickly comes to enjoy controlling his avatar. With his natural courage, marine training and the pure joy of being able to use two legs, Jake is able to integrate much more effectively into Pandoran society than any of the other scientists.
Soon he wins the trust of the Na’vi. The corporation top-brass and their military associates are extremely keen that Jake use his position to further the process of either moving or exterminating the indigenous population. However, as Jake falls in love with the Na’vi way of life (not to mention the chief’s daughter, Neytiri), he increasingly comes to identify more with the Na’vi than with the humans. As the corporation becomes more and more desperate (its stockholders are demanding the vast profits they’ve been promised), the military decides to move in. They send Jake to prepare the ground, but he ends up fighting on the side of the Na’vi in what turns out to be the mother of all battles.
The parallels with the real history of colonisation are intentionally stark. By making the most bloodthirsty military commander, Colonel Miles, talk about delivering a blow that will bring “shock and awe” to the Na’vi, director James Cameron is relating his story directly to the military subjugation of Iraq in the name of oil profits. However, the parallel goes beyond Iraq. The corporation and the military represent the whole US military-industrial complex, working in tandem in the pursuit of economic gain at any cost. The Na’vi, on the other hand, are the highly idealised – indeed somewhat clichéd – generalisation of an oppressed people conducting guerrilla warfare to defend their land.
By taking the perspective of the colonised population, the film gives western audiences a rare chance to ‘decentre’ and identify with those people (the colonised people of the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia) that the imperialist press have always painted as evil ‘terrorists’. They are the Iraqi resistance; they are the Viet Minh; they are the populations of Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, Cuba, Korea, India, China and many other places.
The vast majority of people watching the film want the Na’vi to win. What they perhaps don’t realise is that this is tantamount to calling for victory to resistance forces in, say, Iraq.
Some have criticised the film on the basis that the Na’vi are only able to win when they are led by Jake, a white man, who arrives to lead them to glory. This criticism is valid to an extent, but remember that Jake does become a Na’vi; the only difference being that he has a deep understanding of both the Na’vi and the humans (and thus best conforms to the guerrilla mantra: know your enemy, know yourself). Also, the fact that Jake identifies with the Na’vi so readily is a way of showing how depraved human imperialist civilisation has become.
Another popular criticism is that, while one can quite easily imagine the developments in military technology that make the humans’ attack so ferocious, it is less easy to buy into the spiritual/ecological connectedness (loosely based on Gaia theory) which allows the Na’vi to prevail. Again, this criticism has some merit, but there is another way of looking at it: the spiritual/ecological connectedness is a metaphor for the relationship between the guerrilla unit and its native environment, which always works heavily in favour of the guerrilla (eg, the jungles of Vietnam, the caves of Afghanistan, which are havens to those who live there, but seem alien and inhospitable to the invaders).
Certainly there is an anti-technology element to the film (ironic, for a film which relies so heavily on the latest technology!): it gives the impression that once humanity had eaten the forbidden fruit of knowledge and technological advance and lost its innocence, it was, in effect, doomed.
This is an easy point to relate to today, when modern capitalism is defined by very advanced technique on the one hand and by poverty, war and ecological degradation on the other. However, socialists recognise that the problems are caused not by the technology itself but by the warped class society that controls the technology.
By putting technology to use for meeting the needs of the people and the planet – rather than for profit – humanity will finally be able to put a stop to war, poverty, unemployment and destruction. By promoting a primitivist view, Avatar runs the risk of generating nihilism and hopelessness rather than anti-imperialist activism.
No doubt there are a host of perfectly valid criticisms, but, at the end of the day, the film is enjoyable, inspiring, breathtaking and important. All of which begs the question: why did Hollywood make it? Why has 21st Century Fox – the film company owned by Rupert Murdoch – spent hundreds of millions of dollars making a film with an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist message?
The simple answer is that the pros outweigh the cons, from a corporate point of view. 21st Century Fox are making vast amounts of money out of Avatar, and clearly they feel this is worth the risk that the film might actually help to create a generation of militant anti-imperialists. Their calculations are almost certainly correct. As good as the film is, it is not part of a broad social movement to end imperialism.
People will watch Avatar, enjoy it and perhaps even have their thinking changed by it to some degree, but will they act on it? Is the film organising people? Is it drawing them towards a real movement? It is not. Rather, it resembles the sort of carefully-managed emotional outpouring discussed by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon cites Sékou Touré, first president of post-colonial Guinea, as saying:
“To take part in the African revolution, it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves and of themselves … There is no place outside that fight for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity.”
This gives us a clue as to why Avatar was made. It is disconnected. It’s a protest song that very clearly isn’t “at one with the people in the great battle” to put a stop to imperialism.
In summary: good as Avatar is, it’s not going to build a meaningful anti-imperialist movement in the West for us. Nonetheless, you should go and see it if you haven’t already. Oh, and it’s definitely worth seeing it in 3D.