Avatar: Some leftist thoughts

(The following review is part of an ongoing conversation on The Kasama Project)

Taken for what it is coming from the gaping liberal wound that is Hollywood I found Avatar to be a great, if not wanting, movie. In some aspects it is radical while in others it is stilted. Indeed there is much to say about a film which portrays any minority group positively and the oppressors as the savages they are. I will chime in on the discussion and offer my own thoughts.

One of the first scenes you see is that of the protagonist’s space shuttle as it rockets towards the planet known as Pandora. This moment then transitions towards the protagonist-Jake Sully-awakening and giving a monologue on his reason for being where he is; aboard a shuttle asleep in “cyro” for six years.

I found it surprising no one here mentioned that Jake’s brother was a scientist. Indeed he wasn’t part of the military but rather part of a peaceful exploration team. He had no intention of inflicting hurt on the natives. This is important because it is Jake with a history of front-line combat. Seeing as how these two roles seem to have been reversed in this conversation I think it is important to distinguish between the two.

During this monologue we hear of the first break with Hollywood tradition: “…but days before he was shipped out a thug killed him for the paper in his wallet.” This is a clear attack on money. While short lived, and nowhere near the desired point of advocating for its abolition, we see a major motion picture disavowing monetary bills and declaring, in a not so subtle way, how its existence leads to violence. Such seems to be a theme in the movie.

Moving on to the landing scene where the group of marines lands in what is a clearly heavily militarized area, we are treated to what is the movie’s first reactionary statement: “Back home these guys were marines, protectors of freedom, but on Pandora they are just hired guns.” While this sentence sets up for how the human presence on Pandora is related to the natives (as a force of rough-necks and cut-throat occupiers) it also compensates with the modern reactionaries by declaring that back home-Earth, America– these very same people are instruments of good being used for humanitarian reasons; this stands in sharp contrast to the manner in which Earth is depicted: as a war-torn metropolis where the United States, or some force headed by American efforts, is invading nations such as Venezuela and Nigeria. In essence this sentence reinforces the currently held belief that imperialist wars of aggression against nations (on Earth) are justified, and that it is only when mercenaries become involved that the situation becomes untenable and unjustified. Such thinking props up the neo-liberal mantle and is a remarkable step back from the comment on paper money.

Next we see Jake’s introduction to the research team. The dynamic is quickly established: the head researcher wanted a scientist not a “trigger happy moron” jarhead. Indeed she is so upset about this interruption that she marches to the head of the extraction operation to complain (the highlight of this scene being where they have an exchange in which the head researcher angrily retorts the corporate executives claim of finding a “diplomatic solution” by saying “…things generally work better when you do not use machine guns on them”).

This moment is important, I think, because it sets up a series of conflicting interests. On one side you have the corporate military alliance which only cares about conquest and extraction of natural resources. On the other side you have a team of researchers who honestly care only about studying the natives and learning about the planet. While there certainly is a symbiotic relationship between the two in the sense that the only reason the scientists research is being funded is because of the Unobtianum extraction and the need to push the natives from their “Hometree”, it is clear that the relationship is unhealthy at best.

The next series of promising scenes come after Jake is talked into working for the Colonel in exchange for a “spinal tap” (a procedure which will restore to him the ability to use his legs) where while he is within his Native “Avatar” body he is separated from the group and becomes lost in the dense jungles of night-time Pandora.

During this time he is attacked by native creatures and is only saved by the fortune of a native warrior. It is at this moment, after the creatures have been fended off and Jake is a allowed a brief respite, that he attempts to thank his rescuer for saving him. His savior, however, grows angry and snaps that the deaths of the animals she slew is not something to be thankful for. She goes on to scold him about “walking in the forest like a baby… making lots of noise.” Here we see lots of stereotypical depiction of Native Americans; poor English, an affinity for the supernatural, and a deep connection with the planet. It isn’t so much as whether or not such depictions are true as it is the thought of what my opinion would be if I was a native watching is movie? Would I be offended by such a depiction? Some part of me thinks I would as it would come off as condescending (with the director being a White man).

Following the demise of the Hometree Jake must find a way to regain some honor among the Navi. To do so her tames and bonds with a large flying beast called Turok. Contrary to what others have said, the taming of Turok is not indicative of him becoming leader of the Navi. Rather it is merely his manner of re-establishing his presence among the people. Indeed the question of leadership is closed during the scene where the Hometree is destroyed. The father of Jake’s love interest dies and his daughter, Jake’s partner, is named leader by the symbolic passing of his bow; this is taken in conjunction with Jake’s Navi “brother-in-law” (his partner’s brother) where is, as a great warrior, is a power sharer with his sister.

Regardless, the next poignant moment comes from the scene after Jake tames Turok and returns to The People (now huddled under the Tree of Souls with the destruction of their Hometree). Following the head researcher’s death Jake makes an impassioned speech to the surviving Natives. He starts the speech by saying,” The sky people have sent us a message, that they can take anything they want. Now we will send them a message…” This is powerful because it has the ability to represent modern U.S Imperialism, it is a slogan of resistance to wars of aggression and give rise to popular armed rebuffs.

The last scenes in the movie is, in my opinion, some of the most dynamic and radical images in recent cinema history; not only is there a large battle scene where so-called “primitives” go up against and emerge victorious over a heavily equipped and technological superior fighting force (including a one-on-one fight where Jake-a marine-kills his commanding officer- but afterwards we see the expulsion of the invading Humans, as well as Jake’s full integration into the Navi.

These scenes are relevant because of the position America is in internationally. Anyone who watches Avatar can automatically insert the United States into the role of the Humans (a large cast of Caucasian actors helps this). But more importantly when young people see these scenes after making even a remote connection between the humans on scene and who they represent in real life, they have in effect seen something which they likely will not see in any other medium: a defeat of a super-power, the victory of “primitive” Natives, and the penultimate symbol of a “race traitor” throwing off the shackles of “Specieism” and not being afraid of joining with the wider universe.

To touch on the subject of religion among the Navi I can say that while as revolutionary communists we do need to oppose any and all instances of spiritualism as being depicted as “true” the practices among the Navi is not one of these moments. This is because, as others have noted, the planet is alive. The Navi, in their natural course of development, realized this and, at the time of the Humans arrive” worshiped it as a god-like figure. This does not mean that it would always be seen like this. Though it seems odd to think of the Navi in modern business suits and erecting sky-scrapers is it not believable to suggest that eventually the Navi would come to a stage of living where they began to think of the planet as not a god but a fellow living creature? I do not think it is. In fact, thinking of them in this manner makes more sense from a material historical standpoint as it verifies that all creatures would come to the same level of consciousness regarding what exists (flesh and blood creatures) and what doesn’t exist (gods).

Indeed, to conclude Avatar was a memorable film. One could look at it representing many varying moments in history; from the Trail of Tears to the War in Vietnam, to colonialism and modern military interventions the influences in Avatar are great. Truly we could go on forever guessing, theorizing, and examining the movie over again. Yet, with the sequel due out in 2015 (and the third some years later) I think to discover the meaning behind the more cryptic parts we will have to wait some time more.

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