The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

Avatar’s deeper political message

Over winter break, many of us trotted into theaters to don magic glasses and experience the sensational sci-fi epic Avatar. With a man-meets-alien theme that has forever fascinated our collective imagination, revolutionary filmmaking, and a compelling Romeo and Juliet-esque drama of interspecies love, it is no surprise that the film is currently the highest grossing film in the history of the known universe.

But many who saw Avatar felt that the film’s surreal graphics, religious and cultural allusions and romance were greatly overshadowed by the mirror James Cameron holds up to the ever growing “Western” world’s philosophical relationship to a small blue planet called Earth – a web of life whose strands collapse right before our teary 3D-glassed eyes.

With carefully embedded reference to the forbidden fruit (unobtainium) and the Garden of Eden (Pandora), Cameron’s film uses the wisdom of a ubiquitous religious metaphor to show a humankind barreling haplessly toward its collective doom in the pursuit of ever greater wealth and technical knowledge.

References to colonial exploitation, ethnocentrism, and racism also abound, the deeper message is purely environmental.

The film clearly draws a parallel between the indigenous understanding of nature as an integrated whole in which human life is merely a part, and the uniquely Western perspective of the natural world as a resource which is to be parceled up and brought to market. Though some of us may not express it, the Western tendency is to view the natural world as a thing distinct from civilization to be dominated.

Cameron’s goal in Avatar was to bring the consequences of this perspective out of
the shadows of the social subconscious.

In the film, the deep physical and emotional connection that the Na’vi share with Eywa – the metaphysical equivalent of “the great mother” of some tribes indigenous to North America – is sharply juxtaposed to the brutal logic of corporate greed of Parker Selfridge and the rest of the “Sky People,” whose primary objective is the extraction of resources. And unlike many sci-fi films of the recent past featuring carnivorous, parasitic aliens, if Avatar has a clearly defined antagonist it is earthlings.

This is of no surprise given Cameron’s interest in environmentalism. When questioned about the central point of his film in a recent interview with London’s The Sun, Cameron remarked that “Science is unable to keep up with our industrial society. We are destroying species faster than we can classify them…The point is that we are devastating
habitat and biodiversity at a terrible rate.”

So by contrasting the sustainable nature-religion of the technologically pre-modern Na’vi with the disaster capitalism of the technically adept human invaders, Cameron’s message to the audience is that here on this lonely blue planet “underdeveloped” can no longer be viewed reasonably as a pejorative term. With human-related global climate change being a matter of international scientific consensus, as well as unprecedented loss of biodiversity, the film suggests we would be wise to humble ourselves before the wisdom of our scientists and peoples whose lifestyles put them in perpetual balance with nature. As planet Earth now strains under the weight of homosapiens, Avatar has come to remind us not how cool we are because we can make visually stimulating movies in 3D but that in the real world in which all human civilization is merely a breath, Eywa really does not take sides.

The greater point of the movie however, was not simply to threaten capitalist civilization with climatic apocalypse for failing to live in perpetual balance with nature, or to salt the wounds of Western guilt for continuing colonial treachery.

The point was to show that, like Jake Sully, we must defy convention and brave uncertainty if we are to stand on the side of bio-spheric truth. To do any justice whatsoever to the Earth, each one of us must make conscious sacrifices to reduce our individual consumption. We must drive less, consume less plastic, eat less meat.

We can no longer afford to worship at the altar of self-interested materialism, holding those who consume conspicuously in high regard. They must be shunned, shamed and ignored. Only when the culture of greed becomes un-cool and we rise up against the gluttons among us with the same air of righteousness that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of social and economic injustice of the 1960s, will the political importance of Avatar be understood.

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