Avatar: A Discussion

By Bill the Butcher

At long last, recently and on 3D, I got to watch “Avatar”, a movie I’d read about till it was just about coming out of my ears. When a film has been hyped to the skies, I, at least, either avoid it or watch it from a hostile viewpoint, prepared to pick holes in it just because I hate the hype. In this case, though, I left the theatre in a state I’d call – if the word can be used – exalted.

Frankly, since just about all of you have already watched the film a long time before I did, I won’t belabour the point by going over the plot frame by frame. For those who might have missed it, here’s what it’s about:

It’s the year 2154. On a moon, Pandora, circling a gas giant planet which in turn orbits the nearest star to ours, Alpha Centauri (4.3 light years away), human colonists are mining a super-conducting mineral (wryly dubbed Unobtainium, a name used in engineering circles for ideal but nonexistent materials) worth “$20 million a kilo” (mercifully, in this film, 22nd Century Americans seem finally to have learned how to use the metric system). Unfortunately, Pandora is far from a desert world where such mining can be carried on with impunity. It’s lush and green and inhabited by a wide variety of wildlife and a native humanoid species, the Na’vi, who are blue-skinned, have tails, are three metres tall and have tendrils growing from their brains which can establish neural connections with other creatures on the planet. The Na’vi, the planet and the other flora and fauna are deeply connected and share an extremely close relationship.

Not surprisingly, if you know the history of human imperialism, the colonists find that their greed for the precious mineral brings them into conflict with the Na’vi, whom they dismiss as ignorant savages. A scientific mission, meanwhile, is studying the Na’vi from close quarters by creating “Avatars” (genetically engineered human/Na’vi crosses) which look much like the Na’vi, can breathe Pandora’s poisonous atmosphere, and can live in proximity with them and learn their ways. The military, which serves the commercial interests of the mining colonists (shades, clearly, of Iraq and Operation Oil Grab), co-opts the scientific mission, and an ex-Marine named Jake Sully (who is paraplegic) is promised his legs back if he can help learn how to force the Na’vi off their lands so said lands can be mined for Unobtainium.

From this point on, the story moves along fairly predictable lines: Sully, in Avatar form, falls in with a comely Na’vi maiden, Neytiri, who teaches him her peoples’ ways on the direct orders of her mother and tribe shamaness, Mo’at. You know that Sully will fall in love with Neytiri and turn against his original mission, and that the right side will win. It’s a story told over and over, many times before.

So, why am I wasting my time reviewing a movie which I acknowledge and admit has little original in concept and storyline? Is it because of the 3D effects, so much hyped and trumpeted? I’ll say right out that while the 3D is spectacular and extremely well-done, it’s the least important reason why one should watch this film. It would have worked just as well in 2D, as a film, even if fewer people might have come to see it; in fact, I might say that if it had been 2D, a greater percentage of viewers might have watched it for its merits as a story rather than as a visual spectacular. But a visual spectacular it is, most especially of the “legendary floating mountains of Pandora” which hang in the sky, connected to the ground only by tree roots.

No, the reason why I loved the movie, the reason why I strongly recommend it, is the message. It has a message, and, yes, the message seems to bludgeon the viewer over the head, but really, that’s the only way you can get this kind of message across. And the message is: don’t destroy the environment. We have only one earth, one ecosystem, and we can’t allow obscenely greedy military-industrial complexes to ruin it in the interests of short-term greed.

I agree there are other ways this message can be delivered. We can have alarmist films like “The Day After Tomorrow”, which are so frankly out to frighten people and make money out of frightening people that they are likely to produce the opposite reaction (who after watching those cinematic catastrophes can seriously believe that slow, creeping, global warming is a real threat?). We can have scholarly, intelligently crafted works like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, which almost nobody actually watches. We can have any number of environmental awareness campaigns which are ignored both by the “mainstream” (i.e. bought off) media and by the general public, and which, even when they do achieve some small success, are more often than not blamed for holding back economic growth. Or we can have “Avatar.”

Yes, “Avatar” is a story wrapped round a message, but it’s a vital message, and if it takes a multi-billion dollar film to get that message across, I for one am not complaining. There are complaints, though, and it’s kind of interesting to see what those are. As far as I can determine, the serious criticism (leaving aside the criticism the film received in India, which I’ll talk about in a moment) revolves around one or more of the following points:

1. “The characters aren’t developed; they’re cardboard-thin.”

Well, of bloody course. This is one of those films where you aren’t really focusing on one or more foreground characters; it’s a film where the background story is more important than the individual. We’re much more interested in whether the Na’vi survive and defeat the Imperial Space Mercenary Corps, or whatever it’s called, and save their planet than whether Sully ultimately gets Neytiri. It’s the polar opposite of “Titanic”, where the ship’s foreordained sinking was just background to the central characters’ love story (for the record, I hated “Titanic”). In a story like “Avatar”, obviously, you can’t focus on the characters without blotting out the background. This is true of virtually all science fiction, and I have a sneaking suspicion that those cavilling about this “shallow” characterisation are aware of the fact – so it’s just a tactic on their part.

2. “The film simply retells old stories.”

Yes. And so what? Almost all stories are, really, variations on a few narrow themes. It’s how the story is told that grasps the mind; and as predictable as “Avatar” is, it engages in a way few films have done in recent memory.

3. “It’s an anti-American/anti-capitalist film.”

On the surface, this argument is rather odd, because the battle in “Avatar” is between a mercenary army in the service of a private corporation, and a local population, not between the armed forces of the United States of America and a bunch of terrorists/Commies/ragheads/gooks/sand n*ggers (tick whichever is applicable). On the other hand, it isn’t odd at all, because if there is anything that defines the US today to the non-American world, it is that nation’s virtual taking over by gigantic commercial interests that use its armed forces to further the quest for profit.

Welcome to the real world. In the real world, the US isn’t a benevolent father-figure: it’s a hated, exploitative despot which has brought ruin and desolation to peoples across the globe, and destroyed nations without number in the name of “freedom”. The very fact that the American right recognises the message of “Avatar” is anti-US imperialism means that they know precisely what the US really is, else they could have laughed it off. You know the old saying? If the cap fits…

As for capitalism, its alleged benefits have made a small minority of the people very rich, a somewhat larger minority moderately rich, and condemned the vast majority to impoverishment. Whatever the economists say, people recognise the truth of empty bellies and know the realities behind the capitalist dream. They recognise that the raison d’etre of capitalism is maximum profit at any cost, and they don’t mind seeing the rapacious corporation get its just desserts.

I find it, however, not so much surprising as hopeful that “Avatar” drew positive, indeed ecstatic, audience reactions in the US. It proves to me, at least, that there is a fundamental core of humanity and decency in Americans that their military-industrial complex hasn’t been able to stamp out. I suspect that it is this core that so alarms the anti-“Avatar” US right; if it were only foreigners who were applauding the film, they’d have used it as a propaganda rallying point. Damned foreigners threatening Fortress America!

4. “It’s a ‘White Messiah’ film.”

You know the drill. White man comes to the land of the ignorant natives, who need to be told how to “get up stand up/stand up for (their) rights”. White man teaches the natives their inherent power, and leads them to victory. It’s a kind of White Man’s Burden that still hasn’t got around to embarrassing Hollywood. Virtually no American film set among a non-white people is complete without a redeeming white figure, even if only as a voice of conscience (remember Nick Nolte’s character in “Hotel Rwanda”?). But this isn’t that kind of film, despite appearances; Sully, as an Avatar, isn’t human any more, but a meld of human and Na’vi, and has to be taken in hand by Neytiri and taught how to live as a Na’vi. And, instead of being the detached saviour from above, by the end of the film he is all Na’vi. If this is a White Saviour film, it’s a White Saviour turned inside out, where the “blackness” of the white man merges him into the “blackness” of the native populace among whom he is.

5. “It’s an anti-religion, nature-worship film, hence abhorrent to the True Believer.”

In fact, I believe that this is the official Vatican position. I don’t want to get into a discussion of the merits or demerits of Catholicism here, but I believe it’s only right to point out that this is the same Vatican which has no problem shielding paedophile priests to protect the name of the church, the same Vatican that refuses to ordain female clergy, the same Vatican that still refuses to endorse birth control, the same Vatican that has repeatedly sided with vile and corrupt dictators, and on and on. You get the idea.

I don’t, for the life of me, know what’s wrong with nature worship. Even as an atheist, I think we’d all be the better for a good solid dose of getting close to the fundamentals of Mother Nature. We’ve been raping her long enough. In fact, I don’t see how nature worship is anti-religion. Surely, if a deity created all of nature, worshipping, being close to, and protecting that nature is tantamount to praise and worship of that deity? Excuse me if I’m missing something here…

6. “The denouement is too unlikely. In reality, the mercenaries would have annihilated the Na’vi.”

This is the position adopted by no less a personage than George Monbiot, a writer for whose opinions I normally have the deepest respect. However, let’s remember a few things here. First, there have been several instances of pretechnological peoples triumphing in battle over overwhelmingly technologically superior military forces. Think of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, for example, where the Sioux and other tribes exterminated General Custer’s forces, or of Isandlhwana, when Zulus armed with assegais eradicated a British army firing Gatling machine guns, or of Adwa, where musket-firing Ethiopians defeated Italians with repeating rifles and artillery. In fact, on Pandora, years away from repair and resupply, the actual military position would have been pretty precarious and a single serious military defeat would probably have meant a complete withdrawal, as the film depicts.

It’s also true that if Pandora is some five years away by spaceship, and it’s 4.3 years away at the speed of light, then the spaceship must be travelling close to the speed of light (more on that in a moment). At such speeds, every kilogram carried involves massive energy expenditure and since there wasn’t any serious opposition expected from the “savages”, the most lethal armament wouldn’t be carried. Machine guns, explosives and short range missiles would be considered more than sufficient (I’d say what the mercenaries already had was far more than they might have been expected reasonably to require). Add to that the fact that spares would be rare and precious for the same reason and that the poisonous atmosphere meant that the soldiers can’t operate without masks, and their efficiency is already far less than optimal. And they were fighting only for money; the Na’vi were fighting for everything they stood for.

Then, there is the fact that – when all’s said and done – James Cameron was trying to make money. A seriously downbeat film is unlikely to make people happy or to attract much audience interest. And in the context of the message, which is that the environment should be protected, a film which depicts the Na’vi scattered and defeated is likely to achieve the opposite. People are more likely to think that any effort is futile anyway, so why bother?

I do share several viewers’ discomfort with the idea that the Na’vi tribal deity, Eywa, joined forces with the aboriginal people of the planet and helped in defeating the mercenary army. But I feel that this is a deliberate oversimplification of the position. In the film, it’s quite explicitly stated that the planet is like a single, gigantic entity, each of its trees like a synapse in a living brain; and here on earth the Gaia hypothesis, of the biosphere as a single gigantic interdependent organism, is hardly new. Just as human destruction of nature brings about nature’s destruction of humans by such means as climate change, earthquakes and cyclones, Pandora would have responded to the insult caused her by human action when the insult grew large enough. Cameron simply dramatised it in a fashion that I submit is forgivable.

The fact remains that none of these criticisms, or more accurately, none of this mud-slinging has had any effect on the film’s box-office performance or popularity. In fact, some of it might have contributed to the film’s popularity. You know, if those damned rednecks down the road who support the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan hate the film so much, there must be something worth watching there.

Then there is the Indian reaction to the film. In India, the film was released both in English and in Hindi. From my experience of previous films dubbed in Hindi, I expect the dubbed version was massacred in the retelling. Every single Hindi-dubbed version of a foreign film has been massacred – I still remember how the Hindi version of “Jurassic Park” made me cringe. But whether in Hindi or English, the film was popular in India, and is still running in theatres, as my own viewing of it certifies. I expect part of the popularity lies in the posters, which were different in India from elsewhere: they depicted the blue-skinned Sully Avatar, wielding a bow, with Neytiri, the pose carefully suggestive of Hindu gods, as was the name “Avatar” itself. At least some people must have been conned into buying tickets in the fond expectation of watching some kind of Hindu mythological story. But that doesn’t go to explain the continued popularity of the film. Before I attempt to discuss that, I ought to briefly mention the Indian criticism of the film, which is slightly different from the points I talked about just now.

Most of the Indian criticism of the film that I’ve come across emanates from a single website, thevigilidiot.com, which isn’t a serious site (its purpose of existence is to make fun, however forced, of movies) and whose owner, one Sahil Rizwan, basically runs it for the applause of his fan club, who reciprocate with frenzied personal insults against anyone who dares criticise Rizwan’s creations. Rizwan himself isn’t significant; his “review” consists of stick figure cartoons playing out his version of scenes from the movie, and in the case of “Avatar”, at the least, it’s evident he has either not watched the movie with any attention or misinterpreted what he saw. But he and his fan club’s responses make the following points of criticism, if I might put it that way (for the purposes of this article I’m ignoring the juvenile trash which passes for comment on most Indian web sites, such as how the sight of Sully connecting with his Ikran made them snigger):

1. “The Na’vi are ‘evolutionary fail’ (sic) because they use bows and arrows in the 22nd century.”

This position is, of course, idiotic. Evolution has nothing to do with technology and self-destructive technological advancements aren’t evolutionarily sustainable. A people living in tune with their environment are far more evolutionarily stable than one which destroys the world on which they live just to feed their greed. But in the context of India, it’s very significant because the modern Great Indian Muddle Class has utter and complete contempt for the poor and the disadvantaged. The Great Indian Muddle Class wouldn’t turn a hair if poor people were evicted, if necessary at the point of a gun, from their homes and forests in order to construct dams and mines and factories, so long as the Muddle Class got a slice of the action. In India, it’s still acceptable to think of poorer people, especially of the tribes, as savages, even if one doesn’t get to say it out loud.

A member of the Great Indian Muddle Class, therefore, thinks of himself or herself as intrinsically superior to the tribesperson in the forest village, almost as though the latter was a different species of being. To such a person, it isn’t too unreasonable to call the tribesman with a bow an evolutionary failure, even if the latter is far better adapted to live in his environment than the Muddle Class member is in his.

2. “It promotes environmentalism, which is against economic growth”. (This was implied rather than directly stated, but implied in quite unmistakable terms.)

As I have said on many forums over the years, I don’t know what the hell “economic growth” is when it’s at home. I still don’t see how (as the – unelected – “prime minister” of the country keeps on claiming is essential) achieving a 10% growth rate is going to feed, clothe or house anybody; in fact, is going to do anything at all except make the poor even poorer and the obscenely rich even richer, as it is doing all around us. But it reminds me of a reader’s letter to a newspaper (about some “development” plan which was being opposed by Greenpeace among others): “The government must ignore the silly objections of environmentalists and go ahead with the development plans!”

In fact, while I’m on that topic, I’m kind of surprised “Avatar” hasn’t been banned in India. It’s, if anything, a classical Maoist film, where natives rise up against exploitative imperialist interlopers and drive them from their lands. India, whose government is busy signing off the nation’s resources to private companies, has a Maoist insurgency raging in the countryside which is fed and fuelled by the state’s attempts to coerce the poor people, especially tribespeople, to hand over their lands to the companies. The (unelected) “prime minister” of the country has claimed this insurgency as India’s foremost security threat, more important than Hindunazi communalism, rising population pressures, soaring prices, terrorism, or anything else you care to name. But then, those problems aren’t threatening the profits made by corporate entities, while the Maoists are.

Probably it’s because at least part of the Muddle Class still has a deep, almost subconscious, sympathy for the poor underclass that the film has proved so popular in India. I don’t think too many of the poor have been able to afford multiplex prices to watch it. I’m also sure that the government isn’t aware of this sympathy, or it would have ensured the censors cut “Avatar” down to virtually nothing. They’ve had it done with many films over the years, after all.

Having said all this, what do I have to say in criticism of “Avatar”? Well, as far as the acting goes, I’ve already said that the characters aren’t the main thing in this story. Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, though, I could have done without. I thought it was acting the part of a tough, emotion-controlled ex-Marine in “Avatar” until I saw him in “Clash Of Titans.” Then I admitted it to myself: the man has the acting ability of a piece of wood. I believe he was living in his car when the casting call came. James Cameron should have left him in his car; well enough alone.

Another criticism I have to make is of the pseudo-science of the Avatar Universe. I know Cameron claimed that the film was more fantasy than science fiction, but there were large parts which were impossible for me to swallow.

First, for instance, is the entire premise of the extreme worth of the Unobtainium and the lengths to which the humans go to get hold of it. As I said, Pandora is 4.3 years away at light speed. This means that any radio signal sent from Earth will take 4.3 years to get to Pandora, and the round trip, not allowing for any turn-around time, will take a good ten years. Entire economic crashes, wars, new scientific advances, and so on can occur in that time, and it’s preposterous for the man in charge of the civilian mining crew (sorry, I’ve forgotten his name) to claim that Unobtainium sells for “$20 million a kilo”. All he could say, at the most, would be that it sold at that rate 4.3 years ago when the last signal came out from Earth. At the moment of speaking it might be cheap as dirt, for all he knew, and his entire effort might be worthless. Uncertainties don’t make for good economics, especially when the inputs are so exceptionally expensive.

Then, again, is the fact that the gigantic human enterprise on Pandora would all have to be sent out from Earth. Each piece of machinery, each garment, each bullet for those ultra-quick-firing machine guns, every bloody thing has to be sent out from here, by ships which accelerate almost to the speed of light. I certainly couldn’t tell you how a ship might be pushed to those velocities at anything like an affordable energy expenditure, but even if it could be done, it would be so expensive that I can’t see how even Unobtainium at $20 million a kilo could begin to pay for it, let alone the salaries of all those civilian and military personnel, the food and supplies necessary to maintain them, and the expenses of hauling that Unobtainium back to earth. And if those mercenaries spent five years in free-fall in their suspended animation units, as we see at the beginning of the film, they would (if real life space travel is any guide) have lost so much bone calcium and muscle mass that they would suffer traumatic fractures if they tried to stand in Pandora’s 80% Earth-normal gravity (yes, purists, five years in real time would be rather less at near light speed, but not so much less as all that – especially if you’re in stasis and unable to exercise), let alone run and fight. And at the end of the film, how on earth were the humans who stayed behind intending to survive, unless – like Sully – they all transferred to Avatars? Without even the spares to service their masks, they’d strangle to death in time…

Furthermore, we go with the fauna of Pandora. One thing I noticed right off is that – except for the Na’vi – all other fauna seems to be based on the hexapod model, with six limbs. On earth, all chordate creatures are based on a four limb model, even if they have more (fishes) or fewer (snakes) functional limbs. Therefore, how come the Na’vi have just four limbs? Shouldn’t they have at least a couple of vestigial arms sticking out of their sides? This is far from the only problem with the Na’vi, actually. I’ll get to the rest in a minute.

Apart from creatures resembling floating dandelion seeds, too, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the way of non-chordate, specifically insect, life on Pandora. In reality, the lush green jungle (why the hell should it be green? Why can’t Pandoran vegetation develop its own shade of cholorophyll?) ought to have been teeming with insects and worms or their equivalents. There isn’t a sign of them – or of disease among the Na’vi. I realise Cameron was trying to project an idealised native populace, but still…

Those gigantic flying creatures, the Ikran and the Toruk, carry full-grown adult Na’vi on their backs. Now I don’t give a damn if you *are* on Pandora, flying is an extremely energy intensive business and all flying animals, anywhere, carry as little weight aloft as they can manage. This is why birds have hollow bones and no teeth, and even then they give up flying when they can. No way can a flying animal have enough supplemental load-bearing ability to carry a Na’vi, and on its back of all places. No way, Jose. The spine would snap like a twig, right there on the ground, let alone when Sully Avatar jumps on the back of a Toruk in mid-air.

And we come to the Na’vi themselves. Cameron has himself, I’ve read, admitted that the Na’vi were specifically constructed to be appealing to cinema audiences so that they felt sympathetic towards them. This is why they look like blue cat people and why Neytiri has breasts and a navel. I suppose even this amount of difference from humans would have been a bold step not that long ago; Carl Sagan has written in one of his books that when the original Star Trek was being written, studio bosses worried that Mr Spock’s pointy ears and quirky eyebrows made Vulcans so vastly different from humans that American TV audiences would be confused and turned off. Anyway, the Na’vi were specifically constructed to be sexy in every sense of the word. Their culture is, of course, closely modelled on that of the Native Americans, which is rather apposite because the latter were hunted by the white man to the verge of extinction, but it’s also an idealised culture. There’s no sacrifice, no disease, no intertribal warfare (why do the warriors exist then, I wonder?), no cannibalism, no ritual mutilation, nothing that might smack of reality. And I realise that on a low gravity world, the Na’vi would be tall and slender; but they are simply *too* tall.

Pandora, it’s said, has 80% Earth gravity. That’s just 20% less than what we consider normal and therefore the Na’vi should be 20% taller than humans, on average, instead of twice their height. And forest dwelling Na’vi, like Neytiri’s clan, the Omaticaya, should be shorter still, because extreme height is not an advantage in constricted forest environments. This is why forest-dwelling pygmies are shorter than the Masai of the savannah, even though they are both from Africa.

Recently, in a World Science article, I was reading how putative life on Titan would be odoriferous, lichen-like, and liable to explode into flames in contact with human-type atmosphere and temperature. A real Pandoran life form might have been equally weird and alien to us, but Cameron couldn’t obviously depict something like that: his audience might have cheered for the natives’ destruction.

I was kind of surprised that the human colonists didn’t try to co-opt Na’vi puppets to act as proxy rulers standing in for human masters and imposing human rule. That’s how real imperialism has always worked: use pliable natives to rule the rest. And I’d think guerrilla tactics would probably have been more effective against the mercenaries than those frontal assaults…

Ultimately, of course, my criticism is pointless nitpicking. “Avatar” isn’t meant to be taken literally. The only way to watch the film is as an allegory, and as an allegory, it works. It more than works.

And this is the reason, I think, that so many people are so damned pissed off by it.

Further Reading:

http://www.slate.com/id/2241542/pagenum/all/#p2 (A discussion of the American Right’s anti-Avatar agenda)

http://emergencybackupdog.blogspot.com/2….vatar-says.html (Another article on the conservative criticism of “Avatar”)

http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?263767 (George Monbiot’s criticism of “Avatar”)

http://www.thevigilidiot.com/2009/12/25/avatar/ (Sahil Rizwan’s “review” of “Avatar”)

http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264738-0 (An article on India’s Maoist revolution, by Arundhati Roy)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fictional_universe_of_Avatar (The “Avatar” universe, including its creatures)

http://www.world-science.net/othernews/100412_titan.htm (World Science article on putative life on Titan)