Avatar Offers Us a Unique World Where We Can Reflect on the Inescapable Conflicts Man Always Has And Always Will Face

After seeing Avatar on an IMAX screen, I am prepared to join Matt Feeney in defending the film against its critics, even if they include Peter Suderman, James Poulos, and Reihan Salam, three people I seldom find unpersuasive.

With regard to this film, I think their varying takes share a mistaken premise: Avatar strikes them as a simplistic denunciation of capitalism and humankind generally, whereas I see it as a thought-provoking if imperfect exploration of an imagined world that is, more than anything else, different from our own. Critics secure in their worldviews, like Messieurs Suderman, Poulos and Salam, react by defending earthbound, capitalist humanity as better than what the film supposedly portrays. Less confident critics seem to protest against the film too much, and ultimately wind up claiming that the alien civilization is unrealistic, that being the easiest way out since they can neither bear to concede nor quite refute the possibility of a society better in some ways than ours.

Ultimately all these critics miss out on a rare chance to reflect on the tragic flaws of earth and humanity in a novel way. Think back to those basic kinds of narrative conflict we learn about in elementary school. Man versus nature stories show us how the hard realities of the human condition impact our lives. Man versus man stories render the fallen nature of our species: since at the Greeks we’ve understood that we’re condemned to be forever hubristic, greedy, violent, jealous, etc. In Avatar, we’re shown a foreign world where creatures and nature are similar enough to our world that we understand them, different enough that they can help us reflect on ourselves and our planet as never before, and rendered so spectacularly that as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, we’re able to conduct this mental exercise by really feeling that the creatures and habitat we’re viewing are authentically there and different. “The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own.” (link)

Sure, I wish the villains would’ve been a bit less one dimensional — Avatar isn’t an inquiry into the characters of individual humans or the nature of evil doers, nor is it a masters class in intricate, delightful plotting — but the characters and the plot serviceably accomplish their main objective: putting us inside an alien society and landscape, awing us with its contours, and threatening its destruction so that we feel how thoroughly we’ve grown to like its best attributes.

Let’s summarize the plot for those who haven’t seen the film, and delve into the arguments of particular critics. Basically there is a faraway planet populated by intelligent natives. Their complex but unindustrialized society is characterized by tribal organization, deep respect for all living creatures, a symbiotic relationship with nature, and through it an ability to communicate — with all living things, their dead ancestors, and their deity.

Unfortunately for these folks, they live atop a mineral that is very valuable to humans. So valuable that a corporation establishes an outpost staffed by mercenaries on their planet, attempts to negotiate for the mineral, and when that doesn’t work decides to disperse the population by force.

Critics on the right object that the corporation is unrealistically evil, and that the aliens are cartoonishly noble.

Unlike Peter Suderman, I don’t think that the corporation in the film is meant to stand in for all corporations. It is one evil actor. And seen this way, it doesn’t strike me as a particularly unrealistic portrayal. Guess what happens when exceptionally valuable natural resources are discovered underneath a people with inferior weapons who can be easily characterized as others? You’d think that the history of gold, diamonds and oil would persuade everyone that humanity is prone to exploitative violence when those circumstances converge. What I took from the film wasn’t simplistic moralizing so much as an implicit assumption on the part of the filmmaker that everyone finds rapacious imperialism and genocide in pursuit of other people’s minerals to be bad things. Plot vehicle, check. There is a moral premise embedded there, to be sure, but don’t we all agree with it? Or is it now “left-liberal” to acknowledge that these kinds of things happen, and that it’s bad when they do?

On to the alien people. Critics on the right would have us believe that this is a classic case of Hollywood liberals simplistically giving us noble savages, despite the reality that tribal people are no less fallen than the rest of humanity. Historic Hollywood portrayals of Native Americans encompass caricatures of savagery and nobleness, to be sure. But these critics are too quick to assume that James Cameron is making the same mistake. The problem with the noble savage cliche is that it is demonstrably untrue. The people who inhabited North America before the arrival of Europeans warred, died for lack of medicine, sometimes killed animal herds so unsustainably that they faced starvation — so despite the manifold wrongs done by the Europeans to indigenous peoples, it is inaccurate and simplistic to screen stories where savage Europeans war with noble natives living in utter harmony with nature.

But James Cameron isn’t portraying native people of our world. His alien protagonists aren’t intended as stand-ins for the Navajos or the Aztecs or the Cherokee. In his different world, the native people really are in communion with nature. Were his purpose to comment on European history, this would be a terrible choice, but in fact Avatar is a film whose purpose is allowing humanity to reflect on its circumstances and fallen nature in a novel way. That is why I approve of the decision to portray the kinds of natives that were shown.

Alongside liberal fantasies about the noble savage, there are plenty of people who tell themselves that European genocide against Native Americans wasn’t really so bad. This tradition takes its cues from films like The Searchers, and it is alive and well. “I don’t understand the weird need of our artist class to figuratively beg forgiveness for the alleged sins of their ancestors,” Kurt Schlicter writes at Big Hollywood. “Cameron, give the damn aliens some casinos and call it a day.” The exaggerated savagery and backwardness of the natives is used in a way that is supposed to absolve the white man for all his trails of tears, as if to say, Yeah, maybe we wronged you in some ways, at least allegedly, but we’re more advanced and civilized, so ultimately it’s good that we won.

By giving us an alien species of natives who don’t fit into that conventional narrative, Mr. Cameron takes away that out, forcing us to grapple with how we’d react if our society found itself lusting after the land or resources of a people even we believe to be more advanced than us in some ways — people whose communion with nature does enable them to survive better than we can in their environment rather than the opposite. This is a feat that can only be accomplished in a story about aliens, insofar as it is human nature for the victors in our armed conflicts to presume that their very civilization is objectively superior. Apparently it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.

In Reihan Salam’s review, which I very much enjoyed reading, there is a rather eloquent defense of capitalism that I subscribe to as it applies to our society, and perhaps even our earth, though I can certainly conceive of an alien people for whom that isn’t true. He goes on to write, “Throughout the film, the Na’vi are portrayed as superior to the humans. The irony of Avatar is that Cameron has made a dazzling, gorgeous indictment of the kind of society that produces James Camerons.”

Is that accurate? As I watched Avatar, I saw conflicts that have always haunted life on earth — scarcity of natural resources, environmental degradation, greed, unjustified recourse to physical violence. But is rendering age old, obvious, inescapable features of the human condition tantamount to indicting American society after the industrial revolution?

On watching Avatar one couldn’t help but be reminded of the advanced state of human weaponry, so perhaps we did see an indictment of militarization and its potentially ruinous impact on nature. Aptly enough, I might add. But Mr. Salam seems to think that Mr. Cameron was saying that an unindustrialized society in communion with nature is better for flourishing than a place where entrepreneurship is valued and helps lend meaning to life. I’d say Mr. Cameron is showing us a different version of flourishing, and forcing us to really ask ourselves if we’d prefer it. I suspect that some people — former marine adrenaline junkies, for example — would certainly choose an Avatar-like world if they could, whereas entrepreneurial Brooklyn born writers might prefer the differently imperfect version of flourishing we’ve got here on earth. I certainly would.

In the New Yorker, David Denby writes:

Science is good, but technology is bad. Community is great, but corporations are evil. “Avatar” gives off more than a whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture, by way of environmentalism and current antiwar sentiment. “What have we got to offer them—lite beer and bluejeans?” Jake asks. Well, actually, life among the Na’vi, for all its physical glories, looks a little dull. True, there’s no reality TV or fast food, but there’s no tennis or Raymond Chandler or Ella Fitzgerald, either. But let’s not dwell on the sentimentality of Cameron’s notion of aboriginal life—the movie is striking enough to make it irrelevant.

Again, this misses the mark. Avatar is only anti-war in the sense that it condemns one of the most nakedly unjust military ventures ever portrayed on film. That the aliens are themselves part of a warrior culture, and that they fight back with machine guns when given the opportunity, strike me as significant. And the “boring factor” is actually an important choice, not something to be ignored. If the aliens were prancing about in the forest, communing with nature, and enjoying the fruits of their singular society, and they were able to crash on a leather sofa, turn Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo, and nibble on a three cheese pizza with prosciutto, the audience would hardly be forced to confront the trade-offs involved in our society versus theirs. To repeat myself, most crucial is that this alien world is different. James Cameron rendered this difference in ways that are sometimes undeveloped or cliched, but that pretty effectively illuminate certain contrasts, so that we can experience the differences as though we’re avatars, grappling with whether we prefer this virtual reality to our own.

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I’d like to conclude by addressing a few reviews that I really disliked. John Podhoretz wins the prize for worst of the worst. His intellectually lazy piece presumes that because some liberal Hollywood directors sometimes make anti-American military movies, every movie with military villains should be automatically presumed an anti-American screed.

I find that I’m also able to answer the questions that Kurt Schlicter posed to James Cameron:

Why is capitalism – you know, the economic system that allowed you to make Avatar – so bad?

The film isn’t an indictment of capitalism, a system based on mutually consensual trade, though it is implicitly against the imperialistic exploitation of faraway people who happen to live atop precious mineral resources. That you equate the two doesn’t say much for your opinion of capitalism!

Why are primitive societies – you know, the kind you manifestly do not live in – so morally righteous?

Primitive societies aren’t all alike. The particular primitive society painstakingly portrayed in the movie is on the whole moral and good because its people are healthy, they live at peace with their neighbors, they have an abiding respect for life, and they treat vanquished opponents mercifully. It does not follow that the film implies the primitive societies of earth are all morally righteous, let alone more morally righteous than we are. And is “primitive” even an accurate description of the society in Avatar? In many ways it is exceptionally advanced.

And why are the deaths of American fighting men – you know, the folks who are keeping at bay the bastards who would saw your open-minded, tolerant, liberal head off with a butter knife given half a chance — something you think ought to bring cheers from the audience?

It is misleading to say that the soldiers in the film are “American fighting men.” In fact, they are a mercenary army run by the head of security at an unnamed corporation. Unlike members of the United States Armed Forces, mercenary soldiers employed by mining corporations do not “keep the bastards at bay.” And the audience is meant to cheer against the mercenaries in the film because they’re engaged in a bloodthirsty genocide that means to destroy a beautiful society merely to enrich their corporate masters.