Under what rock have you been hiding to miss the movie and ensuing publicity storm around James Cameron’s environmental parable, Avatar? You’ve certainly not been cowering beneath a hunk of Unobtanium: it floats. And in Cameron’s epic, this strange rock is the occasion for a future conflict on a world far away between the organic, indigenous Na’vi who take a stand against the imperial, profit-driven humans, looking to dig the very soul out of the hyper-lush moon of Pandora.
The film is distributed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – the owners of right wing media across the world. They’ve caught flack from conservative critics for peddling an “anti-corporate” message, one that’s hostile to the American way, imputing only malign motives to corporations and only destructive impulses to capitalism. One imagines the film’s billion dollar earnings will go some way to soothing Murdoch’s right-wing conscience.
As for Cameron, it’s clear that he courted these criticisms by consciously producing an “environmental” film. In an earlier ‘scriptment’ – a term that Cameron coined as a hybrid between a script and a more prosaic film treatment– the project that became Avatar had a far richer back story. In it, Cameron’s explained, to use his words, the “basic principles of interstellar imperialism, circa 2100 A.D.”
In the original tale, we see an Earth denuded of life. Half of the planet’s species are extinct. The rich live in Yosemite, an upscale condo park. The poor are left to farm algae on the sea shores, eating the only source of food left to humans. The hero, Josh (not Jake) Sully is never promised his legs back. He’s simply promised the possibility of an avatar that can walk on a world that has greenery, both of which are impossible for him on Earth. All of which was cut from the final script.
Nation-states having been consigned to the dustbin of history, the Avatar that made it to production begins on a colonial mining expedition to a blue-green moon in the Alpha Centauri system. The company behind it all is called the “Resource Development Alliance”, and the resource that RDA wants is unobtanium – a room-temperature semiconductor that only exists on the Na’vi home world of Pandora.
To get the resource, the company is true to its name, and avails itself of two bedrock concepts in empire-building, Development and Alliance. It comforts the public and the shareholders on Earth to know that what they bring to the colonized savages on Pandora involves both partnership and progress.
Indeed, there’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where the company’s representative bemoans the lack of gratitude and cooperation from the indigenous people. “We build them schools and teach them English … give them medicine … roads! But they prefer mud.”
On today’s Earth, in contrast, when oil companies tear through jungle, desert and tundra is search of oil, they don’t trouble themselves with the natives, much less bother to teach them English.
Martin John Boorman’s Emerald Forest captured this all too well. The mining companies come in with everything they need to extract the resources from beneath the inconveniently placed communities of indigenous people. So why bother to teach the Na’vi English, when the profit motive demands they be killed or moved elsewhere? It’s tempting to think this a mere plot device, so that hero and his lover can banter without subtitles to an audience suspicious of reading anything on a screen (and with reason: I’m a little gun shy of alien-language subtitles ever since Star Trek: The Motion Picture).
Back on Earth, Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan has the answer to the English language conundrum. In responding to the crisis in US education, Duncan explains why education funding is so urgent: “There’s a real sense of economic imperative. We have to educate our way [to] a better economy.” Perish the thought that education should have a social imperative – these days, the function of education is to get labor to be more responsive and productive. The purpose of education is to make money.
And so it is on Pandora. The reason the Na’vi are being taught English is not because humans are friendly. The Na’vi are being educated so that they can work in the mines for RDA. As Cameron explains in the original scriptment, it’s far too expensive to blast humans four light years across space to a place where they’ll perish quickly without oxygen. When there’s the making of a local workforce right there, the economics speak for themselves. Hence the need to forge an alliance, even if it comes through the barrel of a gun.
So, although analogies have been made with Native conquest, the Avatar that was never made was a far more interesting movie, blending the economics of conquest with the imperatives of the slave trade and the concept of the modern developmental state. Sadly, all we see of this is a thin Pocahantas in Space ably satirized by South Park in the episode Dances With Smurfs.
I wonder, though, whether a clearer exposition of back-story would have left audiences readier for action after recycling their 3D glasses and leaving the theater. Fan forums are overflowing with tales of depression and hopelessness about our planet’s prospects. The movie ends with humans kicked out of paradise to “return to their dying world.” Stumbling out into a bleak parking lot after having been surrounded by so much green, it’s hard not to feel that happiness might be more easily found in space than on Earth.
Certainly, the physical wrench from bluegreen moon to buttery multiplex isn’t easy. The change from a world that shuns capitalism to one that embraces it couldn’t be harsher.We learn in the scriptment that the hunter-gatherer Na’vi have a Commons, a public space where all of The People can talk. There’s no such free speech in a multiplex, and any environmental groups enterprising enough to see potential recruits among Avatar’s abject viewership would be swiftly kicked out of the movie theater for leafleting.
There is, however, always space for resistance. What Avatar provides is a language to explain the voracity of a system we’re currently living in, and a chance to point to resistance that thrives not light years away, but right here on earth. It’s an opportunity to talk to everyday folk about the need for change in ways that use a common language. It is, in short, an opportunity to open one’s mind to how we might live differently.
Like Octavia Butler, I’ve always thought science fiction’s virtues lie not so much in the future it foretells, as in the present it diagnoses, and the prescriptions we might imagine together. So, if you’re feeling blue after watching Avatar and are thinking about what might be taken away that isn’t utterly nihilistic, consider these words, which end Butler’s essay Positive Obsession:
“But still I’m asked, what good is science fiction to Black people?
“What good is any form of literature to Black people?
“What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, of the narrow, narrow footpath of what “everyone” is saying, doing, thinking – whoever “everyone” happens to be this year.
“And what good is all this to Black people?”