Avatar!

The Resources Development Alliance mines Pandora

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?”

14 Replies to “Avatar!”

  1. For those who don’t know the sequel: In 2164, the Corporation is going back to Pandora. It has given up on mining the Unobtanium, and has come up with a giant scheme to dam the blue moon’s rivers instead. It plans to turn Pandora’s life energy into electricity, which it can beam to planet Earth. But the clans of Pandora have a plan – and it involves us. Read more in the blog report which a loyal Avatar just posted from Pandora (www.internationalrivers.org/en/node/5031).

  2. peace, i appreciate your insight on this movie, it seems like the same old story with a modern twist, us caucasians destroying and raping the indigenous people and their “God” given rights. truth shall overcome i hope your heart is in the right place as it seems to be, like Avatar many things can be deceiving, may we find ourselves and our collective lives on “God’s” side, all praises to the most high, peace

  3. I recently watched Friends of the Earth ‘food chain’ video –

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO29iT4HHnM&feature=player_embedded

    I’d never come across the deforestation tool being used around 1’14”. I’ve tried, but my Google skills have failed me. What a method: throw a massive cable around a large section of forest and essentially cheesewire it all down in one tug. One almost has to admire our species ability to invent such efficient methods. Avatar reminded me: actually, we can already manage that level of destruction with our existing tools.

    Any idea what that deforestation plant is they’re using? I can’t find this logging method anywhere.

  4. I just watched a documentary about the people of Bougainville –it’s like Avatar without the 3d glasses and special effects, islander bows and arrows versus Papua New Guinea’s Australian-funded military and a multinational corporation’s copper mine. The Bougainvilleans managed to live almost completely self-sustained as the island was blockaded for seven years: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20g1r3cCApQ

  5. Personally I had no problem with the ‘Pocahantas in Space’ story line as I just naturally expected those extra details in the background.

    I do think though that the debate about the film speaks volumes about the ethical bias that many people live under. Yes the story is simple and blunt, yet still many still don’t get it.

    That’s why I expect when Peak Oil and Climate Change kick in, instead of cooperating people will instead gang together and blame the outsider.

  6. I loved Avatar. What many critiques of the movie miss is its spiritual message. It speaks of the connectedness of all of nature and all beings to one another. If we humans were able to have that experience with each other I think poverty, starvation, war and environmental devastation would stop immediately, because who wants to hurt themselves?

    Personally I liked the storyline and its obvious political message. But even if you thought it was a tired re-hashing of the Pocahontas story, or an overly political piece on environmentalism, you have to admit that there was still beauty in it.

    I’m always aware that I am missing something. and that no matter how happy I am there is always a sadness that I carry within me. I have become aware that this feeling is connected to a bigger collective sadness that we all share. I believe it comes from a poverty of spirit that is prevalent in the West as a byproduct of modern life. All around me I see people having babies but not cherishing them, people in relationships that don’t even love each other, people buying toxic plastic stuff to be thrown away a short time later to be immediately replaced with more junk. We live in a throw away society where the step from not respecting our natural resources, our planet and our animals to not respecting human lives has taken place.

    Watching the Na’vi connect with each other in the scene where they accept Jake into their tribe made me more keenly aware of that sadness inside of me because it visually depicted what I feel I am missing. The whole community surround Jake and join themselves together in what looks like a beautiful sacred Mandala form when the camera pans out. Dis-connection to each other and to our Earth is like being taken off life support, we are slowly siphoning ourselves off from our most vital source of nourishment which is love. The fact that we live in a world of plenty but each day we are letting 13,000 people die of starvation is a testament to this. Would or could the Na’vi ever let this happen? I think not.

    I am heartened by movies like Avatar because I think it reminds us of what we have lost and therefore kindles a hope in each of us that we can regain it. Like the ever wise Mr. Patel puts it, “there is always space for resistance.”

    I would hope that this resistance be against the destruction of our human family and the creation of a world where we are so connected to each other once again that we heal each others sadness and create a world where we are all safe, fed, housed, clothed, educated, happy and cherished.

    Viva la resistance!

  7. Interesting to hear what they cut from the original script! And sad, as it really gives another picture of the whole story.

    I still find Avatar a definitely thought-provoking movie.
    And a beautiful one, with all the fantastic plants and animals and landscape, the wonderful music, and last but not least the touching (although not new) story. (And I don’t only mean the “Pocahontas” story.)

    What troubles me is that in the end the “peaceful” Na’vi are using the same methods as the RDA. Do we really think we could gain peace by using violence?

    Besides, I was a little horrified by the esoteric “Eywa” stuff.
    I’m glad my God is no tree.

  8. One small thing. “The Emerald Forest” was directed by John Boorman…in your article you said it was by Martin Boorman, who was…um, a very, very different and much, much, MUCH worse person.

  9. Raj — why is the last part of the post strikethroughed?

    I love the points you make — though I was a little surprised you didn’t engage on the idea of Avatar as imperialist apologia, ably touched upon (surprisingly!) by David Brooks, among others. I think it’s a movie with multiple valences, intentional and un-, but I felt overwhelmed by the “lone white savior saves natives from the evils of his own people.” Also, the idea of a native people defined almost entirely by their harmony with nature, rather than the more complicated, if often still sustainable, relationships many advanced First Nations had/have was a little irksome; certainly I wasn’t expecting a critical re-construction of what we might call The Sustainable Unsavage, but it would’ve been nice if there was something to their personality/culture beyond “harmonious/warriors.”

    Am I just too curmudgeonly in my insistence on emphasizing these points?

  10. Oh, and no mention of your (alleged) Buddha-hood? I realize it’s sort of counter to your whole message–as you tried to explain to Colbert on the Voice of God Phone–but it’s quirky and entertaining enough to those of us who aren’t you 🙂 Understandable if you don’t really want to call attention to this inevitable esoteric and arguably distracting addition to your Wikipedia page and Google results, however.

  11. I had never seen an IMAX 3D movie until I saw “Avatar.” It is a very visceral technology. that’s for sure. Highly EXPERIENTIAL. I felt some nerve endings being stimulated that I didn’t even know I had. :O)

    No doubt, this certainly helped get the message home to many people whose minds have become dulled by tee vee and mind-less consumerism.

    It is the old story of an out-of-synch materialist culture which is drunk on its own arrogance while consuming everything in sight with absolutely no regard for life nor for the most basic principles of the Universe, much less human rights.

    The indigenous peoples who are far more attuned to reality, are aware of their own interconnectivity and have a better understanding of how the Universe operates, get snagged by a robotic grinder that cares only for one thing and one thing only—$$$. Why? Because $$$ means power and control. And all “accomplishment” is valued by that $$$, power and control which is falsely called “success.”

    The mechanistic robotic salesmen of this psychopathic ideology are really proud of their high technological methods of raping and pillaging. And they care not how many “jungle bunnies” they have to murder for their aquisitional addiction and vampiristic hunger which they find impossible to satisfy.

    Of course, to vindicated themselves and maintain a good PR front, they try to win hearts and minds but cannot understand why they are having difficulty. They can’t imagine why anyone would resist such wonderful “progress.”

    They have bought their own lies.

    Of course a few of the invaders actually DO have a conscience and are able to recognize reality when they see it. They can be the best help of all for real change because they can throw a tiger wrench into the machinery.

    So, this tells us that even among the most disconnected exploiters, re-thinking is always a possibility and all it takes is stepping back and honestly judging the tree by the fruit it bears–if one still has even a spark of human conscience left.

    Of course, this is the exact situation in which we now find ourselves here on planet earth in 2010.

    One sometimes wonders if the World Control Game isn’t driven by soulless non-human Velosiraptors (from outer space, of course :O) ). But, these Predators are so arrogantly puffed up by how smart and clever they are, that they failed to learn a very basic Law of the Universe. Cause and Effect. One must eventually pay the fiddler for the dance.

    Their materialst/realist/reductionistic “scientists” thought that manipulation of matter was all that there was and that consciousness was just a phenomenal artifact of automatic chemical processes.

    So, the truly wise here on planet earth totally reject this insane paradigm and know very well that there is a much better way not so afflicted by selfish greed and blind tunnel-vision.

    The people who deal directly with Mother Earth and her children ever day, such as those who work and give care to the land, have humility and appreciation and a timing which is far more synchronized with Creation, yet they often find themselves treated as slaves by the Masters of $$$ and war, their land stolen, strip mined, denuded of trees and poisoned. They find themselves genocided, ethnically “cleansed,” despised, ridiculed and left to starve without mercy amidst a shock and awe of utter destruction fueled by ideological political I me mine.

    Traditionally, when they cry out in agony and despair, they are marginalized and ignored–or sent a “Care” package.

    But that is rapidly changing because the mechanistic, robotic institutionalized error is showing itself to be totally unsustainable, counterproductive, self-destructive and rotting from its own greed and criminality.

    So now the Law of Cause and Effect has caught up with this whole travesty and a great balancing has now begun.

    As this total dysfunction collapses under the weight of its own corruption, an entirely NEW PARADIGM is now arising simultaneously.

    Here amidst the darkness, anxiety and turmoil of today’s casualty list, What Raj Patel and many others are involved in is the prototype for this New Paradigm. It is not a “fix”…but a complete makeover…from the inside out. The problem is (and has been) SYSTEMIC, so every human on the planet must now use their creativity in the best way possible to co-operate in order to create a workable solution, while stopping ALL support for the old dysfunction so that it can die on the vine as soon as possible.

    In these days of intense stress and fear, at the same time, a great AWAKENING is occurring–all over the planet.

    All the many elements of this dysfunction are acting as a CATALYST to produce genuine soul-searching and the exercise of reasonable mental logic not locked into vain traditions.

    So, there is great cause for great hope.

    namaste

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