Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
Having recently seen Avatar in 2D on DVD, it struck me forcefully that, although I know nothing about the creators of this film, to produce a work that indicates such a hatred, not only of human life, but of life itself, the makers must be overwhelmed with self contempt that makes it nearly impossible to work, let alone live with themselves.
But, be that as it may, before I describe this hate, let me make one other point. I think films are inter-textual, created to make a comment on another film, and Avatar is no exception. In one of its dimensions, it functions as a savage rebuke to the 1990 movie Dances With Wolves.
Think about the parallels. Both films begin with the hero wounded in a military conflict, whether the Civil War or one that is intergalactic, and continue by having the protagonist repair to the fringes of civilization where he makes contact with a tribal group whose culture is at wide variance with his own. The films then chart his growth in tolerance and self knowledge as he begins to question his former worldview and accept some of the premises of the tribe.
Now while Avatar follows the plot line of the earlier work, in three ways, it is a reactionary rethinking of the themes of its precursor.
First, in relation to the reach of the home culture, note the difference. Lt. John Dunbar, the ex-Union soldier who is the protagonist of Dances, disgusted with the carnage of war, can “strike out for the territories,” going to a posting in a near-abandoned fort – he is the only occupant -- on the Great Plains in an area that is relatively untouched by European/American civilization. In Avatar, such relocations are impossible. The hero in this epic, Jake Sully, can only move from one node of European/American civilization to another. Although he may side with the native Na’vi on the planet Pandora, which is being mined by an earth corporation, he cannot delink from the tentacles of Westernized culture. The alien planet has already been fully mapped by geologists looking for ore, anthropologists analyzing the native lifestyle, and military strategists analyzing terrain for any forthcoming battle. This brings us to conclusion 1 of the film: Geographically, there is no alternative to the earth world system.
The second difference is in the depiction of tribal society. In Wolves, while the Native Americans are hardly untarnished noble savages -- the Lakota Indians Dunbar meets try to steal his horse and spend much time battling with other Native Americans -- they have a social structure distinctive from the one with which he is familiar. The army is top down, with orders, emanating from the top general, to be unquestionably obeyed on pain of severe punishment. The Native Americans that Dunbar meets have a different way of handling power. Decision making is broadly spread among the older members of the group. While the U.S. military is a males’ only club, a few women have voice among the Lakota. For the Native Americans, issues are debated in a relaxed, open and inconclusive manner, ending not with dictatorial commands but normative proposals, which are to be obeyed because they are agreeable to the situation, not as mandatory instructions.
Whether this is historically accurate or not, within the film the Lakota power structure is shown to be a viable alternative to the military organization of society. Again, Avatar decisively breaks with the ideas of its forerunner by suggesting that politically the Na’vi society mirrors all the features found on earth. In fact, humans may seem even more progressive than the people on Pandora in that the RDA Corporation, which is in charge of the mining venture, allows (at least as window dressing) the expression of dissenting views, represented by the anthropologists. The Na’vi are not like that. What we learn about the command structure of their tribe is that it is satrapy, ruled by a potentate and his shaman consort. While there is some debate allowed within the royal family, overall, decision making is restricted, elitist and, it seems, willingly agreed to by the populace.
The bedrock principle 2 of the film is then: Organizationally, there is no alternative to the U.S.’s hierarchical forms of life.
But let’s look at the ecological angle. Both films, intelligently enough, suggest that the tribal attitude toward animals flows from the group’s internal structure. The Lakota allow every member of the tribe a right to his or her opinion, so that each person can go along with or ignore the suggestions of the leaders. In the same way, every animal is respected as having its own space. Even those animals hunted are treated with dignity. Indeed, after human relationships, this is the deepest bond formed by the tribe, that between human and buffalo. For the native way of life depends not only on slaying the animals but (as the tribe sees it), doing so in a way that will not alienate them or offend the overall ecosystem. As Barry Lopez characterizes this connection in Of Wolves and Men, “The hunters must treat the animals with respect, seeing that their flesh is not wasted and that their spirits are not insulted by acts of arrogance or ridicule.”
In Avatar’s Na’vi society, similarly animal/human connections are in line with social arrangements. Nothing is conceivable outside of a rigid hierarchy. To be fair, animals the natives kill are spiritually respected, but the society is not keyed to these connections. The more important animals, those that allow them to ride or fly on their backs, are inducted into the tribe’s world as subservient partners. The model here is the dray horse or the animal that pulls a plow, dull and respectful under wise human direction. Claim 3 made against what is seen in Wolves: Animals are happiest as slaves to humanity.
I began with the thought that Avatar evinces an intolerance not just for alternative ways of seeing the world, but of life itself, a hatred for nature comparable to hatred of the flesh seen in the more fanatic religious organizations. It as if the filmmakers wanted to pollute the stream of nature itself by perverting animals at their deepest root, replacing their instincts with human behavior at its worst.
Instinctively, when a predatory animal selects its target, there is a graceful interchange. With great elegance, Lopez describes this:
Here are hunting wolves doing many things (to the human eye). They start to chase an animal, then turn and walk away. They glance at a set of moose tracks only a minute old, sniff, and go on, ignoring them. … [They seem to signal] and the prey signal back. … The pronghorn throws up a white rump as a signal to follow.
I called this exchange in which animals appeared to lock eyes and make a decision the conversation of death. It is a ceremonial exchange, the flesh of the hunted in exchange for respect for its spirit. In this way, both animals, not the predator alone, choose for the encounter to end in death. There is, at least, a sacred order in this. There is nobility.
To talk of Lopez another minute, one of the profoundest arguments he makes is that the Eskimos and other tribal people he studied “borrowed” their own attitudes toward hunting from wolves or other predators. There is a continuity between animal and human behavior, because humans have watched and learned from the other species.
Avatar not only sullies but destroys such a view. And it presents its moment of overwhelming contempt for animals as a triumph. When the corporate army is winning a war against the Na’vis, suddenly, through a mystic transformation, all the animals become warriors and join the killing on the side of the natives. Animals ignore their instincts, which tell them to kill only what is necessary, and become hate-filled wreakers of violence, just like their human allies. This represents a hatred for life that is nearly unfathomable to me.
Luckily, such things are inconceivable outside detestable fantasies. Nor, to be even more charitable, can the embodiment of such tawdry dreams be blamed on the creators alone. Rather they testify to a massive spread of self contempt, paired with a hatred of life itself, that are byproducts of a horrific system that is driving not only multiple species but the natural world itself to the point of extinction.
I guess the message of the film is that animals are as purely evil as humans, so we can be justified (and even self righteous) as we burn and poison their home grounds, forgetting, I guess, that we live in the same place.