Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Politics of "Avatar" - Pandora in Retrograde

This is the final in my series of posts about James Cameron's recent science fiction blockbuster Avatar.  Be advised, it contains spoilers.

Apparently the United States of America of the 22nd century - or some hardly distinguishable successor state - is still without a program of universal healthcare, is still engaged in military adventures in Latin America, and is still so unilateralist in its approach to global problem-solving that it has undertaken a planet-saving expedition across an interstellar expanse without assistance from other nations or their citizens.

Welcome to the terrestrial world of the year 2154 that James Cameron offers as the political context for his extraterrestrial science fiction action-adventure film Avatar, set on Pandora, a paradisaical moon of a gas-giant planet orbiting a nearby star and inhabited by an ancient, wise and noble race of blue-skinned humanoids, the Na'vi, who live in harmony with their pristine environment.

A more forgiving critic would say that such seeming anachronistic false steps were intended by the writer-director as commentary on contemporary American politics, but a case can be made that Cameron, visionary though he may be at creating imagined future landscapes, is a dinosaur when it comes to developing stories that unfold there.

As the buzz that surrounded the run-up to the release of Avatar let us know, Cameron had begun mulling over the ideas for his latest blockbuster since the mid-1990s, only a few years after Kevin Costner's Academy Award winning Dances with Wolves  (1990) demonstrated the sustained box-office viability of the even-then recycled tale of a disillusioned white soldier who forsakes his own decadent kind and finds common cause with an ancient, wise and noble indigenous race who live in harmony with their (once) pristine environment.

Cameron has done Costner one better with Avatar and managed to incorporate elements from Tarzan mythology into his movie, having his white hero become not only a champion, but a god of sorts, to the adoring natives.  In defense of Edgar Rice Burroughs, his Tarzan was reared by apes from infancy and, as a consequence, learned their ways and the ways of neighboring African tribes over the course of years.  Cameron's alienated, dispirited ex-marine, Jake Sully, controlling the body of a human-Na'vi meat puppet, masters the world of Pandora and emerges as its great blue hope, after a course of study that would hardly constitute a semester abroad on planet Earth.

Honestly, I cringed at the point in the film when Sully in his Avatar skin, like some besotted cruise ship tourist, rallies the Na'vi troops before the climatic battle of the film with this call to arms, "we will send them the message, that this, this is our land!"  Leaning forward in my seat in the theater, I strained, hoping to hear some lone voice cry out from the ranks of the assembled Na'vi army, "what do you mean we, Kemosabe?"

What I found even more insulting than this warmed-over "dances with Avatars" storyline was the tired old "despairing gimp" setup that Cameron uses in Avatar to launch Sully on his mission to outer space.

When we first meet our would-be hero we learn that he is a survivor of American military action in Venezuela - be warned, future Hugo Chávez - and has been wounded so severely that he has lost the use of his legs.  Since it appears that employment opportunities for paraplegics on Earth in the 22nd century are bleak, our protagonist has opted to throw his lot in with some new-fangled version of the French Foreign Legion, mobilized to assist in the corporation-led plunder of Pandora, 6 light-years away.

Not fit for "real" soldiering, Sully has signed on to operate the body of an avatar, one engineered to his genetic specifications, and, using it, to go undercover as a member of the expedition's science team to spy on the Na'vi.  This assignment will provide him with the opportunity not only to serve the cause of his dying home planet and that of his human comrades in arms on Pandora, but also, since the link that connects him with his avatar is utterly realistic, for all practical purposes, to walk again.

As unsettling as it is to contemplate that U.S. foreign policy of the future would offer little more than a continuation of its centuries-old failed gunboat diplomacy in Latin America, it defies credulity to propose that medical advances in the next century and a half will have been so meager that those suffering even devastating spinal-cord injuries would be left wheelchair-bound, without recourse to the benefits of either sophisticated prosthetics or mobility-restoring surgery.

In fact, Cameron acknowledges the likelihood of such progress, and suggests that such assistive technologies and restorative medical procedures do exist in 2154, but he indicates that they will be out of the financial reach of working class grunts like Sully, a disabled combat veteran, no less.  So much for the prospects of universal healthcare anytime soon.

What is troubling about Cameron's decision to use Sully's paralysis as a critical plot device in Avatar is not so much his predictions about future medical advances or his opinions on contemporary healthcare policy, but the decision to cast Sully's story, in some respects, as a flight from physical disability.   Without minimizing the hardships that accompany severe handicaps, the notion that disability makes life less than worthwhile is one that our society has struggled to get beyond for a couple of decades now.  Yet in abandoning Earth for Pandora, it seems that Sully wants more than simply to forget, the traditional motivation for Legionnaires; he seeks a kind of corporeal oblivion, which Cameron grants, allowing Sully to toss aside his broken, and by implication useless, human body at the end of the film.  Using disability as veritable death sentence as a premise for a movie would seem to be an idea whose time had come - and gone - some fifty years ago.

And who is this Jake Sully, destined to lead the Na'vi in an uprising against their human oppressors?  What qualifies him to be the only dream walker, as the remotely controlled avatars are called, to be fully accepted by the natives?  There are scientists who have donned hybrid human-Na'vi bodies, who have studied the ecology of Pandora, who have learned the ways and the language of the locals, and who have come to identify with their plight in the face of the inexorable expansion of the corporation-lead mining operation that is threatening their world.  They have failed to gain that acceptance.  Why has Sully been deemed worthy and these engaged researchers have not?

Well, it turns out that Sully, who couldn't locate Alpha Centauri B, Pandora's sun, on a star map to save his life, is distinguished from the brainy researchers by the fact he has a "strong heart".  Apparently intellectual curiosity and a humane regard for other cultures don't mean a whole hell of a lot to the Na'vi.  When it comes to picking friends, and, as it turns out, leaders, all you've got to have is heart.

I am not so naive as to imagine Hollywood and its mass market are prepared to embrace some eggheaded scientist-hero, but the fact is that Avatar has been characterized by commentators on the left and on the right as being critical of the contemporary American political scene.  Far from this being the case, the film seems to endorse the cherished American delusion that true leadership derives from the heart and not from the head.  Sarah Palin brought the recent National Tea Party Convention to its feet with the exhortation, "we need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law."  If the sentiments regarding leadership celebrated in Avatar are any indication, James Cameron could have written that line.

Interestingly enough, Avatar is widely perceived to be a criticism of contemporary American foreign policy because, with its mercenary expeditionary army and the gun-metal-gray, hermetically-sealed fortress city which serves as their base of operations on Pandora, Cameron has constructed a microcosm of the contract security forces hired by the U.S. government in Iraq and the Green Zone of Baghdad which serves as their headquarters and as their haven, fortified in such a way as to keep danger at a distance but also to make humanizing interaction with the local population impossible. But does Cameron's recreation of this state of affairs really constitute a political commentary, much less a scathing criticism?

In some respects James Cameron's Pandora recapitulates Bush-era Iraq all too well.  By that I mean that, as with the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the criminal misdeeds of Blackwater Worldwide and Halliburton, culpability for mistreatment of the Na'vi and the exploitation of their world lies not with real Americans like Jake Sully, but with sadistic "bad apples" and greedy, malevolent corporations.  Far from criticizing the arms-length arrangement through which we have subcontracted our ethical responsibilities to those chartered to act in our name, Cameron perpetuates the notion that the American public is exempted from blame because, although willfully ignorant, we were, nonetheless, well-intentioned.  Caught unawares, our noble cause was hijacked by miscreants and scoundrels.

I am not saying that Cameron could have told this part of his story otherwise - a commercial film that proposed to depict members of the armed forces of a future United States as heartless killers and elected political leaders as unapologetic war criminals would never see the green-light of day - but I am saying that his Avatar is little more than a recasting of a familiar anodyne fable in which the usual suspects - soldiers of fortune and evil corporations - are rounded up, presenting nothing of substance to upset the moral complacency of American audiences.

It's hard to know whether to attribute this kind of by-the-numbers storytelling to the out-sized ego of the director or a cynical approach to movie-making - after all, the box-office success of a James Cameron movie hardly hinges on the quality of its screenplay.  Whatever the case, my primary criticism of Cameron in Avatar, and that is that he seems to think that transposing conventional - and often out-dated - story lines to a future time and a far-away place is the same as creating an interesting work of science fiction.  His exquisitely realized fantasy worlds deserve better than to be used as backdrops for lackluster and retrograde stories from days gone by.


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The Politics of "Avatar" - Pandora in Retrograde by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at thoughtsarise.blogspot.com.
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