James Cameron’s new sci-fi film Avatar is exhilarating fun in the darkest days at the end of a depressing year, but it also says quite a lot, in an inchoate, American way, about the cultural moment. You should see it especially if you are “right of center” or conservative. Forget the sneering reviews–this is the most neo-con movie of 2009, or perhaps ever, because it illustrates, rather than argues, the point we neo-cons made in Iraq: that American blood is not worth more than the blood of others, and that others’ freedom is not worth less than American freedom.
How universal are the values we Americans cherish? Avatar says they are completely universal–extending to another planet called Pandora. What is the responsibility of an American and how far does it reach? Avatar says, again, across the universe. Are we all brothers and sisters under the skin? Avatar answers yes, in the most concrete way, when protagonist Jake Sully decides to enter his Na’vi body permanently and stay on Pandora rather than returning to Earth.
Like the election of a black man as president of the United States, and like its great precursor Bladerunner, Avatar presents a physical answer to a philosophical question. Barack Obama’s election was seen by many, both Democrat and Republican, as a way of bringing the American conflict over race to an end. (Of course it couldn’t do this, no matter what you think of Obama–and I think very little.) Bladerunner was an attempt to cover some of the same ground, asking who is human in the context of an “ersatz” race hounded by bounty hunters.
Avatar makes a similar move, but a contextually smarter one, offering us a bigger, better race to decide to join or not. Jake’s metamorphosis gives flesh to what in our world must remain a metaphor. “I want you to learn these savages from the inside out,” the tough former recon Marine Colonel tells Jake. And the metaphor–entering the skin of another–couldn’t be timelier, or for that matter more appropriate to the Christmas season. Much blood was spilled in centuries past about what happened in the transubstantiation of the Catholic mass. Though Avatar has been charged with “pantheism” its mythos is just as deeply Christian.
I should say that I had my doubts going in. Avatar sounded anti-military. Advance reviews were sloppy–Roger Ebert, for example, said “we … send in the military to attack and conquer them. Gung-ho Marines employ machine guns and pilot armored hover ships on bombing runs.” Who’s the “we”? The movie is clear on the fact that a mining company employing mercenaries is the one doing the attacking. Jake Sully is a former Marine, now working as a security contractor on Pandora. But perhaps Ebert didn’t notice the uniforms of the mercenaries on Pandora aren’t U.S. Army uniforms, that the “colonel” doesn’t wear the appropriate insignia, and that the men aren’t all in uniform anyway.
Avatar is actually both pro- and anti-military, but in an insider’s way. Even the scenes that raise some reviewers’ hackles as the most gooey, where the Na’vi gather in circles around a sacred tree and plug their braids into its roots, read to me as a metaphor for the networked military. Speaking of which, Avatar gets the look and mood of military environments just right. Everything from the unapologetically claustrophobic space travel and avatar-driving pods to the laconically witty banter rings true to what I’ve seen on five embeds in Afghanistan and various bases here.
Some reviews make Avatar sound like a wimpy pacifist fantasy. To the contrary, I think it’s the kind of movie men who’ve gone through Ranger training will love. The movie’s Na’vi people are devoted to hunting and feats of physical daring, like, say, the Maori of New Zealand before European contact. I loved the footage of the Na’vi running, flying and jumping through the forest for the same reasons I loved the parkours-inspired chase scene at the beginning of Casino Royale.
More interestingly, Avatar struck me as the bubbling up of our military subconscious. There is the wish to be free of all the paperwork and risk aversion of the modern Army–much more fun to fly, unarmored, on a winged beast! What civilians often don’t realize is that your average captain or major isn’t upset about the possibility of getting hurt or killed so much as he or she is upset about spending 15 hours a day in a tactical operations center, staring at screens.
There is also the wish to be on the easy side, the insurgents’ side, which is an understandable reaction to the deadly slog of counterinsurgency. The OAS (Organisation de l’Armee Secrete)–the short-lived French terrorist organization that opposed France’s abandonment of Algeria–was full of French army officers who had taught and written guerre revolutionaire theory. They turned from analyzing how to defeat terrorists to becoming terrorists themselves–much as if Petraeus’s brain trust decided to overthrow the U.S. government. Avatar makes the conceptual leap easier because Jake works for a private company, not the American government. Perhaps it is only me, but doesn’t the wintry ash of the destroyed sacred tree call to mind the aftermath of Sept. 11? And doesn’t the image of the helicopters dwarfed by the huge tree evoke the attacks?
Conservatives are scornful of the environmentalism of Avatar. But the so-called extremism reflects American laws in force nearly a century, which prohibit destruction of sacred Native American sites or the territory of threatened fauna. And since when is flattening nature a conservative position, anyway? Are we supposed to be “against” nature just because lefties are “for” it?
When it comes to the environment, the Republican party has turned its back on its heritage in a particularly disastrous way. Does anyone remember that five of our National Parks were founded by a Republican president who also passed the Antiquities Act that was used to preserve Indian monuments? And would today’s Republican leadership nominate Teddy Roosevelt, a Harvard-educated scholar, hunter and explorer who campaigned on the promise of “a square deal” for Americans?
Ross Douhat attacked Avatar in The New York Times for being “pantheistic”–which seems deliciously irrelevant, as though he were writing in the waning days of the Roman Empire. For Douhat, pantheism is an abandonment of our “tragic self-consciousness”– nevermind that the folks who gave us the word and the concept of tragedy, the ancient Greeks, were pantheists of a sort. Or that the boughs of holly and Christmas trees in many of our houses are one of the survivals of ancient European pantheism in today’s Christian practice. Besides, in the film’s Na’vi context, pantheism is rational. The Na’vis’ bodies literally tap into the flora and fauna of their world. And as an agnostic who doesn’t have a dog in this fight, I have to say, what our world needs now is less fundamentalist monotheism and more pantheism.
Reihan Salam condemned Avatar in Forbes as anticapitalist and against innovation, which strikes me as equivalent to saying The Philadelphia Story is against thrift. Lighten up–it’s a fantasy. And since the Na’vi seem to have found a way to defeat death in some cases, and send data using their minds, intergenerationally, it’s not clear they need to take lessons from us in technology. What’s interesting is why Salam feels so threatened by the noncapitalist Na’vi as opposed to other fantasy races on screen.
The right-wing attacks on Avatar show a frightening tone-deafness to what most Americans find inspiring, cool or exciting–the same tone-deafness expressed by the tired visuals of the McCain campaign and Web site and the tired dogmas that substitute for a Republican vision. We on the right have lost sight of the fact that politics is as emotional as intellectual. The theater I saw the movie at for the second time was sold out at 10:30 p.m. on a freezing Tuesday night, at $16.50 a pop, because Avatar shows a man standing up for what is right, a quintessential American act, in a context of beauty and wonder. Conservatives need to take the measure of this movie’s appeal, not deny it.