Thursday, April 22, 2010

'Avatar' on Earth Day

A blockbuster film showcases the contradictions of organic liberalism.

By Thomas S. Hibbs
April 22, 2010 4:00 A.M.

James Cameron’s record-shattering film Avatar is being released on DVD today. Today is not a Tuesday, the day DVDs normally hit the stores, but a Thursday, to coincide with the 40th annual Earth Day: Avatar highlights the threats posed by an advanced, war-mongering, and artificial society to a primitive, pacific, and organic culture.

Ironically, the film has received accolades for both this ideological vision of a pristine world untouched by industrial man and the high-powered technology evident in its mesmerizing 3-D visuals. The contradiction here is deeper and more instructive than the inconsistencies involved in Earth Day celebrations that leave tons of rubbish behind, or in the hypocrisy of Hollywood stars’ cavorting about the globe in private jets to lecture the rest of us on conservation.

The visual quality of the film is indeed stunning, but mere artistry would have proven tiresome were the world of the Na’vi not such a fascinating one. In the journal Image, Jeffrey Overstreet aptly comments, “Pandora is a whole new world of breathtaking beauty, exploding with wild new life forms that soar, spark, prowl, pounce, gallop, and graze. Borrowing heavily, and brilliantly, from what he’s seen in deep-sea exploration, Cameron has built the most enchanting magic kingdom since Dorothy first stepped into Technicolor Oz.”

In some ways, the film is not so much a departure as a continuation of a trend in recent filmmaking. In the last decade, in the annual ranking of box-office success, large-scale, mythic quest stories have most often dominated: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and now — one mythic blockbuster to rule them all — Avatar.

The hero of the story, and the vehicle through which the audience comes to experience the world of Pandora, is a partially paralyzed marine named Jake Sullivan — who takes on an avatar, an artificial body of the Na’vi, in the Avatar Project. His goal is to infiltrate a tight-knit community, uncover information about it, and perhaps even persuade its people to relocate so that the military can secure a desirable natural resource called “unobtainium.” When Sullivan’s efforts aren’t as successful as hoped, the military commander threatens “shock and awe” and promises to fight “terror with terror.”

The connection of the inhabitants of Pandora to one another is woven into their biological constitution; they possess ponytail tendrils that enable them to bond with each other. They are also intimately bound, in this life and beyond, to the Tree of Souls, wherein dwells the goddess Eywa. The malevolent pursuers of unobtainium are nothing more than caricatures of evil, but the plight of the Na’Vi is a sympathetic one, and the Na’vi characters are engaging and even admirable.

The threat of irrevocable loss is quite credible. Here the film taps into a sentiment that has often been at the heart of conservatism: the worry that gambling on cosmopolitan forces of progress not only carries with it unintended consequences but also exacts a cost in the erosion of traditional customs and the destruction of intermediate institutions.

Despite its ideological ambitions, however, the film has little time for Tocqueville-like reflections on the dangers of modernity, let alone its blessings. For a film that was many years in the making, it is remarkably void of self-awareness. It never faces squarely the way in which technology is necessary to allow viewers to experience and come to know this primitive world.

The word "avatar" has religious origins (it’s a Hindu term referring to the descent of a deity), but its more common contemporary use has to do with artificial or second lives and role playing in social media. From its title and from the fact that its main character takes on an artificial body and identity through the use of highly developed technology, then, one might have expected the film to probe this issue.

This lack of clarity about technology is palpable in the course of the final battle, during which the Na’vi, in collaboration with their earthling defenders, seem willing to use whatever technology is available to them to defeat the bad guys. Consider furthermore that the film has sparked lengthy online discussions on how to cope with post-Pandora depression, including suicidal thoughts. Many viewers, in other words, retreat into the very technology the film decries.

Our world is unlikely to become any less complex, the questions about technology any more tractable, in the near future. On the left, there is fear and trembling about the exploitation of natural resources and ecological devastation; on the right, there is a concern about cloning — the brave new world of genetic manipulation. These two crises may well arise from the same source: a conception of the external world and the body itself as mere property, raw material to be manipulated to satisfy untrammeled human desire.

As captivating as it is, Avatar is unlikely to be of much help in solving or even understanding the most important questions we face. In the end, it only helps to illustrate the Left’s imperfect faith in organic liberalism.

— Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is the author of Shows about Nothing.

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