The popular sci fi film is more than a spectacular display of technology and artistry.
‘Avatar’, released in 2009, is the highest-grossing film in history. The sequel, ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’, will be released later this month. A third and fourth sequels are in production. Rudolph Lambert Fernandez takes a look at the values underlying the first film.
Avatar (2009) opens to a pitch-black screen. Before visuals, a voiceover.
You wonder. Is there life before life? Will there be life after death? As one life ends, does another begin? If you hear before you see, can you see beyond what you see too?
Many misread Avatar as another apocalyptic sci-fi flick, no more than an episode in James Cameron’s filmography that they can conveniently label techno-utopianism or environmentalism or both. Yet, for all his fascination with Nature and tech, Avatar is intensely spiritual: Store up wise treasures, let go of the rest. Life’s about second chances, giving them, taking them. To find yourself, lose yourself. Truth isn’t seeing, it’s seeing right. The stone that the builders reject may become the cornerstone.
After you’ve gone past plot and characters, Avatar stands majestic before you, a mountain of meaning.
Those complaining that Cameron places Nature above God (God as part of, not apart from Nature), or God on par with (rather than above) Nature, miss the point. And it’s this. Cameron keeps looking for and finding God (infinite goodness?) in man, in nature rather than in maglev trains, cryo-capsules, ampsuits and scorpion gunships.
Cameron’s positioning of humanity in the scheme of things is unmistakable. His humans remain superior to tech, shaping it, re-shaping it, demanding of it, bending it to their will, even when it threatens to overwhelm. At their best they’re part of Nature, complementing, not competing.
As far as Cameron’s concerned, for all Nature’s might, humans are unique in their capacity to protect, preserve, plunder or pollute Nature, on an oceanic scale. Ultimately, it’s enlightened humans who’ll convince the less enlightened and rally them against those who refuse to be enlightened. It’s enlightened humans who’ll place tech and Nature in proper order.
It isn’t just his mind, but his morality that sets man apart. He may be catastrophic when picking evil, but he’s salvific, on planetary scale, when choosing good.
Cameron’s no theologian or spiritual guide. He’s an entertainer with an eye on box-office spectacle. That he keeps dwelling on a super-natural power bigger than us, beyond us, and somehow inside us, should please both theologians and spiritual guides. No, Nature isn’t the final frontier. His Eywa “doesn’t take sides”, but his better humans always do, defending the defenceless, protecting the powerless.
Neytiri coaches Jake, “When you hear nothing, you will hear everything. When you see nothing, you will see everything.” She means nothing else! If you sense without distraction, you perceive more.
Jake rambles, “I started having these dreams of flying…sooner or later though, you always have to wake up.”
Cameron’s teasing. He’s conjuring a dream, a line-up of Avatar movies, from which you wish you didn’t have to wake. If all you dream of is flying up into the sky (Avatar, 2009) or diving down into the ocean (Avatar, The Way of Water, 2022), why not dream forever?
Cameron masterfully mixes it. You don’t know where dream ends and when reality begins.
As Pandora’s Na’vi become more real to him than earth’s humans, Jake sighs into his video-log, “Everything is backwards…out there is the true world, and in here is the dream…I can barely remember my old life, I’m not sure who I am anymore.”
Funnily, that’s just before he finds his calling as saviour, the new Toruk Macto, unifying the clans in a “time of great sorrow” as the first one did.
Many are called, but few are chosen
Cameron’s clear. Being biologically human isn’t enough.
Jake’s a reject, a paraplegic with little use in a battlefield, even less in a biolab. He betrays the Na’vi for his thirty pieces of silver, a bargain to get his legs back. Still wretched, he becomes the chosen one, a new Adam in a new Eden, a new David who’ll unite the tribes more profoundly than the old David did. It’s why Mo’at gives Jake a second chance. He’s a very human saviour, falling, then rising, by accepting responsibility, not passing the buck.
Rarely are second chances given their real name: forgiveness. Jake’s admission, of crime against the Na’vi, has a real name too: confession, a pathway to grace. Not because grace suddenly floods him, but because he’s now more open to its wetness — healing.
When Selfridge whines, “relations with the indigenous are only getting worse”, biologist Dr Grace snaps, “that tends to happen when you use machine guns on them!” Both know that the deliciously-titled precious mineral, unobtainium, is why anyone bothers with Pandora at all. Selfridge’s shareholders will tolerate bad press. They won’t stand for “a bad quarterly statement.”
They’re hoarding the wrong kind of treasure.
Like any self-respecting prophet, James Cameron delights in symbols.
Language can be a bridge connecting hearts and minds. Or a dam. “Hasta la vista, baby” is a bridge in Terminator. Here there are dams: human invaders call Na’vi “savages”, fearful Na’vi call invaders “demons”. But there are bridges too: humans learning Na’vi, Na’vi learning English.
Yet, for all his sweat over developing Pandora’s language, Cameron’s most profound moments are silent. A flowery Atokirina (seed of The Great Tree) silently stays Neytiri’s arrow aimed at bumbling intruder Jake. Wordless breath, shahalyu, a spiritual heartbeat, binds Na’vi with their creature-rides. Wordless blood reveals what skin hides; Mo’at pricks Jake with a thorn to divine his worth.
He who is last, shall be first
Cameron turns success (and failure) on its head.
Norm and Jake are a sort of Cain and Abel, or opposing sons to prodigal mother, Grace. Norm grumbles that he’s trained years for the mission and speaks fluent Na’vi, but Jake just falls off the “turnip truck and all of a sudden he’s cultural ambassador!?”
When Neytiri impatiently extinguishes his torch, an irritated Jake notices the forest come alive; he sees better without a flame. The Na’vi rely on inner light, especially in dark times.
Mo’at warns, “It is hard to fill a cup that is already full”, but compels Neytiri to coach the addled Jake; maybe his “insanity can be cured”. Not the insanity of not learning, but of not learning right.
Why’s the giant Hometree seemingly omnipresent?
You run a great distance, you’re still below its shade. You climb a great height; it still towers above you. To Na’vi, all energy is borrowed. One day you have to give it back. This network thrives on “flow”, the way of water. These connections tie person to person, in oneness. When jungle beasts hurt each other, Nature’s in harmony, when humans hurt each other, it’s out of tune.
Grace pretends to “like plants better than people” but, in fact, empathizes better than most.
You love Nature, but can’t stand people? Something’s off.
What are avatars? Superficially? They’re remote-controlled bodies you can take “for a spin” the way you’d test-ride a loaded Lamborghini. But as he mounts his sky-beast ikran for the first time, Jake’s clinging-conquering yell, “you’re mine!”, later turns to respect for his ride.
Avatars aren’t after-lives. They’re second chances here and now, offering futures, worlds, possibilities, Pandoras. Jake’s standing in for his dead twin brother, Tommy, just as Neytiri’s standing in for her dead sister, Silwanin.
We too can die to our old self every night that we sleep and come alive to a new self every morning that we wake, shed destructive ways, embrace life-giving habits. If, in our lifetimes, our bodies are mere avatar-suits, should their colours matter so much? Should our distinct dialects matter more than the fact that we can speak and be understood?
Norm exults in his avatar-suit’s hyper-muscularity, “I am a living god”. Back in her human body, Grace snaps, “Damn! Same old sack o’ bones.” That’s Cameron, thrilled — and terrified — by tech’s seductive “temptations in the desert” of human frailty. That’s tech’s fruity, but slithery, promise in Eden to make us superhuman “like God”, free of time-space limits that our bodies impose on us.
At a moral level, don’t saints and sages seem like nine-foot giants to us, free of the constraints of our paraplegic “suits”, our handicaps, our addictions, our cravings? Sure, but they got that way not by bench-pressing but by strengthening moral muscle.
Avatar may wear the sciences on its sleeve but it breathes the humanities. The avatar program’s compulsive documentation (of experiments and experiences) speaks of motivation beyond science, pure or applied. It’s less about the life “enhancing” potential of computers or machines, more about the bioethics of wielding that knowledge, those tools.
Losing his nature as mercenary “soldier”, Jake ends up finding his nature as “saviour” through painful learning and unlearning.
Some of Cameron’s most perceptive, courageous characters are women. Here, Mo’at (or Tsahik) interprets the will of The Great Mother Eywa. Neytiri suspects that there’s a saviour lurking behind two-timing Jake. Trudy won’t cross her red line when ordered to attack defenceless Na’vi. Grace high-fives good-hearted men, instead of shunning all men because they’re men.
Pandora’s ideal of love begins and ends with respect. It’s not enough that a man chooses a woman, she must choose him too. Jake desires Neytiri but refuses to possess her merely because he can. Once shahalyu is formed with a hunter, even an ikran flies with only that hunter. Na’vi too become (and stay) mates for life.
In treasured relationships, it’s not enough if “I see you”. I must see no one but you.
In betraying Pandora, Grace is as complicit as Jake is. She’s blinded by a zeal for science as he is by a lust for thrill.Cameron’s image of them tied by enraged Na’vi shows the brief, if cinematically inadequate, price they pay before Mo’at frees them, giving them a chance to atone.
No doubt some sculpt a religion out of ecology even at the expense of man, salivating at tech’s advance, hoping it’ll help man extinguish himself and leave Nature in peace. That’s nihilism, cleverly dressed as altruism. Since they can’t find meaning in flawed existence, they prefer destruction; the quicker the better.
Cameron’s humanism is refreshingly defiant, bursting with hope.
Remember The Abyss (1989)?
At the bottom (of the bottom) of the ocean, underwater drilling-rig foreman Bud finds otherwise peaceable aliens, brewing mountainous surface waves that threaten earth but freeze tantalizingly short of its shores. Their tech can manipulate water, but in galactic proportions. Relieved that earth’s been spared, Bud messages earth’s surface, “They’ve left us alone, but it bothers them to see us hurting each other. They want us to grow up a bit and put away childish things.”
Short of quoting Corinthians, Cameron’s saying that if we value each other, we’ll value the environment without being bullied into caring. The truest sign of caring is that you care for humans. Get that right and you’ll know exactly how to treat beings or objects, no matter how magnificent. He echoes that in Aliens, Terminator I, Terminator II, Titanic.
Of course, tech might one day prolong life, even revive it, but Cameron’s bothered with how we live. If anything he holds up the prospect of destruction (even self-destruction) as incentive to care more, not less. He’s saying that the choices we make while living and dying decide whether we deserve life at all, let alone life after death.
For all his worldliness, Cameron may be more of a spiritual humanist than the pretenders.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer, writing on pop culture. Some of his writing on Hollywood movies, movie icons, women in film, feminism in film, women directors, Hollywood’s #MeToo has… More by Rudolph Lambert Fernandez
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