Avatar: misanthropy in three dimensions

James Cameron’s latest extravaganza is technically stunning yet promotes a bleak view of humanity.

Steve Bremner

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Avatar, the new film by James Cameron, has been much anticipated by film fans eager to see what the director, famous for his ability to use technology to bring to life fantastical visions of either the world around us (The Terminator, The Abyss, Titanic) or other worlds (Aliens), can do with the previously unfashionable 3D format. Unfortunately, while he has produced a technical masterpiece, he has also produced one of the most deeply misanthropic films ever made.

It has often been noted, particularly over the last couple of decades, that Hollywood has produced many films in which humanity as a whole has been cast in the role of the ‘bad guy’: animals threatened by greedy and rapacious humans (Happy Feet); man depicted as unleashing climate chaos upon the world (The Day After Tomorrow); science as a threat to human emotion and feeling (I Robot).

Sometimes this tendency is attributed to the fact that the rise of the politics of political correctness meant it was no longer possible to depict Russians or Arabs as the bad guys for fear of being accused of racism. This may have been an influence on the rise of misanthropic filmmaking, but it does not explain why humanity as a whole should become the new all-encompassing bad guy. The main reason for this development is the increasing disenchantment in middle-class and elite circles with humanity as a whole.

A number of Cameron’s earlier films reflected this disenchantment. In Aliens, for example, the heroine, Ripley, feels increasing kinship with the aliens as she becomes disenchanted with the corporate greed and macho excess of the humans she works with. In The Abyss, humans are presented as psychologically fragile creatures in need of rescue by a benign alien presence. Even machines designed to assassinate human beings are depicted more positively than irresponsible men, manipulative psychologists and short-sighted scientists in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Cameron has a track record for using some of the most sophisticated technology produced by industrial and modern society in order to rubbish the very developments that allow him to ply his trade.

Avatar takes Cameron’s misanthropic perspective to a whole new level of anti-humanism. Its main character, and hero, is so alienated from humanity that he literally disowns his own species. This move requires Cameron to indulge in and reproduce some of the most backward and anti-human development prejudices of our age.

The story is a simplistic one of good versus evil. A crippled marine called Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) is given the chance to work for a private mining company on a distant planet called Pandora. The company is digging for ‘unobtanium’, a substance of great worth on Earth. The only obstacles to the mining company’s ambitions are the natives, a species of 10-foot tall, blue-skinned bipeds, called the Na’vi, who are not cooperating with the mining company’s plans. Jake’s role is to learn about the Na’vi’s ways, in order to help the mining company work out a method for nullifying their resistance. To this end, he has his mind projected into that of an avatar – in this case, a fake alien body – which is then animated and can move among the natives as if it was one of them.

Jake initially undertakes this task with some enthusiasm, exploring the alien world and reporting back to the mining company and its mercenary army with enthusiasm, encouraged by the promise that his reward will be surgery to heal his damaged spine. However, while amongst the aliens, he begins to shift his allegiance away from the self-serving and brutal mining company towards the Na’vi. He soon falls in love with one of the Na’vi and, by the end of the film, has taken up arms against the human ‘occupiers’ of Pandora. He finally makes the transition from being fully human to becoming fully alien, leaving humanity behind altogether, in a move portrayed as heroic.

In order for the audience to be persuaded that it is legitimate for one human to join another species and begin to kill fellow humans, Cameron indulges in several fictional conceits that draw upon modern misanthropy. First, the miners and their mercenaries embark upon genocide with no thought whatsoever, despite the fact that humanity has considered genocidal behaviour to be a bad thing for some time now. This allows Avatar to imply that man has not changed since the explorations and conquests of the Middle Ages. There is even a fairly explicit suggestion that the humans are acting in the same way that the settlers of America did and that the Na’vi, whose main weapons are bows and arrows, are equivalent to Native Americans. Here, humanity is depicted as having learnt nothing from the past and as being inherently savage towards that which it does not instantly understand.

Second, the Na’vi are depicted as living in an essentially harmonious tribal society. Their society is depicted as a primitive kind of utopia in which all the individuals within it know their role and social conflict does not exist. A central idea of the film is that they also live in literal harmony with the planet, a harmony that the humans, of course, destroy. In its depiction of the life of the aliens we see a kind of green fantasy of how human life should be: primitive technology, a hierarchy in which everyone knows their place, a community at the mercy of the environment. This is also a kind of Western primitivism that advances racially demeaning stereotypes of happy natives living in harmony with the environment, when, in reality, tribal society is much more brutal, and much less harmonious and fulfilling, than those who celebrate it are willing to admit.

Cameron’s third conceit is that the planet Pandora has a consciousness. This is necessary in order to show why such a primitive society survives when, in reality, it would likely perish given the potential hostility of the environment depicted in the film. This idea reflects the green notion of Gaia: that is, the belief that all beings are connected into one consciousness and that harm to one being harms the organic whole. The film makes this idea even more explicit with the aliens being able to physically link their minds with the animals and plants of the planet. The humans, meanwhile, are depicted as blundering into, and threatening, this ecological paradise like some kind of inter-planetary plague.

Some observers have suggested that there is a critique of the Iraq War in the film, in that humans are depicted as invaders who do not understand local cultures. In fact, this is no specific critique – instead it portrays all humanity as destructive. This bleak portrait does serve a purpose: only by making humanity uniformly destructive, and the Na’vi holy, can Cameron justify the final conclusion of the film, in which the hero abandons humanity altogether to join the Na’vi.

It is hard to imagine how Cameron, the film company and all those who made the film can be comfortable with this humanity-is-overrated message, particularly as their work and lavish lifestyles rest on the very development and progress Avatar decries. But then, the film’s message is aimed, not at supposedly responsible elites, but at the apparently destructive film-going masses. By the end of the film, this reviewer felt like rising to his feet and cheering the final human attack on the Na’vi. Indeed, much of the audience seemed ambivalent – we were clearly dazzled by the spectacular 3D effects and the beautiful rendering of the alien planet, but the unrelentingly bleak portrayal of humanity left everyone more than a little despondent as we left the cinema to celebrate the New Year.

Steve Bremner is a writer and teacher based in London.

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