Directed by James Cameron, in cinemas now
AVATAR MIGHT not be the subtlest movie around but its central message is reaching millions: if ordinary people unite, we can win extraordinary victories over capitalism.
In one of the final scenes, the corporation which has been pillaging the moon Pandora exits with its tail between its legs.
It’s a re-enactment of the US abandoning its embassy in the Vietnamese city of Saigon in 1975. It’s an echo of the morning the Melbourne police—surrounded by thousands of pickets—had to negotiate their retreat from East Swanson Dock during the 1998 maritime dispute.
Resistance and solidarity saves the Na’avi people of Pandora and their eco-system. Not even the 22nd century equivalent of the US’s Blackwater mercenaries can prevent a magnificent victory.
So how come a movie that celebrates an anti-imperialist ethic and has the audience cheering a US military defeat has become the biggest box office success of all time?
The first answer, of course, has to be that the movie is a magnificent spectacle, making use of 3D and flawless computer-generated imagery to take the audience deep into an enchanting rainforest world. The economic crisis may have intensified people’s thirst for beauty and utopia. But that alone isn’t enough. There have been 3D films before and special effects galore elsewhere. There is no shortage of ways to find escapism. The explanation has to run deeper.
Avatar touches on the two central and inter-related themes of our time: the way that corporate greed is putting the environment at fundamental risk, and war.
So when one character says that the corporation’s method is to locate resources and then demonise the population living there in order to justify driving them off the land, the parallel shouts out—oil, Iraq.
When the bulldozers roar through the rain forest, the parallel is stark —the Amazon, Borneo, the Philippines.
Most people might be cynical about the ability of politicians (or mass movements) to bring about change, but it doesn’t mean that they are cynical about the need for it.
That is why the right finds the movie threatening. It is putting into mass circulation the idea that things can be different, and that struggle can be effective.
Googling “avatar leftist propaganda” brings up almost 45,000 hits, among them the Sydney Morning Herald’s Miranda Devine, who dismisses the movie for its “sanctimonious hippie sensibility”.
“The snarling vipers of left-wing Hollywood have been let off the leash in a way previously unmatched in a high-priced blockbuster,” she writes. But it’s not the movie’s new age under-current that really concerns her. Rather, Devine writes: “It’s extraordinary that, while American soldiers are dying in dangerous wars on foreign soil, a mainstream movie would show such cartoonish contempt for them.”
Among progressives, too, there have been concerns. In particular, a number of writers have picked up on the role of the US marine turned freedom fighter, Jake Sully.
Annalee Newitz writes at http://io9.com that: “This is a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.”
The centrality of a marine is a reminder that, for all its strengths, this is a Hollywood movie that is making lots of money for Rupert Murdoch.
But Sully is a post-Vietnam, post-Iraq marine, who has lost the use of his legs. Like so many veterans, he does not get the care he needs. His trip to Pandora is not driven by ideology but the need to earn enough for an operation that will restore his mobility. And while he ultimately brings military leadership to the Na’avi, he has to learn from them before he can guide them. The physical merger between human and Na’avi represented by Sully’s avatar becomes in turn a social and emotional unity. The Na’avi princess who becomes his teacher and lover at one point cradles his human form in her arms. Their love transcends the species divide.
The right hates this movie for a reason. On a moon far away in time and space, the battles of today are being fought in 3D —and they are being won.
By David Glanz