Avatar: Anti-imperialism in 3D

Issue 

Avatar is a visually stunning marvel of film technology, as many reviewers will tell you. But what really stands out in James Cameron's newest film is its unabashed critique of corporate greed — and its inspiring tale of solidarity and resistance against occupation.

Set on a distant planet called Pandora, Avatar re-enacts the genocide of indigenous populations by colonial capitalism, and links this history to the rapacious resource wars of our own times.

The film is not a moralistic wringing of hands that relies on "white-guilt fantasies" as some commentators have claimed; rather, it is an uncompromising defence of the principle of self-determination and the right to resist exploitation and plunder.

Cameron, who directed The Abyss, Aliens, the Terminator films and Titanic, is a master of visual effects technology.

However, for all the gushing praise that Cameron has received from critics for the film's technological accomplishments, reviewers have been less enthusiastic about Avata"s political message.

Some seem so dazzled by the spectacle they don't even notice its ideological significance.

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat dismisses it as a "long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature". Similarly, while Dargis' review acknowledges the film's "anti-corporate message", she seems unmoved by its uncompromising anti-imperialist message.

On the other hand, left-wing critics have panned the film's politics for its director's "banal and conformist outlook" (David Walsh's review at wsws.org) and as "a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people" (Annalee Newitz's much-circulated post for the sci-fi website io9.com).

Let's concede a couple of points at the outset. James Cameron isn't Gillo Pontecorvo, and Avatar is no Battle of Algiers. It's a popular science fiction thriller, and a damn good one at that.

It thus conforms to some of the conventions of the genre, employing stock characters like the mercenary Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and predictable plotlines such as the romance that ensures a happy ending.

No doubt the dialogue is, at times, contrived and cliched, and the film could have used a better script. Nevertheless, its narrative arc is compelling, and the transformation of its central character, disabled marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is convincing.

When we see him in his wheelchair for the first time, his comrades taunt him. We see, through his eyes and from his perspective, the mammoth scale of the war machines and armaments being deployed by the mercenary forces on Pandora.

His disability, in other words, isn't incidental. It is central to his character, because his disability marks him out as an underdog among the top dogs, so to speak.

His disability sets him apart as someone who might not necessarily conform to all that he sees around him.

White man though he is, Jake Sully is nevertheless himself a victim of oppression. And crucially, Jake's liberation relies on his identification with the natives of Pandora, the Na'vi, a tribe of 12-feet tall, blue-skinned humanoids with prehensile tails.

In this sense, Avatar can't simply be dismissed as a "white man's guilt" narrative, as Newitz does.

It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that the bulldozers destroying the Na'vi forests are like the Israeli bulldozers in occupied Palestine, and that Jake's defiance of them is like the courageous stance of activists like Rachel Corrie.

By slow degrees, Jake comes to identify with the "other" and their way of life.

In the context of the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is cultural dynamite. And in the context of Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize lecture on "just war", Jake Sully's wry admission is timely: "I was a soldier who tried to bring peace, but sooner or later everyone has to wake up."

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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