Eco-Propaganda from Planet Pandora
Daniel Levis Keltner
Enter the world of Pandora, the ecologically pristine planet that corporate greed has driven mankind to mine, consequently exciting the indigenous Na’vi to war.
Enter the world of binary opposition, of good and evil the likes of a Disney classic. Unlike a children’s movie, however, Avatar’s binaries rest along sociopolitical lines that complicate its message, ultimately foiling its environmentalist agenda.
If the bleacher-banging hit “We Will Rock You” had sounded during one of the many battle scenes, the Na’vi would be the players for which we’d have been raising the roof. They’re the good guys. Not one of them would cut down a tree to save his or her own life. They act only for the collective good. They tolerate no gender discrimination in their military or system of government. They are spiritual sans dogmatism. Their deity is female. Other than being distrustful of humanity—and rightfully so in this film—, the Na’vi can do no wrong.
The humans are the bad guys, shamelessly exterminating the natives for the opportunity to chop down a skyscraper-sized tree—which also happens to be the Na’vi’s home—to make money from an ore named Unobtanium that lies beneath the roots. It doesn’t matter whether an intelligent race will lose its culture, ancestral home, and physical link with their deity; humanity is willing to kill, lie, and then kill some more in the name of self-interest.
The exception to this generalization of the human species is a small band of scientist rebels, led by a paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who realizes that the Na’vi’s way of life is not only worth preserving, but worth dying for. These individuals are the film’s heroes, and so are intended to be viewers’ heroes—humans who represent right action in the form of compassion and armed protest.
Avatar sought to aid environmentalism as a piece of pop activism by aiming to make the fight for an eco-friendly world cool for children and adults alike—yes, folks, you can hug trees and kill people. Its Hollywood pitch easily could have been, “Jason Bourne meets Greenpeace … brought to you by the writer/director of Aliens.” However, the film proves to do more harm than good for environmentalism not only through its troubling racial politics but by reinforcing the divide of environmental issues between the right and the left, between ‘patriots’ (conservatives) and ‘intellectuals’ (liberals).
In the wake of climate change’s emergence as a pop issue, scientists as a social entity weigh as heavily on the liberal side of the political spectrum as the military and big business weigh on the side of conservatism. These stereotypes are exploited in Avatar unflinchingly. All the principal scientist characters are devoted to the Na’vi’s preservation. They embody the values of compassion, sustainability, and altruism. All the military and big business characters are devoted to the extermination of the Na’vi, and embody the values of ignorance, unsustainability, and self-interest. Jake Sully only becomes the film’s hero when he rejects his allegiance with one social entity and joins the other (and, luckily for the scientists, with all his ass-kicking Marine training).
I am not arguing that corporations or the military can be socially progressive as institutions or that they should be portrayed that way in the media. My beef with the film’s reliance on sociopolitical stereotypes is that the icons of old school “Git’er Dun Badass,” Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and “Trying-to-Make-a-Buck-in-Corporate-America Dude,” Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), hold personal meaning for Americans. The millions who identify with these men and/or their institutions take issue when their ways of life are parodied and so are more likely to write off environmentalism as bleeding heart liberalism instead of an issue that concerns Life. Likewise, Colonel Miles Quaritch’s patriotism and tenacity are values that many Americans deeply honor, making Jake Sully not a “traitor of his species” so much as a traitor of these ideals. Sully’s transformation implies that we cannot be progressive, good guys, until we reject and stand directly opposed to these institutions and their constituents.
If we are to hope that the national conscience of environmental values expands and is passed on to future generations, then harping on sociopolitical binaries with the barely muted rhetoric of “us verses them” is counterproductive, if not asinine. In this way, conservatives aren’t far off the mark if they’ve labeled Avatar as liberal propaganda; the film is not concerned so much with the fight for an issue as with the ‘rightness’ of liberal icons and the bashing of conservative ones. In short, as long as conservative identity is culturally coded with the value of anti-environmentalism, saving the planet will always only be a liberal concern.
I’d like to qualify these opinions by saying I do not believe the media should be absolutely vanilla in portraying corporate greed or militarism, especially in its role in trashing our world. My suggestion is not to whitewash institutions, but to recognize that they’re made of human beings who have more complicated motivations than pure greed or pure brutality and that people are more likely to listen to one’s propositions when not cut by personal attack. James Cameron knows how to do this, as he did in his handling of military characters in Aliens, who believed in their work and yet could empathize when the moment called on them to do so—or not, but that depended on the character.
Bitchy minor issue: I was miffed that the film’s war plot didn’t make any substantial commentary on the U.S. military’s occupation in the Middle East, except perhaps that going to war for natural resources isn’t cool and that the power struggles of our world are more complex than Hollywood is willing to portray. The refusal of the film to take on the complexities of power begs us to view Avatar as a film primarily concerned with environmentalism.
Obviously, James Cameron had big plans for Avatar as a torchbearer of environmentalism in the vein of An Inconvenient Truth. The 3D camera work was spectacularly apt for pulling the audience into the world of the film and to experience the life of the Na’vi, become a part of the tribe, and join their struggle aside the film’s hero. Unfortunately, the polemics of partisanship interfere, and the simplification of any character’s morals and ethics is regressive, anti-postmodern, so last century. In this sense, Pixar’s WALL-E is more effective as eco-advocacy, even if it only stresses the simple fact that, whether we like the smell of each other or not, we’re in this little boat together.
Daniel Levis Keltner, Visual Arts Editor
Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher, and photographer who lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas. His work has appeared in Glasgow Review and Narrative Magazine, among others. Visit his online gallery at: http://www.moonbirdhill.exposuremanager.com.