We have a new biggest-box-office-hit-ever on our hands. More people have been recorded to have seen this movie than any other movie in history. Avatar is a story of an interaction between aliens and humans. In very general terms it can be said that the aliens are represented as good guys while humans represent the bad guys. This is not entirely true as the special few, led by a classical ‘hero’ figure, are both human and good.
The chosen humans become alien in part and are in that way able to bridge the species divide and empathise with ‘the other.’ A conventional Hollywood fable of the clash between the good and evil, with all its standard features–the hero, the noble savage, the evil corporation etc., Avatar is more than that however–it is a new way of seeing and feeling this trope–a new kind of narrative that promises to have potency that is far beyond the power of even the big Hollywood studios. Ultimately, I will argue, this narrative is one that offers us a powerful and potent content that can inspire and enforce a real utopian project in this world.
The human and the alien in Avatar
The humans’ world is run by a powerful mining corporation that has, in its service, the powers of the state, namely the ability to generate war. The image is one of an all-too-familiar-to-us marriage of state and capital already a standard in today’s world (if we think of the open role played by Halliburton in the war in Iraq for example)—armies of mercenaries in the service of a scientific/military order.
The separation between the ‘human’ and the ‘alien’ is fairly clear in the movie but is very compromised, not only by the existence of creatures, like our hero and his crew of sympathetic but ignorant scientists, that are both, but also by a purely common-sense realisation that the aliens in the movie are a construct of human action. How can aliens be more human than human and how can a separation between a human and an alien be achieved when there is, not only cooperation between the two, but also miscegenation? It can’t. These movies are still a human narrative and, as such, a human vision of what is and what could be.
Cameron’s human world is very much like our own, very much dominated by demented killers and greedy capitalists who use the machinery of state to exterminate entire communities of humans for simply living on a pile of well-buried-in-the-ground minerals that can be sold for money. The killing machine is manned, as in our world, by the poor and the indebted boys and girls who are there as a punishment and who have no idea how beautiful the world they are destroying is. The narrative seems to lead in the direction of human self-loathing. The human world is not a good place to be, especially the world of the military and scientific establishment. The danger of this narrative is that it may be seen as leaving us too many excuses to give up on ourselves; it runs a danger of anti-humanism—the faith that there is no hope for human kind because our culture is rotten to the core and the positive elements of human culture are all gone and we may as well disappear or allow ourselves to be destroyed. But the fact of humanness of the very narrative of the alien guards against this temptation. Like Marx’s God who is created by humans, so are these Aliens. They are really a human projection—a projection of human desire, a “heart of the heartless world.” Or to turn the Christian narrative on its head—they are created in our own image. Jesus is God. God is human. Alien is human.
When one of the humans gets a chance to become a part of the alien world he instinctively runs for it, getting out of the hands of gate-keeping scientific apparatchiks who threaten him with an injection of powerful drugs to knock him out. His fear causes him to be attacked by animals but he survives and is taught how to co-exist with all living creatures using his one human trick—violence—on several occasions but only for survival and war purposes, the purposes of a just defensive war against the humans who have decided to wipe them off their sacred site, the site that hides deposits of the ‘valuable’ mineral that humans are after while at the same time serving as the source of life-giving energy for the aliens. He can fly, and he’s in love, he witnesses life in the forest, he eats juicy fruits, he jumps from branch to branch, he gets married under natural fluorescent lights to a woman that is stronger than him, he is recognised by the great witch and encouraged to stay. Some of the natives at first try to kill him, but are overruled by women. The women are very powerful in this movie. They are wild and just, they defy men openly and with guns and bows and arrows.
Avatar as a sacred text
The vision of the world of aliens can be read as a sacred narrative and as such utilised in conjunction with all the world’s other sacred narratives. “The tree of life” is a mythical sacred place like Jerusalem for three of the great religions, numerous now golf courses and ski-hills of North America to the Native Americans, Kosovo for Serbs and Medjugorje, or Rome/Vatican, for Catholics. This is a sacred place for all nations, tribes, ethnicities and species; a place that is defended with an army of pure, naked, natural energy–energy of various species united; a place that has mythical powers, a place that acts on its own, a place where miracles happen. We are friends with horse. We are friends with a dog. We are friends with cats. In Avatar, we are also friends with giant birds that can carry us on their backs. This place, in the paradox of narrative, becomes more human than the human world; a place that fulfils all human desires–the desire for companionship, a desire for beauty, safety, a desire to run and walk with other creatures, to connect with them, the desire to fly.
The sexual and the profane in Avatar
Sex is never attempted—there are no representations of sexual intercourse. But there is an intimate connection made through the joining of bodies that resembles the sexual act—the bodies of aliens and animals interpenetrate each other but on equal footing–it is not the case, as it is in our world, that one sex penetrates the other–there is real, egalitarian inter-penetration. Alien ‘humanoids’ don’t connect with each other in that way however. That connection is mediated by nature–they connect to plants and animals, and through them, to each other as well–as part of a ‘circle of life.’ One could even call this activity ‘bestiality’ but one would have to first justify the naming of the phenomenon and after that demonstrate the impossibility of love between a human and an animal. That would be hard to do. Ultimately, I think, this practice is as human as the mind that created it, and, even though it destabilises a great social taboo, one worth thinking about. That is exactly what Avatar makes us do. The only issue with sex remains that of consent and force. And this issue Avatar does not address. There is no ‘rape scene’ in this movie. There is no helpless, weeping, female that is violated by a man. That is a good thing. Love-making, in the way we practice it, is not a part of the alien culture or, if it is, it is not highlighted in the narrative. In any case, there is certainly no rape in this beautiful world.
Another level of feeling the movie—Avatar as an emotional experience
Avatar awakes an emotional response in the viewer that has hitherto not been evoked by cinema, or has been lost on the cinema-going public for quite some time: the feeling of being transposed to another world, of joining the utopian society. The viewer is shown that he can in reality live a life worth living, a life of freedom and abundance and extraordinary beauty. One feels like one is flying or at least one feels how good it would be to fly. This is the power of the 3D technology harnessed in a powerful new way to break through a mirage of technological ‘effects’ that have hitherto been associated with it—the ‘realistic space-travel’, the ‘realistic’ battle scenes, the ‘realistic’ fall from great height through the forest canopy—and onto the plateau of social utopia—into a sensual experience of enjoyment, tranquility and exaltation.
Avatar as Utopia
This is the ultimate lesson that I want to encourage in Avatar. This feeling of being in a beautiful world is the desire called utopia. Those who have felt it, and those are many, should strive to become as human as Avatars, to realise what is clearly possible to imagine. We could fly for fun only, or make the flying enjoyable and widely accessible. We could stop stealing land from animals and each other and mining for shit. We could try to get along. We could be stricken with horror every time we even think of killing another breading thing. Many of us already are. We should force the hand that grips the gun that is pointed into another of us or into a cow’s head open, and hold it, make it hold the body of the animal instead of approaching it with hostility. He who wants to drink milk of a cow should suck it right from the cow’s tit if she invites him. Maybe she will.
There is a transmutation between an avatar and a native, human and avatar and therefore human and native. All natives are in tune with nature. The less technologically ‘advanced’ the society, the more connected it is in the real way with nature. All natives, whether those of Africa or Americas or Europe, know the sounds of the forest or desert, know where to find water and how to avoid dangerous animals and how to befriend the friendly ones and there is also a possibility of befriending the hostile animals. In fact, arguably, since it is never possible to determine the ultimate point of departure for the ‘original’ habitation of humans in a specific geographical location, or, it is possible to demonstrate that no ‘natives’ are actually native to the patch of land they currently inhabit, it is precisely this connection with the nature that best stands in-stead as the most accurate definition of what a ‘native’ is.
The approach to life is so much more beautiful in this world of the native/Avatar/human. Everyone in the theatre wants to be in that world. We abhor the moments of humanness and eagerly anticipate the moments in the Avatar world. Like the main character who chose to join the Avatar world and leave the human one, we wish we could go with him. We don’t want to go around killing and yelling at each other, we don’t like our own existence, especially those of us who are hired to kill, those whose job, thus life, is killing.
Go see it
Avatar is special. It can be read and analysed but, to be truly appreciated, it must be experienced. The words on paper have not been invented yet that can account for this cinematic experience. Go see it, ideally, with someone whose hand you want to hold and who wants to hold yours. It is a new way of intervening in reality by way of cinema. It is like a sweat-lodge, like a church, a mosque, a dance floor; it is like sex, it is like love, it is like friendship. It fills us with energy that we require in order to survive the capitalist tragedy.