I saw the latest blockbuster Avatar last night, and the early plaudits are true: this is a visually stunning masterpiece of “hybrid” cinematography, a “full live-action shoot in combination with computer-generated characters and live environments.”
But there are other, less compelling ways, in which Avatar is a hybrid of sorts. There are literal hybrids in the Avatars themselves, the genetically-altered bodies combining both elements of Na’vi and human genes to act as bodies for the Avatar “sleep walkers.” Other commentators have noted the lack of originality in the plot. Indeed, Avatar’s narrative seems to be a combination of other films and stories, and Avatar‘s only original contribution is the setting on the planet Pandora. In one sense, you could think of Avatar as The Mission set on an alien planet and with scientists instead of Jesuits.
Another film worthy of comparison to Avatar is last year’s CGI masterpiece, WALL-E, as both tread some of the same territory, so to speak. In both films humans have laid waste to the Earth, which is no longer capable of supporting a viable ecosystem. WALL-E spends a great deal of time set on the damaged planet, but Avatar only makes vague references to the “dead” planet where there is no green, and that the humans, the sky people, have killed their mother (Mother Earth).
It’s here that Avatar‘s message stumbles the most. Whereas in WALL-E responsible stewardship of the world was set within a compelling criticism of consumerism and waste, it is emotionally powerful without being sentimental, preachy, or clichéd. Avatar misses this kind of nuance. It plays on the worst stereotypes Westerners have about native and indigenous peoples to present a naive portrayal of the Na’vi, the alien inhabitants of Pandora.
In WALL-E, when humans use up the Earth, they essentially gorge and pleasure themselves in space, passively waiting to return to home one day. In Avatar, humans maraud other innocent worlds, looking for other ecosystems to kill. Now as Bill Easterly points out, this alone shouldn’t be enough to raise the ire of conservative critics against Avatar.
There is much that rings true in the film’s depiction of human greed and disregard for those considered to be “other.” As Easterly writes in another context, “those of us of Euro-American heritage would be a lot more convincing on Individual Rights by acknowledging that we have had as much trouble applying them as anybody else. We were pioneers in applying them to our own ethnic group, but we kept handing out free passes to kill other people’s rights.” This is one of the core messages of Avatar that is right on, and pundits and commentators on all sides of the political debate should be able to see this.
So it isn’t in its critique of genodice or murder that Avatar fails, but rather in its tone, its caricature rather than prophetic depiction of the human condition (war-mongering Marines come off especially flat and unconvincing). As an indictment of a kind of space colonialism, Avatar functions well, sometimes reaching a meaningful level of authentic rebuke. As a screed against the favorite peeves of the radical environmentalists and a paean to the neo-pagan deity, however, Avatar falls flat.