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What’s Avatar really about? [spoilers]

January 30, 2010


There has been much talk about the political slant of Avatar, James Cameron’s latest blockbuster.  Having seen it recently (thanks, finals period!), I thought I’d put in my two cents.

Yes, emotionally Avatar was about environmentalism, what with its pretty nature and conveniently humanoid Noble Savages, but is it really that much on the environmentalist side?  After all, the Gaia-spirit was real and scientifically verifiable, unlike fuzzy environmentalist pantheism.  (In fact one character emphatically states that the biological network is “not some kind of pagan voodoo thing.”)  You could read it as wish-fulfillment, but from a practical point of view the environmental situation on Pandora has very few implications for our own planet.

Fundamentally the movie is about property rights, how forcible expropriation is a Very Mean Thing to do.  So long as the humans were mining their stuff on land not owned or used by the natives, and so long as they were negotiating for use of mineral-rich land, all was well and good.  It was the resort to force that firmly moved the humans from “slightly dingy but decent” to “big fat meanies.”

More interesting is the nativist angle.  The Na’vi, by virtue of being the guys who are currently resident on Pandora, are presumed to have the moral right to include or exclude the newcomer humans.  In a climactic speech, the blue head honcho said “[humans] cannot come and take what they want.  This is our land!”  This ties back to the property rights angle above, but step back a minute and consider how easy it is to imagine Pat Buchanan saying the same thing.  The end of the movie features the eviction of all but the most extremely assimilated humans – not only did Sully give up the entirety of his culture, but the ending even shows him adopting a Na’vi body.  It is strongly implied that the Na’vi wouldn’t welcome any humans who returned and maintained their own culture, even if they were peaceful miners as at the beginning of the movie.  Frankly, you can’t really blame them, but this attitude would make even the Minutemen look like rabid open-borders advocates.

(‘Course I’m being facetious; I don’t think that Cameron intended Avatar to be an anti-immigration screed, or even an anti-eminent domain piece, but the facts and emotional reactions are entirely consistent, and more interesting than the surface environmentalism)


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