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Seeing Their World

When I stepped out of the dimly-lit theater after seeing Avatar and entered the bright lobby, I gasped a deep breath and joked that I just separated from my avatar. As had everyone I’ve talked to about it, I was sucked into Pandora for three hours and found myself hating the human corporate mercenaries and rooting for the Na’vi. After months of hype (more than most given my delay in seeing it compared to many others) I was convinced I would be underwhelmed; nothing could possibly live up to what had been said about it. Despite this mindset, I found my emotions being manipulated adroitly by the film, to the extent that the beginning of the final battle scene gave me chills.

How did this happen? For months I had set myself up to be disappointed, and yet in less than three hours my skepticism had acquiesced. The acting was satisfactory, but not perfect. The characters were stereotypical, and the plot was predictable. The three-dimensionalism and special effects were executed with enough precision so as to not be overly-sensational and to have only a subtle effect on your emotions. While watching the movie, one quickly forgets about both. Was it the exploration of the relationship between man and nature? Or the destruction of greed? Those are significant topics, but alone can’t be credited for the movie’s psychological and emotional domination.

The background to the story is a group of people who had developed a way of life that was completely harmonious with nature. To their native planet comes people of a society based on competition and short-term, selfish solutions to social problems. Interpreting this is James Cameron’s job as a storyteller. He could have chosen to model the Na’vi after any group in human history that didn’t directly totally destroy their environment: the ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, medieval Europeans, feudal Japan. Each of those depended on nature directly for survival—at least more so than the indirect manner contemporary industrialized nations do today—and survived only by having reverence toward nature. And he could have modeled the invaders after any other technologically-powerful, self-serving force in our history; the Conquistadors spring to mind, but the United Nations could have also fit the mold. Or he could have made both groups foreign to us, Alien Versus Predator style.

But he chose to model the indigenous after the Native Americans, thereby immediately tapping into a reservoir of sympathy in American culture. Specifically, he taps into a tradition of films about Native Americans that present them sympathetically as an enlightened, noble people (Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves). He then follows through by casting Americans as the invaders. This completes his application of the metaphor, and draws on one of the greatest hypocrisies of modern history: the oppression of an outside group by a group that had identified themselves as outsiders. Not only does he enlist American sympathy, but also feelings of guilt and shame that have come to characterize popular sentiment toward the treatment of Native Americans over time. Using such big emotional touchstones immediately give his story timelessness and raw power.

I think it’s interesting to note something else. The Na’vi have a bio-electrical link with each other, other animals, and plant life. This effectively roots (no pun intended) the mystical components of the culture in something scientific. Cameron recognizes the contemporary reliance and faith in science (primarily through technology), and uses this to subtly remove any hesitance we have in appreciating the Na’vi culture. In fact, this scientific explanation inspires identification with them as living in the same scientific world as ours, but also inspires awe and even envy, for being even more interconnected than our iPhone-carrying selves. Cameron removes the need for us to take a spiritual leap and accept a complex foreign religion. He commandeers our faith in science and effectively repurposes it as faith in Native American beliefs and values. (Not to mention, he purifies the Native American symbolism by having all Na’vi clans coexist peacefully—an arrangement that is credited to a disaster of global proportions. Hrm, wonder what that alludes to…) His trickery boldly puts us in the minds of the Native Americans, just as genetics and advanced technology put Americans in the minds of the Na’vi.

Avatar is an enthralling film on multiple levels, the most significant of which being the memorable imagery created with engrossing technology used in measured amounts, and the cultural symbolism that sets up a sort of justice and redemption for Native Americans (in the Na’vi victory over the Americans). Upon leaving the theater, we won’t find an Eywa to make our identification with Native American values permanent, but we may find a renewed sense of human hope and imagination.

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