Avatar is about our battle for earthly resources reflected in how we view the natural world, its cultures and ourselves. As a film experience, it uses latest special effects to show a adventure ‘about’, ‘in’ and ‘for’ the environment; however it does so much more than this, in the way it very intelligently develops a series of themes on a number of levels.
A US Marine, Jake Sully, is tasked with finding out about what seems at first an alien environment, getting to know its inhabitants, and thereby enable his military bosses to discover how to conquer it for the precious mineral and so rescue Planet Earth from an energy crisis.
With the help of his new companion Neytiri, a girl of the Na’vi people, he struggles, but eventually succeeds, in learning about the natural world around, how he can not only tolerate it, but work and play within it, and gain to respect it. Animals and plants that at first are appear hostile, are shown to be defensive, just as he was first. Through gaining and consolidating his skills and knowledge, Jake learns how to source the basics – food, water and warm – by a growing understanding of the rhythms of nature. There are strong resonances here with regards to children’s desire to ‘be outdoors’ and the bush experiences encouraged as part of outdoor education, so often lacking in what has become known as ‘nature deficit disorder’ in many highly urbanized young people.
This ‘fish out of water’ feeling is highlighted when he comes across animals and plants that glow at night, when disbelief and uncertainty are replaced by wonder and ‘being’ in the moment. Disbelief makes way for ‘taking charge’ when Jake must choose his own animal to ride. Here the animal might kill if he shows fear, but accepts his rider when they none. An animal in the natural state can ‘smell’ fear and reacts negatively to it; a false move – running – might mean death for the person, as a mistake!
These experiences give way to a fresh awareness of the fragility and sacredness of all life, so values now come to the fore. When killing an animal, Jake is seen to make peace with its spirit – acknowledging a new concept that he had likely not considered before he came to Pandora.
With all this new-found awareness, of the natural world, all of its many aspects and the tribe’s connectedness to it – Jake realizes that the very people who brought him to Pandora, and their technology, seek only to take what they want and move on with it.
This same technology, which provided the ‘way in’ to this other world by way of the Avatar Programme, now threatens its very existence. The invasion of men and machines – for the minerals and resulting wealth, and against the indigenous peoples and their sacred lands – is no less a metaphor than a historical truth. Whether it is the American Indians versus the US Government, or the prospectors going into the Amazon Basin – or indeed, some would argue, the Iraq War – this game of White invader going after local people for their natural resources, is a pattern all too familiar. However, familiarity does not breed contempt as some have argued, since history keeps on repeating, yet we are not listening!
Despite reaping deep and massive destruction to the landscape and ecology – if not unlike a nuclear, than certainly similar to the Amazon burning! – an invasion is ostensibly halted with Nature’s help.
Avatar holds a candle to our entire approach to the natural world, drawing in historical presumptions that block our potential understanding of the future us and our relationship with the planet, and through this, everyone who calls it home. Only those with the true and growing understanding of Nature and our range of responses, can we see our way forward to a life lived in harmony on our planet.
If the world of Pandora is so easily likened to our burning habitats, invading countries and displacing indigenous peoples now, Avatar – for its make-believe take – is uncomfortably more real than we would like!