Q: Is Avatar a metaphor for “capitalism?
Q: Is the rape of another planet capitalism?
Q:Is the movie left wing Hollywood schlock propaganda?
Q: Is the movie marvelous entertainment?
Q: Is it also something else?
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Here are some typical and non typical reactions to the movie:
From Hollywood Elsewhere:
The political import of Avatar — and there’s no waving this aspect away because it’s right in your face start to finish, and especially in the third act — is ardently left. It is pro-indigenous native, anti-corporate, anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. Iraq War effort, anti-U.S.-in-Afghanistan (and anti-troop-surge-in-that-country, or strongly against the thinking of President Barack Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal), anti-rightie, anti-Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, etc.
That Avatar’s melodramatic attacks on corporate interests and its defense of simple, natural living come packaged as one of the most expensive, and probably the most technically advanced, corporate films in history would seem to indicate that only quality bigger than the movie’s stupidity is its head-in-the-clouds hypocrisy. Cameron’s made a movie that he intends to be epic and awesome, but the only thing that’s awesome here is his total lack of self-awarene
And at its core it was very libertarian: it was about a group of people (the Na’vi) defending their property rights on the world Pandora from aggressors (the human invaders), and about one of the humans (a soldier named Jake Sully) deciding to join and help the right side. … the plot is about property rights. In particular, the property rights of the Na’vi, in an established tree-city that they have clearly homesteaded.
Like many stories, you can read into it what you wish: people see things through the prism of their experience and philosophy.
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I’m going to guess that James Cameron, the producer and director, doesn’t share free market philosophy, although he has benefited greatly from capitalism. To be cynical, suppose he didn’t have any philosophy and he was just trying to come up with a story line that would sell movie tickets. He would do so by tapping into lowest common denominator concepts.
What sells? Hmm. Greedy capitalists are bad. Native people are good. Despoiling the environment is bad. Roll that up into a hero’s quest (think Joseph Campbell here) and you’ve got a big hit. Layer on top of that fabulous special effects and you’ve got a mega-hit.
I very much enjoyed the movie. Regardless of the plot, it was an amazing and stunning visual experience. It took Cameron about 10 years to make it, one of the reasons being that he waited until the technology caught up with his imagination. The plot was obvious and lacked sophistication, but Hollywood and James Cameron are not known for deep stuff. He sure as hell knows a lot about selling movie tickets.
Here’s the plot. At this point, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet and don’t want the plot spoiled, you can stop reading here: I’m going to discuss the movie and the plot.
An evil (obviously American) corporation (think Alien) is mining the planet Pandora. The planet is sparsely inhabited by 10′ tall humanoids, the Na’vi, who hunt and gather in a challenging jungle environment. They live in peace in a tribal society. They have definite territories which they occupy. The jungle is the environment into which our hero is plunged. In order to try to understand and control the Na’vi, the Corporation has created its genetic hybrid of a Na’vi, an avatar, which are “driven” by humans who are computer-linked (by wi-fi?) to these bodies. The crippled hero joyously inhabits his new body and infiltrates the tribe. He eventually crosses over to their side, becomes a Na’vi, falls in love with the chief’s daughter, and leads the Na’vi in a war against the invaders who are trying to steal their land. He ultimately goes through a spiritual and physical transformation. The Na’vi win. Of course.
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There are several broad themes: the hero quest; an epic struggle of a people to survive against evil; the myth of the “natural man;” the myth of greedy “capitalism”; the despoilment of the environment.
For the “hero quest” go read anything by Joseph Campbell and you’ll figure it out. In the famous PBS series, Campbell discusses Star Wars and the hero quest of Luke Skywalker as an archetype of this theme. These myths, or Jungian archetypes, go way, way back in human history. They are deep in our cultural DNA.
The concept of the “natural man” or “noble savage” is a recurring theme in western society. The idea is that “modern” society is fake and man must get back to nature and his roots to be a complete human being. I don’t have a problem with anyone wanting to do that. But there’s a reason people leave the jungle. Such a life, as Hobbes famously said, was “nasty, brutish, and short.”
The noble savage is a myth. Human beings are pretty much alike where ever you go. Tribal societies are much the same as us: they love, lie, cheat, steal, act honorably, act with self-interest, without self-interest, cooperate, murder, war. Spare me the few exceptions you may find and go watch Dances With Wolves to make yourself feel better. But it’s a myth that runs deep, especially in our complex, modern society. We all know the feeling we get when we walk in the woods or take a vacation in the mountains.
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Is it free market capitalism that destroys their world?
The Na’vi have property rights to their home world. In order to mine minerals, free market capitalists would need the consent of the owners of the property they seek. That concept is enshrined in the theories of Natural Law. The fact that someone can take something by force doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t make it capitalism.
I’m not ignorant of the parallels of the founding of the U.S.A. Or the interface of any first or second world company seeking resources in third world countries. When technologically superior people meet primitive people we all know who wins. It’s not right. And it’s not capitalism.
In that respect we Americans were no different than other European cultures. Our history with our native people and Africans is sordid and wrong. But at least we recognized our faults and strove to correct them. What we did do when our republic was founded was to write into our constitution the concept of human rights and natural law. Among those rights is the right to own property. It took a civil war to apply it to all Americans.
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When you apply force to a situation outside of the rule of law and human rights, it isn’t capitalism. It has a lot of other names: fascism, state capitalism, mercantilism, oligarchic dictatorship, whatever. What the “Corporation” in Avatar was doing was just stealing property and ignoring human rights. No rule of law restrained them.The “Corporation” was nothing more than a mafia stealing the Na’vi’s land by force. The fact they had “shareholders” doesn’t change that fact. Nothing free market there.
The same thing is still happening in places like the Amazon or the Niger Delta. The issue of property rights is a complex issue, but in most third world countries the concept is that the State owns everything and your hold on a piece of dirt is tenuous unless you can bribe someone or you have more guns. That doesn’t sit well with societies who have lived there for countless generations. The locals are fighting back.
It is the governments of Nigeria and Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru which deny the locals rights to their property. These countries have never established a rule of law which define, establish, and protect property rights. Many international oil companies come in and “buy” oil rights from the government. Many of these contracts are not based on free market capitalistic morals, but rather employ the force of the state against the poor locals who may own the oil. The governments use these corporations to milk the resources for their personal benefit. Very little oil wealth sees its way to the poor.
Yes, it’s a mess. If these countries were able to create a free market capitalist system, establish well defined property rights, the wealth would be spread to more people and their standards of living would improve as has happened in most capitalist countries.
If I were to rewrite the Avatar story line, I would instead have a dictatorship send in its military to take over the planet in order to get the resources. They would send in shock troops to round up the Na’vi and send them to re-education camps where they would learn that the new social system was really good for them. Some Na’vi would be traitors to their species and become a part of the New Order. Meanwhile their planet would be mined by government sponsored corporations without regard to the results to the environment (no property rights). A human hero would descend to the planet in his avatar body and preach the words of freedom and natural law to the Na’vi. He would form a guerilla army which would destroy the invader and free the Na’vi.
Then it would be more true to life. Then again it might have gone to the toilet.