Bright Lights Film Journal

Battleground Pandora: The War over James Cameron’s Avatar*

Avatar metaphorically attacks all martial, colonial, and expansionist histories, which have occurred at the expense of the world’s indigenous peoples and Earth’s biocomplexity. Both implicitly, through the film’s narrative, and explicitly, in statements made about it, James Cameron has also challenged the materialism — and thus, the lifeways and aspirations — of the vast majority of people today.”

I first saw Avatar shortly after its release in December 2009. Like most viewers, I found the bioluminescent landscape of Pandora stunningly beautiful. I was also moved by the storylines: the against-all-odds resistance by the native inhabitants of Pandora against violent, imperial invaders; the turncoats from the invading forces who join the resistance; and the love stories. Sure, there is the formulaic story — male and female find love, lose love, and find it again — but there is also the love of a people for their home and their wild flora and fauna, a contagious love that subverts the ecological and spiritual understandings of some invaders, leading them to take a stand with those they have come to exploit.

The film’s producer, writer, and director, James Cameron, is adept at evoking emotional responses from his audiences and making huge sums of money along the way. Indeed, no one’s films exemplify the blockbuster, money-making film genre more than Cameron’s Terminator, Aliens, Titanic, and most recently Avatar, which banked $2.8 billion within the first two years after its release, 73 percent of which came from outside of the United States. The figure would have been significantly higher had not the Chinese government cut short the film’s run, reportedly out of fear that it might encourage resistance to development projects and the government’s resettlement schemes (Stanton 2010). The film also gained wide recognition for its many technical innovations and won many awards, including best film drama and best director at the Golden Globe Awards (which is decided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) and three of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated (although not for best picture or director). The attendance records and professional accolades provide one marker of the film’s appeal. But is there more to the film than tried-and-true narratives of injustice being overcome and romantic dreams fulfilled? Is it significant in some way other than for its technical achievements and profit making?

When I first saw the film, I certainly thought this might be the case. For more than twenty years, I had been tracking the development and increasing global cultural traction of nature-based spiritualities, paying special attention to how such spiritualities contribute to environmental activism. My book documenting these trends,

Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), came out shortly before the release of Avatar. In it, I argued that spiritualities that stress ecological interdependence and mutual dependence, involve deep feelings of belonging and connection to nature, and express beliefs that the biosphere is a sacred, Gaia-like superorganism were taking new forms and exercising increasing social and political influence. These sorts of nature-based spiritualities generally cohere with and draw on an evolutionary and ecological worldview, and therefore stress continuity and even kinship among all organisms. They also often have animistic dimensions, in which communication (if not also communion) with non-human organisms is thought possible. Consequently, these “otherkind” are considered to have intrinsic value (regardless of whether they are useful in some way to our own species) and should be accorded respect, if not reverence. Uniting these Gaian and animistic perceptions, I argued, is generally a deep sense of humility about the human place in the universe in contrast to anthropocentric conceits, wherein human beings consider themselves to be superior to other living things and the only ones whose interests count morally.

In Dark Green Religion, I examined a wide range of social phenomena that expressed and promoted such spiritualities. Recognizing that the evolutionary-ecological worldview that fuels dark green spirituality has had only a century and a half to incubate and spread, and noting that despite this, the trends I had identified were rapidly gathering adherents and momentum, I speculated that we could be witnessing the nascent stages of a new global nature religion. Such a religion would have affinities with some aspects of the world’s long-standing and predominant religious and philosophical traditions, and it would, in some cases, fuse with them, I suggested. Moreover, such dark green spiritualities could also coexist (rather than fuse) with the environmentally progressive forms of the world’s long-standing religious traditions, uniting in common action to protect the biosphere, even if profound differences remained about the sources of existence. I also suggested that dark green religious forms might increasingly supplant older meaning and action systems, because the dark green forms more easily cohere with modern scientific understandings than religious worldviews involving one or more invisible divine beings. Consequently, the dark green forms could more easily adapt than most long-standing religions to new and deeper scientific understandings, especially when compared to religions that reify their “ultimate sacred postulates” by chiseling them, physically or metaphorically, into inviolable sacred texts (Rappaport 1999).

These were the possibilities running through my mind when I first saw Avatar. I had already spent considerable time looking at artistic productions, including documentaries and theatrical film, that exemplified dark green spirituality; after seeing Avatar, I immediately thought it was another exemplar of such green religion. Moreover, as it broke box office records, I could not help but wonder if the film was evidence that global, cultural receptivity to the ideas prevalent in dark green religion was even more profound than I had previously thought. I also wondered if Avatar would prove to be the most effective “dark green” propaganda yet produced.

In his public statements about the film, Cameron has expressed a clear intention to promote themes that are central to what I have called dark green spirituality. When accepting his Golden Globe Award for best picture, for example, he said: “Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And if you have to go four and a half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that’s the wonder of cinema right there, that’s the magic” (Associated Press 2010). Soon after, in an Oprah Winfrey television special that was broadcast shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony, Cameron repeated this theme, adding, with delight, that at the climax of the film the audience had come to take the side of nature in its battle against the destructive forces of an expansionist human civilization. Here, without using the terminology of contemporary environmental ethics, Cameron expressed an affinity for deep ecological or biocentric theories, in which nature is considered to have intrinsic value. Indeed, according to an exchange during an Entertainment Weekly interview, it appears that Cameron was even on the radical side of biocentric ethics. When an interviewer asserted, “Avatar is the perfect eco-terrorism recruiting tool,” Cameron answered in an equally provocative way, “Good, good, I like that one. I consider that a positive review. I believe in ecoterrorism” (Moorhead 2010).

Clearly, Cameron was ready for rhetorical battle versus the film’s many critics, and I set out to foster a critical inquiry into the cultural contestation over and impacts of the film.

Avatar as Rorschach . . . and Cultural Battleground

It was clear from the diverse reactions that the film engendered that there was a strong tendency for people to view the film through their own intellectual and cultural lenses. The filmmaker and the film have been labeled pro-civilization and anti-civilization, pro-science and anti-science, un-American and too American, anti-Marine and pro-Marine, racist and anti-racist, anti-indigenous and pro-indigenous, woman-respecting and misogynistic, leftist and neo-conservative, progressive and reactionary, activist and self-absorbed. And, of course, there have been religious labels: pagan, atheistic, theistic, pantheistic, panentheistic, and animistic.

Observing the stunningly diverse and highly contested cognitive and emotional responses to Avatar reminded me of the famous Rorschach psychological test, in which individual reactions to ink blots shown on cards vary widely, presumably because of differences in the psychological constitution and cultural context of the test takers. Indeed, the reception has been as diverse and contentious as it has been because the audience has brought so many different historical, aesthetic, spiritual, and ideological presuppositions to the ferment.

The contention should not be surprising, since Avatar metaphorically attacks all martial, colonial, and expansionist histories, which have occurred at the expense of the world’s indigenous peoples and Earth’s biocomplexity. Both implicitly, through the film’s narrative, and explicitly, in statements made about it, James Cameron has also challenged the materialism — and thus, the lifeways and aspirations — of the vast majority of people today. He has even implicitly challenged the world’s predominant religions by offering as an alternative spiritualities of belonging and connection to nature and animistic ethics of kinship and reciprocity with the entire chorus of life, all of which could be understood either religiously (as the goddess Eywa, the divine source and expression of life) or scientifically (as an interconnected and mutually dependent environmental system). Critics quite naturally arose to defend histories, worldviews, lifeways, ideologies, and religions that they concluded Cameron had challenged in his film, contending as well that the views promoted in Avatar were misguided, if not dangerous.

Some of the strongest criticisms came from monotheists who felt that the film promoted a spiritually perilous paganism or pantheism. Typical of this response was the reaction of the Vatican’s official newspaper, which complained that that the film promotes “spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” Vatican Radio commented that the film “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium,” and asserted that in Avatar, “nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship” (Rizzo 2010). A Vatican spokesman confirmed that these reviews were consistent with Pope Benedict’s views about the danger of “turning nature into a ‘new divinity'” (ibid.). Evangelical Christians affiliated with the Cornwall Alliance felt similarly, releasing a twelve-part DVD series titled “The False World View of the Green Movement” and a subsequent segment, “From Captain Planet to Avatar: The Seduction of Our Youth,” which attacked these and other programs and films as threats to the Christian faith. Some churchgoers, however, especially in the case study on the response of Canadian Christians, are much more positive about the film than these critics (Haluza-Delay, Ferber, and Wiebe-Neufeld 2013). This may be surprising to those who only read the conservative critics or who do not know how plural and internally conflicted Christianity has become, with regard to both worldviews at variance with traditional doctrines and environmental concerns and spiritualities (e.g., Taylor 2005, esp. 1:301–82, and cross references).

The reactions of conservative political pundits held other surprises. David Boaz (2010) of the libertarian Cato Institute, for example, after acknowledging that most conservatives consider Avatar to be “anti-American, anti-military and . . . anti-capitalist,” contends that the central evil depicted in the film is the Resource Development Administration’s “stark violation of property rights,” which are “the foundation of the free market and indeed of civilization.” He concludes that rather than vilify the film, “conservatives should appreciate a rare defense of property rights coming out of Hollywood” (Boaz 2010).

A dramatically different sort of conservative, the neocon pundit Ann Marlowe (2009), contends that Avatar promotes universal values that Americans cherish, even asserting that it could be the most neoconservative movie ever because it advances “the point we neo-cons made in Iraq: that American blood is not worth more than the blood of others, and that others’ freedom is not worth less than American freedom.”

Boaz is correct, of course, that many conservatives, including in the US Military, considered the film anti-military and un-American. The Marine Corps director of public affairs, Colonel Bryan Salas, for example, charged that the film did “a disservice” to the Marine Corps, which he averred “prides itself on understanding host country narratives and sensitivities in complex climes and places” (“Core Official” 2010). Of course, some service members were harshly critical of the film. One veteran who commented online wrote that “portraying our military as fanatical crazed killers who have joined a military mercenary force to destroy a civilization so that corporations can capitalize on some rare commodity prized by earthlings is disrespectful to our soldiers, especially in this time of war.” He added, “Knowing that 90% of ‘Hollywood’ is liberal . . . only confirms the anti military theme of this movie” (Treese 2010). Which, if any, of the views expressed by current or former US military personnel will be surprising will depend on one’s preconceptions about military subcultures. The same dynamic occurs with regard to views supposedly promoted by “Hollywood.”

Preexisting cognitive frames seem to be no less important to the understandings of left-wing thinkers. For those acquainted with certain intellectual schools, for example, it is unsurprising that leftist, postmodern, and postcolonial theorists would criticize Cameron for promoting what they view as a destructive stereotype of the “ecologically noble savage” and for the film’s implication that the liberation of oppressed peoples depends on a “white messiah” and other saviours from the ranks of the oppressors. Some feminists condemn what they consider the film’s misogyny.

One of the most extreme voices is that of the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. He contends that, contrary to the film’s “politically correct themes,” Avatar presents “an array of brutal racist motifs: a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess and to help the natives win the decisive battle. The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy.” Thus, the film enables viewers to sympathize “with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle” (Žižek 2010a). Yet Žižek does not explain why these binaries are the only possible interpretations of the film, nor does he provide any evidence that the film promotes sympathy but not solidarity with the actual struggle of indigenous peoples. Instead, he expresses a view held by some progressives and probably the majority of leftist radicals: that the film does little if anything to promote anti-capitalist action and solidarity with indigenous peoples, let alone revolutionary class consciousness. Žižek’s apparent antipathy toward contemporary environmentalism, and especially environmental spirituality, may help illuminate his hostility to Avatar. In a YouTube video, for example, he denounces “ecology as religion,” calling it a mystifying ideology and “the new opium of the masses” (2010b). According to Žižek, this ideology — with its diagnosis of “alienation from nature” as the root of our current predicaments and its prescription for healing, namely, seeing ourselves as rooted in and belonging to nature — is deeply conservative. Instead of trying to return to some supposed natural balance that hubristic humans have disturbed, he contends, we must sever our roots in nature and embrace artificiality, including by transforming nature through genetic engineering. He concludes by admiring a pile of trash and arguing that we need to love and embrace the real world, not an idealized one. Clearly, for such radicals, Prometheus lives!

Radical environmentalists, however, who advance a worldview akin to what Žižek criticizes, usually see more to praise than to criticize in Avatar. Long-term radical environmental activist Harold Linde (2010), for example, considers the film a stunning work of radical environmentalist propaganda that promotes a Gaian worldview as well as the view that “destroying the rain forest for profit is morally and spiritually wrong.” For other radical environmentalists, however, the capitalist motivation for making the film and the immense expense of it (including the supposed costs to the non-human world from all such filmmaking) is sufficient to reject any claim that the film has value. Some of these radicals share the criticism that the film is rooted in regressive ideas such as the supposed white saviour theme.

Anarcho-primitivists, a subset of radical environmentalists who seek to reharmonize humans with nature through a return to pre-agricultural foraging lifeways, seem to be especially receptive to the film. Layla AbdelRahim, a Canadian citizen born in Moscow and of mixed Somali and Russian ancestry, for example, praised the film on her blog and on “Anarchy Radio,” which is hosted by the best-known primitivist theorist, John Zerzan. She contends, “The film is an overt commentary on the historical and present-day place of anthropologists in imperialist expeditions and of the role the hard sciences play both in elaborating the philosophy of imperialism and in providing the necessary information for its execution. As Col. Quaritch makes clear, the scientist is the carrot and the military is the stick” (AbdelRahim 2009). In another post, she directly counters the view (commonly expressed by left-wing critics) that Avatar is sexist or racist, arguing that “by presenting the Human as part of the animal world,” Cameron attacks both speciesism and humanism, which “furnishes the philosophical foundation for all ‘isms’: sexism, racism, animalism, etc.” (ibid.).

In two ways, AbdelRahim’s commentary is noteworthy. First, it suggests that at least some of those who have affinity with anti-authoritarian and biocentric ethics may be more likely than others to approve of Avatar. (For a contrary view from another anarchist critic, see John Clark’s scathing critique in an essay published under his pseudonym, Max Cafard [2010].) Second, AbdelRahim highlights the pernicious role that anthropologists (and other scientists) have played in the subjugation of indigenous peoples and their deracination from and the destruction of their habitats. Cameron himself has stressed that the scientist Augustine is “on the wrong side, she’s one of the invaders,” even though she eventually comes to love the Na’vi people and tries to help them (Dunham 2012, 191).

Most contemporary anthropologists, of course, understand and attempt to distance themselves from this history, including through efforts to support aboriginal peoples in their struggles against further threats to their cultures and homelands (Starn 2011; Clifford 2011). Part of this effort includes criticism of ideas they consider to be overtly or covertly colonialist. This helps to explain the strong criticism of Avatar by those who think that it promotes an image of indigenous peoples as “noble savages” and that the plot in which turncoat American soldiers successfully defend the Na’vi obscures history is rooted in colonialist attitudes (Simpson 2011). What at least some in the anarchist tradition are doing, however, is extending their critique of authoritarianism to the exploitation and subjugation of non-human living beings, even identifying humanism (and its leftist variants) as part of the global problem. This helps explain why radical environmentalists, including the anarchists among them, have for the most part found more to praise than criticize in Avatar.

Evaluating the Competing Views

That different individuals and groups tend to perceive things differently is, on the one hand, a dynamic to be welcomed, because differently situated people may have insights that people placed elsewhere may not. On the other hand, it is a problematic tendency, for it is also possible for our cognitive frames to create a field of view in which other perspectives, as well as information that might disconfirm our expectations, remain out of focus. So it worried me when I thought about what insights might gleaned, or missed, when considering the film, given the strong human tendency to see what one expects, especially when we often remain insular, segregated in our own cultural enclaves, including supposedly enlightened, academic ones. Moreover, many of the scholarly views that were expressed struck me as “ivory towerish” in nature, disregarding the ways in which those not embedded in scholarly subcultures were responding to and often embracing the film — even seeing their own feelings and predicaments reflected in it. The tendency toward Rorschach-style, quick-reaction analyses seemed to me methodologically flawed. I set out to study the film and its reception, therefore, in a collaboration with others, that was designed to examine not just the scholarly but the popular reception and impact of the film. With this work now in mind I will now weave in my own views about Cameron, his film, and its significance. These views have been shaped by over three decades as a scholar and activist trying to understand what leads people to participate in movements that seek to protect Earth’s biological and cultural diversity.

In my view, if by misogyny we mean the hatred of women (and girls), the criticism that Avatar (and, by implication, Cameron) is misogynist, as argued by Klassen (2013) can be quickly dismissed, for it appears to be based on weak evidence and ignores evidence to the contrary. Cameron is properly recognized, to evidence a counter-argument, for creating powerful heroines, unlike most Hollywood directors (Keegan 2009, 225, 227). A number of articles written or co-authored by indigenous scholars, however, have raised more poignant observations and criticisms. These express both appreciation for and disappointment with the film.

John James and Tom Ute (2011), for example, strongly criticize Avatar and several other films that have taken up colonial themes, contending that despite their efforts to criticize colonial repression, these films “actually reaffirm the colonial prejudices they seek to challenge” (187). For evidence, they note that in Avatar, Sully prevails over Omaticaya natives in athletic events. This positions Sully, in their view, “not only as an unlikely Savior of the Na’vi, but as a self-indulgent one for the average theatergoer” (190). Because James and Ute do nothing to explain or provide evidence for their claim that this theme is “self-indulgent,” I do not find that point compelling. But this observation gives me pause: why does the Sully character have to be superior to the tribals in their own sports and martial arts and with the animals they customarily use in those activities? This hardly seems necessary and may provide an example of how difficult it is, as many have argued, for the beneficiaries of colonialism to “decolonize” their minds. James and Ute, and some other critics of Avatar, seem to be arguing that in making Sully superior in some ways to some of the Na’vi, Cameron has revealed a moral blind spot, an assumed sense of superiority. As have many others, James and Ute directly criticize what they perceive to be the “white messiah” theme, asserting that “the film only reaffirms the colonial, social, and economic paradigms that it seeks to undermine by suggesting the natives’ inability to liberate themselves from the forces of oppression . . . thereby conferring power to a privileged colonizer, in this case, a white American male” (191; for similar critiques see Simpson 2011; Clifford 2011; and Douthat 2010). James and Ute conclude that filmmakers such as Cameron should stop congratulating audiences “for their pseudo-cognizant effort” and instead “hold them actively accountable for their actions” (197).

I have no idea what these critics mean by “pseudo-cognizant effort,” nor do I understand how a popular theatrical filmmaker (let alone a didactic documentarian) is supposed to “hold audiences responsible” for any action, let alone for the ways in which audiences might benefit from, or be complicit in, the exploitation of indigenous populations and nature. This is only one of many examples in which critics set an impossibly high ethical bar for a filmmaker to vault. Moreover, I think it is important to ask: Through what other means has the violent deracination of indigenous peoples by imperial forces ever been presented to a global mass public? One would think that this would draw praise, not such sharp criticism, from those who would like to raise global awareness of this long history and resistance to its continuing process.

For many critics, of course, reaching a mass audience with a pro-indigenous and reverence-for-life message is far from enough. Columbia University anthropologist and Kahnawá:ke/Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson, who is one of many who criticize the supposed “white messiah” theme, also offers a unique argument: after noting that spectacles like Avatar do political work, she argues that in settler, colonialist societies, such spectacles “redirect emotions, histories, and possibilities” in a way that obscures the genocidal dynamics and law-based justifications of “dispossession, disenfranchisement, and containment” (2011, 207). She finds it difficult to see how a spectacle like Avatar could be, in any sense, helpful to native peoples. Nevertheless, she adds in a footnote that she appreciates one aspect of the film: “Cameron’s surprise,” she writes, was to “reimagine . . . the familiar period in U.S. history known as ‘the Indian Wars'” as one in which the settlers are repulsed and their occupation fails. In this singular aspect, she writes, Avatar is “optimistic, uplifting, and perhaps absolving” (212–13n1). By “absolving,” she probably means that Cameron can therefore be forgiven for the film’s flaws, but clearly, Simpson finds something inspiring in Avatar: namely, the possibility of indigenous victory and of constructing a flourishing new world.

Of the indigenous analysts of the film, I found the reflections of Daniel Heath Justice and Julia Good Fox especially nuanced and insightful. Using an approach that complements the fieldwork-based studies Avatar and Nature Spirituality (Taylor, 2013), Justice (2010; cf. 2013) notes that people in his own indigenous and intellectual circles, who are deeply engaged with issues of “indigenous sovereignty and spirituality, colonization and decolonization, other-than-human kinship, traditional ecological knowledge and environmental destruction,” have had complicated responses to the film. Given the “blistering critique online and in print from both the right and the left,” Justice expected his friends and colleagues to express “substantial indignation” if not also “sweeping dismissal” of the film. “That’s not how it turned out, not even for me,” he writes. “Our responses ranged from guarded optimism . . . to thoughtful frustration (it’s powerful in so many ways, but why do we need yet another story about Indigenous struggle told through a non-Native’s voice and perspective?), but no one dismissed it. On the whole, the overwhelming sense was, ‘Well, it’s flawed, but at least it’s getting people talking.'” Justice continues, “That there’s so much commentary in the blogosphere on the film’s underlying current of ‘white guilt’ indicates to me that something is happening with audiences and critics” (emphasis in original). He then surmises, “There’s probably a good opportunity here to engage an audience on Indigenous issues that might not otherwise have been interested or receptive.”

As for the film itself, however, Justice is more critical, arguing that by creating simplistic characters that are either purely good or evil, Cameron’s protagonists are so obviously unreal that audiences cannot relate to them. Justice mentions, for example, that he knows many native and non-native soldiers, adding thoughtfully that military service is very complicated for Native Americans and that it is simplistic to characterize soldiers “as brutes and bigots.” The result of these simplistic characterizations, Justice contends, is that audience members do not see themselves as part of the history, or current reality, that the film metaphorically depicts. Consequently, “the potential for actual critical commentary is diminished, and the audience is left with a self-congratulatory feeling of having grappled with major issues without having actually dealt with any of the real complexities of colonialism, militarism, reverence for the living world, or environmental destruction” (emphasis in original).

Even though I consider such claims about the affective states of audience members to be unduly speculative, I do think that Justice’s argument is plausible, that overly simplistic characters might hinder people from making connections between their own histories and actions and the deracination of indigenous peoples from their lands and the destruction of those lands. The skepticism expressed by Justice (and others) about the film’s ability to produce understanding and evoke sympathy and solidarity with indigenous peoples is certainly understandable.

Unlike the more strident critics, however, Justice acknowledges that the film has some “narrative brilliance,” as when Neytiri scolds Sully for “his casual response to the destruction of life his rescue required; the soul-crushing horror of Hometree’s destruction and the survivors’ disorientation and exile; and the adoption ceremony that remakes Jake into a full Na’vi, with both the rights and responsibilities that such a ceremony necessitates, and his subsequent betrayal of the Na’vi and Neytiri’s anguished response.” He is also forthcoming about his own emotional response to the film, reporting that in places he found it moving, although he subsequently indicates that neither this nor the filmmaker’s good intentions are enough: “For all its good intentions, for all its visual spectacle and effecting sentiment (yes, I got teary-eyed a couple of times), it’s still ultimately a story about ‘those bad guys who aren’t us.’ Sadly, as we know from example after example in the past, distant and immediate, the bad guys, all too often, are us” (emphasis in original).

Julia Good Fox also understands well any cynicism about the film in light of the long history of filmmaking serving imperial interests and the ideology of manifest destiny. Moreover, she expresses frustration at seeing yet another cinematic expression of the “non-Tribal man’s fantasy that an Indigenous woman will find him more desirable than she does all other Tribal men” (Good Fox 2010). Nevertheless, she argues that “it is a willful oversimplification” to reduce the film to “going native” or “white-saviour” themes. She insightfully notes that all of Cameron’s films wrestle with difficult, “cross-cultural intersections that occur in improbable circumstances,” where “representative individuals and cultures misconnect, disconnect, shun connection, abuse connection, and, of course, connect.” She cites indigenous studies professor Taiaiake Alfred (from the University of Victoria, British Columbia), who has observed that one of the shared traits of Native American peoples has been “the ability to appreciate and recognize multidimensional relationships,” a notion found “in such translated phrases as ‘all my relations.'” Good Fox suggests that in Avatar, the phrase “I see you” coheres with such an understanding. This notion, she writes, refers not merely to “a glance or a gaze, but rather [to] an accurate and encompassing recognition, an insightful and respectful acknowledgment.” It expresses the idea that “I comprehend our connection, our relatedness.” For Good Fox, Avatar represents a valuable exploration of what makes possible, and hinders, authentic recognition of relatedness. Moreover, contrary to many of the critics, according to Good Fox, because it is sometimes easier to communicate such realities indirectly “through the use of analogies,” the film has a chance of countering manifest destiny, “the de facto ideology of the United States.”

With regard to the “white-saviour” critique, Good Fox observes that Sully’s transformation required “the assistance and mentoring” of four women, “Neytiri, Mo’at, Dr. Grace Augustine, and Trudy Chacon.” Good Fox also insightfully notes that two of Sully’s female mentors (Augustine and Mo’at) are maternal figures: Mo’at plays a particularly powerful role as “the moral anchor of the film,” at one point denying the request from the Na’vi men to kill Sully, an intervention that gives him “a second chance at life” and makes it possible for him “to reemerge as a new man on Pandora.”

Good Fox makes another striking observation, which is all the more notable since it would have been easy for her to miss given her frustration with certain aspects of the love story between Sully and Neytiri. She comments that, despite its problematic aspects, the love story “goes beyond white people’s desire to be the object of beauty and erotic attraction for Indigenous Peoples. Colonizers also want to be forgiven for the damage they (and their ancestors) have wrought. This is most strongly suggested in the Pietà scene near the film’s end, when Neytiri holds Scully’s human form and the audience is presented with a visual of the perceived redemptive power of Native love for the non-Native.” This struck me, in part because it reminded me of one November evening in 1995 when Walter Bresette, an Ojibwe activist who fought for Indian treaty rights and against various mining projects, hijacked a conference on ecological resistance movements that I had orchestrated at the University of Wisconsin. Bresette and the Scottish author/bard and land-rights activist Alastair McIntosh used the term “hijack” when they interrupted the panel, declaring that it was improper that a conference dealing with indigenous land rights and environmental issues had no prayer or ceremony. After giving the approximately two hundred audience members time to flee if they wished (few, if any, did), Bresette led what he called a “welcome ceremony” for the non-indigenous conference participants. His stated motivation was, essentially, that if the latecomers did not feel at home, if they did not feel that they belonged to this continent, then they would continue to treat badly its Aboriginal peoples and the land itself.

For the purpose of this analysis, the details of the ceremony are less important than its emotional dimensions. Some Americans with European ancestry are aware of the devastating impact on native peoples and on the continent’s environmental systems that followed their arrival, feel guilty as a result, and would like to atone as best they can. But reconciliation can only really be achieved through the generosity of native peoples. After the ceremony, Bresette told me that it was a difficult thing to do emotionally, to welcome the descendants of the original invaders, but he considered this sort of ritual to be essential bridge building in the cause of protecting native rights and the continent’s land and waters. Good Fox observes, it seems to me, an important parallel moment in Avatar that symbolizes the possibility (despite fraught histories and human frailties) that cross-cultural respect and reciprocity can be developed. Perhaps Avatar goes even farther, suggesting that against all odds, grievances can be forgiven and respect and even love might emerge when colonial peoples acknowledge the injustices and work to change the dominant society’s course. Here, it seems to me, Good Fox illuminates important mythic and religious themes in the film, including those of repentance, redress, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

As we have seen, Daniel Heath Justice is more pessimistic than Good Fox about the film precipitating respect for and solidarity with indigenous peoples, let alone kinship feelings toward our Earthly non-human co-inhabitants. Soon after the release of the film, Justice nevertheless wrote that the “jury was still out” with regard to the impact of the film. For my part, during many interviews with environmental activists over more than two decades, I have learned that no small number of them trace their activist vocations to, or at least note important influences of, artistic productions that explore and evoke outrage and sympathies regarding injustices toward people and the wider natural world. Some have cited J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, for example, while others have mentioned animated motion pictures such as Fern Gully and The Lion King, or television programs, such as the Gaia-themed cartoon series Captain Planet (Taylor 2010, 127–55). As a result of such testimonies, I am more inclined to expect that a film like Avatar will inspire some viewers to become activists or to deepen such commitments, if they are already present. Moreover, while I think Justice’s concern that the exaggerated good-versus-evil characters in Avatar could preclude some from connecting the film to trends and events in their own histories and worlds, I doubt that this is usually the case. Many statements that audience members have made about the film, including those reported in this volume, indicate that they recognize that the film is a melodrama that exaggerates characters to get audiences rooting for one side over the other. I doubt, therefore, that its oversimplifications would significantly reduce the extent to which audiences would draw the messages the filmmaker intended to convey.

Cameron’s Strategic Vision

Unlike most critics of the film, I think it is important (and a matter of fairness) to consider what Cameron has said about his intentions for the film and to note his rejoinders to the most prevalent criticisms of it.

I have already noted Cameron’s intention to use Avatar to help people appreciate the “miracle” of this world and to understand that all living things are interconnected, mutually dependent, and intrinsically valuable. These sentiments were also shown in Cameron’s delight that many of Avatar‘s viewers took the side of nature against the destructive forces of an expansionist human civilization, even expressing support for those engaged in direct action resistance to such forces here on Earth and, on many occasions, calling for more people to become “warriors for Mother Earth.” Moreover, in his 1994 Avatar scriptment, Cameron expresses the respect he has for indigenous peoples and their often animistic spiritualities, lending credence to such spiritual perceptions through his character Jake Sully, who comes to respect the Na’vi people and their own perceptual horizons, including their belief that the forest “is alive with invisible dynamic forces” (Cameron 1994). In an official Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora, also subtitled An Activist Survival Guide, these and related themes are also expressed, from the need to celebrate the “magic and mystery” and “interconnectedness” of nature to the recognition of biotic kinship (symbolized in the movie by the neural “queue” at the end of the Na’vi’s braids). Readers are also urged to “Fight for the Earth!” (Wilhelm and Mathison 2009a, xiii, xv, xiv, 72, 31).

So with Avatar, instead of just trying to provide information and provoke “a kind of intellectual reaction,” Cameron sought to evoke “a powerful, emotional” response (ibid.). This alone is not enough, Cameron acknowledges, for a film like Avatar does not tell people what to do. He does think, however, that such art can precipitate action. Put simply, Cameron’s stated goal in Avatar was to evoke in audiences “an emotional reaction to how we relate to nature” so that they will “wind up looking at things from the side of the Na’vi, with their deep respect for nature” (193). Cameron hopes that this will promote dramatic change in global consciousness and behaviour: “I’m hoping there will be a continued conversation around Avatar and around the needs and wishes that will elevate the consciousness and help us get the things done that need to be done. That’s my new mission” (201). Some of his critics, of course, are disparaging of his strategic vision. One can judge Cameron’s strategic choices to be ineffective or morally suspect, but it only seems fair to acknowledge that he has thought deeply about how best to communicate ideas dramatically at variance with the most prevalent beliefs and assumptions undergirding contemporary industrial societies.

It is clear, moreover, that although Cameron has forthrightly stated that he is an atheist, he is nevertheless expressing in interviews and through Avatar feelings of awe and wonder at the mysteries of the universe, peace and contentment when in the midst of relatively healthy environmental systems, and deep feelings of belonging and connection to nature. These are the sorts of perceptions and feelings — the recognition that all living things belong to nature, for they all emerge from, depend upon, and return to Earth — are typical of what I have called dark green spirituality. Cameron has often expressed such feelings, as when responding to an interviewer who asked him whether changes in the natural world that he had witnessed had influenced his creation of Avatar. Cameron answered that his “sense of a connection to nature” leads him to want to halt the widespread destruction of the natural world and that since he is a filmmaker, he tries to make a difference through the cinematic arts (Suozzi 2010).

Avatar as a Catalyst for Positive Change?

It would be best to make neither too much nor too little of the potential power of the arts in general, and cinema in particular, in changing attitudes and altering behaviour. After all, social and environmental activists deploy many strategies toward just such an end — mostly they lose and usually their successes are limited and reversible. It is better to see a film like Avatar as both reflecting broad, if nascent and fragile, cultural shifts and emerging sensitivities, as well as contributing to them.

Whether one judges such social changes as positive or negative, it will probably remain impossible to determine their future trajectory, given that environmental and social systems are complex and that the decisive variables, feedback loops, and tipping points, if any, are difficult to discern. Far better, then, to understand Avatar (including the envisioned sequels) as innovative ethical and spiritual cultural productions that are, as one military officer who liked the film put it, calling people toward “the better angels of their natures.”

Although I cannot predict the ultimate impact of Avatar, I do find hopeful many of the typical responses to it, wherein people are moved by its depiction of a beautiful forest and a flourishing forest culture living in respectful reciprocity with the diverse biota of its surround. I am encouraged that some who see it feel outrage at the injustice and destruction wrought by the invaders and joy when the riotous chorus of life arises to repel them. I doubt that most of those who felt such things had the cognitive frames to understand the tragic and long-term histories to which the film alluded. Nor do I think most audience members realize that the battles melodramatically depicted in the film are going on right now, let alone that their own societies, and the ideologies and worldviews that undergird them, are highly complicit in these destructive dynamics. Nor do most audience members know that it is possible to support, if not directly participate in, the resistance to the ongoing reduction of Earth’s biocultural complexity. But the film can reinforce such understandings where they exist or can lead people to them where they do not. Activists of all sorts, if not all of the film’s critics, have been quick to recognize that Avatar has provided them with an unusual opportunity to educate and organize those moved by the film into communities of solidarity and resistance.

I especially find it hopeful that when a film reveals the beauties of Earth’s living systems (even if through the artifice of spectacular technology and Earth’s metaphorical displacement to another planet) and reminds audience members (or reveals to them) what is being and has been lost, a significant number of viewers are moved and wish there was something they could do to prevent or reverse the losses. Perhaps this suggests the plausibility of the biophilia hypothesis, which postulates that there is a universal (if sometimes weak and forgotten) human aesthetic appreciation for biologically diverse and flourishing environmental systems, and this is because we know somehow, unconsciously, from deep down in our genome, that these are the systems in which we flourish (Wilson 1984; Kellert and Wilson 1993). In short, we appreciate natural beauty not just because our cultures shape our aesthetics, even though they certainly do, but because the appreciation of wild nature is an adaptive evolutionary trait. This theory, if correct, would help to explain why the aesthetic appreciation of nature is part of the emotional repertoire of our species. And if this is the case, it may be that the power of many artistic productions, including Avatar, is to be found in the diverse ways that they express and evoke such feelings.

Whatever the critics may say, Avatar may be more promising as a means for revisioning our relations to nature and understanding the injustices that accompany its destruction than documentaries, university courses, radical political commentaries, and scholarly books. Nevertheless, Avatar did not emerge from a vacuum, so whatever genius lies behind it is not that of one man. Rather, it is a reflection of the increasing global awareness of the value of both biological and cultural diversity and of the ways in which all of today’s dominant civilizations continue to erode them. At the same time, it also reflects diverse new ways in which people today express and promote reverence for life. Avatar, as well as much of the reaction to it, suggests that a gestalt change in consciousness may indeed be emerging. How extensive and effective this will be remains to be seen . . . perhaps even in the forthcoming Avatar sequels and their reception.

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Note

*Excerpts adapted from Bron Taylor’s contributions to Avatar and Nature Spirituality, ed. Bron Taylor (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013).