Avatar’s Shock and Awe: Technology, Race, and Space
Near the end of Canadian director James Cameron’s Avatar, the sympathetic character Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao) says that the Corporation and its private military force are planning “some kind of shock and awe campaign” against the Na’vi. Avatar itself shocked and awed audiences worldwide during its long run in 2009 and 2010 with its combination of live action and computer animation in 3D, and, more importantly, with its story that championed the environment while critiquing policies of the United States government—from wars on Native Americans in the 19th century, to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st. It says something about the breadth of its appeal that a movie that featured a military and moral failure by a future United States made $2.8 billion dollars worldwide. In fact, I will argue that Avatar made that much money in part because of its emotionally moving portrayal of these failures. This article gives a brief analysis of technology, race, and space in the highest-grossing film of the 21st century so far. Avatar is a critique of racism, and yet arguably racist, as some have noted, in its portrayal of a white “messiah” who helps save the indigenous Na’vi. Avatar also critiques technology, while at the same time celebrating it. In other words, Avatar’s shock and awe is both visceral and filled with contradictions.
A criticism leveled against Avatar, as Richard Corliss of Time notes, is that “the story may be familiar from countless old movies” (Corliss). But the fact that many can easily read in Avatar echoes of previous Hollywood movies, various science fiction stories, and simultaneously references to American wars of the past and present, is actually what gives it much of its power. Cameron himself freely admitted to drawing on many influences, saying, “I wanted to create a familiar type of adventure in an unfamiliar environment” (Duncan and Fitzpatrick, 15). To attack Avatar for its narrative clichés, in other words, is to attack it for one of the main reasons that it achieved its remarkable cultural resonance.
Let’s begin by looking at Avatar’s central character and entry point, Jake Sully, played by Australian actor Sam Worthington. Jake Sully is a former Marine paralyzed from the waist down, who says things like, “There’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. You may be out, but you never lose the attitude,” and, “I told myself I can pass any test a man can pass.“ Conservative critic Russell Moore wrote in amazement when Avatar opened that “If you can get a theater full of people in Kentucky to stand and applaud the defeat of their country in war, then you’ve got some amazing special effects” (Moore). People in Kentucky were cheering Avatar (I was in Louisville when the film played), but audiences in my home state and in many places were applauding not just because of the special effects, but because the central character is an empathetic Marine—of the “Jarhead Clan,” as Jake calls himself—who becomes pivotal to the movie’s poignant story.
Jarhead Jake also becomes the audience’s hook for Avatar’s exploration of the Gaia hypothesis, which, without being explicitly mentioned, is key to the movie’s setting. The Gaia hypothesis, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, is a controversial ecological theory that claims that all living things on our planet, through complex interactions, are in a sense one vast active life form. As the theory’s originator, James Lovelock, wrote in 1979, “the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity” (Lovelock, 9). In the case of Avatar‘s setting, the planet Pandora, this entity develops a consciousness through its trees that create a brain-like neural network for the communal mind of Eywa, the pantheistic Gaia-goddess of the Na’vi’s home. Through Eywa, Cameron takes the Gaia theory beyond what its supporters claim to create a sentient world.
Why would anyone want to harm this beautiful planet-wide life-form? With almost a wink toward semiotics, Cameron names the reason for the vast American corporate and military presence on Pandora: unobtanium. Outside of Avatar, of course, by definition you can never get unobtanium. But it is a real term invented by rocket scientists in the 1950s (although before Avatar spelled “unobtainium”) to describe an imaginary material with nearly impossible properties that would be incredibly valuable (Hansen, 372). While it might seem like the unobtanium in Avatar is a floating signifier without a connection to anything, that’s not quite the case.
Alfred Hitchcock famously named the motivating element for the plots in many of his films “the MacGuffin” (Spoto: xi), and one reviewer criticized unobtanium in Avatar for being “the ultimate MacGuffin” (Evans). But unobtanium in Avatar is, I would argue, different from a MacGuffin. In Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), for example, the bad guy played by James Mason has some secrets that he’s stolen from the United States that he’s selling to an unnamed foreign power. At the end of the film atop Mount Rushmore we see that the secrets are recorded on reels of microfilm, which are hidden in a Native American sculpture. But Hitchcock never tells us what the secrets are, because he’s not interested in them. As Hitchcock told director François Truffaut, “My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest….Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!” (Truffaut, 139)
Unlike a MacGuffin, which isn’t actually anything important or specific, unobtanium is something concrete within Avatar’s story. As the Avatar wiki explains, “unobtanium is…the key to Earth’s energy needs in the 22nd century.” And so one analogue today for unobtanium might be uranium, which the US and private corporations mined on Native American lands in the Four Corners area—Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona—starting in the 1940s. In the process many acres of sacred land for various Native American nations were polluted, and will never be the same (Environmental Protection Agency). Adding insult and financial hardship to injury, these Native American nations weren’t paid royalties until recently for this exploitation. In Avatar, the devastation wrought by the mining of unobtanium is portrayed as similar to uranium mining. As Cameron said in an interview, Avatar “is about imperialism in the sense that the way human history has always worked is that people with more military or technological might tend to supplant or destroy people who are weaker, usually for their resources” (Ordoña).
And so, unobtanium is a resource that could be likened allegorically to uranium, or perhaps to oil in the Middle East, or any other resource you could name that the US—or any nation—has used its power to exploit. As the corporate hack who runs the operation on Pandora, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), says: “This is why we’re here: unobtanium. Because this little grey rock sells for 20 million a kilo. That’s the only reason. It’s what pays for the whole party. It’s what pays for your science”— he tells Dr. Grace Augustine, the exobiologist played by Sigourney Weaver.
Although Avatar shows environmental destruction on Pandora caused by Earth’s advanced technology, it simultaneously shows the benefits of science and technology, and the film’s scientists are portrayed positively. Again, Jake becomes the audience’s hook as he learns that “good observation is good science,” while he also experiences the benefits of Dr. Augustine’s avatar program. The movie’s avatar technology allows someone’s mind to become one with a Na’vi body, letting Jake walk again in Na’vi form. Dr. Augustine uses this technology to learn about the Na’vi and their planet. Selfridge, in contrast, sees the the avatar program as a tool to maximize the extraction of unobtanium. As Selfridge tells Augustine, “Look, you’re supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. Isn’t that the whole point of your little puppet show?”
Just as Mr. Knightley in Jane Austen’s novel Emma is knightley, Selfridge in Avatar is selfish—and not just for himself, but more importantly for the Resources Development Administration (RDA) Corporation for which all humans on Pandora work. Selfridge may also have been named after American and British Department store magnate Harry Selfridge (1864-1947), subject of the current British television drama Mr. Selfridge, which premiered in 2013. Harry Selfridge coined the phrase “Only [blank] more shopping days until Christmas!” and sometimes said, “The customer is always right” (Woodhead, 26). But for Parker Selfridge in Avatar, the shareholders are always right. As Selfridge says with glee: “Their damn village happens to be resting on the richest unobtanium deposit within 200 klicks in any direction. I mean, look at all that cheddar!” Selfridge then adds that “Killing the indigenous looks bad, but there’s only one thing that shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement.”
This brings us to race in Avatar, for as we know the intelligent indigenous creatures on Pandora are up to 12-foot tall and blue, or, as Selfridge calls them, “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” The origin of the look of the Na’vi, according to Cameron, is twofold. When he was a young man, just getting interested in a career as a filmmaker in the late 1970s, Cameron’s mother told him of a dream she had one night of a 12-foot tall blue woman (Ordoña). Cameron kept this as an image he wanted to use in a movie someday. When he finally wrote his first full story treatment for Avatar in the mid-1990s, he realized he that liked the color for another reason—it reminded him of the avatars of Hindu deities, which are also sometimes blue, such as Rama and Krishna, who descend to the Earth in material form.
Na’vi seems an obvious anagram for Native American, and all of the actors who portray the Na’vi are Native American or African American. For instance, Wes Studi, a Cherokee who portrayed Native Americans in the films Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Dances with Wolves (1990), plays Eytukan, the Omaticaya’s clan leader, and Neytiri’s father. Neytiri is played by Zoë Saldana, who also plays Uhura in the Star Trek reboot. Cameron’s Na’vi borrow from common stereotypes about Native Americans: they live in harmony with nature, many of them are scantily clothed, they use bows and arrows, and some of the Na’vi warriors go into battle astride Pandoran steeds (Knepp, 215). In keeping with the multicultural melange of references found in Avatar, however, the later Omaticaya chief Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) also looks somewhat like a traditional Maasai from the East African country of Kenya.
There’s obviously not just race but some racism, even in the idealized Na’vi. This can be traced back to Hollywood’s often bi-polar contrast between “bad” Indians and “good” Indians, and Avatar is clearly drawing on the second stereotype. Cameron cheerfully acknowledged the influence of director Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves as well as other films on Avatar’s story, including Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), and John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985) (Boucher). There’s even a direct reference to Cameron’s favorite film of all time, The Wizard of Oz (1939), when the military’s leader, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) says: “You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora!”—and the rest of the film does have an over the rainbow look and feel to it.
But back to Cameron’s reinterpretation of Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans. The parallels with Hollywood Westerns go beyond Dances with Wolves, and all the way back to Delmer Daves’ Technicolor Western Broken Arrow (1950), starring James Stewart. In Broken Arrow, as in Avatar, the white main character is torn between two worlds, but ultimately goes native and marries a native woman. In the final shoot-out in Broken Arrow, however, white racists tragically kill Stewart’s Indian wife.
In contrast, that doesn’t happen in Avatar, and doesn’t seem likely for the Avatar sequels that are now in production. Neytiri is not just a fearsome warrior, but one in a long line of strong women central to Cameron’s films, including Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens (1986), Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in The Abyss (1989), Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis) in True Lies (1994), and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) in Titanic (1997). Cameron’s earlier heroines, who like Neytiri are strong in mind and body, not only survive but emerge triumphant in his earlier films, and so it seems likely that this pattern will hold.
In any case, in Avatar the conflict between the Na’vi and the mostly white Americans reaches a peak with an important concept that Cameron uses, and which is highlighted in the title of this article: the American military practice known as “shock and awe.” The first time most people heard this phrase was during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the term was coined in 1996 by two scholars, Harlan Ullman and James Wade, working for the US government’s National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
The more technical term for “shock and awe” is “rapid military dominance.” It’s a doctrine based on the use of overwhelming military might utilizing advanced technology to paralyze an enemy and destroy their will to fight. Ullman and Wade’s book states that rapid military dominance will “impose this overwhelming level of Shock and Awe against an adversary….and paralyze or so overload an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events that the enemy would be incapable of resistance at the tactical and strategic levels” (Ullman and Wade, xxv). The authors of the doctrine admit that it’s nothing new, but something the United States has used before in its history, including in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, which they cite as a successful application of shock and awe.
In Avatar, the shock and awe campaign is used against the home of the Omaticaya, called Hometree. As the giant tree is destroyed through the application of advanced weapons, it’s not just devastating to the environment, but devastating psychologically to the Na’vi. I think the most emotionally disturbing scenes in Avatar for many people are those where Neytiri and her mother Mo’at, as well as the other Na’vi, are crying in horror after Hometree is destroyed, and several Na’vi die, including Neytiri’s father. Avatar portrays this technologically-induced shock and awe as, at least to some degree, working for a while.
And there is some historical evidence that this doctrine, once in a while and in limited ways, is militarily effective, although at a terrible cost that some Americans have difficulty acknowledging. Even President Harry Truman, who ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could not admit to himself in his diary that the nuclear weapons were going to kill large numbers of innocent civilians. Truman wrote shortly before the bombs were dropped that “I have told the Sec of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers are the target and not women and children” (McCullough, 537). (As an aside, Cameron said in 2010 that he is planning to make a movie someday about these bombings, titled Last Train From Hiroshima.) Avatar was, in part, trying to get Americans to viscerally understand what it feels like to experience shock and awe on the ground. As Cameron said, “We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America. I think there’s a moral responsibility to understand that” (Gardiner).
But what Cameron first claimed is not entirely true. September 11th could be seen as a terrorist shock and awe campaign. And Cameron later admitted that the destruction of Hometree in Avatar “did look like September 11,” and specifically the burning and collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City (Hoyle).
In any case, the brutal military campaign in Avatar is one of the reasons Jake Sully goes native. Going native also has a long history in Hollywood that Cameron borrowed from. In the above mentioned movie Broken Arrow, James Stewart’s character goes mostly native and is considered by some whites a traitor to his people. And in director John Ford’s Western The Searchers (1956) starring John Wayne, the character played by Natalie Wood goes native after she’s captured by Indians, and Wayne’s character almost kills her for it. Wayne’s racist expressions about Native Americans and those who join them are similar to what Colonel Quaritch says at the end of Avatar to Jake Sully just before he tries to kill him: “How does it feel to betray your own race?”
But in Avatar the main character who’s gone native becomes almost a white “messiah” who can wage war more successfully against Americans than the natives (Brooks). Something similar happens in Dances with Wolves and a few other Westerns, but in Avatar this subliminal racism becomes even more blatant than in the earlier movies. In a few Hollywood Westerns, white Americans learn from the natives, and help wage war on and then broker peace with Americans, but they don’t exceed Native Americans in their own areas of expertise. In fact, James Stewart’s wife in Broken Arrow laughs at him for how bad he is at using a bow and arrow.
Jake Sully, in contrast, not only learns to ride a difficult “dragon,” but then learns to ride the nearly impossible dragon, Toruk, named “the last shadow”—because that’s the last thing you see before you die. No Na’vi alive can ride this one, but Jake masters it on the first go, and then uses Toruk to help defeat the American military forces. More than that, Jake is the only one who thinks of asking Pandora’s goddess Eywa for help in the war. The idea that only Jake would think of these things, and be the indispensable savior of the Na’vi, almost a messiah figure for them, shows that Cameron could be patronizing to his own creatures. The traditional Na’vi greeting is the phrase “I see you,” which goes beyond sight to acknowledge someone as a being on all levels. In creating his commercially successful narrative, Cameron does not always do that for the Na’vi.
Let’s get back to Kentuckians cheering an American defeat. How was that possible? Well, Avatar hammers home not only that Jake’s a Marine, but also that the military forces he’s taking on are not actually the American military, but a privately-funded mercenary force made up largely of former military like himself. In other words, the movie shows the defeat of an out-of-control Blackwater-style corporate army.
In addition, Avatar was released not just in the wake of the problematic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but after the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, the effects of which linger on even today. The movie’s message of corporate corruption and greed clearly struck a chord with many Americans, and with people around the world. As unrealistic as many parts as this fantasy film are, the idea of corporate greed leading to failures—economically, militarily, and environmentally—seems to have resonated with many people’s experiences.
Avatar’s representation of space is clearly an analogue for the American frontier of the 18th and 19th centuries, but it’s also a convention within science fiction stretching back for many decades. Recall the original Star Trek (1966-1969), where Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) intones at the beginning of each episode: “Space: The final frontier.…” Avatar also represents space as a final frontier for America, rich in mineral and biological resources, but the difference is that it shows the exploitation of these resources as disastrous.
There are probably as many inspirations for Avatar from fantasy fiction as there are from cinema. Cameron himself has mentioned Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King” (1888) and Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars stories (1912-1940) (Gardner), while others have suggested Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe” (1957), a story about a disabled man exploring a planet with a remote-controlled body, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Word for World is Forest” (1972), a story about the intelligent beings of a tree-covered world fighting back against the brutal exploitation of an imperialist future Earth. But Cameron put one book right into the movie, at least in the extended home video version: Dr. Seuss’s landmark children’s book The Lorax (1971).
In the extended version of Avatar, Grace and Jake, in Na’vi form, explore the ruins of the old colonial school for the Omaticaya, and Jake picks up a dusty copy of The Lorax. Grace smiles at Jake as he holds the book, and says, “I love that one!” This praise takes on added significance because Sigourney Weaver has said that she’s essentially “playing Jim Cameron in the movie….kind of channeling him” (Avatar wiki). In Dr. Seuss’s book the title character “speaks for the trees,” and Dr. Grace speaks for Cameron in praising The Lorax, which like Avatar is an allegorical representation of the destruction of trees—and a whole ecology connected to them—for corporate profit. When Jake describes to Eywa what Earth looks like in the year 2154, the year in which Avatar is set, it sounds similar to the desolate ending of The Lorax: “There’s no green there. They’ve killed their Mother, and they are going to do the same here.”
Ultimately, as this article indicates, Avatar‘s shock and awe is as much political as it is anything else. And as the movie became a huge success around the world in 2009 and 2010, a backlash developed that was also mostly political. Typical of the attacks was that by John Podhorestz, columnist for The Weekly Standard, who titled his article “Avatarocious.” Podhorestz was unsettled that Avatar seemingly got many to “root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency” while simultaneously advocating the “mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe” (Podhoretz).
Some might say that arguments of this kind over any movie grants popular culture an exaggerated power. But in addition to being entertainment, the cinema can sometimes be a powerful forum for the negotiation and understanding of ideas, including those about history, the environment, and politics. Many other Hollywood blockbusters can be read as political as well, and quite a few have messages from the other end of the political spectrum. For instance, as many have recognized, including conservative columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times, “Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is notable for being much more explicitly right-wing than almost any Hollywood blockbuster of recent memory” (Douthat). Since Cameron and 20th Century Fox now have three sequels to Avatar in production, and planned for release in yearly intervals starting in December of 2016, the struggle over the meaning and impact of Avatar has just begun, and in fact is almost certain to intensify in the years ahead.
As Avatar was attacked, Cameron embraced the understanding of the film as not just entertainment, but also as inherently political. To the charge that the movie was at times critical of US policies, Cameron answered that “part of being an American is having the freedom to have dissenting ideas” (Lang). He also admitted that Avatar was in part addressing the US invasion of Iraq, saying in 2010, “This movie reflects that we are living through war,” adding that “There are boots on the ground, troops who I personally believe were sent under false pretenses.” Actually, Avatar’s references to the Vietnam War are equally strong, from the jungle environment, to a reference to “daisy cutters” (slang for a bomb used by the US in Vietnam), to Selfridge’s previously mentioned advocacy of “winning the hearts and minds” (Dinello, 161). But what made all of the movie’s references and themes appealing, and therefore powerful, was, as Cameron said, Avatar’s capacity to tap into “a sort of child-like dream state” (Lang).
And, as the movie became a phenomenon in 2010, the dream-world of Pandora and the Na’vi became alluring for many people. A few viewers of Avatar, according to press reports, even got depressed for a while, since they knew that they could never go to Pandora and become one of the Na’vi (Piazza). They felt Avatar to be almost more real and desirable than their own world, in part because of the 3D and the special effects, but more because Avatar portrays a community of beings who live more cooperatively, in a wilder natural environment, and away from consumer culture.
Avatar, as we’ve seen, intentionally offers a narrative of clichés and contradictions. Cameron uses clichés precisely for their familiarity to audiences around the world. In Avatar, advanced technology is both appalling and appealing. The Na’vi function as a sign of otherness and a critique of greed, but are also tinged with stereotypes. Space is a place of opportunity that will lead to the same follies we experience on Earth. The reason so many different people in so many different parts of the world could cheer the Na’vi is because they are not any specific ethnic group or nation, but instead a generalized representation of sentience that is threatened. Cameron and 20th Century Fox made a lot of money in part by making us feel that the Na’vi could be us, and we could be the Na’vi—transcending materialism, while dealing heroically and successfully with militarism and corporate greed. That truly is a far-fetched fantasy, but the overwhelming success of the movie demonstrated that this dream is widely shared, which might perhaps be a measured reason for hope.
Avatar Wiki, “Eywa,” “Fun Facts,” “Unobtainium.” http://james-camerons-avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Avatar_Wiki
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