Avatar: A ReviewRobert Tulip
Avatar, or The Plunder of Pandora, illustrates well the shifts in the American mythic imagination. Using the movie to tell a ‘cowboys and indians’ story, Avatar inverts the tradition of John Ford and John Wayne, putting the indigenous heroes on the side of the angels. In this vision, the natives are magically in touch with the great spirit of the earth, Gaia, while the cowboys of Pandora represent all the sleazy evil of plunder and murder from the demons of Wall Street who rule the Pentagon. The beauty of natural grace, represented by the natural paradise planet of Pandora, meets the evil of material corruption, an earth with high technology but no soul.
The avatar of the movie is a piece of technological wizardry that comes from the side of evil, reflecting the power of technology and ostensibly seeking to justify that technology by providing scientific information about the people subject to the genocidal plans of the mining company. The avatar is a bit like Japanese ‘scientific whaling’, a figleaf to deflect criticism of a purely commercial venture. The mission of the avatar is both to understand the good and to help to destroy it in the name of evil. The tension within this mission forms the central plot dynamic of the movie, how to keep faith with experience – recognizing that good is better than evil - and also with tradition – recognizing that loyalty to constituted authority provides the resources for all activity within the current framework. As a meeting point between two worlds, the scientific avatars are torn in their loyalty, between formal legal duty to evil, and moral duty of
conscience for good.
The conflict between law and ethics is a central theme of Avatar. The parable of the movie suggests that when law is maddened with greed and blindness, the moral duty of conscience becomes overwhelming. Picking up current desperate feelings about climate change, Avatar implies that the ethical path must look to the consequences of conduct rather than to the loyalty to state authority embedded in law. As such, it has a romantic anarchistic streak whose serious side deserves analysis.
The theme of the fallen condition of American culture appears not just as the evil colonel and his henchmen, but also with an ironic twist from the 3D glasses, this wonderful innovation in movie-going. The 3D effects enable the repeated scenes running around on narrow branches high above the ground to give the viewer a giddy feeling of vertigo, a fear of falling from a clifftop, looking over the edge and imagining plummeting to death. So the graceful ability of the natural life of Pandora to race about on these tree branches is a parable - having an exceedingly complex social system while avoiding the ever-present risk of fall becomes a visual metaphor for the superiority of indigenous culture over modernity.
Avatar deliberately depicts American wars in Vietnam and Iraq as a symbol of the mad idiocy of military imperialism, the destruction of holiness by brainless jarheads. The movie invites us to ask how any mining wealth could justify the destruction of an ancient wise and harmonious culture, a scene played out still around the world in conflict over land use and resource extraction. I felt that Avatar was offering more than a gesture about the Freeport mine in Indonesia, where American technology has suppressed indigenous resistance to destruction. An echo of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s critique of the Vietnam War, appears first in the arrows clattering against helicopter gunships. With this scene Avatar recalls the breezy confidence of the voyage into the heart of darkness in Vietnam that is jolted by a spear through the heart of the invader.
Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness
, with his description of the ugliness of imperial conquest of the world, informs Avatar’s narrative theme of a journey into nature to find your soul. So too the ghost of Joseph Campbell, the mythic inspirer of Star Wars and The Matrix, hides beneath the surface throughout Avatar. Campbell’s sense of cosmic battle, good against evil, nature against modernity, and of the cyclic pulse of nature as the soul of grace, informs the value system of the movie.
One of Campbell’s interests is the World Tree Yggdrasil, the three rooted ash holding Valhalla, kingdom of the Gods, in its high branches. Yggdrasil appears in Avatar as the home of the indigenous community. We could say the Christian symbol of the chopping down of Odin’s sacred oak appears as the military conquest of ecological peace by bloodthirsty satanic invaders.
As a morality tale, Avatar appears to suggest that capitalism is irredeemable, even while resting upon capitalist finance and technology to create the wizardry of the film. The morality tale drips with western guilt about the conquest of the world. The message is all about the USA, the heart of the darkness in the world today, the center of evil where they don’t just play, where the multinationals come and take your life away. This apocalyptic sense of the lost emptiness of American imperial culture sends a message of rejection of the values of patriotism and enterprise, in favour of a return to nature.
Avatar is a beautiful dream and myth, resonating with the sorrow of destruction. As a wake up call on the need for a shift to an ecological planetary paradigm it has a major message. Yet, just as Avatar is a capitalist movie, saved by amazing technology, you have to ask whether the magical mythology of nature could ever alone be enough to save humanity, and especially how far this utopian tree world can and should inform current directions. My view is that the mythology of Avatar is good but has big holes, not just the reliance on an American jarhead as hero, but also in the vision of primitive perfection seen through the framework of the spiritually lost technologist. The romance of connection to the cosmos appears in the sensitive wisdom of the sacred trees and in the indigenous ability to connect their nervous system to their animal friends and helpers. How far this romantic magical picture has practical lessons for the world is a conflicted and
The toppling of the world tree is an archetypal image of the triumph of evil over good. It is worthwhile to explore further the mythology of the world tree Yggdrasil, the holy tree of indigenous wisdom, to see how it informs the morality and cosmology of Avatar. Yggdrasil, from the Norse myth of Valhalla, is also called the Tree of Life, and by that name appears in the first and last books of the Bible, at Genesis 2:9 and Revelation 22:2, as the symbol of lost purity and future grace.
If I may insert a piece of new science here, my studies of astronomy show an interesting correlation between Yggdrasil and the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which formed the boundary of the visible solar system until modern times. Jupiter and Saturn form three intertwined ladders in time as a result of the helix shape of their orbital patterns. These three ladders, with rungs separated by sixty years, can be seen as a model for Yggdrasil as the enveloping frame of terrestrial time. After 540 years, the number of gates of Valhalla, these three ladders of time each have nine rungs, matching the myth of the three rope ladders upon which Odin and Baldur were hung on the world ash tree Yggdrasil, whose three great roots went to the origin of the world. The structure of Yggdrasil is the same as the physical structure of time for the solar system, a model that could well have been known in ancient times as providing the astronomical basis for the myth of the
tree of life.
Once you scratch the surface of mythology you can open a Pandora’s Box of surprises. The name of the assaulted indigenous planet Pandora invites us to think what spirits may be released by this movie, and whether the old Greek myth that opening Pandora’s Box brought evil into the world may not be a guilty inversion of an older myth. Perhaps instead the Greek warriors smashed Pandora’s Box to destroy the preceding matrifocal society, and justified their shame by the myth that the box only held evil, except for the redeeming virtue of hope. If the Greek conquerors themselves were more a source of evil for the world, its displacement onto the victim served to hide their own guilt. In similar fashion, many of our myths, for example in the Bible, may stand as corrupted versions in which older authentic identities are concealed. At least the tree of life still features in the Bible, if only as main symbol of the past and future, not the present.
The military forces of Avatar stand as the descendents of the Greeks who vilified Pandora’s Box. This movie seeks to nudge the cultural zeitgeist towards a recognition that nature is the basis of life, that we cannot destroy our planet and find another one, and that care and nurture for our planet is central to sustaining life on earth.