31 Dec

The General-Purpose Allegory: A Review of “Avatar” (2009)

The theme of entering a dream world in the shape of a forest, where life is explained and you learn about the nature of your true self is one that has been explored in cinema in several films. “The Wizard of Oz” from 1939 and “Alice in Wonderland” from 1951 are two great examples of films that approach this subject. While in “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland” the dreamers accidentally arrive in a dream forest of Truths, later adaptations of this theme allow people to be somewhat in control over their travels in other worlds, which start with their dreaming. Thus, in “The Matrix”, which was released in 1999, people can control when they go in, but don’t have as much control over when they go out.

Ten years after “Matrix”, in 2009, director James Cameron is putting a new spin on this theme and adds a new dimension to it in his hit film “Avatar”.

 

 

“Avatar” starts out with marine Jake Sully discussing his dream, thus making a clear reference to the concept of entering a dream stage right from the beginning. The fact that it all starts with discussing a dream could also be a symbolic reference to the Western interpretation of the Aboriginal Dreamtime concept, representing the beginning of the world.

After a bar brawl, Jake is thrown out and two men come to him, proposing him a deal that would take him to Pandora. The two men are very much a resemblance of the “Men in Black”, referencing the 1997 film directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. The men in black are the bridge between the human world and the world of the aliens, they are the gatekeepers who open the door and invite you in a new world.

In the end, Jake ends up on Pandora, where we hear the line “You’re not in Kansas anymore”, clearly quoting “The Wizard of Oz” and establishing an alignment between the two stories. Soon enough, he finds out that the reason why people are on Pandora in the first place is because they are looking for a rock called “unobtanium”. The name of the material is meant to describe its nature: the unobtainable – it is the one thing you cannot get.

Later on, he is connected to the dream machine and his mind connects with his new body, that of a lab-made Na’vi. The Na’vi were a humanoid species living on Pandora, with which the people of Earth were interacting and whose resources they were now trying to obtain. The term “Na’vi”, translates to English as “The People”, but Bible readers will know that the term “navi” is an actual Hebrew word, translating as “prophet”, as the Book of Prophets is known as “Nevi’im”. “Avatar” is a production filled with religious references and symbols, which makes us understand that the choices in names and words are not necessarily random. Could it be that the creators of the film were trying to communicate a message they felt is extremely important? Most likely, as the movie is filled with information and teachings of a new way of life for humans.

As Jake enters his new body, he feels right in it and it immediately becomes his new reality. This is a very important concept, as people often forget that there are things in life that should feel right and that that means that they should probably embrace those things and not shun them away.

On the human base on Pandora, we are seeing a lot of combinations between man and machine: the film is thus communicating a story of a transition from one era to another. The threefold character of the film: man – machine – nature has been strongly commented by many who discuss the environmentalist character of the movie. And “Avatar” does definitely have an environmentalist message, as it militates for a return to nature and a negation of old, metal technologies.

 

“Avatar” throws in some serious clichés, which are at the border between stereotypes and archetypes. In a way, they are superficial, but in another way they work. We’re seeing the classic dynamic between the strong woman and the man who is god, but childish and caricatural. Then we have the girl’s protective older brother and the authoritarian father. In a way, there is a lot of finger wagging as of how the world should be as opposed to what it is and on how people should be.

The Na’vi take Jake to their tribe, where everyone is reticent of him in the beginning, but where they ultimately adopt him. In a way, this is the classic alien story painted upside down: this time around, the human is the alien and the aliens see him as “the strange”.

Jake is told that the Na’vi will see whether his insanity can be cured. This is an important moment in the film, as it implies that people in general, or Earthlings are insane and that the Na’vi are the sane ones. Thus, the director is making here a comparison between Pandora and the “real world” of “The Matrix”.

He goes through some sort of conversion, but Neytiri later says that he cannot be one of the Omaticaya. Afterwards, the “sky people”, meaning the humans come and cut the Hometree of the Omaticaya. Pushing the cultural references, this scene is very interesting as it seems in a way to be based on the endless shows on “alien astronauts”, where the gods of the ancient world are said to have been aliens, in the lack of a better interpretation. Through his actions during this time, Jake proves in a way that he can be part of the tribe, even though he is not a biological Omaticaya, but just an avatar. This sends a powerful message to the viewer, which is that one can become what they wish to be, if they can obtain the characteristics needed to be that certain thing. By successfully riding the great leonopteryx, he even becomes Toruk Makto, proving that it is not the claim of being something that transforms you in it, but your actions. His becoming Toruk Makto is important in the philosophy of the movie because it shows that philosophy and action trump genetics.

Angry that their plans don’t seem to go well, the colonel gathers the soldiers and gives them a speech. He talks in front of a series of panels opening towards the world, which later turn into a screen with data. This can be symbolically interpreted that so-called “blue pill” people see the world as they wish and not as it is. He says that he will “fight terror with terror”, which, once again, is destined to be a political message for the 2009 viewer.

In the end, Jake has his last day on the job right on his birthday, before he is taken out of the program. This could be interpreted as him having a rebirth on his birthday, as afterwards, he is no longer an obeying soldier, but a leader of his own. Teaming up with those who believe in Pandora and the Na’vi, he helps the native tribes after countless battles and violence.

It’s a story that is as classic (and as American) as apple pie, but there are plenty of captivating ideas along the way that deserve close attention.

First of all, the most remarkable thing about “Avatar” is that the two entities between which Jake’s mind was fluctuating were both in the same world. In “The Wizard of Oz” as well as in “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Matrix”, people move between a physical world and a world of the mind. However, this time, we are seeing that both Jake and his avatar are in the same world. While his mind can only be in one body (maybe in one of the next films, they will be able to have a mind in two bodies), both of his physical presences can be in the same spot, as the ending shows. Even more fascinating is the complete placing in practice of transhumanism, as, in the end, Jake’s mind completely moves to another body.

 

“Avatar” also has another dimension that is important and needs to be addressed. Every film has in a larger or smaller quantity a political message. This is not an issue, unless it is quite obvious and insistent. In “Avatar”, the political messages are quite clear, which makes the film at times seem more of a speech than a story. There is definitely the problem of cultural relativism addressed, where the humans with which we as viewers would normally identify are the bad characters this time around and the aliens, the foreigners are the good ones. Everyone but humans is good in the world of “Avatar” and Jake becomes a good person only when he changes his identity. Jake needs to connect to the new group to become a better person. At a  close look, the device he uses to connect his mind to his avatar’s is called Beulah, which is originally a Hebrew word used in the Book of Isaiah as an attribute of the land of Israel. Translations included either “married” or “espoused”, denoting that only by connecting with the Na’vi can he become a good person.

Otherwise, the female dominating view of the world is extremely prevalent and clear. Right from the start, we are told that the planet on which the action takes place is called Pandora. Pandora is the name of the first human woman created by Hephaestus and Athena on the instructions of Zeus in Greek mythology. In the Na’vi world, the shaman is a woman and their deity also has a female nature. Pale, the animal they ride is a female direhorse in the possession of the Omaticaya clan.  Also, all the good characters in the film are women, while all the evil characters are male, with few exceptions on the second type.

The political views of the film are also expressed in the fact that we see a copy of the book “The Lorax” present in Grace’s school, which is a 1971 book on how corporate greed leads to environmental disaster.

The very end of the film shows us Neytiri saving Jake, thus confirming that in many ways, she was the main character of the film. This idea comes across more times, since every time humans come, it is presented in such a way that we, the viewers don’t understand, the story is thus told through the perspective of the Na’vi. When Neytiri saves Jake, she holds his human body in his arms. As she is almost double his size and mass, this scene definitely plays on the imagery of a mother holding her child.

“Avatar” is a movie that has a lot of remarkable traits and features a constellation of intriguing ideas. What makes it odd is that it is not focused enough to convey a positive message and it is not a story based on a “if this, then that” structure and it is not so much a discourse on the nature of truth, although it has some great scenes that can be characterized as such; for example when Neytiry teaches Jake about how everyone is connected to each other and the world. In the end, “Avatar” can be seen as a manifesto for the years to come. It is definitely fascinating to see how the story will unfold in the next episodes and how the world of the film will evolve, given the film’s captivating ending, which started out a story line than can be taken in numerous places. The future is open for this versatile allegory.