Remember the old cowboy movies with the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Sometimes the Indians were the Bad Guys, sometimes the Bad Guys were a bunch of stagecoach robbers. Halfway through the story the Good Guys would find themselves in a tough spot, but somehow they always came through.
Then there was one plot twist I particularly liked. Sometimes a Bad Guy would decide to become a Good Guy. He would have a moment of revelation and change his ways. In the last battle he’d fight with the Good Guys against his old cohorts. It would seem like he was ready to lead the straight life — but then he would get killed. I always enjoyed the poignancy of that moment. It was a good lesson. Life didn’t necessarily reward the just. There was always a fearful randomness. A person could die just as he was getting his life together. It was, I supposed, the beginnings of a sense of tragedy.
I say all this only because it’s worth remembering as we confront the new Gospel According to Hollywood, which is that the Good Guys have become the Bad Guys and the Bad Indians are now the Good Guys. Nor is there any sense of lost opportunity when a Bad Guy becomes the Good Guy, because now he is the hero of the story.
But then you’ve probably seen Avatar already, right? So you now what I’m talking about.
Here’s a brief cast of characters:
The hero: a U.S. Marine. A U.S. Marine? Yes, but not just any Marine. This one is paralyzed from the waist down. That means he’s eligible to be a Good Guy. He doesn’t start out good, of course. Instead, he is part of an American/All World expedition to Pandora, a moon of the planet Polyphemus, in search of “Unobtainium” (nice play on “uranium”), a magical element that the Human Race needs because it has exhausted all its own resources. (Lack of environmental consciousness — bad all around!)
Along with the Marine, there are lots of Army guys led by a few nasty drill sergeants plus one Colonel Miles Quaritch, who is the perfect Bad Guy Marine except he has some weird tribal scars carved into his haircut that make you think he might be a good guy after all. There’s also an assortment of scientists and administrators who eventually become Good Guys because they’re more sensitive than the others. Finally there’s the Female Helicopter Pilot who does her job but eventually proves to have a heart of gold as well. The African-Americans, interestingly, are all on the side of the Army and definitely with the Bad Guys. Maybe it’s because Obama is President, but they’ve apparently become part of The Establishment.
That’s the Human side of the ledger. On the other is the Indigenous Population — a race of Na’vi who are ten feet tall and look like the Blue Man Group decked out as Indians. They are living in the Stone Age but have Powers of Communication with Nature that make them a match for a technological society.
The movie starts well — so well, in fact, that I was fooled into thinking I was watching a mature and intelligent testimony to America’s growing awareness of its place in the world. The sergeants are brutal, the mission business-like, but the rules of engagement with the Indigenous Population remain highly sensitive. This has Iraq and Vietnam written all over it, of course, but the time (2154 A.D.) is far enough in the future so that perhaps we have gotten a little perspective on ourselves.
The scenery — i.e., the complex computer graphics — is almost beyond belief. Creatures that you know are totally synthesized move with a liquid certainty. Mountains hang in the air. People jump on pterodactyls and fly away. After a while you suspend all disbelief and get used to it. Maybe we’ll encounter a planet like this someday.
The desire of the Earthlings to communicate with the Indigenous Population is so intense that the scientists have taken some of their DNA and used it to construct Na’vi bodies into which human volunteers can slip as “avatars.” Jake, the Marine, volunteers and, behold, finds he can walk as a Na’vi. He is chased all over the planet/jungle by dinosaurs and rhinoceroses but soon hooks up with Neytiri, a female Na’vi, with whom — well, you know the rest.
I’m not going to recite the whole plot here. It goes on for quite a while — 2 hours and 40 minutes, in fact. Suffice to say, the Earthlings finally decide they have to have the Unobtainium, which is buried — wouldn’t you know it? — right under the Na’vis’ sacred Tree of Voices. Without even filing an environmental impact statement, Colonel Quaritch leads the charge — and here’s where things get interesting. The Na’vi are completely outgunned. They try to defend the Tree of Voices with Stone Age weapons but their arrows bounce helplessly off the helicopters. It is a poignant moment. There have been many such tragic confrontations between advanced and primitive cultures in human history. Avatar appears ready to take them on in full dimension.
But no, now the movie takes a different turn (and with James Cameron it’s always a long one). The Indians have a chance to survive after all. After all, they have Nature on their side! By the time the Bad Guys come back for their final assault, the Indians have held a huge conclave where hundreds of natives sway in adulation to Eywa, the Mother Goddess, like a Martha Graham troupe going through its paces. When the two sides line up a second time, the Na’vi now have The Force, The Goddess, and everything else on their team.
After falling in love with Neytiri, Jake has gone over to the Na’vi and become one of their leaders. The Scientists, The Woman Administrator, and the Female Helicopter Pilot all soon make the same pilgrimage. (The blacks, once again, stick with the Army.) The battle seems as hopeless as before but now it turns out the Na’vi have psychic powers as well, thanks to the Mother Goddess. The creatures of the forest are on their side. At one point when Jake and Neytiri get separated, they talk from miles away by pressing their fingers to their throats — like those people who hold a little device to their throat because they have lost their voice box. No explanation necessary — they are Close to Nature and capable of all things. In the end, the rhinoceroses help the Na’vi take out a few tanks. How can you lose with the Power of Nature on your side?
I’m sorry, but I was rooting for the Earthlings all the way. Besides my wife, however, I was the only one in the theater. Everyone else was cheering for the Indians. When Colonel Quaritch finally faces off with Jake (just like in the cowboy movies), he plays the final trump card. “How does it feel to betray your race?” he sneers at Jake. But of course that’s not the question. “How does it feel to betray your country, your planet, your world?” That’s what he should be asking. Nevertheless, the whole audience cheered as he took a giant arrow to the chest.
In such a culture where people so easily abandon their own roots, is it any wonder that half the population believes in global warming as the Latter Day Apocalypse, environmentalism as a secular religion, nuclear power as the Devil Incarnate, and Going Back to Nature with windmills and solar collectors as the solution to our energy problems?
Ross Douthat wrote a nice column about all this in the New York Times just before Christmas. Calling Avatar Cameron’s “long apologia for pantheism,” he concluded:
Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid [nature’s] cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.…
Pantheism offers… a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.
But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.
It’s a good lesson, one we’d better start attending if we expect to get on in a world that is getting tougher and more competitive all the time.