Channeling 21st Century Ambivalences
This paper analyzes the movie Avatar through the lens of archetypal psychology and the concept of ambivalence (Freud, Jung, et. al.). Theories of emplotment also help to understand the complexity and broad appeal of the narrative (H. White, C. Booker). Finally, I employ Paul Ricoeur’s correlation between ideology and utopia in political theory (Ricoeur) to analyze how Avatar functions and dysfunctions as social critique.
The movie is as much about our world of violent conflicts, ecological destruction, and predatory industry, as it is about some imagined future in the year 2154 on a distant planet. The medium is ironically partly the message. The virtual reality is all about us in our increasingly man-made artificial environments and manufactured conflicts.
Avatar grossed $2.2 billion in its first two months, the highest ticket sales of any movie ever. Cameron broke his own record held by Titanic (1997). In both movies, Avatar and Titanic, there is more going on than simply popular entertainment. Cameron is a gifted storyteller, able to somehow tap into archetypal themes in our collective unconscious, able to show us something of the deep ambivalences in our lives and a wished-for resolution of those conflicts.
Film critics typically crooned over the revolutionary cinematography, while panning the story line. The production of this 3D wonder required 4000 Hewlett-Packard servers with 35,000 processor cores. New technologies were invented to seamlessly blend human actors, fictional characters, and the fantasy ecosystem on a distant planet. The rendering farm at the time would have been one of the top 200 supercomputers in the world. Storing the final edited version of the virtual world of Pandora required over a petabyte of digital space. The visual effects were stunning, transporting the audiences to a strange and beautiful ecosystem, with its ten-foot tall indigenous humanoid inhabitants – the Na’vi.
The story line has been criticized as a replay of Dances with Wolves (1990) or Pocahontas (1995) reset in science fiction. Once again, the White Guy goes native and saves the day. Of course, the history of Native American encounters with European settlers does not have a happy ending – the European invaders are not expelled and the pristine environment is not preserved. In Avatar, we see this alternate ending, one in which the natives win and the primal utopia is restored after a destructive incursion.
These criticisms miss something deeper and more troubling about the film, which is perhaps best understood in the language of the collective unconscious, the universe of memes and ideologies that compete for human allegiances, and the archetypes that pattern human thoughts and behaviors. Avatar is a story about the new world disorders and the challenges of biocultural evolution in twenty-first century in the face of accelerating technoscience and globalization.
In brief outline, humans have come to Pandora, a lush moon in Alpha Centauri star system, to mine “unobtainum,” a precious metal, which is evidently unobtainable on Earth and sells for “20 million a kilo.” Earth, we learn, is no longer a green planet, having long since been stripped bare by the warring and greedy humans. While astonishingly diverse and beautiful, the environment of Pandora is hostile to humans, who cannot breathe the air and who face threats from the native flora and fauna, including the indigenous Na’vi, an intelligent humanoid that lives in the forests in harmony with nature. One of the first things that Jake see when he arrives on Pandora are Na’vi feathered arrows shot into the enormous tires of the huge mining trucks.
The mining industry is supported by a military security operation and a team of scientists. Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic former Marine brought in to replace his twin brother, a trained “avatar” scientist who was murdered. Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigouney Weaver) is the scientist who heads the Avatar Program. The head of Security Ops is Colonel Miles Quaritch, a villainous American-type military-caricature, who promises Jake restorative treatment of his paraplegia in exchange for inside intelligence on the Na’vi.
The Avatar program run by Dr. Augustine involves growing Na’vi-human hybrid bodies remotely controlled by genetically matched human minds. Humans enter and leave these bodies through laboratories. When their minds inhabit their Na’vi bodies, virtual reality becomes real in a kind ofStar Trek Holodeck meets Modern Warfare 2 and genetic engineering meets computer-neuronal mind fusion.
Jake Sully is brought in to replace his twin brother and is lost in the forest on his first mission as a Na’vi avatar. He is then rescued by Neytiri, a female Na’vi (played by Zoe Saldana). Neytiri brings him to meet the clan in the Home Tree, where he slowly learns the ways of the natives. Jake and Neytiri fall in love. Like Jack and Rose in the Titanic, the archetypal story involves two lovers from completely different cultures or in this case different species. Unlike the Titanic, however, the love story plays a minor role in the larger epic, which is a story about imperialism, ecology, science, and spirituality.
The Na’vi live in harmony with nature, worshipping the mother goddess Eywa. It turns out that there is a scientific basis for their animistic pantheism, as the flora and fauna of Pandora are part of a vast bio-neural network. The planet itself is a highly evolved intelligent superorganism. The Na’vi, though technologically inferior to the humans, are more spiritually and biologically evolved. We witness this in their ability to use neural dendrites in their ponytails to connect directly to other species. There is some suggestion that their connecting ponytails also play an important role in their intimate sex lives. There is something queer indeed about these synaptic bonds between lovers and animals, a bond we are told that can also be for life, as we witness when Jake must tame one of the powerful flying predators and when he “mates” with Neytiri. The synaptic connections also allow them to tap into the flora, which means a neurological connection to their ancestors and Eywa, the distributed mother-mind-deity of the planet.
Avatar blends several basic plots into this epic adventure. There are multiple quests that Jake must overcome as the story progresses. There is a rags to riches story of the paraplegic Jake who achieves ambulation and respect in his Na’vi avatar body. There are monsters to overcome, especially as embodied in the deranged Colonel Quaritch. There is a voyage and return in and out of avatar bodies, in and out of the beautiful jungle environment. There are tragedies and of course the romance between Jake and Neytiri. And at the end, we witness a rebirth in paradise, as Jake forever leaves his broken human body behind, entering permanently into the body of his Na’vi avatar to be forever with his lover Neytiri and his adopted species, even as the exploitative humans are ignominiously deported back to their home planet. The only archetypal plot line missing would be a comic conflict and resolution, though we get some elements of this in the happy ending involving the renewal of the marriage and the reversals of fortune in the dénouement.
Avatar involves layers and layers of ambivalence:
- We have a pro-peace, anti-war movie that involves enough fighting to titillate the eternal adolescent male on his Xbox. (Simultaneous with the release of the movie was a computer game version of Avatar, which is all about simulated fighting.)
- We have an inter-species love story with queer intercourse involving kinky ponytails that directly connect the nervous systems of different beast.
- We have an eco-romantic apologia that requires the highest of high tech to tell and sell in a completely man-made environment.
- We have an animist, matriarchical pantheist utopia that cost $237 million to produce, a $150 million to promote, a global network to distribute, and over $2 billion in ticket to sell.
To the extent that Avatar is an allegory about our lives today, then it is a reality so painful and so out of control that it can only be approached through an escapist fantasy. In the name of peace and environmental preservation, we have ironically taken another step toward “turning the whole world into Disney World” (Thomas Berry.)
The experience of watching Avatar was a group event, as people piled into movie theaters and donned 3D glasses. In the dark cathedrals of contemporary cinema, we were all anonymous participants in a high tech passion play of tribulation and redemption. We were all witnesses to the same astonishing images and the same compelling characters. And we all walked out of the theater at the same time, back onto the streets of our cities and the parking lots of our suburban shopping malls, where and when the full impact of the movie became apparent. No longer in the virtual man-made reality of James Cameron’s artistic imagination but in the real man-made world of our day-to-day lives, one might well feel despair. Which world would you rather live in? Which God would you rather worship? Which battles would you rather fight? Which loves would you rather have? Which planet would you rather live on?
Cameron’s utopia is in fact a powerful critique of business as usual and turns out to be an extremely profitable business as well. I wanted to return into the theater to see the movie again and again, images projected on the walls of Plato’s cave, rather than live in the harsh light of this real world and its intractable problems. And while utopia can be a powerful tool to challenge ideologies of the status quo, it can also be dangerously escapist.
Recalling the Greek myth of Pandora, the “all endowed” primal woman, and Cameron’s chosen name for this fictional world, we can see that a new box has been opened. Somewhere along the way, we ventured down this road of imagination and invention. The real and the virtual, nature and artifact, science and spirit, fact and fantasy, good and evil, human and other-than-human, self and other-than-self will be forever confused. Science fiction is politics by other means. Hope alone remains in Pandora’s box. Because we humans can still imagine alternate futures, safer and healthier worlds, we might yet create one here in our real world and not just inside of movie theaters.