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Saturday, March 6, 2010

James Cameron, Queen of the Borg

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is heavily favored by the prognosticati as the likely winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. A sci fi odyssey featuring a whole new planet complete with flora, fauna, and humanoid aliens brought to you by way of groundbreaking spectacular computer generated animation, “Avatar” has been hailed by critics, including fans like Fox and Friend’s Steve Doocey, who presumably do not share its politics. And politics it has aplenty, as Cameron himself admitted on ABC’s “The View,” where he explained the film’s genesis: Cameron had long desired to make an environmentalist film, but no one watches those, or pays to see one. The trick, Cameron said, would be having enough story, and enough razzle dazzle, that one could make an enviro-documentary a blockbuster.

And this James Cameron has done, by attending to how movies speak to us and engage us, and in particular how blockbusters do so.


Something common to most of the most popular films is a hero looking for home. Dorothy just needed to click her heels to get back home; ET needed to phone home; Luke Skywalker lost his adoptive family to an evil empire, but found a mission, a sister, and a father, the latter of whom he redeemed. “Avatar’s” Sigourney Weaver, arguably the queen of the sci fi blockbuster, began the sci fi track of her career, as Ripley in “Alien,” by adopting the only surviving human on a planet, a pre-teen girl, and fighting to protect her with the ferocity of a mother grizzly bear. Orphan Harry Potter lives with unloving relatives until he finds close friends and a true home at Hogwarts. Most popular movies involve a hero finding his or her family, either by reconnecting to an original family, or by finding comrades, a lover, a lost child, etc., to constitute a new one. Home is important because home is the place where you are loved and accepted just for being uniquely you, an individual.

Avatar begins with a family-less, home-less soldier, Jake Sully (played by actor Sam Worthington). The Avatars are clones created by mixing human and Na'vi DNA, the Na'vi being the blue, 7+ foot tall native sapient race of Pandora, the planet that is the story’s setting . Each resulting near-Na'vi avatar can then be “driven” by the individual human being whose DNA was mixed into the avatar clone, by way of a virtual reality computer link. The DNA donors are all scientists and linguists on a team managed by xeno-biologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). One of her team dies in a mishap, leaving behind an incredibly expensive avatar clone with no operator – until his twin brother, Jake, recently injured in battle and paralyzed from the waist down, is hired. Having DNA identical to his twin, he can drive the avatar. And he is promised a small fortune that will allow him to get the restorative medical treatment he needs if he takes the job (Cameron thus touches on everything from healthcare reform to the Iraq and AfPak wars.) The soldier joins the family in the laboratory, wary of them as they, themselves chafing under their military employers, are of he.

Forces of Darkness

Just as the warmth and safety of home, including coupledom and close knit bands of friends, is important because it's where you are loved for being you “just as you are,” in the words of Bridget Jones, evil in the movies is when you are not viewed as an individual but as a resource, a slave, a mark, a component. Vampires and zombies view you as food (and the vampire becomes an erotic and romantic challenge when you can make even him fall in love with you so that he is willing to forego you as food and love you as an individual person); pedophiles and rapists and serial killers want to use your body and re-enact their own tragedies and fixations with it; the Borg want to make you a component in their collective; the Empire or Valdemort want to enslave you.

The anti-individualist nature of evil is emphasized in popular culture in that the dark forces are usually fought by small groups of brave individuals (Buffy, Angel, the Winchester brothers, the crew of Firefly, Harry, Hermione and Ron) who themselves must operate below the radar of bumbling official bureaucracies and hierarchies, from the school administration to the LAPD, from parents to the US military. The evils themselves are often governments, the product of governments, or intend to be governments (lethal government chemtrails on the planet Miranda in “Serenity”; demonic dieties like Glory, Jasmine, the Circle of the Black Thorn, or the the Wolfram and Hart senior partners in the Buffyverse; the Borg; the reptilian Visitors; the Empire that strikes back; Delores Umbridge or Lord Valdemort).

“Avatar” and the Transvaluation of Values

James Cameron’s innovation in “Avatar” is to reverse the individualist values of popular blockbusters and sci fi and fantasy and hide the collectivism of the green movement in a sci fi blockbuster. Just as many have noted that the statist-oriented environmentalist movement is a “watermelon,” Green on the outside and Red on the inside, “Avatar” is individualist on the surface and collectivist at the core. In our world the Greens attempt to pull this off by producing junk science in which any individual's use of technology threatens the while ecosphere, no private property solutions are possible, allowed, or considered, and all evidence or criticism to the contrary is defunded and censored, and those who put it forward fired and smeared, their careers destroyed.

Cameron does the fantasy equivalent, creating a planet where there equivocally are and are not individuals, the distinction between different people, different species, and even plants and animals muddled by giving them all interconnecting neurological systems. Albeit voluntarily connectable and pre-technological, unlike the Borg.

On the surface the Na'vi are 7 foot tall blue native Americans whose land is being stolen from them by the US government, as the U.S. military, acting as mercs to corporate project manager Giovanni Ribisi, the CEO in loco parentis, orders them to destroy the villages of the Na'vi so a precious mineral, leadenly named "Unobtainium," can be mined. (The only mineable source seems to be under the giant tree that is the Na'vi capital city, and apparently unlike with native Americans this mineral cannot be purchased by barter). This has led one libertarian reviewer, David Henderson of the Hoover Institution and, to review “Avatar” favorably as a movie about the evils of eminent domain. He says he turned to his friend in the theater and whispered "It's the Kelo decision."

And while that's true it is truer to recognize with another reviewer, Ed Hudgins of the Atlas Society, that the Na'vi represent an idealized pre-technological, pre-capitalist world. Where amazingly there is no disease or infant mortality or hunger, even though there is no agriculture, let alone industry. And technology is not needed as a Na'vi can temporarily connect his or her spinal chord to that of the local alien horses or alien giant eagles and order them to provide transportation. Given this fantasy of plenty and nature-provided technology equivalents, property and industry are not needed, and so trading the "Unobtainium" for food or medicine or machinery or finished goods is not in the cards.

Not that the U.S. military and its corporate overlords on Pandora seem to be thinking of trading. They are happy to blow up the planet's tallest structure, the giant tree that is the largest Na'vi tribe's home and the de facto planetary capitol, in an image that obviously calls to mind 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center. Thus "America" and American values (represented by the Marines) are presented as the moral equivalent of terrorism and Islamofascism.

Cameron is repeating a rhetorical sleight of hand popular with Leftover culture workers: our opponents are fascists so accept our (more enlightened, gay- and minority- and woman-friendly) fascism. Palin will ban your books so allow us to control your life. Capitalism will cause global warming so accept socialism and economic stagnation and poverty. America is an imperialist force that will kill you and blow up your village, so join our friendlier Borg collective and accept assimilation. Resistance is futile because there is only our fascism or theirs; freedom is chimerical. Jake Sully can either join a tribal people who have little privacy and individuality or civilization (though like so many Leftovers Cameron chickens out and does not follow Marx and Engels into calling for the abolition of romance, coupledom, and the private family -- that much individualism has to be maintained if a story is to appeal to the viewer) OR work for a tyrannical military-industrial complex. No individual freedom is possible.

It is a tragedy that this movie represents so much "technical" achievement in its visual pyrotechnics and that it will likely win more awards. It's ethos is evil, a contradiction of the values that appeal to us in the popular blockbuster, and a slap in the faces of anyone touched by the tragedy of 9/11.