Like millions of others I succumb to peer pressure when it comes to seeing movies: Not just the media and reviews, but a goodly number of friends exert subtle pressure on me to see the movies I decide to see, and this was no exception. I did not regret the three hours of my life, spent in the darkness of the theater, watching the screen via the goggles that altered my vision of the world. All great works of art do this one way or another, for they do endow us with perceptions on the human conditions that are not normally ours.
I did not expect the 3-D effect to be so compelling: the transformation of scenes and actions from the flat screen at a safe distance to a depth and proximity so apparently close to my physical body was all too realistic, endowing virtual reality with an added dimension that should make us wonder about the nature of the existence of the normal. After all, what are our brains if not evolutionarily grown goggles ensconced under the skull that map a variety of sensory inputs into a world of light and color, smell, taste and touch?
The terrestrial men and women – (mostly white) Americans in uniform on one of their imperialistic missions – were virile and vicious. After all, they were on an assignment to grab a precious element that was apparently found only in that distant planet in a region occupied by the Na’vi’s: a beautiful humanoid species, peaceful, loving, and joyous in a contrastingly un-American way. The viewer cannot but have respect, empathy, and admiration for those gracious beings endowed with the extraordinary faculty of communing with Nature: with the flora and fauna of their world which included magnificent landscapes, beautiful butterflies, gargantuan beasts, majestic winged creatures which carry people on its back such as one reads in Hindu lore. The Na’vi’s also have the capacity to benefit from the spiritual energy that seeps through land and air and water in subtle ways, such as are described in ancient civilizations, and which have been making a come-back in the Age of Aquarius, largely through books and movies like this one.
The model for the story is the classical White Man-versus-Amerindians, except that the good-guy-bad-guy roles are post-modernistically reversed. Of course, as is customary, some margin is given to the evil bunch: thus there are a few righteous-minded, soft-hearted individuals among the largely bad guys as well; actually one and a half women and one ex-Marine in a wheel-chair; the half woman started as one of the exploiting bunch and changed colors half-way through the movie.
Now, in the advanced technology of the times (the story is supposed to be occurring in 2150 or thereabouts), the wily Americans are able to temporarily transmute a human into a Na’vi (with a tall slim frame, tail, flat nose, piercing eyes, local costume and all). This human-in-Na’vi format is called an Avatar. (This Sanskrit word avatara actually refers to an incarnation of the Divine that descends on earth to establish righteousness when things go morally rotten in world. One could argue we are ready for an avatar right now, in the Hindu concept of the word. But, like mantra, dharma, karma, and guru, it has also been appropriated with altered connotations.) Avatars (as defined in this movie) can be teleported into the Na’vi population, to teach English to a few of them so as to win them over, and then persuade or force the whole lot to evacuate from the region where they are living (à la President Andrew Jackson, one might say), so that the unobtainable element may be grabbed and sent back to the U.S.A. (Parable of the oil in the Iraq war.)
But, as happens in stories like this, a young man who is sent on this heinous project falls in love with a Na’vi native, and the damsel reciprocates his feelings. He becomes one of the Na’vi’s himself, and refuses to be part of the exploitative scheme of the red-blooded Americans. In the old model, it was someone from the exploited group who usually betrayed his people and joined the aggressor. The villains of the piece are headed by a couple of heartless ruthless brutish planners who use phrases like pre-emptive strike and shock and awe to remind the audience of George Bush and Ronald Rumsfeld. In the end, the raw military might of technological warfare is decimated by the noble Na’vi’s.
The movie struck me as the most emphatic public expression (allegorical though it is) thus far of the periodic mea culpa proclamations of Europeans in the context of their historical encroachments into Non-European lands ever since Christopher Columbus set foot on the New World and usurped Indian lands to found a new nation. History will judge, it is often said, but actually it is historians who judge the past in hindsight or from new perspectives. But in our own times, this task has also been assumed by movie-makers who, as in this case, can influence the minds of more people and make lots more money than scholarly historians can or do.
Intrusions into the territories of others is nothing new in human history. However, global expansionism leading to cultural genocide of indigenous peoples hasn’t occurred that often. Aside from the spread of Christianity into Europe and beyond and the decimation of Amerindian cultures by France, Britain, Spain and Portugal, one can think of medieval Islamic imperialism which spread its wings from Berber-land to Byzantium, from Iberia to Indonesia and beyond. It Islamized every culture on the way, save India, where success was only partial. The looting, slaughter, and temple-destruction of Mahmud of Gazni and Ibrahim Lodi are well recorded, but it is not politically correct to even mention them in today’s world. It may be a very long time, if at all, before some Muslim movie maker depicts the exploits of the heroes of his history with the sensitivity and honesty of the producers of this culturally self-critical movie. But perhaps movies like this will inspire thinkers in other cultures to examine their own history. Some may have the courage to recognize where their ancestors crossed the line of moral decency and engaged in behaviors that were affronts to human dignity. If this were to happen, Avatar would have served a grander purpose than providing cinematic entertainment in three dimensions.
V. V. Raman
February 27, 2010