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The Many Faces of Avatar

December 29, 2009
 by Kimberly Ruff


Over the weekend, I saw James Cameron's big budget science-fiction epic, Avatar. Despite the fact that most film reviewers tend to focus on the dazzling special effects that cost upwards of $300 Million to produce, the film is, like others in its genre, ripe for interpretation.



For those of you who have yet to see it, Avatar is, at the core, the portrayal of the conflict between the indigenous Na’vi and the visiting humans on the distant, moon-like planet of Pandora. Set in 2154, human beings – or “sky people” as the Na’vi refer to them – have arrived on Pandora in hopes of extracting an expensive, precious mineral called unobtanium from the planet’s core. Unfortunately, the Na’vi tribe’s main hub is situated on the area richest in unobtanium and, as such, The Na’vi must be relocated, whether by gentle persuasion or violent coercion.

The story is told through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine, who takes a highly coveted space on the research team when his twin brother is killed. Sully, a paraplegic, is a genetic match for his twin’s Avatar, a human-Na’vi hybrid that can be controlled by one’s mind. While the research team, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), have their doubts about allowing a former military member on their team, their minimal budget forces their hand. Initially, Sully serves as a mole for the military end of the entire human operation, giving coordinates and valuable information about the Na’vi, but as time progresses and he develops a newfound appreciation for the Na’vi way of life, he realizes what a disastrous mistake the humans are making in their treatment of Pandora and its inhabitants.

As is par for the course for any science-fiction movie worth its salt, there are multiple avenues of approach when it comes to breaking down the underlying message of the picture. It is here where I would like to discuss several possible ways of looking at Avatar, including foreign policy, culture, and race.

Foreign Policy

My first impression of the film was that, pound for pound, it was commentary on the United States’ military actions in the Middle East post-9/11. Regardless of the myriad, ill-conceived reasons the Bush Administration gave for going into Iraq, there is no denying that if we could have pulled the whole thing off with aplomb, it would have been to our economic advantage. We would be the “great liberators” we imagined ourselves to be and, after winning favor with the people and their newfound, American inspired, democratically-elected government, we would have unfettered access to oil.

Of course, it didn’t exactly work out that way.

In Avatar, the humans experiment with first going in, peacefully, as a research team to study Pandora and its flora and fauna. Disguised in their avatars, the research team teaches the Na’vi English and human customs, rather than learning their dialect and culture. Nation-building fails to achieve the desired results in the allotted time, so the humans use military intervention. When the Na’vi unite to defend themselves, the humans find the necessary justification to obliterate them. Throughout the film, Cameron liberally sprinkles Bush-era foreign policy terms into his script – “pre-emptive strike” and “shock and awe” immediately come to mind.

Culture, Religion, and Economics

Adding depth to the conflict between the competing needs of the humans and the Na’vi is a decidedly pro-collectivist, socialist subtext. In every film, there is a protagonist and an antagonist, and Avatar is no different. The protagonists are clearly the Na’vi, an indigenous tribe of blue, feline-humanoid creatures who live, collectively, in a giant tree. Major decisions are made by the tribal elders who, in turn, consult Eywa, the spiritual force that connects all life on Pandora. Economically, there is no real wealth, at least not in terms that we, as humans, would understand. No one takes more than what they need and they give thanks to Eywa when they do.

While I am a firm believer in the interconnectedness of all life here on Earth and find this sentiment in the Na’vi to be incredibly beautiful, I take umbrage at the equally-negative appraisal Avatar gives to individualism and capitalism. The antagonist in this film is not government, as I would hope, but rather big business-run-amok in the form of RDA Corporation. While there are certainly individuals on the human side who are painted in a positive light, it is not for their rugged individualism that we cheer – instead, it is their decision to break from the Evil Empire and align with the quiet collective. No louder is this anti-us statement more prevalent than when our main character, Sully, finalizes his transition and casts aside not only his customs, beliefs and history, but his body, as well.

As a proponent of free markets, I firmly believe that it is entirely possible to be good to your environment and each other, while still retaining one’s individuality by respecting each other’s needs through simple, economic exchanges. I would have much preferred the antagonist be a governmental empire and global hegemon, rather than a business. I find it altogether highly unlikely that shareholders and investors in RDA Corporation would have continued to support their mining efforts when they discovered what was being done to Pandora.


Adding one last, final layer to Avatar is the interesting, perhaps unintentional, commentary on gender and race. In the vein of The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, and The Last Samurai, we have yet another story in which a white male liberates a non-white tribe of indigenous people. His initial acceptance into the tribe comes when illuminated dandelion-esque flowers cling to his avatar; he is considered “chosen” by Ewya. Later, he is able to wrangle Toruk, a Pterodactyl-Dragon hybrid, that earns him even more esteem amongst the Na’vi. Thus, Sully straddles the line between two cultures, retaining the privileges of his whiteness while masquerading as a Na’vi. This puts him at a marked advantage over even the tribal elders, who lack the information or recognition that Sully has. Furthermore, it is because of Sully and his combined knowledge of Na’vi and human warfare that allows the Na’vi to ultimately defeat the “sky people.”

Although it is absolutely essential in conflict and negotiation for both parties to really understand one another, and Sully may just be a cinematic conduit in which we bridge the gap between the respective experiences of the humans and the Na’vi, it still creates a dangerous lesson for us to learn: that when it comes to liberating oneself, you must rely on your now liberated oppressor to cast off your bonds for you. It smacks of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic; in order for the slave to be free, the master must be liberated from their oppressive thinking. This leaves me to ask – when does one liberate oneself?

If you’ve had a chance to see the movie, I’d love to hear your feedback.

Related Content:

An Iran Invasion is Imminent - Mike Renzulli
Socialized Capitalism is a Failure - Nick Coons
Negotiating Face in Vietnam: American Neorealism and Face-Negotiation Theory - Kimberly Ruff

Add Comment

User Comments:
Glaxy, on 12/29/2009 at 3:50pm, said:

If you believe in interconnectedness as you claim, you would see that the concept of purely self liberation is an impossible abstraction.

Dane, on 12/29/2009 at 4:00pm, said:

I am currently finishing up Ayn Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, so it was very difficult for me not to cringe when the Corporation -- and "unfettered" capitalism -- was selected as Cameron's villain. How do great capitalists making 300 million dollar movies not see the hypocrisy in their vilifying of their own bread and butter?

I also happened to see Dances With Wolves again this weekend before going to see Avatar, so I also could not help but compare the same white guy saves poor indigenous people theme.

The film was beautiful -- especially getting to see it in 3D, but the story became bogged down with the same lame, worn-out Hollywood story-line cliches.

Treg, on 12/29/2009 at 4:34pm, said:

Yes! A great Libertarian Movie! Loved it

SO... I am laughing at everyone it seems... it seems that even here on the Daily Paul people don't like the movie.

So... NeoCons really hate it
(for the anti-war)
SO... Conservatives hate it.
(for the Human to Animal sex)
So.. Liberals hate it.
(for the marines as heros )
So .. Greeny Animal rights hate it
(for the animal domination)
so... Randite Objectivoids hate it
(too anti corporate!)
so... Daily Paulers (some) and now Alex Jones hate it (for being anti christian-pro-Gia & a 'globalist message!)

Well I loved it! It is the best dam Libertarian movie to come along in a long long time.

You know what is a laugh?
It's the head of the Atlas Society who dogs the movie because its "anti-corporation".
It's the many conservatives who call into radio talk shows who are freaked about the alien-sex & US Military/Blackwater corpotcracy getting its ass handed to them -- they don't know whats worse they complain.
It's the many liberals complaining on liberal call-in radio shows who can't stand the fact that many good marines or "jug-heads" can see right from wrong, switch sides and woop some ass. These liberals hated to see their precious scientists as enablers & pawns used for the military/corporations. I was further amazed to read the Greeny/Animal rights callers hated the fact that Humans & avatars commune only to control nature and other animal beasts to their own selfish ends... these greeny animal rights people hated it for that fact and did not like the movie. Go figure.

Did anyone else besides me just roll over laughing when the super valuable (and apparently nonessential) mineral that the Military/Corporation wanted so bad was called, "Unobtainium"??? Hilarious. I was wondering if, after they kicked the Avatars off of THEIR LAND by FORCE if the Military/Company would need a pipeline and Unobtainium super tankers to carry back all this crude, I mean Unatainium to Earth. Just why we need this mineral so bad, I don't know... nor is it the point, is it?

The point is these Avatars, what ever their religion, relationship to beasts, what ever sexual relations with one human, said "NO".

"NO" to the Military/Corporation (Corporatocracy).

Question to all my DP friends, is not "NO" enough?

For the good Doctor, "No" is certainly enough. I am sure he would have voted "NO" to sending the Corporatocracy out to get this mineral at taxpayer expense and corporate profit.

Is not the fact that it is NOT yours, the property is used by others who say "NO", enough?

Avatar has real world implications. Not only in Afghanistan and Iraq. Right now in the jungles of Ecuador, native Indians are saying (as best that they can) NO to their own government who has gone to bed with Texaco in-order to get these Indians off their (property rights) land to get the oil.

Is it not enough for us to agree the social structure of the natives are irrelevant to the issue? Force and Property is the issue? Hence, Avatar is a 100% Libertarian Movie.... and I am very very HAPPY to see that audiences around the world GET IT... and perversely happy to see that neoconned conservatives, liberals, neocons, greeny-animal rights, and even Objectivoids don't.

Carry on Avatar... I can't wait for the sequel when the Corporatocracy returns with a vengeance... Maybe the new breed of super sexy Human-Avatars with their Nature-loving animal dominating religion will defend their lands and say "NO" again.

In peace & liberty,

LAUREN, on 12/29/2009 at 4:39pm, said:

BEST MOVIE SINCE STAR WARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO,NO. BEST MOVIE EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

LAUREN, on 12/29/2009 at 4:43pm, said:

the "mateing" part was good. not too much and still there.
and when that grl was killing the naked-dog things, if you slow down right before the last kill, you can see her nipple!

Jasmin, on 12/29/2009 at 5:34pm, said:

"I would have much preferred the antagonist be a governmental empire and global hegemon, rather than a business. I find it altogether highly unlikely that shareholders and investors in RDA Corporation would have continued to support their mining efforts when they discovered what was being done to Pandora."

You've clearly never heard of, say, the Alberta tar sands, or what oil companies are doing in the Niger Delta as we speak, or say, IBM's involvement in the Holocaust, or what mining companies (Canadian ones in particular) are doing in Honduras, or the United Fruit Company's actions in Latin America...I could go on.

You are clearly unfamiliar with the practice of actually existing capitalism, and prefer to operate on the level of Randian mythology.

The Author, on 12/30/2009 at 9:08am, said:

@ Glaxy: I don't see how recognizing the interconnectedness of all life automatically rules out self-ownership and, by extension, self-liberation. One is an understanding of nature; the other is an understanding of socio-political constraints. While one cannot liberate oneself from nature, one can still liberate oneself from socially-imposed constraints. In short, I cannot cast off my humanity, but I can cast off the shackles of government, or an oppressive economy, or a stifling culture. Does that help clarify?

@ Dane: Thank you for your feedback.

@ Treg: My initial feelings on the movie were along the same lines and I do find it amusing that so many people rejected it in whole because they took umbrage with a part of it. At the core, it's an entertaining (and visually stunning) film about people rising against tyranny and coercion, regardless of who is the tyrant and their methods of coercion.

@ Lauren: LOL!

@ Jasmin: I will readily admit economics is not my forte (the bulk of my education and interest is in political structures, ideologies, and communication). I appreciate the feedback you provided, and I will make a point of looking into the examples you cited.

Steven, on 12/30/2009 at 10:27am, said:

I really liked the movie. I did not look for the extra messages in the movie, but enjoyed the movie as is leaving politics,religon etc aside. (Or at least the best I could since politics and religon etc, are part of our lives one way or another)

Scott, on 12/30/2009 at 3:27pm, said:

All I wanted to do was go out with my girlfriend and watch a really cool movie. Instead we got treated to a liberal message that made our skin crawl. This movie has a horrible anti-American, anti-White, and anti-US Military message. It portrays military defectors (Trudy Chacon) as heroes and in some sick way seems to be encouraging such actions. It also tries to make our United States Marine Corps look like bad guys. It starts out as a pretty good movie with awesome
special effects. The story line has been told a thousand times over and portrays an underdog against a mighty powerhouse. About halfway through, the story uses an old twist that changes the audiences perception to start sympathizing with the underdog. No harm done there. But then they immediately start using blatant references to the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq. They also use quotes from the Bush administration such as "Shock & Awe". They also make reference to using current American weapons such as "Daisy Cutter" when the year of the movie plot is in 2154. So now as the audience has turned their emotions and taken the side of the underdogs they are bombarded with a huge guilt trip that blatantly references the Afghan & Iraq wars almost begging you to take the side of America's enemies. I served 4 honorable years in the United States Marine Corps and at this point I was embarrassed to be there watching this trash. Most of the people in the theatre were 14/15 year old kids. Having a message like this dumped on their minds makes me sick. The Canadian director of this movie (James Cameron) is just another person that thinks he's smart because he has money.

Jasmin , on 12/31/2009 at 3:41pm, said:

I should also add to my previous comments this story that might shed further light on the issue I tried to address: http://news.mongabay.com/2009/1222-hance_avatar.html

Mike Renzulli, on 1/01/2010 at 9:22am, said:

Avatar is a pitch for environmentalism which calls for the sacrifice of mankind to the needs of nature. I published a review of this film that can be read in the archives of the Liberty Library of this website.

The movie and it's creator should be jeered and not cheered. Audiences will get a colorful movie experience while James Cameron spits in their faces.

SaHeluNV, on 1/04/2010 at 11:08pm, said:

JC (James Cameron) is not so hateful as "Mike","Scott" you guys thought. He just observed and thought about what the Earth is now, and make it AVATAR.

AS we know "Global warming Issue" problem, If modern science technology is so good and mighty, then why the ice on the two poles of our Mother Earth is still melting and seems no ending day? Sea level rises more fast than ever, why?

In one word, because of Mankind's Greed. I watch AVATAR 3 times, and I still have the urge desire to watch it again.
You can say I might be THE "UNDERDOG", or spitted without knowing anything, if you do think about that, then what about stopping thinking JC is Anti-America or something else instead of why our earth seems to be dead !!!!!!

This message doesn't come from Pendora, but Taiwan. I live
here, this island. It seems when the sea level rises about 6
m height, our island will immerse mostly! You American's NY city also faces the same problem, doesn't it? That's what AVATAR inspires me most deeply.

Just as the Jake Sully said in the film, "I was in a place, the eyes did not SEE." In Earth we seem not to have a mighty Eywa to help us to see what we are and decide where to go. Everybody has his own belief and defend it, and that is the conflict origins from. Conflict, war, are everywhere, anytime.

Doomsday may not be tomorrow, but soon, if Mankind still can't CHANGE the view from his narrow-minded thought to Our Mother Earth. Only sooner, catch that!

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Andre, on 8/22/2012 at 2:35pm, said:

Don't hate me for saying this, but we liked it 'cause they did a damn good job on the effetcs, plus I'm a nature freak and I would looove to have such a world of which I could feel the tiny heartbeat of a tiny animal miles away because we're all connected.Some all time favourites: Train: Drops of Jupiter (crazy words I loved to be able to say as fast as he did) Travis: Love will come through I watch Grey's, but the first seasons were super for gathering the soundtracks, that's where I discovered it, I find it beautiful and the rhythm just soothes you. Chayanne: I love all of them, but Torero is my all time spanish dance like crazy. All the Creed, which turned to Alter Bridge and back to creed I think and way too many others, music is too good to miss out by choosing one kind only.Movies: This will sound silly, but I've watched it as many times as crazy fans have watched Titanic( I thought 42 times at that point was really crazy) but this one I even listen to only when I'm doing something, sort feels like family: Pride and Prejudice, the new one with Keira. Bolt I'll get my ball' and Rhino are up on the bookshelf smiling to me daily Inglorious Basterds for its variety, but I'm starting to not be able to watch war movies anymoreBooks Orson Scott Car's Ender's Game' ( Luci gave that one to me when I was going home once, it was the first book I practically ate). It's actually a whole series, but the first one is beautiful. That's when I knew I would love SF. Harry Potter, yep, I'm such a kid, but reading all 7 is not just reading all 3, she gave a huge plot for all the exits to come out great. the Lord of the Rings, I should have put it in front of HP, he's pretty much the father of that whole fantastic universeand I like the way several-volume boxsets look in the bookshelves These are my childish tastes but you are really just asking for ours, what about yours?

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