Avatar blues and the hopelessness of Pandora

What's depressing is the film's theory of value

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
4 February 2010

Avatar divides.

It is banned in China - it might ignite resistance amongst the displaced rural - and hugely popular in India; it is the fastest grossing film of all time; Monbiot, the Vatican, the neo-con right and film-buffs all offer competing readings - many neatly summarised in IntelligenceSquared's written debate, "An Oscar for Avatar? You can't be serious!" (disclosure - I had a small part in drafting this).

Very briefly, the parables are always clear-cut in the film. A Halliburton-like corporation is mining unobtanium on Pandora, a distant earth-like planet peopled by noble blue-skinned savages. The film is anti-war, anti-Iraq war, messianic, manichaean, a rehash of the revisionist Western, americanophobe (anti-military industrial complex), americanophile (pro the scientific elite; pro the heroic, rugged individual), Rousseauan; anti-democratic (the savages are Spartans);  pro-couch potato (there is nothing wrong with living an immobile life as long as you have virtual control over other lives); anti-drone; pro-intelligence etc.

With all of this, you might have thought there'd be something in there for  everyone to feel both comforted and angered by---the opportunity for a thoroughly enriching drama. And yet the film has generated a wave of complaints for causing "Avatar Blues". Why? Because Cameron's telling of the Pandora story is both ultimately disempowering and depressingly familiar.

Edenic mastery

The environmental plot makes Pandora herself the central character: all life on the planet shares information with all other life in a supra-organism into-which individual life-parts (species, if that's the right word for parts of a greater quasi-conscious whole) dock using a kind of universal wetware connector that anyone with a drawer-full of highly-specialised computer cables should drool over. Join tendrils with the horses or birds and the humanoids can gently exercise their Edenic roles of masters.

In Hesiod's telliing, the story of Pandora is different. She is fashioned by Zeus from earth and sent to punish Prometheus for starting the industrial revolution. She does not provide much of an answer to the giant's first push down the slippery slope towards Halliburton. Indeed, her role is basically retributive. That is why all the ills of the world flow from the box that she opens. This is a story in which humanity is cursed for its God-like desire to transform nature with fire. It is the industrialist's version of the fall described in Genesis. But Pandora famously preserves hope, absent from the Genesis story. The transformation of nature through fire carries with it the prospect that we might be able to put things back together again. There is no secret ingredient needed. No divine salvation or forgiveness in the Greek version of the fall. The contents of Pandora's box despite everything offers hope.

So why does Cameron's Avatar generate such feelings of hopelessness? On the surface, it seems to offer a view of the world where change is possible:

  • the common decency of the ordinary GI shines through---he eventually recognises the good when it's presented to him and is then willing to stand up against the military industrial complex
  • the detached intellectual also understands when it is time to pass from observer to actor
  • the Gaianism of Pandora is gradually entering our consciousness: we do share information with the biosphere, even if that information is mediated through our theories, models and screens rather than directly throught wetware docking stations; the earth is speaking to us, in this mediated way, of the burden it is now under
  • there are models of good lives lived within resource budgets---indeed, rather better lives than the Spartan model of the Na'avi

Aren't all these elements coming together for us to reclaim the world in the kind of life-enhancing show-down that Cameron describes?

Maybe, but in Cameron's telling, there is no human agency in all of this.

At the height of the hopelessness of the film, when it seems certain that Halliburton will win, the Messianic marine tries to plug-in to the Pandora-Gaia consciousness to explain the facts before her: she will be destroyed unless she does something about it. The noble, beautiful and savage princess sees him at his inexpert prayer and tells him an important truth: Pandora-Gaia is a blind life force, not a moral force. She won't take sides. The Na'avi, who know Pandora-Gaia intimately and directly through their wetware docks and traditions, know that life does not care. Like an important strand of ecological Gaians today, they understand that no amount of understanding of the delicacy and complexity of life will force life to find value in humanity -- or in anything else. Value cannot come from the way things are, but has to stand on its own in the way things should be. This is where hope should exist: in the possibility that action reshapes it.

But Cameron ducks the problem in a particularly depressing way. When the battle looks hopeless, Pandora-Gaia does come to the rescue; she does take a side. The noble savages don't understand. The collective consciousness has changed, has become normative.

But how? Here's Cameron's unlikely answer: just before the Messianic marine's prayer, the scientist, Sigourney Weaver with her analytical understanding of Pandora-Gaia joins the collective mind in death. As she drifts into it, she murmurs not "The horror! The horror...", but "The beauty ... the beauty!" Pandora-Gaia is transformed by the analytical understanding that the scientist brings. Value, it seems, is an automatic product of joining together the primitive, quasi-conscious whole with  scientific understanding. But this just flies in the face of our understanding of value since the Enlightenment; it renders trivial the sight that Kant saw when the scales fell from his eyes: that there is no room for value in a world that is only understood objectively. Where did 300 years of Western thought trying to humanise value go?

So here is the real recipe for change in Avatar: traditionalism, a scientific understanding of the interconnected biosphere and a hero or two. There is no need to address the hard problem---of how we change ecological awareness, our understanding of our place in the world and our relation to its future. Leave that to experts and folklore. Now that is a depressing conclusion.


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