Avatar Transforming: Its Power, Its Message, Its Possibilities

Avatar poster

The following is a guest blog post written by Tom Atlee of The Co-Intelligence Institute. It is also posted on his Posterous website HERE. Tom is the author of The Tao of Demorcracy and the recently published, Reflections on Evolutionary Activism: Essays, Poems, and Prayers From an Emerging Field of Sacred Social Change (which I highly recommend).

"Embrace the movie—surely the most vivid and convincing creation of a fantasy world ever seen." —Richard Corliss, Time Magazine

"Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And....to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here."  — James Cameron, Avatar director

"[The movie's] parallels with history and current events are obvious enough, but they're beside the point." -- Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle

I was blown away by James Cameron's new movie Avatar.  It immersed me in a thoroughly compelling world, imagined and crafted with a depth of detail that utterly amazed me.  It conveyed multiple profound, challenging messages via an archetypal story designed for mass appeal.  I am not at all surprised it is suddenly the highest grossing movie of all time, beating Cameron's previous allegorical blockbuster, Titanic.

The impact of this movie made me wonder how we might enhance Avatar's transformational power -- a question I'll get to in a moment.  First I want to address a few points about its reception. I couldn't believe most of the reviews I read.


Although rightly lauding the remarkable special effects and 3D, and noting the relevance of the film to Europeans' colonial abuse of Native Americans, hardly any reviewers named what to me were among the movie's most important messages:

  • 1.  Humans are embedded in the beauty, power and interconnectedness of nature.
  • 2.  Our abuse of nature and indigenous peoples did not only happen in our historic past.

Cameron himself addresses the first point in numerous places.  In addition to the quote above, at Comic Con 2009 he said he hoped his film would make a viewer "think a little bit about the way you interact with nature and your fellow man."  He noted that the indigenous Na'vi represent "our higher selves, or our aspirational selves, what we would like to think we are", while the human corporate-military invaders represent "what we know to be the parts of ourselves that are trashing our world and maybe condemning ourselves to a grim future."

The spiritual dimension of our link to nature is obvious in the movie, but has met mixed reviews. It has been celebrated by those with deep-ecological spirituality, and attacked by others, most notably the Vatican and New York Times reviewer Ross Douthat, who dismiss it as misguided pantheism, warning viewers of its theological dangers.  Others warn of an anti-technology, anti-civilization, unrealistic worship of "the noble savage."

Such black-and-white thinking misses the spectrum of meaning available from the film.  Cameron insists the film is neither anti-technology nor anti-American.  Rather, it is about being more conscious in the ways we hold and use our technology and our Americanism (or other isms).

Furthermore, one doesn't have to be "a pantheist" to be awe-struck by nature and realize our interdependence with it.  This reverent sense of nature-connectivity is poetically and passionately expressed by another New York Times essayist, taxonomist Carol Kaesuk Yoon, in her "Avatar's Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist's Dream,"

Yoon says that Avatar "has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world.... I felt as if someone had filmed my favorite dreams from those best nights of sleep where I wander and play through a landscape of familiar yet strange creatures...."

This profound intersection of science and spirit in the face of nature plays out most fully perhaps in religious naturalism.

The second largely unnoted and politically loaded lesson of the movie is that the Avatar story is being played out on OUR planet in OUR time today.  The case for this is presented with passion and considerable facts in the essay "Avatar is Real"

Indigenous Peruvian writer Carolos Quiroz takes us on a tour of the many places where corporate and military forces conspire to undermine or destroy Indigenous communities to get at resources, usually oil and usually in rainforests of incredibly beauty:

"Avatar is real. Pandora exists in our planet and it's located in South and Central America, and Africa. The Na'vi peoples, the Indigenous peoples in those regions are being displaced and killed right now, in order to extract the natural resources laying underground. The names of places and peoples may be different in the movie, but the facts of reality are almost the same, like the Andean-inspired music of the film. Distant regions of green, tropical forests rich in beauty and resources, are in danger due to their abundance in unknown treasures hidden [from] human’s eyes. In order to get those resources needed by rich countries, multinational corporations are using governments, armed forces, paramilitary and guerrillas to massacre and displace Indigenous peoples. Sadly, in most cases the U.S. military is involved one way or another."

Quiroz's article is long but filled with so many painful examples that it boggles the mind that most reviewers referred only to historical abuses (as if we don't do that anymore), and even that often in depreciating terms ("this is a film is about liberal white guilt").  The only mainstream review I found that acknowledged modern attacks was the strange quote above, from the Houston Chronicle, which suggested that both historical and current abuses were "beside the point" when compared with the technological wizardry of the film.

But they aren't beside the point.  A large part of the film's power is its juxtaposition of the depth of nature's meaningfulness with the shallow values of profit-driven militarism.


My own sense of the film's greatest shortcoming is that it does not go far enough in that direction.  It does not help us break out of the cycle of violence.  This brings me to the other thing I'd like to explore about this film: its transformational potential.

The last third of the film involves two horrendous, spectacular battles.  A number of reviewers have suggested that Cameron's violence is not gratuitous.  This IS a decidedly anti-war film.  Although Cameron insists it is not an anti-American movie, he admits it is intended partially as commentary on current American wars.  In our martial era of shock-and-awe strategies, terrorism-counter-terrorism, and echoes of Vietnam, it is hard to claim the violence is overdone.

But there are other realities in our times, as well:  Keep in mind the many nonviolent uprisings against powerful militaries -- from the Filipino "people power revolution" where most of the army turned around and joined the democratic protesters, to the nonviolent revolutions in Czechoslovakia, the Balkans, former Soviet Georgia, and elsewhere.

There is even a story of women in Nigeria nonviolently shaming military-backed ChevronTexaco into less exploitive behavior.

More often than not, SOME people in the power structure in such situations have a change of heart and/or mind.  In Avatar there are a few such defectors, including the star, but their mode of support for the Indigenous Na'vi is to join them in battle.  What if Avatar had shown them involved in a Pandoran version of the strategies promoted by Harvard nonviolence historian Gene Sharp -- perhaps helped along by the nature spirit -- a mix of principled resistance, appeals to the heart, negotiations, sabotage, refusal to follow orders, dialogue, interspecies sports (can you imagine how the Na'vi would be at basketball?) and PR with people of the home planet (Earth), as Gandhi did with the English public.  (Sharp lists 198 nonviolent actions and Cameron could undoubtedly come up with some creative additions.)

Surely Gandhi and King demonstrated that the story of a nonviolent revolution has no shortage of challenges, danger, conflict, heroism, and other drama needed to grip an audience.  And it is easy to add romance into such a plotline.  Such a story might inspire real-life nonviolent actions on behalf of those working to stop destruction of our own planet.

Of course the current Avatar movie ends with the strangely victorious ending that Cameron gave it.  Part of that ending is the Na'vi victors sending all the remaining humans back to Earth in their spacecraft.  As I watched that conclusion, I thought to myself "They'll be back! Cameron is setting us up for a sequel."  And sure, enough, it turns out Cameron is planning at least one sequel.


This is where I see transformational, evolutionary potential.  The sequel could include an entirely different approach to the destructive dynamics Avatar highlights.  Here are some plot possibilities.

*  It could show the technologically savvy avatars (humans in Na'vi bodies) and indigenous Na'vi using the left-behind human infrastructure to learn the technology of the departed humans, and using it to nurture a long-distance rebellion (both nonviolent and violent) on Earth which includes more corporate and military types realizing the devastation that their systems and ways of life entail -- and then joining the rebels and changing those systems and ways of life.  (The original Avatar movie includes only a few such defectors.  We could expect many more in the second movie.  Perhaps some are among the humans sent back to Earth -- who were either too afraid to speak up on Pandora or were keeping silent until the right time -- who speak out or lead subsequent activities on Earth.)

*  The sequel could show (glimpses of) other planets where other related stories are going on, with other storylines which complement or intertwine with the Pandoran story.  Perhaps an alliance develops, with different planets having different gifts to offer to the rebellion, representing the positive use of diversity among different groups and cultures.

*  The sequel could move from metaphor closer to reality in the responses of nature to human interference.  In the original Avatar movie, the Na'vi are victorious due largely to the intervention of monstrous Pandoran beasts that join the fight against the colonial "sky people" (humans), guided by the initially reluctant planetary nature spirit.  A more likely scenario -- and more direct metaphor -- would be that the mining of unobtainium (the stand-in for exploitable uranium or petroleum in the Avatar movie) produces negative side-effects of some kind (like climate change in the case of petroleum or radiation and threat of annihilation in the case of uranium) which impact human society and force a change. Or, a bit more far-out, perhaps the next mission to Pandora inadvertently brings mosquitoes who inject the blood of the nature-linked Na'vi into the blood of humans, leading to psychedelic nature-spirit realizations by the humans.  Stranger things have happened... :)

*  The Avatar sequel could involve conversations about what people want money, work, domination, war and technology for in the first place, which becomes part of the reason so many humans end up joining the Na'vi inspired rebellion.  (See the story below for a good start.)  The Na'vi and Avatars could produce poems, art, and videos (or holograms or whatever) that generate a shift in thinking on Earth -- perhaps based on the evocative, poetic, often humorous works of the Chiapas rebel leader Subcommander Marcos that have gained widespread popularity around the world.

*  The Avatar sequel could have a high school science whiz on Earth discover a cheap substitute for unobtainium that drives the interstellar Corporation out of business.  (This plotline was developed to excellent effect in Ernest Callenbach's ECOTOPIA prequel ECOTOPIA EMERGING.) Or it could include stockholders in the Corporation changing its exploitive policies or instituting the "triple bottom line".

You get the idea.  Avatar, like other socially conscious fantasies ("V for Vendetta") comes to mind, provides an inspirational story of rebellion based on violence or a battle-savvy leader -- sometimes spiced with creative strategic or tactical suggestions (such as the masks in V) -- but stops short of truly transformational guidance.  In the conclusion of V, for example, we see the population rising up nonviolently against the dictatorship as the dying V blows up parliament in a climax of fireworks.... but then what does the population do next?  Start another dictatorship?  Fight among themselves?  There is no guidance, no inspiration, no transformational story.  Cameron could create a story in which the Na'vi do better than that.

So what do YOU think Cameron should do with his sequel?  What can we imagine that could inform or inspire him to do something that would make an even greater difference in our world than Avatar?  Is it even possible that he could do an imagineering movie of such power that it would catalyze a movement?

Put your ideas in comments on this blog posting HERE. And if you know a way to reach James Cameron, let him know we're thinking about this...


PS:  As an aside, I've also not seen any note that Avatar director Cameron is a diver (which he is), which may explain the many terrestrial undersea life forms -- jellyfish, anemones, phosphorescent spots -- that oddly show up in Pandora's rainforest.