Avatar has elicited a great deal of political commentary, much of it of the extremely simpleminded “Hollywood is too liberal” variety. The novelist John Crowley and the commentators on his blog have the most sophisticated take noting: that the movie rehashes many familiar tropes from the history of European/First Nations contact, particularly the myth of Pocohantas; the it leans heavily also on New Wave science fiction, particularly Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Word For World is Forest”; that the most troubling aspect of the movie is that it regurgitates the myth of the white saviour; and that the story is deliberately simpleminded so that the audience can focus their attention on what really matters. All true enough. (As a side-side note, an interesting essay could be written about filmmaker James Cameron and New Wave science fiction, which he clearly read a lot of in the 1970s. Many of his movies, notably the first two Terminator films, owe a great deal to New Wave science fiction).
But there is another way of looking at the movie, not through the lens of politics but rather of sociology. The word “avatar” has enjoyed a revival thanks to the world of computer gaming, particularly Second Life. An avatar is the fictional character a player creates and lives through online.
The novelist Stanley Kim Robinson has some shrewd words about this type of gaming represents both an alienation from nature and a nostalgia for nature. “These kids are doing nothing but living in boxes to the point that when they have their day off instead of going outside they still do the things they did in school,” Robinson notes. “Our screen-agers are in a structure of feeling and a cultural style that is turning them into 1950s brains in a bottle. They use nothing but their brains and their fingertips. Even when they have free day, they only use their brains and their fingertips. I’m watching this myself as a parent and I’m going out of my mind. And when they are reading what are they reading? ‘Well I’m outdoors on my horse … and maybe I have a sword in my hand and I’m going to chop some heads off.’ They want that animal life that all our culture is not giving them. So fantasy for them now is wish fulfilment and a return to their animality. That’s why I think they love it so much.” (For the context of Robinson’s comments, go here and click on the link “episode 519”).
The interesting thing is that Robinson’s remarks describe not only how teenagers relate to their avatar and second lives, but also the condition of the hero of Avatar, Jake Sully. Sully’s bodily alienation is literal: he is a paraplegic. He comes from a technological-dominated society, the earth of the future. He finds peace by becoming an avatar, which allows him to enter into a green world where the natural world is all powerful.
This is the central paradox of Avatar. It celebrates the natural world, but the nature that is praised in the movie is completely artificial. Not only is this natural world completely created by technology (i.e. by Cameron and his technicians) but even inside the plot of the movie, it is only technology that allows Sully to return to nature. For this reason, it’s not quite right to read Avatar as an example of hippy nature worship or pantheism. Rather the movie is a commentary, possibly an inadvertent one, on the way we live now, the fact that so many people today look for nature by immersing themselves in the completely artificial world of virtual reality.