We're Not in Kansas Any More

Why "Avatar" fails as environmentalist propaganda

Most conservative reviewers of James Cameron’s new film “Avatar” have been strongly negative, to the point of being dismissive. Fairly typical of the sort is the normally very reasonable John Podhoretz, who sums up the story as follows:

An American soldier named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent to make friends with the blue people. To effect this, scientists download his consciousness into a 10-foot-tall blue body. Jake discovers that the natives are wonderful in every possible way. They are so green it's too bad their skin has to be blue. They're hunters and they kill animals, but after they do so, they cry and say it's sad. Which only demonstrates their superiority. Plus they have (I'm not kidding) fiber-optic cables coming out of their patooties that allow them to plug into animals and control them. Now, that just seems wrong - I mean, why should they get to control the pterodactyls? Why don't the pterodactyls control them? This kind of biped-centrism is just another form of imperialist racism, in my opinion.

For the record, Podhoretz is wrong about the fiber-optic cables, which are located on the blue people’s heads, not their patooties. Myself, I thought the movie was quite entertaining. Yeah, there’s a new-agey ecological message to it (which I’ll get back to shortly) but from where I sat the preachiness that many other conservative reviewers panned the film for was bearable. Or maybe I was just distracted by the 3-D special effects, which were really cool.

To the extent that Cameron intended to produce a piece of environmentalist propaganda, my suspicion is that Avatar will eventually fail, though for different reasons than those that Podhoretz and the others focus on. As the evil Col. Quaritch helpfully points out to his mercenaries early in the film: “You are not in Kansas any more. You are on Pandora.” On Pandora pretty much all the larger life forms, from the wonderful 10-foot-tall blue-skinned Na’vi to the animals and even the trees, can communicate through the biological equivalent of USB ports. On Earth we don’t come equipped with USB ports coming out of our heads, or our patooties for that matter. We cannot plug into and communicate with the birds and trees, much less control them.

That makes life on Cameron’s imaginary Pandora dramatically different from that on Earth, and not just in terms of size and coloring. Pandora’s ecosystem has an intelligence and even a will of its own – a will that it exerts at the end after Sully, who goes quite thoroughly native, pleads with the trees for help in defending the planet from Quaritch’s forces. But that only works because Sully is able to plug into an especially influential tree.

We don’t have anything quite like that here, which will no doubt occur to pretty much every viewer once the dazzling special effects wear off. In straining to imagine a world where nature worship makes sense, Cameron has illustrated why it makes little sense here on planet Earth.