Avatar: Cameron's Contradictions Loom Large

Filmmaker James Cameron is famous for blockbusters like Titanic and The Terminator. His latest movie, Avatar, just opened after a massive media blitz during which Cameron himself hit the talk show circuit, along with his on-screen stars. Since the high-tech 3-D film may have cost $300 million to make, Cameron is highly motivated to promote the film so as to recover the costs and make a profit. And herein lies the contradiction between the film's story and the filmmaker's own life.

The storyline is hard-left, anti-imperialist propaganda. In the 22nd century, humans come to the planet Pandora to mine a precious metal called unobtanium. Already the simplistic naming of the planet and the metal should tip the viewer off about the shallow thinking involved in the script. The humans work for a greedy corporation protected by mercenary troops. They are menaced by the primitive indigenous population, who live in a beautiful rainforest with sentient trees! The tall, blue-skinned natives are humanoid (with feline features) to invoke sympathy, but they are also meant to be alien enough to create "us" and "them" categories. The story then evolves so that the audience is led to favor "them" over "us." It's the usual nonsense about the supposed moral superiority of the "noble savage" over the crass "dead hand" of civilization.

The story uses another cliché device to shift the viewer's allegiance. A Marine veteran who has lost the use of his legs in combat signs up with the mercenaries. He is recruited to remotely "pilot" an Avatar, a synthetic human-native hybrid that can infiltrate the indigenous society. In other words, he joins "them" and eventually goes native himself. The crippled victim of civilization learns to live again in the wild as a whole person, and finds love in the arms of the local chief's daughter. How trite can it get?

Cameron described the movie's stark message at the London premier on Dec. 10: "There's a sense of entitlement -- 'We're here, we're big, we've got the guns, we've got the technology, we've got the brains, we therefore are entitled to every damn thing on this planet.'" He then asserted, "That's not how it works, and we're going to find out the hard way if we don't wise up and start seeking a life that's in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth."

Yet that is exactly how it has worked for Cameron himself. The focus of the promotional tour has been the new technology used in the film. Cameron says he wrote the story fifteen years ago but had to wait for new filmmaking methods to be invented before he could bring it to the screen. The new technology combines digital modeling, motion capture, CGI, IMAX, and cutting-edge 3-D presentation. It is not the result of research conducted by indigenous people riding animals and shooting arrows. It is the product of the advanced society that Cameron trashes in the movie.

And while Cameron is clearly fascinated with his high-tech toys and the creative process, he also wants to make a profit, just like the "evil" corporation on Pandora. The capitalists who invested in his project and made it possible want a return, as does he. In a Dec. 17 interview on the G4TV network's "Attack of the Show" -- a program devoted to the intersection of pop culture and technology -- Cameron showed great pride in having grossed $1.8 billion for Titanic.

In his study Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind, sociologist Lewis Feuer argues, "When civilization has moved forward in the past, it has invariably been propelled by a strong imperialist movement," citing Greece, Rome, the Italian Renaissance, and the rise of Western Europe, with the British Empire and now America in the vanguard. Feuer notes that John Locke, who is best known as a philosopher of constitutional law and individual rights, was "a practicing imperialist" as secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations and to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas. And it was after publishing "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" and "The Two Treatises of Government" that Locke, serving as a Commissioner on the Board of Trade, drew up plans to develop the colony of Virginia.

Australian historian David Day, in his book Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others, finds that "supplanting societies continue to develop and buttress their claims of moral proprietorship. They do so when they till the soil or otherwise develop the resources of the territory in ways said to be superior to those of the original occupants." In Avatar, the natives are still in the hunter-gatherer stage, where life is impoverished, brutal, and short. They have no use for the unobtanium that the interstellar human civilization is mining for use -- not just light-years away, but millennia.

Native American Indians found it beneficial to cooperate with the European settlers. Irish drama critic turned historian Fintan O'Toole noted in his biography White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America that "[f]or many Indians it was almost unbelievable that relatively worthless furs could be traded for extraordinary metal goods. 'The English have no sense,' as one remarked, 'they gave us twenty knives like this for one beaver skin.'" The natives had little use for beavers, but they were suddenly able to turn them into valuable trading goods to obtain items well beyond their ability to manufacture. O'Toole recounts how tea and coffee, textiles, iron pots, sugar, and spices all became staples of a rising standard of living. The tragedy of the Native Americans is that they were not fully assimilated into modern society, but they were relegated to reservations in the name of sustaining cultural values. The result has been poverty and degradation for those who have remained isolated from "imperialist" society, except for the hosting of gambling casinos.

Cameron's ideology is a half-baked version of the anti-imperialism of Rosa Luxemburg, who saw western militarism as a tool for converting natives into a new working class subject to the discipline of modernity. In similar socialist fashion, Cameron depicts romantic images of humanoid wave attacks by colorful natives riding exotic beasts overwhelming human soldiers armed with gunships, armor, and automatic weapons. It's reminiscent of Soviet propaganda posters. Such battle scenes are pure nonsense. If primitive warriors, no matter how brave, could not stand against Western (or Western-trained) soldiers in centuries past, their chances are not going to be better in future centuries against even more potent weapons.

Cameron's native Canada is one of Day's supplanting societies, just like the United States and Australia. Cameron is in every way the product of what his ideology condemns. He has no desire to surrender his mansions and jet-setting parties to live in a rainforest with half-clad tribesmen. Indeed, at age 55, he would probably be dead by now in such an environment. And as he markets Avatar around the world, ticket sales will track income, and his profits will come from those nations and enclaves that are the legacy of imperialism. So between "us" and "them," Cameron has done in his real life what any sane person would do: He has chosen "us."

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues.
Filmmaker James Cameron is famous for blockbusters like Titanic and The Terminator. His latest movie, Avatar, just opened after a massive media blitz during which Cameron himself hit the talk show circuit, along with his on-screen stars. Since the high-tech 3-D film may have cost $300 million to make, Cameron is highly motivated to promote the film so as to recover the costs and make a profit. And herein lies the contradiction between the film's story and the filmmaker's own life.

The storyline is hard-left, anti-imperialist propaganda. In the 22nd century, humans come to the planet Pandora to mine a precious metal called unobtanium. Already the simplistic naming of the planet and the metal should tip the viewer off about the shallow thinking involved in the script. The humans work for a greedy corporation protected by mercenary troops. They are menaced by the primitive indigenous population, who live in a beautiful rainforest with sentient trees! The tall, blue-skinned natives are humanoid (with feline features) to invoke sympathy, but they are also meant to be alien enough to create "us" and "them" categories. The story then evolves so that the audience is led to favor "them" over "us." It's the usual nonsense about the supposed moral superiority of the "noble savage" over the crass "dead hand" of civilization.

The story uses another cliché device to shift the viewer's allegiance. A Marine veteran who has lost the use of his legs in combat signs up with the mercenaries. He is recruited to remotely "pilot" an Avatar, a synthetic human-native hybrid that can infiltrate the indigenous society. In other words, he joins "them" and eventually goes native himself. The crippled victim of civilization learns to live again in the wild as a whole person, and finds love in the arms of the local chief's daughter. How trite can it get?

Cameron described the movie's stark message at the London premier on Dec. 10: "There's a sense of entitlement -- 'We're here, we're big, we've got the guns, we've got the technology, we've got the brains, we therefore are entitled to every damn thing on this planet.'" He then asserted, "That's not how it works, and we're going to find out the hard way if we don't wise up and start seeking a life that's in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth."

Yet that is exactly how it has worked for Cameron himself. The focus of the promotional tour has been the new technology used in the film. Cameron says he wrote the story fifteen years ago but had to wait for new filmmaking methods to be invented before he could bring it to the screen. The new technology combines digital modeling, motion capture, CGI, IMAX, and cutting-edge 3-D presentation. It is not the result of research conducted by indigenous people riding animals and shooting arrows. It is the product of the advanced society that Cameron trashes in the movie.

And while Cameron is clearly fascinated with his high-tech toys and the creative process, he also wants to make a profit, just like the "evil" corporation on Pandora. The capitalists who invested in his project and made it possible want a return, as does he. In a Dec. 17 interview on the G4TV network's "Attack of the Show" -- a program devoted to the intersection of pop culture and technology -- Cameron showed great pride in having grossed $1.8 billion for Titanic.

In his study Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind, sociologist Lewis Feuer argues, "When civilization has moved forward in the past, it has invariably been propelled by a strong imperialist movement," citing Greece, Rome, the Italian Renaissance, and the rise of Western Europe, with the British Empire and now America in the vanguard. Feuer notes that John Locke, who is best known as a philosopher of constitutional law and individual rights, was "a practicing imperialist" as secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations and to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas. And it was after publishing "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" and "The Two Treatises of Government" that Locke, serving as a Commissioner on the Board of Trade, drew up plans to develop the colony of Virginia.

Australian historian David Day, in his book Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others, finds that "supplanting societies continue to develop and buttress their claims of moral proprietorship. They do so when they till the soil or otherwise develop the resources of the territory in ways said to be superior to those of the original occupants." In Avatar, the natives are still in the hunter-gatherer stage, where life is impoverished, brutal, and short. They have no use for the unobtanium that the interstellar human civilization is mining for use -- not just light-years away, but millennia.

Native American Indians found it beneficial to cooperate with the European settlers. Irish drama critic turned historian Fintan O'Toole noted in his biography White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America that "[f]or many Indians it was almost unbelievable that relatively worthless furs could be traded for extraordinary metal goods. 'The English have no sense,' as one remarked, 'they gave us twenty knives like this for one beaver skin.'" The natives had little use for beavers, but they were suddenly able to turn them into valuable trading goods to obtain items well beyond their ability to manufacture. O'Toole recounts how tea and coffee, textiles, iron pots, sugar, and spices all became staples of a rising standard of living. The tragedy of the Native Americans is that they were not fully assimilated into modern society, but they were relegated to reservations in the name of sustaining cultural values. The result has been poverty and degradation for those who have remained isolated from "imperialist" society, except for the hosting of gambling casinos.

Cameron's ideology is a half-baked version of the anti-imperialism of Rosa Luxemburg, who saw western militarism as a tool for converting natives into a new working class subject to the discipline of modernity. In similar socialist fashion, Cameron depicts romantic images of humanoid wave attacks by colorful natives riding exotic beasts overwhelming human soldiers armed with gunships, armor, and automatic weapons. It's reminiscent of Soviet propaganda posters. Such battle scenes are pure nonsense. If primitive warriors, no matter how brave, could not stand against Western (or Western-trained) soldiers in centuries past, their chances are not going to be better in future centuries against even more potent weapons.

Cameron's native Canada is one of Day's supplanting societies, just like the United States and Australia. Cameron is in every way the product of what his ideology condemns. He has no desire to surrender his mansions and jet-setting parties to live in a rainforest with half-clad tribesmen. Indeed, at age 55, he would probably be dead by now in such an environment. And as he markets Avatar around the world, ticket sales will track income, and his profits will come from those nations and enclaves that are the legacy of imperialism. So between "us" and "them," Cameron has done in his real life what any sane person would do: He has chosen "us."

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues.

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