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What Avatar Got Right

January 10, 2016


Charlie Jane’s Io9 post reminds me how annoying it is to defend a Hollywood blockbuster by a director who can’t pass the Bechdel test. But the post’s comments trouble me. So many miss how much real biology the film shows—and what it says about saving the one real world we’ve got.

Avatar is the only film I know that shows an ecosystem in its full dynamics; the way it really works. There is divergent evolution—the six-legged creatures with the common body plan. Even the Hollywood humanoids have their “missing link,” the prolemuris with its half fused arms. May seem hokey—but evolution actually does work that way, more often than you think. Ever looked at a peacock spider, or maybe a nudibranch? Did you know we’re cousins? Google-image nudibranchs, then imagine laughing if a film depicted humans evolving from a world of that.

Avatar’s ecosystem actually works like our real one: All the life forms compete, yet collaborate. Animals fight to the death by day, then sleep together in a heap by night. Plants savagely compete for the light—while below ground, their roots share miles of fungal internet. The Pandora network interconnecting all the plants; something like that really exists, called mycorrhizae.

And above all, Who is going to save the planet? If not someone like Jake, then who?

Suppose you rewrote the film where Neytiri or Tsutey saves their own world. How would they go about it?

Of course, Neytiri could do it. But to do so, she’d have to learn as much about the Western oppressor as Jake does about the Navi, either the weapons or the Western legal system and media. In real life, that’s how people get “saved.” Either a Western visitor adopts the local ways (Lawrence of Arabia, or Gertrude Bell) or an oppressed leader learns Western ways. Gandhi got a British education, and his nonviolence used the Western media, skillfully and deliberately. In Avatar, even Neytiri has to do that at the end, by saving Jake’s original body. In real life, the “native” leaders who do that become a bit Western; they can never completely go back.

In real life, “uncontacted peoples” can barely survive contact, lest most of them die of our diseases. That’s why our laws—Western style laws and governments—protect them from us. The Nicobarese are off limits because the Indian government says so. Fifty or so groups in South America are protected the same; not perfectly, but we’re trying. In effect, we “protect” them the same way we protect wild animals in game preserves.

What alternative do you suggest?

After I watched Avatar, I turned to the guy next to me who’d seen it six times. I asked if he knew there were parts of Brasil that looked like Pandora. He said, “I’ve never been outside Ohio. Have you?”

Isn’t all of Earth one last game preserve—and we are the Uncontacted? What Jake or Neytiri will save us? Look in the mirror, Western savior.

One Comment
  1. January 11, 2016 10:21 am

    I’d love to see what James Cameron could do with your books, Joan. Now there’s a franchise waiting to happen.

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