The Myth of Redemptive Violence: James Cameron's Avatar

There are occasions when everyday life takes over my patterns of thought when it comes to blog entries. This is one of those times. There is very little of India in this entry, but it's there, if only in the background. This entry may go beyond the purview of this particular blog, but hey, it's still a thought, and I appreciate your readership. :) Now, read on!

For those of you who know me, you know I like movies. For those of you who don't know me, well, I like movies. So much so that I regret that my undergraduate college didn't have a film studies degree and that I learned too late that I could minor in film studies at Baylor during my graduate degree. I have been fortunate, however, to have some brief study in film over the course of my years, and consider myself to have pretty good taste.

I was sad, however, a few weeks ago when Avatar won a Golden Globe for best picture-drama. The reason? Now I'd have to see it. I make a point of seeing the best picture winners at the very least. Last year, I had the special privilege of seeing Slumdog Millionaire when it was in special review screenings held by Fox Searchlight (one of the reasons I've so glad I live close to Austin). Ask me about it sometime; it's one of my favorite stories to tell. But I digress--I make an effort to see the front runners, and Avatar winning the Golden Globe puts it in the front-runner spot. (This policy also means that I need to see The Hangover and The Hurt Locker, too).

Anyway, I tell you all this for a specific reason: to get my prejudice about the movie out there. I saw it tonight out of obligation to my own standard of keeping up on what's being put out in the world of film, and not out of any actual desire to see the film. Frankly, it looked like a ridiculous action film with a rehashed plot. And I warn you, this post will contain spoilers about Avatar, and if you don't want those, well, wait until my next entry for reading material, then.

I will say this: Avatar is a beautifully done movie. Far from a masterpiece--it plays to the 3D aspect far too much, and will have trouble functioning as 2D on a DVD--but the CG effects are fantastic and there were several points when I was amazed by the detail they put into it. Now, if they'd taken that same fine toothed comb to the script, we might not be having this discussion...

The plot of Avatar can be summed up in a simple statement: "War bad; Nature good." or "Imperialism/Corporatism bad; Communing with 'Mother Earth' good." Essentially, it's Pocahontas, but with blue people on an alien planet 5 years from Earth. Got a basic idea of the plot? Good, because now I'm going to deconstruct it, so to speak [for those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Pocahontas, here's a quick summary].

I was following along with the quite neatly predictable plot, recognizing the twists before they came (like ya do), when a move on the part of the Na'vi--aka, the Natives, who were quite clearly supposed to resemble a combination between Native Americans and African, right down to the long black hair, braids and bone structure--took me by surprise because it didn't seem to fit with the philosophy of the movie as it had been set up.

Previously in the film, we're shown that the Na'vi, through their connection with Mother Earth, respect the balance in life. For each animal they kill, they thank it and say a kind of 'death rite' over its body. They develop communal relationships with the animals around them, and talk of not taking more than they need, giving back to the earth, and essentially living in the most-environmentally friendly, green hippie way possible. Groovy. So, while many of these people are hunters (and indeed, hunter is pretty much the highest ranking you could get in the tribe), they seem essentially nonviolent in that they rarely kill each other or humans.

Or so it seems. In contrast to the brash and violent Marine-gone-corporate-stooge, the Na'vi seem positively peaceful, until you think back and remember that our main female was going to kill off our main male character until Ewya--Mother Earth--gave her a sign not to. The Na'vi are violent in their own ways, which is why the final battle seems so correct and yet so disturbing.

When it is revealed that the corporation plans to go through with destroying the Na'vi's home, killing men, women and children in an act of wanton destruction, the argument is made (by our good white guys who made friends with the natives): "They're people, too! Don't you see that?" Of course, the Marine and corporate leader, blinded by their prejudice, see them as nothing more than roaches, an infestation keeping them from getting to what they want--a mineral called (and I swear I am not making this up) "unobtainium." (Seriously, Jim? You're taking the metaphor a bit too literally there. Ugh.).

Anyway, up until this point, I'm with them--yeah, the Na'vi are people! I can buy this. I love the idea that they have gotten to know these people who are so utterly foreign to begin with, and have now become friends with them. It is, indeed, what we are called to do--love our neighbor by getting to know them, a repeated theme on this blog. So when Sigourney Weaver's character makes the argument to protect the Na'vi solely on the basis that they are humans with something fantastic to contribute to our understanding of how life works, I'm with her. I cheered silently and went, "Yeah! Down with Imperialism!"

However, the big action-y battle scene at the end undermines that entire rhetoric. When the bad guy Marine destroys Hometree, as they call it, the Na'vi get mad--as anyone would--and our hero, good ol' Whiteboy Marine, comes in to save the day, to rescue the natives in a glorious bloody battle.

As the animals went up against the big bad machines, and the natives took down men with guns with simple bows and arrows (that somehow doubled in strength in the course of a day...hmm), I couldn't help but feel a sense of unease.

What about these nameless marines? Sure, they're an invading force. Sure, they destroyed Hometree. But is balance really going to be restored by destroying so many lives? From the appearance of the movie, no death rites are said over the fallen Marines, or if they are, we're not privy to such information. These marines, who also have families, who are also sons and daughters, who may have sons and daughters of their own, who are just like the Na'vi in so many ways, are allowed to become the entirely abstracted enemy, just as the Na'vi were to them.

It's a philosophy of redemptive violence that fails under closer examination. While it's viscerally exciting to see the Na'vi eliminate the invading force from their home, it's a hollow victory: thousands upon thousands of lives are destroyed, probably unnecessarily so. Violence is still the answer to violence, and regardless of what good ol' Jim Cameron may wish us to believe in the end, I can't help but think that those Marines who died, who become threatened prisoners of war, who were forced off of Pandora, are also people.

Are their lives somehow forfeit because the Na'vi are somehow more pure? Because they are a more primitive people? Because they hunt with bow and arrow instead of gun and bullet? That's a dangerous argument to make because it gives the Na'vi an excuse for their actions, it gives them the excuse to use violence, as though the lives of those others that they are fighting are somehow worthless. It allows them to make the same mistake the Marine and Greedy Americans made: thinking of the other person as merely an object, a force to be stopped, and not a member of a community, not a functioning being with eyes, ears, hands and feet not all that unlike one's own.

It reverses the actions for peace, and knocks everything out of balance. The Marines who died were simply obeying orders, and in the end, a message that was meant to erase national (read: planetary) lines and boundaries simply redraws them because rather than living peaceably with the white man, the Na'vi remove them from their land entirely, with the exception of a few nice ones. In reality, no one really works with each other, and there's no great bridge between cultures that gets built. The Na'vi stay in Pandora, and the Americans (and it's very specifically all white, or white-looking Americans in the film, at least on the bad guy side, quite purposefully) go back to the "no longer green" Earth.

So, in attempting to maintain their culture and balance, the Na'vi evidently entirely forget it, and forget that the Marines are people too, and we get a hollow, surface level victory that doesn't stand up to closer scrutiny.

Recognizing that people are people also requires recognizing that the ones you're fighting against are people too, and violence solves nothing, and cannot be redemptive because it fails to recognize the enemy as human, something most films have yet to grasp.

Thanks for reading. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.