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Rediscovering the Great British Republican Tradition


For a Civic and Constitutional Republic



Issue No 57 Friday 12 March 2010




This week 


·        Avatar: Hobbesian Nightmare Future Or Resonant Creation Myth


News Stories

Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.




  • Avatar: Hobbesian Nightmare Future Or Resonant Creation Myth?

Instruction on the Bible has been phased out in British schools for the official reason that no one believes it anymore. However on this basis it is difficult to understand why Shakespeare is still taught. The point is that it is not whether you believe myths and stories that counts but whether you like them. No one presumably believes the story of James Cameron’s Avatar blockbuster but judging by the number who have seen the film they certainly like it.

Or do they just like the screen-popping special effects? This is what a lot of people think and it is true that they are good enough in themselves to bring people into a cinema almost regardless of the story that underpins them. But the film is so popular, so astonishingly successful that maybe, just maybe, there is something in the story that works almost as well as the technical achievements. If this is so, then it cannot just mean that the story succeeds on a trite level. That wouldn’t account for the sheer scale of the public interest. There has to be something more.

But before considering the story line, there is something that makes Avatar different from other films until now and it comes naturally from the new 3D technique - it is quite possible that 3D will draw people back to communal cinema going. For the first time since the arrival of television in people’s homes the cinema experience can be truly and spectacularly different. A flat screen is a flat screen however big or however high definition. 3D may be the way that cinema can reinvent itself and secure its future for no home technology is ever going to match the 3D cinema experience. If “communal” is good then 3D is good too. What is more, everybody in the theatre having to wear the same snazzy glasses is a great equaliser. And how community reinforcing is that!

I am indebted to Slavoj Zizek in the New Statesman for this summary of the plot. “James Cameron's Avatar tells the story of a disabled ex-marine, sent from earth to infiltrate a race of blue-skinned aboriginal people on a distant planet and persuade them to let his employer mine their homeland for natural resources. Through a complex biological manipulation, the hero's mind gains control of his "avatar", in the body of a young aborigine. These aborigines are deeply spiritual and live in harmony with nature (they can plug a cable that sticks out of their body into horses and trees to communicate with them). Predictably, the marine falls in love with a beautiful aboriginal princess and joins the aborigines in battle, helping them to throw out the human invaders and saving their planet. At the film's end, the hero transposes his soul from his damaged human body to his aboriginal avatar, thus becoming one of them”. This summary misses an important element but let that wait a moment.

Attention has inevitably focused on the technical aspects of the film rather than the story - and also on the budget of $300million. With regard to the latter in these times of America-knocking (most of it thoroughly deserved) let us give due acknowledgement to the fact that no other country in the world would risk that amount of money on a dicey creative artistic venture. It could have backfired and there are plenty of examples of that in the past; but the experience of this seeing this film carries with it the sense that it was driven. It was a driven by a passion to outperform and perfect and invent. Passion was combined with megamoney to realise something remarkable on screen but to that there had to be a further ingredient – creative talent. And here we are not just talking about the talent of a few but of a few hundred all working together with a unified aim. To use an overworked word that is fully justified here: the effect is awesome.

While many critics have sneered, none has doubted for a second the immense creative talent and craftsmanship involved in this project. It is sometimes assumed that we live in an age being taken over by machines and technology. This is a misguided view for there is craftsmanship everywhere – as much as ever there was – and Avatar is a strong reminder of this truth. We can marvel at the delicacy and convincing realisation of the floating plants/seeds that move before our eyes like pulsing jellyfish or the texture of the blue skin of the Na’vi. But those things are not made to order, they have to be invented. And so there are thousands of details that someone has had to conjure up and get right. The planet where the action takes place is densely covered with exotic plants and peopled with unimaginable beasts. It is as if an entire Darwinian evolution has happened. Except, here instead of taking millions of years it takes millions of bucks - as well as the hundreds of brilliant inventive minds.

That said what of the story? Is there anything to it? Does it have a racist theme as has been claimed? Does is just appeal to the lowest common denominator? Or is it just there as something to hang the technological and visual achievement on? The story is certainly simple. But simple does not have to mean unsubtle. It certainly references some familiar contemporary themes such as the dangers of defying nature and threatening non-western ways of life. But, in truth, these are incidental to the main thrust.

The story is not so much simple as pared down and in this it is like many pervasive myths. It operates in a context that is significant as much for what is absent as for what is present. A prime example of absence is that of any civilised values or laws. The planet invaders, whom we might take to be representatives of some earth bound superstate, are driven single-mindedly by the desire to extract one mineral from the planet and in this aim are not governed by the slightest sense of any moral code. Things are better on the planet but, in spite of its beauty and the beauty of the Na’vi themselves, they live under constant threat from outlandish monsters and have no civilisation, no writing, hardly any clothes, no buildings and live with what can be taken to be a Stone Age technology. Some commentators have said they live in harmony with nature but in reality that harmony is only a stunning visual harmony.

The elemental moral context evokes more than anything a pre-civilisation Hobbesian world where the dog-eat-dog principle is the primary one. But we assume the action takes place in the future. And it is a future in which the “civilisation” on our planet had gone downhill pretty rapidly at some point and it seems that there had occurred a global triumph of the political philosophy of American Neocons. But that is the point. We assume the action takes place in the future. But does it? We are never advised of any date for the action. The machinery of the invaders does not look futuristic in any way we can recognise. In fact it all looks rather clapped out, and only still functioning by virtue of its rugged well-tried technology. It has no grace.

This movie has such widespread appeal it cannot be only because of its surface. Its success must be underpinned also by something in the story it tells. To understand what that something is you have to see how it touches something deeper than a mere recounting of some tale of future events could ever do. To understand why the film resonates so strongly you have to see that it evokes an ancient pre-human world much more powerfully that a futuristic one. The absence of law and the crudity of the technology is telling us this and is making the tale operate on our sense of culturally informed memory of the past rather than on an invented projection of the future. In talking of culturally informed memory we are talking myth of course. This movie works on us as cultural myth not sci-fi. The technical and artistic flamboyance makes the myth more than just a story. It turns myth into experience. That is the spell that Avatar casts over us.

The justification for this reading of the film is made most explicit in the most surprising, and at first unconvincing, turn of events when towards the end the monsters of the planet side with the Na’vi and attack and defeat the invaders. Until that time they had been resolute foes. The result is a clash of forces quite beyond the influence of the Na’vi. Now before the setting down of the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve most creation myths involved a story of similar clashes between Supergods. The Greek myths, for instance, have Titans battling with Monsters, Cyclops and Giants. These all get largely destroyed leaving humans to pick up the story but a record of the cataclysms lives on in the state of the world forever. This is the purpose of creation myths – to explain why things are as they are today.

The film’s producers give a pointer towards this interpretation in the name chosen for the planet – “Pandora”. The reference to the Greek creation myth could hardly be more explicit. The title of the film gives a further even stronger clue, for an “avatar” is never a human being transformed to enter a different world, as the straightforward sci-fi reading requires, it is always a god being transformed to enter the world of humans. The word comes from Hindu but in the general sense, Jesus is an example of an avatar for an incarnation of any god is an avatar. Another Greek example, closer to the story of the movie, is that of Prometheus who was a Titan but sided with the humans (giving them fire which had previously belonged to the gods) and then survived whilst his fellow Titans were eradicated in intergod rivalry. And in another reference to Greek myth, where the precursors to humans were human like but made of metal, the Na’vi are metallic blue.

It may be pushing the point a little far but we may be at a stage when people are in need of a renewed creation myth. All we have at the moment is a choice between the morally profound but practically unworkable Adam and Eve story and the ethically sterile Darwinian account. Perhaps part of the spectacular appeal of Avatar lies in its ability to start to fill this void. Its account of creation may not make any more sense to us than Adam and Eve or Neo-Darwinism, but it has a great advantage – you can see it happening, made real, before your eyes. Believing is seeing.

At the end of the film no enlightened consensus emerges and so there is no real conclusion. The Na'vi return to stasis while the white invaders return to their own hell far away. Back in the real world there is naturally talk of a sequel and if it happens it will surely focus on the Prometheus-derived central character and the pact the Na’vi have formed with him. In any mythology, the creation myth is by definition only the start of things.



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