I was four the first time I saw a movie. My dad had a job teaching a summer session at UT Austin and in the evenings there was a program showing movies on the side of a building on campus. We sat in folding chairs on a lawn between two rows of manicured trees and watched the movies on a screen of mottled cement. We saw Fiddler on the Roof, Superman 2, and Star Wars. I have a few scattered memories of my early childhood, but that summer is, for me, the starting point from which I can draw a continuous line of memory to where I am today, writing this.
I fell asleep during Fiddler on the Roof, but I remember still the last wintry image of the man pulling his cart while the fiddler follows behind him. I could barely put together sentences and had no way to relate to the stories or places in the movie, but the starkness of the ending was like an immediate and sharp waking, and I can still remember it today. It’s a kind of sport to tell children lies: Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, religious fables, super hero stories, euphemisms about a stork to ameliorate the horror of describing the inner animal hibernating inside our loins.
Seeing that terrible and lonely march through an unforgiving part of the world during the cruelest season was a shock. It was like waking suddenly and finding myself underwater. There was an irreconcilable conflict between that image and the self-centered whimsy that had defined most of my young life. It was sobering, all of the idle daydreaming about playtime and candy had to immediately be put aside to reckon with something urgent and all encompassing.
James Cameron’s Avatar is about consciousness. It begins with medically administered waking from a six-year sleep, and ends with a metaphysical eye opening onto a purer kind of life among blue humanoids. From the outset, humans are shaded with moral compromises. Jake Sully is a paraplegic because military insurance coverage in the future refuses to treat those conditions even though the technology exists. Jake’s selection to replace his dead brother is, likewise, ruthlessly utilitarian.
He doesn’t have any social, linguistic, or cultural understanding of the species he is about to merge with, only his genes make him an ideal candidate. The human home world is described as dead. Humans now have to rummage through the galaxy in search of raw materials to keep their civilization on life support. The miners and mercenaries that protect them speak of the Na’vi in derogatory lingo, savages that can be moved from one tree to the other or else bulldozed. Which is to say there’s not much of a case being made for humankind.
The Na’vi are treated with reverence. Cameron hits all the nativist tropes that have been marveled over for centuries. They are naturally more athletic than the bumbling humans. They can link consciousness with any other living creature in their world through a dangling dreadlock cum sex toy. The can tame wild animals by virtue of this glowing French tickler. They sleep in hammocks, wear loin cloths, have shaved Mohawk hair, and live in one big tribal commune in the roots of a giant tree that sheds midichlorians.
It doesn’t come as a surprise when Jake eventually becomes alienated from the heartless greed of his own species and instigates a terrible battle to save the cherished locals. After vanquishing the guilty humans, he wins the great prize of being able to transform completely into a Na’vi. As the end credits scroll, the last image of Pandora is Jake riding on the back of a space pterodactyl heading directly into the glowing red sun, which I assume is setting because all of the imagery that preceded it was set in the daytime.
There’s something terrible in that image. A human who renounces his species and all of the achievements that have brought him to where he is in favor of the primal thrill of native life; the palpitating exhilarations of riding on the back of a big lizard bird, living naked, and eating in a squat. It claims as a spiritual victory what seems to me a tragic dismissal of all the advancements of a civilization that can travel through space, heal dead limbs, survive in alien atmospheres, make use of natural resources for the collective good, bond DNA, and create empathetic links between two creatures through computer code and electric pulses (presumably).
Avatar is a movie in opposition to evolution, which is simply stupid given how entirely reliant on technology is the entire experience. This is the inner heart of the most deluded bullshit, a romantic infatuation with the eradication of human growth, evolution, and achievement.
The humans greatest sin is greed and corrupt exploitation of nature for their own purposes. When the Na’vi kill a space panther for dinner, it’s necessity. When humans marshal vast amounts of technology to find materials to sustain themselves, it’s corruption. When humans enter the environment of other creatures they become amoral militants. When the Na’vi break into the habitat of those space pterodactyls, wrestle one to the ground, force it into submission, then mind rape it so that it will always identify with its master, Cameron finds some kind of rugged natural poetry.
Avatar is a parable about how to slough off consciousness. It’s an apologetic for all of the awful and unanswerable moral dilemmas that conscious beings face in the world. It’s a romantic leap backwards into a time of unknowing with only amusement park athletics to compensate.
The great leap backwards is inevitable, the foreknowledge of that looming precipice of our own dissolution is what defines us. The struggle to justify one’s life in the face of that unavoidable reunion with the lower molecules of the galaxy is the edge beyond which we might discover who, and why, we are. I’d rather have that struggle than the animal existence Cameron’s imagined for us in the future. Avatar’s idea of waking is to turn away from those defining struggles with loneliness and purpose for the sake of an orientalist dream. In other words, to go back to sleep. Would that Cameron thought more of what it is he’ll have to leave behind once he goes.