Archive for January, 2010


I saw Avatar a few days ago and I want to write a few comments about it while it is relatively fresh.

The basic plot of the movie is that in 2150 a mining company from Earth is exploiting the natural resources of a planet called Pandora, which has an indigenous population called the Na’vi. Cameron I think makes more than a token effort to understand and portray the worldview of the Na’vi (i.e. ‘indigenous’ (North American) worldviews in general),  including the significance and meaningfulness of ceremonies, a holistic view of relations with other animals (i.e. the idea of all our relations), etc.  I suppose what I mean is that Cameron seems to have at least tried (and I don’t know if he succeeds) to show how ways of being typically associated with ‘primitiveness’ are actually commensurate with and not inferior to the way of being that has developed out of Western-Europe (capitalism, separation of human and nature, ‘rationality’, ‘modernism’, etc.).

My first criticism is an obvious one, which is to ask why the Na’vi in the end need a white foreigner to lead them to victory. This white man is somehow able, in the space of three months, to absorb all of the Na’vi’s cultural values and knowledge, and to have a special connection with their planet/deity which allows him to call it to their aid where the spiritual leader of the Na’vi failed.

Also suspect I think is the way that Cameron explains the Na’vi’s special connection with their planet and the other lifeforms on it. The Na’vi have can make literal, physical, synaptic connections with other beings via some sort of nerve endings mixed in with their hair. The human scientists discover that not only can this direct synaptic connection be made between the Na’vi and other beings, but in fact a giant network of synapse-like fibres covers the planet, making it essentially a giant brain–in other words the planet it self is literally conscious. As cool as this is, my issue is that Cameron makes the deep mental/spiritual connection between Pandorians empirically verifiable in a way that gives it credence with the human scientists, and also, importantly, with the human audience in the movie theatre. I suppose my concern is that the mental/spiritual connection would be less believable or palatable to ‘movie audiences’ if it weren’t made explicitly empirically verifiable. While I do like things to be empirically verifiable, or at least I find them easier to believe if they are, I don’t believe that empiricism is necessarily the be all and end all. In terms of the Na’vi, I don’t believe that their connection with other Pandorans and Pandora itself would be any less significant or any less ‘real’ if it was not as empirically verifiable as Cameron makes it in the film. And, since the film is a thinly veiled parable for the conquest and misunderstanding (or non-understanding) of Native Americans by Europeans, my concern is that by making the spirituality of the Na’vi so empirically verifiable it undermines any possibility that the film would help viewers to understand Indigenous spirituality. From my limited experience with and understanding of indigenous ‘spirituality’, its believers/followers/practitioners believe (or, indeed, know) that their connections to other beings and forces (including causal connections, e.g. influencing weather through ceremonies) are very much ‘real’, just as the Na’vi know this, but, unlike with the Na’vi, their connections cannot be simplified or distilled into a narrow empirical western-scientific explanation of the world and of events.