As I look forward to watching the new Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens”, which is steadily breaking records set by James Cameron’s “Avatar”, I find myself thinking back to the Nav’i and their moon, Pandora.
The physical mechanics of film reflect a limitation inherent to human vision. Whatever the nature of the world “out there”, snapshots recorded on our two-dimensional retina can only simulate three dimensions. Accordingly, the world of film keeps trying to conjure up verisimilitude and depth. “Avatar” advanced that effort by splicing recorded motions of living beings into its CGI characters. Nonetheless it wasn’t special effects that made a disabled marine and his transformation memorable for me.
The villains in “Avatar” are the heartless corporations of Earth, controlled by people who have no concern for the effects of their behavior on others and who do not have the personal depth to look around and be touched by something new and wondrous. These corporate magnates have been fashioned in the same forge as John Milton’s Satan. Actually, they are more fallen from Grace than Satan, because Satan, in “Paradise Lost”, paused for a moment and felt for that instant the beauty and wonder of the paradise he then persisted in trying to annihilate. On Pandora, occupying forces just load up their gun ships and go out to collect their unearned cash crop, indifferent to the lives and way of life they thereby destroy. Such robber barons clearly resonate with today’s audiences, many of whom have lost their homes and jobs and have watched family members fall sick because corporations gambled away their savings and withheld simple medical services.
(In this movie, as in our own world, the forces of evil aren’t personal as much as a momentum from which caring and creativity has been excised. “Avatar” portrays how there are always individuals who get swept up in this path of least resistance as though it could offer a fulfilling way of life.)
“Avatar” asks the question, “What would happen if humanity was contacted by a superior race of beings?” However those superior beings don’t possess the kind of technology that would have allowed them to travel to Earth.
This is a retelling of the invasion of the Americas in which technologically superior Europeans dispossessed the more well-grounded Native Americans whom they found already living here.
“Avatar” is also about a “flying caterpillar”, which is meaningful to me because it wonderfully illustrates the title of my memoir (“The Flying Caterpillar”, ABQ Press, 2013). The protagonist of “Avatar” is a paraplegic marine, paralyzed from the waist down, who gets to fly like a butterfly in the body of a Nav’i native. He undergoes a kind of reincarnation, born like an infant into a new body from which he gradually learns to value the Nav’i way of life. But he is obliged to work through some old karmic stuff—his own and society’s–before he can really benefit from this opportunity.
The main character in this film is physically a caterpillar when he arrives on Pandora (because, without his wheel chair, he can only crawl, and because his guiding aspiration is to follow orders and garner the short-sighted rewards that are offered within the chain of command). One of the things that he is offered is an operation, once he returns stateside, which could reverse his paraplegia and allow him to walk again. This is all he needs in order to go forth on this mysterious planet and infiltrate the local population in a body that looks like that of a native, which allows him to find out where they’ve stashed their cash crop. In this he is very much like many of us, who don’t feel that we are in a position to worry too much about the effect of the work we are doing on others and on our planet. I once spent three years of my working life helping to develop an integrated computer system for a paper company, and later learned that it was never implemented. Since the company paid me, I didn’t care that much if the system was operational, nor, for that matter, if the company clear-cut hundred year old trees.
(“Livelihood”, the fifth step in the Noble Eightfold Path (after “Vision”, “Intention”, “Speech” and “Action” and before “Effort”, “Concentration” and “Mindfulness”) meant little to me. The affect upon others of how I spent my days scarcely ever crossed my mind.)
At the beginning of “Avatar”, the main character is very much like I was working in Montreal on this computer system. “Yes, Sir, I’m your man,” he responds without hesitation, when he is told to spy on the native population. By the end, he has been touched by the people whose lives are about to be destroyed, in large part on the basis of the Intel that his infiltration has provided, and he is transformed into a freedom fighter who stands side-by-side with the Nav’i. It’s the kind of story we love to watch for a few hours, in order to get away from the limitations we experience in our own lives. It probably doesn’t occur to us to then go home and ask who we most resemble among the people depicted in the movie. Are we living like the native population, wonderfully integrated and respectful of the world into which we have been born? Are we more like the disabled marine, who arrives on a new planet and is willing to destroy a culture he doesn’t understand, provided it helps him to walk again? Or are we like the transformed marine, who gives everything he has to a cause that touches him?
I’m writing this on Martin Luther King Day (January 18, 2016), which also happens to be the day my father would have turned 104, if he hadn’t died 33 years ago.
In depicting the world of the Nav’i as a more loving, integrated, balanced society than that of the materialistic and militaristic interplanetary expedition that mows them down, Director James Cameron tells a tale of how a technologically advanced society can devastate one that is morally and psychologically superior to itself. Its story line feels appropriate on a day that celebrates a man of great courage who challenged the very patterns of violence and inequality that killed him.
An America built on the destruction of indigenous native societies and fueled economically by unpaid labor kidnapped from another continent, is not just harboring an inconvenient truth from its past. Martin Luther King’s message is that it is not the person but the behavior that needs to be challenged–and as long as this lesion persists, our society and the entire world in which we play such a central role will continue to suffer.
Are we living off unearned benefits generated by the pain of others who do not themselves share in those benefits? If so, who are the Nav’i and who the invaders on Planet Earth? Who are the caterpillars, hungrily consuming a bit of leaf under foot, and who the butterflies flying aloft—able to see that there are enough leaves to go around?