Avatar: The Way of Warfare

One out of every 5 adults is expected to see Avatar this season. If we think of the six degrees theory and what not, the film had immense potential to do good, to pay something forward somehow. Avatar and its producer James Cameron should acknowledge something else besides the approximate billion dollars this latest film has made at the box office. With the ability to reach such a large projected viewership, he had every opportunity to respond in more gentle, subtle ways to the ills facing our society. If the silver screen is meant to elevate and enlighten us in forms of art and wonder, then Avatar falls short in delivering. It sabotages its own potential for redressing controversial issues facing global society; in the few minutes given for characters to develop these themes and for viewers to reflect, to assess, to hope through them, a barrage of bullets from semi-automatic weapons razes down all sensibilities. Each of these violent scenes comes to the rescue of waning attention spans faced with the difficult task of thought and dialogue. Yes, some films offer escape from everyday life; in this case, however, I fled the theater to return to the far more enlightened, everyday life.

My intention wasn’t to write a review when my daughter and I entered the Bagdad Theater and Pub in Portland, Oregon on Christmas Eve. I will leave that part to film critics. But now I’m sitting in Diva Espresso on 14419 Greenwood Ave in Seattle with a strong mocha coffee. It’s delicious, here in the warm light hung from antique chandeliers brightening the gray rainy midday; the worn wooden floors absorb the wet from boots and bags. And now I need to say something about this Christmas film.

Throughout this Winter break with family in the Northwest, I’ve had many occasions upon which to ponder what could have been a very instructive movie in showing global goodwill towards both humanity and the wild kingdom, if it had been able to sustain one of its many themes introduced before the characters resorted to warfare and obliterated one idea after the other. It’s become a very simple solution to a host of complex issues. After hearing President Zelenski’s address to Congress, after reading an article praising the fortitude of the Ukrainians who celebrated Christmas around a candle-lit dinner made upon a single gas flame, upon seeing the strength in the people of Buffalo, New York who woke up to a reconfigured landscape of snow, I say shame on Avatar to fail as an avatara – “a manifestation of a deity in bodily form… such as a divine teacher” (Howard Bloom: Humanity’s Avatar) – in instructing us in elements of being human. I include a few of the most egregious affronts to my sensibilities:

Good father-leader-of-the-forest-people Jake flees with his family, abandoning his wife’s kin when their lives are threatened. This is problematic. During a time when our national leaders are under scrutiny, we sure don’t need fictional characters giving them any more permission for egocentrism. Not only does Jake not face his nemesis head on (and save us the agony of the next three hours), it leaves more impressionable viewers with the idea that it might be ok to run away from conflicts instead of addressing them confidently and intentionally. This opportunity for integrity and loyalty is unfortunately overlooked; this disregard of country would be equivocal to President Zelenski excusing himself and his family from Ukraine and taking the US up on an offer of safe haven, leaving Ukraine to fend for itself. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t abandon his country and people to save himself. He welcomes dialogue, diplomacy, and yes, weapons (when all else fails), and stands his ground to defend his country. We look for this trait in our leaders, we look for these strengths in our heroes, and for sure, we look for these characters in film.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, greedy, myopic men exploit and hunt, harass and harpoon tulkun whales to extract brain fluid for a human longevity elixir. Yes, this is the same film. I would think that in this day of animal awareness, environmental awareness, and simple human compassion, returning to the complex theme of man versus beast and all of what that entails is a different film. Aheb pursued Moby Dick out of spite and revenge; Santiago hunted the great marlin with slow resolve and dogged determination. What could possibly be redeeming in inserting this weekly supported subplot when others have already tackled that universal conflict, except to add length to the film and a mirror to our own cruel shortcomings as a human race? What’s more, the congruity of the Navi’s respect for marine life is capsized for the audience when Jake recalls a fond moment of his young son successfully speering and killing a fish not long after the Navi mourn the loss and slaughter of the tulkun. How do they justify saving one marine life for another?

And yet. We see briefly the interaction of the younger generation overcoming prejudices and working out their differences, the welcome of Jake’s family into the adoptive water people world, the teaching of underwater living and respect for new culture and life. But they are overshadowed by the ever present danger of the pugnacious sky people. The film takes only a finely pointed brush stroke to hunt at virtues of family, caring for others, protecting one’s land and culture, immigration, and starting anew. So why doesn’t Mr. Cameron buy stock in these human endeavors he introduces? He villainizes the characters and he castrates the themes before they can become full fledged messages. Regretfully, Avatar could have emphasized any one of these subjects with more intention instead of treating them in short, open-ended segments in between rounds of warfare. Regretfully, we haven’t moved as swiftly as we should like to kindness and compassion this past year. Regretfully, if Avatar shows us anything, it’s a failure in people we still find among ourselves.

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