The Hurt Locker, Avatar and a world we could live in
1 March 2010. A World to Win News Service. The Hurt Locker and Avatar are leading contenders for this year's Oscars, Hollywood's most coveted movie prizes, right on the heels of the London Bafta awards where they were considered the two top duellists (Hurt Locker won for best film). They have often been compared, and rightly so, because they are opposites in many ways.
To start with, numerous film reviewers have disparaged Avatar as a "political" film, criticizing director James Cameron for smuggling his own controversial views about capitalism, American politics and ecology into what is supposed to be entertainment. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, by comparison, is supposed to be "apolitical" and "uncontroversial" , a character study of soldiers in the Iraq war that takes no stand on the war itself.
This is such a standard mainstream media approach that it usually goes by unchallenged, and yet it reveals a great deal about the outlook and criteria of the reviewers and other authorities who make these judgements. Movies are criticized for being "political" if their politics go against the prevailing order; otherwise, the views they convey are considered common sense, therefore needing no justification. If someone makes a film that challenges predominant opinion, they are accused of using the medium unfairly to promote their own personal ideas, as if all art didn't promote ideas and ways of seeing the world.
The Hurt Locker
A close look at Hurt Locker shows the falsity of this argument. The film focuses on a three-man American army bomb disposal team, particularly its leader Staff Sergeant William James (played by Jeremy Renner). In finding and defusing roadside bombs, James is not only reckless – needlessly endangering himself and his partners – but obsessive. He has trouble with emotions; as he tells his young child before re-enlisting for another tour in Iraq, taking apart ticking bombs is the only thing he really loves in life. "The hurt locker" is apparently military slang for being injured in battle. Little by little the film carries the audience from a negative view of this character who is not able to relate to other people – a dislike shared by his fellow soldiers – to an understanding of how the adrenalin rush of battle is an addictive drug that enables men like him to enclose the hurt of life itself in a mental locker where they don't need to feel it. He defuses bombs so as not to explode himself.
This is only uncontroversial if you accept the legitimacy – politically and morally – of what this unfortunate young man is doing. One reviewer wrote in his defence that after all, this is a guy who defuses bombs, not someone who drops them down on people. If that were not the case, a lot fewer people would be taken in by a film about a widely unpopular war. But actually the justness or injustice of that war should be our starting point for judging this soldier. His work is not "saving lives" in some general way. It's to save the lives of American soldiers whose job is to inflict a humiliating foreign occupation in Iraq, in the service of interests contrary to those of the Iraqi people. They are members of a military that has torn Iraq apart. They have murdered tens of thousands of Iraqis directly, in ways ranging from bombing cities and rocketing villages to bursting into homes and raping and killing family members. They have also provided the conditions under which the most reactionary forces in Iraq have suddenly thrived, as the U.S. encourages and partners with opposing factions in divide-and-rule schemes. Does this soldier ever ask himself: What are we doing to Iraqis that makes them want to kill us?
In other words, Sergeant James is an accomplice to murder and other crimes on a mass scale, and he doesn't care. Anyone who realizes that has trouble caring about him. This is a problem in a film driven that's supposed to be driven by suspense as to whether he lives or dies – and where his fellow soldiers sometimes would just as soon see him dead. Like them, he prefers to take no interest in Iraqi lives; the main difference is that he doesn't much care about American lives either, including his own. Viewers who are taken in by this sort of "support the soldiers, not the war" approach may feel sorry for him, but he should have stuck to dismantling engines and radios or switched to clocks. Instead, he has found his place as a more than willing cog in a machine that, judged by its effects, is evil. Several reviewers, especially in the UK, have pointed out that given the widespread dislike of the Iraq war, this film is about as close to a defence of it as many people could swallow. This is true regardless of the filmmaker's intentions (at the Bafta awards Bigelow dedicated her trophy to "never abandoning the need to find a resolution for peace"). Her theme may be that "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction", but some people in the audience undoubtedly conclude that it's a drug they'd like to try.
The central character in Avatar is a lot like Sergeant James when we first meet him. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) , a former U.S. Marine, has been to the hurt locker himself, losing the use of his legs. He served in Nigeria and Venezuela, and we gather that he was not there to hand out ice cream to the local population. Now he has been hired by RDA, a mega-corporation that wants to strip mine Pandora, a paradisaical forested moon in the Alpha Centauri solar system far from Earth. RDA's problem is the Na'vi, a gentle people who stubbornly refuse to leave their homes inconveniently located on top of the moon's mother load of "unobtanium" , a mineral with anti-gravity properties that RDA would do anything to obtain.
Sully is hired to replace his recently deceased scientist twin brother as an operator of an avatar, a genetically- engineered hybrid creature that looks and runs like the tall, blue-skinned, superhumanly athletic Na'vi but remains under human – and therefore RDA – control. His alleged job is to figure out how the Na'vi can be persuaded to leave, but the colonel commanding RDA's private army (played by Stephen Lang) also asks him to report on how they can be destroyed if other forms of discouragement don't work.
Ironically, Hurt Locker, billed as a hyper-realistic study of men at war, and, admittedly skilful in its plumbing of the psychological depths of its protagonist, is actually rather narrow and shallow in its depiction of reality because it ignores the context and the consequences of its characters' actions. It basically accepts the fantasy that war is fun, at most concerned with the danger to the soldiers getting high off it and not at all with what they are doing to the people of Iraq and why. In contrast, Avatar is a science fiction movie in 3D, with digital special effects that inevitably give it a fantasy-like and even cartoonish character in contrast to Hurt Locker's attempted subtlety, sensitivity and effective acting. (We could spend this whole article raving about the beauty and pleasure of these effects; we'll just say that you have to see it in 3D.) Yet Avatar, which takes place in 2154, is far closer to the truth about the world we live in now.
Looking forward from the cruel collapse of the Copenhagen conference on climate change last December, when the world's capitalist governments refused to take any serious measures to avoid potential global catastrophe, it seems common sense to imagine that in a century and a half this system would have all but completely destroyed the Earth, and that even then it would try to prolong its wretched life by devastating whole new worlds. Looking backward, Avatar is a metaphor for history: the European conquest of Latin America and Asia, the enslavement of Africa and especially the wars of extermination against the North American Native peoples – this time with a happy ending.
Avatar is filled with references to the "war on terror" and the invasion of Iraq, but its most basic visual reference is the Vietnam war. That's what viewers think of when they see Pandora's lush tropical jungles, impenetrable hills and the all-too-familiar predatory American helicopter gunships that swoop down on its inhabitants. The director could not have chosen more iconic images of the Vietnam war than his scenes of flack-jacketed soldiers firing through open helicopter doors at lightly clad guerrilla fighters below.
One of the things that make Cameron's film so true to life even at its most fantastical is that he understands the antagonisms that characterize contemporary society. RDA and the Na'vis can't coexist in the same world (or at least on the same moon). RDA has no mode of existence other than ruthless expansion, and its insatiable lust for economic profit has a military expression that can only be stopped by another military force. The colonel, who looks like the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, embodies the outlook of empire, and he would rather die than let it go.
Cameron has been criticized for drawing such a strong parallel between wars for empire and the rape of the planet(s), but that link is real. It's not just some odd personal notion he made up and is trying to foist on audiences with his special effects. He doesn't name the economic and political system, although plenty of reviewers, hostile and friendly, have put the word "imperialism" in his mouth, but he depicts its horror. It's hard to criticize Avatar as distorting real life. That's why many reviewers have had to go to the heart of the matter and instead criticized it for what side it takes.
At one point Sully says that back in the old days the RDA's ex-Marines were "freedom" fighters" but now they've become "mercenaries" in the pay of a greedy corporation. It's not clear if Cameron really believes in this alleged moral distinction between public and private sector imperialism or if he's just having these words said to ward off charges of being unpatriotic (he was born in Canada, but that's irrelevant). It seems likely that if this were some low-budget "alternative" or "underground" flic, especially by a guy named Mohammad, if Cameron weren't the master of the movie mainstream, the author of the biggest-grossing film of all time until now (Titanic), if Avatar were not so popular with audiences that its box office receipts have already broken that record, and if this movie were not so indisputably fascinating and exciting, using extremely advanced technology not in some petty way to impress us but to achieve a coherent and extremely effective work of art, then the filmmaker might have found himself in prison or at least in deep trouble.
People have been arrested in the U.S. and Europe for wearing t-shirts that are less subversive than this motion picture.
Sully, who starts out as much an enthusiastic dog of war as The Hurt Locker's main protagonist, ends up doing something that James avoids at all costs, thinking about what he is doing. And he changes sides. Sully "betrays his race", as the colonel puts it, and joins the Na'vi in waging what is clearly supposed to be a war of national liberation against the imperialist invaders. In this he is eventually joined by at least one other soldier, a tough young Latina woman combat pilot, and science team members.
This ending has been criticized by people who call themselves rightwingers and some who put forward a more liberal sensibility, including a New York Times writer and at least one prominent London critic. The accusation is that Cameron is a racist, since he sends a white man to lead his Na'vi "people of colour" (all of whom are real people of colour under the makeup, which particularly disturbed the London reviewer). This "white messiah complex" is allegedly a common sin in pro-"primitive people" Westerns and so on; the parallel with Dances with Wolves is frequently mentioned (another film where a "cowboy" – actually, in this case a soldier – goes over to the side of the Indians, and one Cameron says did influence him). That charge misses Cameron's point: not that the Na'vi can't help themselves without a white guy but that his Sully character and the others do the right thing by deserting the system and taking the side of its enemies.
The colonel's missile attack on the Na'vi Home Tree echoes the 9-11 toppling of the World Trade Center. The message seems to be: We've done this to other people again and again. In an interview explaining why he had the colonel use the words "shock and awe" to describe it, Cameron said he wanted audiences to think about "what it feels like" to be on the receiving end. The American Neo-Con journal The Weekly Standard was more blunt: the film incites audiences to "root for the defeat of American soldiers." Or, as The Christian Post put it, "If you can get a theatre full of people in Kansas [a state iconic of Americans at their most backward] to stand up and applaud the defeat of their country, then you've got some amazing special effects." (See the "Themes in Avatar" Wikipedia entry for an amazing and amusing array of foaming-at-the- mouth reactionary reviews from all over the world, as well as this and other interviews.)
The director's point is not to glorify Sully but to speak to soldiers like Hurt Locker's James in Iraq and similar wars – including both the whites and "people of colour" among them – and of course to the tens of millions and more people who see this film, and tell them that it's time for them to take a stand too. That's the real reason why certain system guard dogs hate this movie.
Other possible worlds
Cameron doesn't just indict the world as it is, however. He puts forward a vision of another, different kind of world. It's a very good thing that he wrestles with that question, rather than sinking into the willingness to accept the present world that flaws many films, film critics and other intellectuals (even if more often in a cynical rather than enthusiastic form). His science fiction has been deeply thought out and deserves serious consideration.
Na'vi clan society is the opposite of the self-centred/ macho atmosphere at the human mining colony, or in Hurt Locker. There doesn't seem to be a social division by gender or between manual and mental tasks – males and females alike can be singers and/or hunters – and males are not dominant, even if some young men have testosterone issues. It's also more communal than hierarchical, although it does have leaders (perhaps hereditary). The basic social principle and glue is mutual respect. When they fall in love with one another, Na'vi say "I see you." Further, the Na'vis live in harmony with nature, with something like an organic USB key in their tails they use to literally connect with animals and the whole environment. When Sully asks Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the Na'vi leaders he falls in love with, why the animals attack him and not her people, she sneers, it's because "You make too much noise" – he disrupts the environment.
While Cameron himself is said to be an atheist, his Na'vi have a deity, Eywa. Yet according to the lead scientist, Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Eywa is not a supernatural fairytale but a name given to a natural phenomenon, the fact that everything in the planet is joined together as one single organism. Eywa, she explains, is another name for the tendency of this biosystem to maintain biostasis, ecological equilibrium.
This part of the film is somewhat science fiction. The true part is that on the planet Earth, which is what Avatar is really about, human beings are part of nature and dependent on the ecosystem. In the capitalist system under which we live, economic chaos will result if supremacy is not given to private profit over the collective good and to short term results no matter how unintended and undesirable the long term effects. So sustainable development is as vital as it is impossible to achieve without overthrowing our planet's overlords.
But nature is not in eternal equilibrium; it is in a constant state of change. The Earth's landscapes, seas and even stones have undergone spectacular development. Species come into being and disappear, sometimes destroying one another. Human beings often find themselves in an antagonistic relationship with nature, even if they correctly strive to treat their world as something entrusted to their care for future generations. For instance, the viruses that cause devastating epidemics are as natural as wildflowers, and new ones are likely to appear far into the future. In the earthquake in Haiti, as in the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami, social conditions played a huge role in determining the extent of destruction and especially the survivors' ability to recover, but such events will always be devastating for any society. Unlike Eywa, the Earth doesn't care if species survive or not. Neither does the universe, which already sent asteroids crashing into our planet several times. Even the sun will go out some day.
In order to make nature yield the means to life, and to reproduce, people have to enter into social relations with one another. The social relations in which they produce and reproduce is the foundation on which all other social relations (for instance, who does manual labour and who is encouraged to think), institutions, habits, predominant ideas, etc. are based. What kinds of production relations are possible is ultimately determined by the level of development of the productive forces (people and their knowledge and skills, the land and other natural resources, and the level of technology).
The Na'vi live on fruit and wild game. For even the earliest hunter-gatherer peoples, their way of life was not exactly utopian – there was sometimes violence between different groups. Further, they transformed their environment through such activities, and their environment transformed them as well. This interaction between all beings and their environment is an important part of the mechanism of evolution. For similar reasons, humanoids have always been on the move across the earth. Further, once people started raising crops and animals, their effect on their environment became many times greater. The felling of forests for crops and timber and the grazing of livestock soon thoroughly transformed the regions of the earth where these activities appeared.
With the development of settled agriculture, people could produce a surplus beyond their immediate daily needs, so that not everyone had to work at getting food all the time. That made it possible for the wealth produced by society to become the private property of individuals, and consequently for antagonistic social divisions to emerge, both between the newly emerging different classes and between men and women. (Contrary to life on Pandora, there had to be a certain division of labour in early society due to women's role in childbearing, but it was only with the emergence of private property that this became a question of an oppressed and oppressor sex. Cameron gets around this because his females have breasts but they don't give birth like humans.)
Since then human history has been most fundamentally characterized by the dynamic relationship between the development of the productive forces and the various kinds of society this has made possible. All of these societies have been hell on earth for most people. All, so far, have been characterized by various kinds of private property, exploitation and a state to violently enforce those exploitative and oppressive social relationships.
Many people see Avatar as a conflict between supposed lost paradise of early humanity and the modern world. One movie reviewer, cynically defending the world as it is against Cameron's critique of it, wrote that the Na'vi may have a pretty environment and a nice society and humans may have messed up their world and each other, but over thousands of years humans have developed science and philosophy and poetry and opera and all the Na'vis have is trees and songs about trees. He might have added that we humans even have hi-tech 3D movies. Is this a fair if cold assessment of an inevitable trade-off – do we have to accept a society whose exploitation and oppression is as highly developed as its technology as the only alternative to not being able to develop our human potential?
The question our reactionary reviewer doesn't care to address is this: What's been the cost of all these technological, scientific and cultural achievements? One society after another where a minority dominates and squeezes the life out of the majority, where the doors to the world of ideas are locked to those who work with their hands, where one sex has subjugated and humiliated another, where violence has been permanent and countries live to the relentless rhythm of wars – where the lives and possibilities of the vast majority of human beings have been stunted at best.
Just to speak of the most recent kind of exploitative society, Marx wrote that capitalism was born dripping blood from every pore. And that was said in the 19th century, before capitalism produced even greater horrors, including genocide and the two world wars that made the American empire possible.
The fact is that the mass of people worldwide have always had limited or no access to the achievements our reviewer cites. Further, those that have enjoyed advantages, like Avatar's scientists for instance, have always had their horizons and impact and even the development of science itself restrained by the kinds of societies they lived in and the interests of the ruling classes and their states. Again and again at key junctures the predominant relations of exploitation and oppression have held back the development of the productive forces. They have always been an obstacle to the individual and collective development of all humanity as a whole.
What makes this film critic wrong is that we no longer have to accept this so-called trade-off (we say so-called because nobody ever asked the masses of people how they wanted to live). Capitalism's highly socialized production processes have created an international class of people that embodies the possibility of making these productive forces the collective property of society and putting an end not only to exploitation – the private appropriation of socially produced wealth – but all the other oppressive social relations, institutions, habits, ideas, etc. that have arisen on that basis. That class of people, the international proletariat, can free itself only by freeing humanity.
With the emergence and development of the science of communism, a fully scientific way of understanding human beings and the universe unburdened by the interests of exploiting classes and free of their mental boundaries, it has become possible to carry out a revolutionary process that can radically change the world, not only meeting the needs of every person on the planet but building a society with a whole new set of social values and human relations. The creation of that kind of world – a society where humanity can achieve both a sustainable life on this planet and a life worthy of human beings – is the task of communist revolution.
In Avatar director Cameron puts forward a different view. Nevertheless, this film is the kind of thing our world needs right now. We hope that people who enjoy this film as a breath of vital fresh air are encouraged to do what Jake Sully does: take a good look at what's really happening in the world and why, think deeply about it and take a stand that can matter. And continue seeing.