Friday, January 15, 2010

Peak Oil Deconstruction: Avatar

Warning to snobby intellectual purists: this is NOT some scrutinizing, academic, according-to-Jacques Derrida deconstruction. This is the ravings of a movie lover who for over five years views every experience through the prism of Peak Oil awareness. So every time that I review a movie on this blog, whether it be documentary or fiction, new release or classic, this is the filter that I am using to attain perspective; to explain its personal meaning. Trying to explain what the writer or director meant can only go so far before you start guessing what they meant. No such pretense exists in my reviews, I know exactly what it means to me!

Now, for my review of Avatar:

First of all, I get it. I get why this has become a cultural phenomenon to gross over $1 billion worldwide. I get why many compare their first viewing of Avatar to their first viewing of Star Wars when that movie (A New Hope, not the prequels) first came out in theaters. It is a singularly spectacular cinematic experience that comes along once in a generation. This is due not only to its groundbreaking special effects, but because the effects are in the service of a story that has a mythological quality to it; I regret Joseph Campbell is no longer around to point out the particulars with Avatar the way he did with Star Wars.

The conflict within Avatar is as timeless as a tribal war whoop and as timely as the blast of an IED. Our protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a paralyzed Marine chosen to replace his dead brother on a scientific mission to the planet Pandora in the year 2154. Ostensibly, he is chosen to help Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) with her work "collecting samples" of plant and animal life on Pandora and maintaining diplomatic relations with the Na'Vi, the indigenous blue people who live there. But almost as soon as he arrives, Jake is pulled aside by
Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who gives him the opportunity to act as a covert military operative and collect intelligence for the Colonel. Quaritch is the muscle behind a corporate-military entity called Resources Development Administration run by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). Their goal is to obtain a mineral called Unobtanium, which exists in large quantities right where the Na'Vi reside.

Aside from the interplanetary travel aspect, this is a very familiar story: an empire searching for natural resources without which they cannot grow their economy finds it in an area outside their political control. This is the story of Peak Oil, with a cornucopian twist: if you cannot have infinite growth within a finite sphere, find another sphere to plunder. Unobtanium is the symbolic equivalent of oil in the 22nd century. The etymology of the word unobtainium seems to foreshadow the futility of the quest for this empire. For within every region where valuable resources lie resides native people with their own prior claims and needs. Almost without exception this is a recipe for conflict. Nor is this the first time the invading forces in Avatar have faced this conflict. When Quaritch gives Jake his covert mission, he prefaces this by talking about his previous military tours of duty. I don't think it was an accident that writer/director James Cameron chose Venezuela as an example where Quaritch served.

While Jake begins his mission on Pandora linked with his Avatar, a genetically bred human/Na'Vi hybrid, he is separated from his team by a dinosaur-like creature that chases him off a waterfall. Jake survives, but because night ops are not allowed, his team returns to base without him. Alone to fend for himself that night, he is surrounded by a pack of wolf-like creatures ready to attack, but is saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a young Na'Vi female. She chastises him for his ignorance, but brings him to her tribe, the Omaticaya, because he has a "strong heart" and attracts the seeds of Eywa, wispy floating seeds of a sacred tree, which Neytiri says are "very pure spirits". After meeting her parents, the King and Queen, it is decided that the will of Eywa, their Goddess, is that Jakesully, as they call him, should live with the Omaticayan and Neytiri will teach him their ways.

Structurally, Avatar works because Jake is ignorant and curious. His journey becomes our journey. As he learns about the Omaticayan, how they survive on Pandora and their rites of passage, so do we. Learning about the people of Pandora also means learning about the environment of Pandora. There is a connection between the Na'Vi and the forests of Pandora that Jake learns from Neytiri: all energy is borrowed and one day we have to give it back. It is almost as if the Na'Vi have taken the law of entropy and given it a spiritual component. Understanding these connections, I fell in love with this beautiful world, just as Jake does. Every time Jake leaves his Avatar, there is a hunger to return that he feels and so do we.

As Jake falls in love, with Pandora and the Na'Vi in general and with Neytiri specifically, he comes to regret his covert role and the intelligence he has fed Colonel Quaritch. The intelligence that is most damaging is that the greatest concentration of Unobtanium rests where the Hometree stands, which is where the Omaticaya live. And as the impatient RDA starts bulldozing into the Na'Vi land, Jake is forced to make a choice between what he considers to be "the real world", where the Na'Vi live in communion with their planet, and "the dream", where human beings deplete the natural resources of the planet in the name of infinite economic growth. Quaritch tries to appeal to Jake's baser nature, asking how he could "betray your own race". But Jake is operating on a deeper consciousness of race. To quote blogger Ran Prieur, "Every one of us has ancestors who lived more or less like the Na'vi, and who were violently conquered by disconnected, resource-extracting cultures. If we all stop identifying with those cultures, the whole game is over. We did not conquer the Indians. The Babylonians, the Romans, the English, the Spaniards, the Americans conquered us... but not completely. The reason Avatar is so popular, and so important, is that it is helping us to remember who we are." Jake's real betrayal is of his resource-extracting culture which operates under a paradigm of infinite economic growth.

This choice is the same that we face on this planet in the year 2010. Peak Oil and Global Climate Change are flip sides of the same coin: overconsumption of fossil fuels are destroying the way we live and in a worst case scenario may destroy human life itself. It was a chilling moment for me when Jake pleaded for Eywa's help in leading the Na'Vi to victory by telling her, "See the world we come from: there's no green there. They've killed their mother, and they're going to do the same thing here." This is the voice of the Ghost of Christmas Future. This is what will happen if continuing the paradigm of infinite economic growth by any means necessary (i.e. war for oil) remains the policy of the industrial society. All the good will and best intentions won't save civilization until we wake up and understand as Michael Ruppert does, "Money represents the ability to do work and energy is the ability to do work. One is a symbol. The other is reality." We must change the way money works or we will perish. How will we achieve that? Ran Prieur has another good insight, "The important thing is that we make the shift from an extractive economy to a sustaining economy, and from the made world to the found world. And we might not be able to make that shift once and for all -- we might have to keep making it again and again."

Then again, we could just find a way to transport humans faster than the speed of light...

1 comment:

Tanya @ TeenAutism said...

Great review! I especially liked your reference to the Ghost of Christmas Future at the end there. Perfect.