Avatar, dir. James Cameron (20th Century Fox)

February 2011

Now that Avatar is out on DVD, we can really get to grips with the film, and answer the question that many people asked when it came out: is it all just special effects and sentimental platitudes? My unequivocal answer is NO! Not only has Cameron given us an interesting variation on the classic hero myth, but he has dramatised the absolutely crucial issue of our era, namely the human destruction of the natural world.

Turning to the first of these two aspects, let’s draw on the outline of the ‘monomyth’ – the one fundamental story of the mythological hero – as provided by Joseph Campbell in his famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  If I may adapt Campbell’s scheme, we end up with something like the following main stages of the hero’s typical journey:

  1. call to adventure
  2. meeting with the helper
  3. crossing of the threshold of adventure
  4. battle with the dragon
  5. descent into the darkness
  6. sacred marriage
  7. father atonement
  8. return to where he started, involving…
  9. threshold struggle / rescue
  10. resurrection and bringing of boon.

My instinct is that Cameron is reworking the above motifs to make his point. So we get the following stages of the journey of the film’s hero, Jake Sully:

  1. Injured on duty with the Marines, Jake is confined to a wheelchair; but he is glad to be invited to replace his dead brother in a project led by government-backed scientists on the Earth (pretty obviously, in the United States). The aim is to find out more about the Na’vi, the inhabitants of Pandora, the moon of the planet Polyphemus. The reason is that Pandora contains a precious mineral called (significantly?) ‘unobtanium’.
  2. His main helper is Dr Grace Augustine, overseer of the personnel who, as part of the scheme, each assume the identity of an ‘avatar’, a virtual incarnation which resembles a Na’vi.  She is a true helper in that she realises the horror of what is being undertaken, and agrees to aid Jake in his own rebellion against the scientific programme, the ultimate purpose of which is to displace and, if necessary, kill the Na’vi so that their resources may be exploited.
  3. Jake enters his avatar by way of a kind of supervised, computer-driven dreaming. Finding himself on Pandora, he can move about freely, no longer disabled; but he almost immediately gets lost.
  4. He has to ward off huge, violent creatures (dragons, as it were) throughout the night which he has to spend alone on Pandora. But none of these are as terrifying as the monstrous machines of his own people (see 9 below).
  5. Interestingly, the Na’vi refer to the intruders as ‘Sky People’, given that they travel down into their habitat in their huge, grotesque machines. Hence the descent into the darkness carries ironic overtones: it is the world that Jake comes from that represents the true darkness; the rainforest environment of the Na’vi may contain terrors, but they themselves are perfectly at home in it, and regard it as sacred.
  6. Having been rescued from ravaging beasts by a young Na’vi woman called Neytiri, he is taken by her to meet the leaders of the tribe, who are also her parents. Jake is inducted into the worldview of the Na’vi, which centres on Eywa, the Great Mother, who represents the spirit of nature, and on behalf of whom her parents speak. He learns that for the Na’vi everything is interconnected, and that there is an energy running though all of nature which must always be respected.  Jake in due course undergoes a rite of passage, learning to ride a ‘toruk’, a giant mountain creature; this establishes him as having access to the ancestral powers of the Na’vi, and he is permitted to marry Neytiri.
  7. In doing so, he also is accepted by her father. However, he has another father-figure back home, Colonel Miles Quatrich, a macho military man who, impressed by Jake’s spirit, has offered to ensure that he gets the surgery he needs to enable him to walk again. Jake will in fact grow in understanding by seeing through the swagger of Quatrich, who despises Grace for reminding him that the Na’vi deserve respect.
  8. Jake ‘returns’ to the Earth in the sense of confronting the values of the people who are engineering the whole campaign to defeat the Na’vi and destroy their rainforest. He also ‘returns’ to his true self, which was hidden by the values of the civilisation he once fought to defend.
  9. When the military descend for the final showdown, Jake very deliberately sets himself against Quatrich and all he represents, confronting the monstrous machine he is driving: ie, the true ‘dragon’ of the monomyth (see 4 above). He uses his knowledge of the military and scientific campaigns to rescue the Na’vi – or, at least, help them rescue themselves in a crucial confrontation.
  10. Jake may be said to experience resurrection, but not in the conventional sense. He is reborn as a Na’vi hero by aligning himself entirely with them, and helping them repel the demonic ‘Sky People’, whom he now sees as the true aliens. The boon he brings is that of affirming the values of the Na’vi community, as opposed to the greed and arrogance of his/our own civilisation.

Which brings me, briefly, to the second aspect of the film which deserves attention: its ecological message. There can be no doubt that Cameron had in mind the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest when making this film. Nor was the environmental commentator George Monbiot missing the point when he said that the film made sense to him in the light of the hundred million native inhabitants of North and South America killed by European invaders from the late-fifteenth to the late-nineteenth centuries. Insofar as the butchery and suppression is still going on, under the guise of a benign globalisation, it is a pertinent point to make. Cynics may moan that Avatar is just another Hollywood blockbuster; but in what other form could Cameron get his message across to as many people as possible? The power of myth has been channelled in order to speak up for nature and for those who can show us how to respect it.

Laurence Coupe