"...some of the darkest chapters in the history of my world involved the forced relocation of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one..." Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek Insurrection
All the writeups I've seen about Avatar have focused on the timeframe it took to make it (something like 10 years), the cost (most expensive film ever made), the CGI (the most realistic CGI and motion capture ever), the 3D (yes you get to use those cool glasses), the fantastical imagination of James Cameron (the world presented is fully formed and utterly believable) or the theme of mother earth and symbiosis with the life around us.
In my mind, the film is not really about any of those things. It is in fact about what Jean-Luc Picard says in Insurrection and I have quoted at the top of this post.
It is about what all great works of art are about - the fallibility of the human condition.
Avatar is about a race of humanoids that could not be more alien from us and yet, by about half way through the film, it manages to completely convince us of their reality, their plight and their humanity.
The trick is so thoroughly executed that by the time SigourneyWeaver's character is brought to the tree to be saved (unsuccessfully), she looked thoroughly alien to me. The blue CGI creatures around her seemed more real, more noble and more sympathetic than her tiny pink body. She could have been a little green man.
The point, however, was not to demonstrate the power of CGI or storytelling to convince us of an unreality, but rather to show us something that is all too real in our world; An all too pervasive inability to understand how those we perceive as 'other', as 'aliens', as inhuman, are just as human as ourselves.
Most of the Human characters in Avatar were perfectly happy (at least for the most part) to force the re-location or destruction of these blue creatures for the acquisition of 'wealth' from the ground on which they lived. The way they rationalized this inhuman treatment was to label them 'savages' and later 'the enemy'.
The human characters could not understand how smashing their trees and destroying their homes - terrorizing them - could result in acts of rebellion and resistance. Acts of Terror.
Does this sound at all familiar to anyone? Are there any people in our world (who at first glance seem inferior or strange) that have been relocated, interfered with, oppressed, suppressed and generally toyed with for decades for the purposes of ensuring and 'securing' access to stuff in the ground - to oil?
Have those people become desperate? Have they fought back? Have they perpetrated acts of Terror? Have we perpetrated those acts in return? Has the cycle continued unabated with each side blaming the other?
Of course it's all too unpopular (or downright unpatriotic) to suggest that the violence taken against 'us' in the west is somehow justified. In fact I believe that no violence that is not in immediate self defense or in the defense of others is really justified at all. Not ours, not theirs.
Avatar didn't just manage to thoroughly convince me of the humanity of these blue CGI creators, it also showed in stark terms our ability to be inhuman to those who appear different from us. To justify killing by minimizing and demonizing the 'others' amongst us. To forget the acts of the recent past and justify the acts of the present and the future.
Avatar is a film that should go down in history as a feat of genius on every level of story telling and political commentary. Its deeper and much more profound message, however, like the message of the Matrix and other masterful works that balance popular culture, mass market appeal and important truths, will probably be lost on most movie going audiences.
It wont be lost on those in our world who seem Alien to us though. They probably won't see the movie, but they are no strangers to throwing stones at tanks, being crushed in the name of valuable resources and being so oppressed and desperate as to resort to extreme interpretations of religion and acts of violence.
I wonder what our excuse is when we use our religious views (both of faith and commerce) to justify killing them.
Let me end on two notes of positivity.
And watch Barack Obama speak about the potential for a pragmatic and persistent peace
A special thanks to Michael Arrington and Techcrunch for kindly hosting us for a screening of the film.