The complaints I’ve heard about Avatar is that the story is only, “okay”. “It’s derivative.” “We’ve seen it before.” While Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai and Fern Gully should be the first films that come to mind for the seasoned film critic, it is the historian who immediately senses a deeper meaning. Roger Ebert lazily shoots a tennis ball to his readers that they, “are free to find this an allegory about contemporary politics. Cameron obviously does.” But it is much more, and more metaphorical. Avatar isn’t simply damning the crossing of the Atlantic by Chris Columbus, Cortez’s ‘meeting’ the Aztecs and the passengers of the Mayflower debarking for a beer run: he’s damning all of it – and more. But, on the surface, the first story of Avatar that Cameron was re-telling, in my opinion, was that of Custer at Little Big Horn.
In late 1875, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians defiantly left their reservations, outraged over the continued intrusions of whites into their sacred lands in the Black Hills. The Black Hills that in July of 1874 an expeditionary force, which was led by General George Armstrong Custer, found something shinny.
When Horatio N. Ross, one of General Custer's practical miners of the expedition, found the glimmer of gold in the sparkling waters of French Creek, the die was cast.
The indigenous population regrouped, after a gentle government relocation effort, in Montana with the great warrior Sitting Bull. They had joined forces to stand and fight for their lands. The following spring, two victories over the US Cavalry emboldened them to fight on in the summer of 1876.
Ah, General George Armstrong Custer
To force the large Indian army back to their reservations, the Army dispatched three columns to attack in coordinated George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry spotted the Sioux village with a group of about forty warriors. Ignoring orders to wait for the other two, he decided to attack. He did not realize that the number of warriors in the village numbered three times his strength. Nor did he listen to his scouts.
He made this decision without knowing what kind of terrain he would have to cross before making his assault. He belatedly discovered that he would have to negotiate a maze of bluffs and ravines to attack. For those of you who saw the movie, does this sound familiar at all?
Major Marcus Reno’s squadron of 175 soldiers attacked the southern end. Quickly finding themselves in a desperate battle with little hope of any relief, Reno halted his charging men before they could be trapped, fought for ten minutes in dismounted formation, and then withdrew into the timber and brush along the river. When that position proved indefensible, they retreated uphill to the bluffs east of the river, pursued hotly by a mix of Cheyenne and Sioux.
Just as they finished driving the soldiers out, the Indians found roughly 210 of Custer's men coming towards the other end of the village, taking the pressure off of Reno's men. Cheyenne and Hunkpapa Sioux together crossed the river and slammed into the advancing soldiers, forcing them back to a long high ridge to the north. Meanwhile, another force, largely Oglala Sioux under Crazy Horse's command, swiftly moved downstream and then doubled back in a sweeping arc, enveloping Custer and his men in a pincer move. They began pouring in gunfire and arrows.
"Hurrah boys, we've got them! We'll finish them up and then go home to our station."As the Indians closed in, Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and stack the carcasses to form a wall, but they provided little protection against bullets. In less than an hour, Custer and his men were killed in the worst American military disaster ever.
—Words reportedly said by General Custer shortly before being killed.
One would think that the ‘Natives’ of Pandora won the day by killing Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and sending The Company’s Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) home. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has gone native and has won the day. But if killing off Quatrch had even one half the effect of Sitting Bull killing Custer, well, to quote another Space Marine from another popular James Cameron movie, "Nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."
Sitting Bull and Avatar II
Little Bighorn was the pinnacle of the Indians' power. They had achieved their greatest victory yet, but soon their tenuous union fell apart in the face of the white onslaught. Outraged over the death of a popular Civil War hero on the eve of the Centennial, the nation demanded and received harsh retribution. The Black Hills dispute was quickly settled by redrawing the boundary lines, placing the Black Hills outside the reservation and open to white settlement. Within a year, the Sioux nation was defeated and broken. Ironically, "Custer's Last Stand" was their last stand too.
And lest ye forget why the white man wanted the Black Hills in the first place? There’s gold in them thar hills. Custer’s expedition to the Black Hills spurred what is considered the last great gold rush in the continental United States. The first arrivals found nuggets the size of pinecones. Soon afterward Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen would be dueling it out on the muddy streets of Deadwood.
So that’s the surface story. Now here's what Avatar is really about...
The second story of Avatar is a debate of the future of the human race. No, not how we’re the bad guys and invading another planet for their precious rocks. I’m sure we’ll be doing that, and probably will be less caring and nice as ole’ Col. Quaritch.
What I see in Avatar is the final human civil war, the ultimate decision of our technological or biological evolution.
We’ve been fighting this battle for more than 4000 years. It’s the battle of the progress at all costs, or natural preservation. The tree on the hill is where I had my first kiss – but imminent domain says that land will make a quicker trip to the Wal Mart. Bye bye tree. It’s Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson screaming in George Washington’s cabinet meetings over the value of a mechanized modern economy over an agrarian one. That one involved the enslavement of other men and led to real blood. Avatar is the final battle of complete engineering of the biosphere to the point where all of the living organisms act as fiber optic cable and one giant nerve center, or to be encased in oxygen rich stainless steel cockpits, not too far removed from the Borg or RoboCop.
Both of these worlds are not too far off the horizon of current human development. Even today, these two debates come to a roaring boil in medical laboratories and at MIT. Will the future re-grow that lost limb, or slap on a superior mechanical appendage? The biological debate is winning in the advancement of human food production. We have cows, chickens, potatoes and even marijuana plants that have been crossbred to meet our ever-increasing demands of nature. The Na'vi of Pandora evolved their surroundings and the creatures to do their bidding. They come across as extremely alien to us, but they represent a possible ‘us.’ They are the end product of genetic engineering, animal husbandry and self-sufficient living. Sure, it looks like they simply grew up around in perfect harmony – but their beasts of burden don’t have HDMI cables by accident. Even the Native Americans heavily worked and molded the landscapes to their bidding. White folks just didn’t see much evidence of this since the European germs thinned out the tribes. Feel free to read Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel for more on why.
Meanwhile, the humans – or the ‘aliens’ of Avatar are dependent on their technology. They cannot leave their cocoons of conditioned air capsules. They require machines and energy to power their very lives. We learn from Jake that their whole reason for being there is that their world “has no green.” Their machines consume energy and belch out toxic by-products, and they need more. The romantic view of these same aliens play out in Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. The less romantic are Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. They are locusts from earth and they only lay waste while they consume. They don’t recycle. Hell, they don’t even re-use – as it seems it would be fairly simple to recreate Jake’s legs with two simple robot legs or to re-grow them in the same chamber that they were able to grow a full sized adult Avatar. Instead, they use this as a carrot to dangle in the hero’s face. Maybe that’s why he goes native so easily? And quickly?
But don’t fear, because as [hypocritically] James Cameron touts the highest level of Hollywood special effects and specially created 3-D cameras in his movie, his technology loving Space Marines are getting their asses handed to them: by no less than two aliens in two alien movies. The first is 1986’s Aliens – where the aliens there are even more parasitic than the humans, and act more like viruses. Again, the underlining theme of biology based evolution vs. technological based evolution. Plus, the aliens on LV-426 have acidic blood and kind of look phallic. In this one, the natives are trying to protect their homes, their graveyards, and their way of life – and, yeah, pretty much their entire planet. But it’s the metaphorical super battle in the end that has the ironic twist of Ellen Ripley’s weaponized air conditioned heavy lifter duking it out with the turn coat biological Avatar who is himself lying in his own air conditioned electrical box.
Cameron has a history of hating technology, but at the same time embracing it. The Terminator is a cautionary tale of the over reliance of technology and computers, and how quickly it can spin out of our control. An added twister of dripping irony is that Skynet recognizes humanity as a threat [which is correct] and uses man’s own weapons against him. Aliens shows our arrogance of our superiority over bugs because we have better technology. Then Cameron turns it up to 11 with Titanic, which is the largest metaphor for human arrogance and dependence on technology since the story of Icarus. And it had Céline Dion. Avatar suggests the nice blue people ought to win. It's so nice.
Our history says that the hairless apes will be coming back to Avatar, and this time they’ll be all out of bubble gum.