AVATAR: 3-D Mythology of the American Left

Myths are traditional stories that demonstrate part of the worldview or explain a practice or belief of a certain people.  Although we consider ourselves very advanced and beyond myth-telling, our culture still engages in the practice of mythology, and usually Hollywood produces the most gripping and effective myth-telling in the present world.

The 1999 sleeper hit, Matrix, drew heavily on Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Greek mythology.  Wanda Teays, a film professor and chair of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, noted that “The Matrix touched a need in our consciousness.  It’s rare in action movies that audiences are asked to think, even though that’s what we want. The Matrix made us think about everything from our faith to our destiny.”

Star Wars, perhaps the most successful of the Hollywood myth series, posited a worldview of a Force in the universe that gave meaning to the lives of the Star Wars heroes.  Fans loved Star Wars not just for the special effects and dramatic action scenes, but also for the answers the movie gave to life’s most difficult questions: good and evil, pleasure and pain, life and death, loyalty and betrayal.

James Cameron presents the most recent Hollywood myth in his new movie Avatar.  In this amazing and breathtaking technological wonder, James Cameron delivers an almost compelling story that demonstrates the worldview of a certain people, the twenty-first century American Left.  James Cameron weaves in seven liberal dogmas — indisputable beliefs of an ideology — in his latest history-making movie.       

Military men are stupid, evil, or both.  What better spokesperson could there be for the dogma of the American Left than former Democratic Party 2004 presidential nominee Senator John Kerry. Senator Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971.  In his testimony, he accused the American military of “war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command . . . .  They . . . personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”

Not surprisingly, Senator Kerry also demonstrated the American Left dogma that military men are stupid.  In October of 2006, Kerry commented to college students in a political rally speech on the importance of education:  “if you make the most of it and you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well.  If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

The hero of Avatar, wheelchair-bound Marine veteran Jake Sully, introduces himself as “just another dumb grunt gettin’ sent someplace I was going to regret.” If only Jake had made the most of his education, studied hard and done his homework, as John Kerry admonished.  Jake’s boss, the scientist Grace Augustine, constantly reviles his lack of intellect, “Let your mind go blank.  That shouldn’t be hard for you,” and “One idiot with a gun’s enough.”  When Jake’s brain is scanned, revealing that he has a “gorgeous brain, with nice activity,” Grace responds, “Go figure.”

Quaritch, the other major Avatar character with a military role, despises Grace and her team of “science pukes.”  Quaritch hates the Pandoran people whom he disparages as “roaches,” and he cannot leave Pandora because “This is my war here.”  Initially, he assumes Jake is on his side, telling him “I need you to learn about these savages, gain their trust.  Find out how I can force their cooperation, or hit ‘em hard if they don’t.”  He wants Jake to help “keep some of my boys from going home like you.  Or bagged and tagged.”  His response to the faith of the one of the Pandoran native groups, the Omaticaya, is to tear down their religious totem and stomp it into the mud.  Quaritch sees everything in black and white, and scolds Jake for forgetting for what team Jake plays.

After the Omaticaya strike back, killing six of the humans, Quaritch is delighted that “This is exactly the incident we needed” to put his plan of forcing the Omaticaya out of their home.  Quaritch states, “Well, I’d say diplomacy has failed.”

One of the young Omaticaya warriors, Tsu-tey, calls into question the courage of the humans, “Your warriors — hide in machines — fight from far away.”  Tsu-tey channels the Left when he asserts that “These aliens kill everything they touch, like poison.”

The script describes how the “miners lock and load like the red-blooded redneck NRA supporters they are.”  Avatar’s greedy, golf-playing corporate executive Selfridge tells Quaritch that “I am not authorizing you to turn the mine-workers into a freakin’ militia.”  When Quaritch’s troopers are destroying the Omaticaya at Hometree, which is also filled with children and elderly Omaticaya, one of the troopers yells out, “Yeah baby!  Get some!”  The human troopers raze the Omaticaya village in a fashion reminiscent of an interplanetary Genghis Khan.

Corporations are evil and corporate executives are selfish, greedy, and amoral.  Selfridge’s name alone conjures a character bent on advancing up the mountain of success.  The script describes Selfridge as ruthless, and the story proves this.  His corporation is clear-cutting the virginal rainforest, and the mining for unobtainium has created a “lifeless crater – as if a giant cookie cutter took a chunk out of the world.”  At the beginning of the movie, Selfridge bemoans to Grace that the “relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.”  Grace reminds him that “That tends to happen when you use machine guns on them.”  Selfridge then drops using the “indigenous” word to reveal his true feelings, “Those savages are threatening our whole operation.  We’re on the brink of war and you’re supposed to be finding a diplomatic solution.  So use what you’ve got and get me some results.”

Selfridge is frustrated that the Omaticaya are not interested in what the humans have to offer, “We try to give them medicine and education.  Roads!  But ­no, — they like mud.”  Jake sees that the humans have nothing to offer the Omaticaya, and knows that they will not “make a deal.”  They will not sell their home for “lite beer and the shopping channel.”  Jake is heartsick when he describes earth to the mother goddess of Pandora, “There’s no green there.  They killed their Mother, and they’re going to do the same thing here.”

Selfridge readily betrays his greed and lack of humanity.  “Killing the indigenous looks bad, but there’s one thing shareholders hate more than bad press — and that’s a bad quarterly statement.  Find me a carrot to move them, or it’s going to have to be all stick.”  He tells a dozer driver to keep driving despite an Omaticaya blocking the way, “Roll on.  He’ll move.  These people have to learn that we don’t stop.”

Of course, James Cameron knows a few things about the imperatives of commercial success.  Business Week tells us: “Despite Cameron’s track record for delivering large profits on big budgets, Twentieth Century Fox, which co-financed Titanic, hesitated to make an even riskier film that required the creation of a three-dimensional alien world. ‘I knew that if this failed my name would be dirt, but that’s the nature of this business,’ says Cameron. ‘Every director knows that you can flame and burn like the Hindenburg, and do it very publicly.’”

Iraq is another Vietnam.  Quaritch mentions that “We operate — we live at a constant threat condition yellow.”  Jake talks about how his job is “to embed with the Omaticaya.  To find out how to screw them out of their home.  By deceit or by force, he (Quaritch) didn’t care.”  Quaritch states that “We will fight terror with terror.”  Quaritch also spouts forth that “we will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep they won’t come within a thousand klicks of this place.”

James Cameron admits, “I wrote this thing before the Iraq war, but it lined up beautifully, because I was making references in the first script I wrote to Vietnam and all the way back to the colonial period in the Americas.”  The American Left just cannot seem to move beyond the Vietnam War, which seems to have blasted a crater in the baby boomer’s memory.

The health care system is manifestly unjust.  At the beginning of the movie, we find out that Jake has a spinal injury that could be corrected to allow him to walk again.  Jake states, “They can fix a spinal, if you’ve got the money.  But not on vet benefits, not in this economy.”  Quaritch offers to facilitate Jack’s access to a spinal correction if he cooperates in Quaritch’s plans of infiltration and eventual annihilation of the Omaticaya.  One might think that Jake has no choice but to act as he does because he cannot afford the procedure that he needs.

Euthanasia is humane.  When Tsu-tey is mortally wounded, he tells Jake to “do the duty of Olo’eyctan.  Set my spirit free.”  At first, Jake refuses to kill Tsu-tey who responds, “I am already dead.”  The script then reveals, “By his movement, we know Jake has ended Tsu-tey’s pain.”  In this story world, Jake and Tsu-tey both are acting bravely to embrace this final act.

The idea of the noble savage lives on.  The human characters describe the Omaticaya as the indigenous, savages, and as roaches.  The script frequently talks about how they climb and move like monkeys and spider monkeys.  Several times, the script describes Jake’s Omaticaya love interest, Neytiri, as an Amazon which clearly she is not.  The Omaticaya seem to live in a state of innocence and purity.  Certainly, their bow and arrow weaponry and tree-dwelling are very primitive.  Jake states that the Omaticaya “don’t even have a word for ‘lie’ — they had to learn it from us.”       

The best religion is the one we make up ourselves.  Avatar pulls from several religions and ideologies, including Christianity, animism, pantheism, and Hinduism. Many writers have mined the movie for examples the presence of each of these religions in Avatar.  What is more interesting than identifying the allusions to each faith, is identifying the American Left dogma that embraces picking and choosing from various faiths and religious practices to create an individual “spirituality” based on preferences.

What do you think of the Myth of the American Left?  Does it exist, and if it does, does Avatar tell the Myth in a compelling and persuasive way?

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  1. #1 by Rich Hoyer on January 28, 2010 - 11:32 am

    How interesting – I had a COMPLETELY different reaction to this movie (see my review on my site for how different).

    By way of full disclosure, politically I am a moderate who holds the two party system in disdain, because so often we find ourselves taking the side of one party or the other when debating policy, rather than objectively debating issues themselves (see my blog for a full rant on the topic).

    With that said, let me play devil’s advocate with the position your post has taken. I do think that the movie’s anti-corporate bent runs parallel to liberal themes. With that said, even if it is true that much liberal thinking is misguided (I believe much of it is), it does not follow that ALL thinking that runs parallel to liberal thinking is incorrect (nor should the same apply to conservative thinking, much of which is also misguided).

    I interpret Cameron’s screenplay as painting a picture of how unbelievably wasteful our industrial system is in running roughshod over natural resources we don’t even fully understand for short term enrichment. Even though that message runs parallel to the liberal agenda’s anti-corporate stance, I think the message is valid and that it’s one that should give us pause about what we are doing. We shouldn’t invalidate that message on the grounds of its resemblance to (and so presumed derivation from) liberal thought.

  2. #2 by Becky W on January 28, 2010 - 2:00 pm

    Although we don’t share the same politics, I really enjoyed reading your take on Avatar and now I can’t wait to see it so I can think about some of the issues you raise.

  3. #3 by BMD on February 1, 2010 - 8:38 am


    Rich is challenging your assertion that Avatar presents “myths.” Avatar may be full of liberal cliches, but are they myths? That deserves a response.

    Is the American military the bloodthirsty teeth of imperialism? If so, America is the worst imperial power in the history of imperialism. Where’s my free oil from Iraq? Why aren’t our puppet states in Western Europe and Asia taking care of their share of our deficit?

    Are corporations evil? Corporations are organizations of people formed to pursue profit. Profit results from producing products or providing services that people want or need. People can be evil and greedy. Corporations are made of people. So, yes, a corporation can engage in “evil” activities. But, what’s the alternative? In a communist society, industry is controlled by an unaccountable government? How’s the environmental track record of communist China and the Soviet Union? The leftists don’t really have an alternative.

    Iraq is another Vietnam in that the left fails to understand both wars. Both wars were in the interests of national security. Was Bosnia another Vietnam? No — it didn’t serve the national security interests of the U.S., so it was acceptable to the left.

    Regarding the healthcare system, I wonder how long Quaritch would have to wait to get the spinal surgery in under a socialized healtcare system. The government health service might not even think Quaritch needs the surgery depending on his age.

    More importantly, where’s the Star Trek reference?

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