Avatar on Earth Day
A blockbuster film showcases the contradictions of organic liberalism.


The connection of the inhabitants of Pandora to one another is woven into their biological constitution; they possess ponytail tendrils that enable them to bond with each other. They are also intimately bound, in this life and beyond, to the Tree of Souls, wherein dwells the goddess Eywa. The malevolent pursuers of unobtainium are nothing more than caricatures of evil, but the plight of the Na’Vi is a sympathetic one, and the Na’vi characters are engaging and even admirable.

The threat of irrevocable loss is quite credible. Here the film taps into a sentiment that has often been at the heart of conservatism: the worry that gambling on cosmopolitan forces of progress not only carries with it unintended consequences but also exacts a cost in the erosion of traditional customs and the destruction of intermediate institutions.  

Despite its ideological ambitions, however, the film has little time for Tocqueville-like reflections on the dangers of modernity, let alone its blessings. For a film that was many years in the making, it is remarkably void of self-awareness. It never faces squarely the way in which technology is necessary to allow viewers to experience and come to know this primitive world.

The word avatar has religious origins (it’s a Hindu term referring to the descent of a deity), but its more common contemporary use has to do with artificial or second lives and role playing in social media. From its title and from the fact that its main character takes on an artificial body and identity through the use of highly developed technology, then, one might have expected the film to probe this issue.

This lack of clarity about technology is palpable in the course of the final battle, during which the Na’vi, in collaboration with their earthling defenders, seem willing to use whatever technology is available to them to defeat the bad guys. Consider furthermore that the film has sparked lengthy online discussions on how to cope with post-Pandora depression, including suicidal thoughts. Many viewers, in other words, retreat into the very technology the film decries.
Our world is unlikely to become any less complex, the questions about technology any more tractable, in the near future. On the left, there is fear and trembling about the exploitation of natural resources and ecological devastation; on the right, there is a concern about cloning — the brave new world of genetic manipulation. These two crises may well arise from the same source: a conception of the external world and the body itself as mere property, raw material to be manipulated to satisfy untrammeled human desire.

As captivating as it is, Avatar is unlikely to be of much help in solving or even understanding the most important questions we face. In the end, it only helps to illustrate the Left’s imperfect faith in organic liberalism.   

– Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is the author of Shows about Nothing.


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