Y’know, I really went into this movie ready to be swept away.
I’ve heard all the stories about the original Avatar, how people found themselves aching for this alternate world that it conjured. Of course, I saw it at the time, and enjoyed it but… wasn’t so impressed. Nonetheless, in the intervening years I’ve become a fan of spectacle, and often just let myself enjoy some big dumb action when the spirit so moves me. It did not move when I went to see Jimmy Cameron’s long-awaited sequel to his record-breaking blockbuster about alien cat people.
Perhaps that would serve as a short version of my review: It didn’t grab me. Sure, there were parts that I enjoyed, ol’ Jimmy sure knows how to make an action scene, but overall I kept getting distracted by the weird faces of the na’vi, and feeling every minute of its three hours and twelve minutes of runtime. It has some pacing problems, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.
No, my friends, my dear shipmates, I am here to talk about a subject on which is ne’er far from my thoughts: Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, the 19th century novel by one Herman Melville!
You Must Be Kidding
Okay, so I am, just a little bit, there is actually a pretty strong connection, and it ties deeply into the larger point that I would like to make. Y’know what, let’s get off on the right foot, here’s my hot take: this politics of this film are so deeply fucked up that I am having difficulty even finding the right words for it. It is creating a fantasy of a natural world that is more harmonious than anything that actually exists, and serves to create an avenue for guilt-free appropriation of indigenous culture through the medium of an alien species that is a model of a “perfect” victim.
Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack here. This is why I wanted to start with Moby Dick.
The Anti-Moby Dick
The Way of Water offers what is essentially a deconstruction of Moby-Dick; or, the Whale as a subplot in the latter half of the film. Let me explain the surface details, and then you and I can start to dig into the deeper strata of meaning beneath the aesthetic choices being made here.
The broad strokes are thus: Jake Sully and his family of alien-human hybrids, plus his pure alien wife, decide to abandon their home and their clan for vague and poorly though-out reasons. They skedaddle on over to the vast archipelagos of Pandora, alighting on the beach of a different tribe of na’vi, who welcome them with… not exactly open arms, but not entirely closed ones either. These water na’vi have evolutionary adaptations that allow them to swim and dive more easily, and the Sully family have trouble fitting in at first. The younger son is nearly killed when some local rowdy teens abandon him on a fishing trip outside of the protective reef, and he is targeted by a deadly shark-like beast.
But, this half-human youth is saved by the miraculous intervention of alien whale-like beast! We learn in, over the course of the next hour or so, that these creatures, the tulkun, have both a) a symbiotic relationship with the local water na’vi tribe, whom they bond with and share psychic connections, and b) are a society in and of themselves with their own rules and culture and science and art and whatnot. However, the whale that saved the young Sully boy is an outcast of this whale society. Literally, that is what they call him.
It turns out, this tragic hero has betrayed on of the core values of the whale folk of Pandora: complete pacifism! He dared to fight back against the human whalers that have begun to harvest an improbably valuable resource from the brains of these space whales: Amrita, a substance which can, for some reason, stop human aging. In an ill-fated raid of revenge on a whaling vessel that killed his mother, Payakan, this outcast whale, lost one of his fins, and was stuck with a harpoon that is removed by the younger Sully boy, an act that cements their friendship forever.
Of course, in the end, Payakan comes to the rescue during another raid on this same whaling vessel, which is holding other memebers of the Sully household for reasons that I won’t get into now. Rather than simply ramming the boat from below and sinking it, in a singular act of awesome power, he kind of leaps onto the deck and flops around, incidentally causing a lot of damage. Oh, also he very deliberately causes the arm of the captain of this whaling vessel, one Mick Scoresby, to be ripped from his body, as his whaling ship is destroyed.
D’ya get it? Scoresby? Loses an arm? Because of a whale!
The Surface Level
So, on its face, we have a very simple deconstruction of Moby Dick: the whale is a hero, the whalers are the villains, we all cheer when the ship sinks. During the movie, when the character was named, I was chuckling quietly to myself. I get what you’re doing here, Cameron! Very droll, how fun, a little literary reference treat, just for us high-faultin’ folks in the audience.
However, even on the surface, this is a bit lame as a deconstruction. It is merely attacking the popular notion of both Moby Dick as a narrative, and whaling as an institution. On a deeper level, one could argue that it still works because it is inverting the dynamics of the novel as well: we get all the inner life and backstory of the whale, rather than the whale hunter, who is basically not even a character.
Mick Scoresby, in the film, is just some Australian dude who loves making money, and doesn’t give two shits about the majesty of nature going on around him. A perfect caricature of an uncaring and evil human, right out of an episode of Captain Planet.
Now, it must be noted here, if I am to be at all generous to one Jimbo Cameron, that this film is but a single piece of what is an apparently quite large tapestry of a story that shall comprise the Avatar saga. Both Payakan and Scoresby survive the film, and are slated to appear in future entries in this franchise.
After all, what is a Moby Dick riff if you don’t get someone driven to madness by their lust for revenge? No doubt we will have another inversion here, where the whale ends up seeking further vengeance on the whaler. Or perhaps we’ll have something more traditional, since Cameron seems so committed to drawing his heroes and villains in such pure colors.
At this point, on the surface, it’s a cute reference, maybe a little off the mark. But oh, my friends, it gets so much worse.
Strata 1: Whale Culture
It is boldly asserted, at a certain point in the film Avatar: The Way of Water, that the alien space whales known as the tulkun have a rich culture. They create art and are brilliant scientists, and even the humans who slaugfhter them wax rhapsodic about the size of their brains, readily admitting that they must be smarter than us.
In fact, come to think of it, both times that this great intelligence and sophistication is mentioned, it is in the wake of its untimely loss. You see, the “spirit sister” of one of the leaders of the tribe of water na’vi is killed by the vile Scoresby. As he is harvesting her precious bodily fluids, the scientist who reluctantly works with him explains the incredible intelligence of the whales. Later, the leader of the village laments that the slaughtered tulkun was a great musician.
Do we see any particular evidence of this culture? Any songs? Any scientific theorems? No, of course not. All we get is that they are pacifists, and they love to come and frolic in the waters around the village of the na’vi, connecting with them and swapping stories of their travels. We hear no stories, of course. We see no flashes of brilliance. This whale culture is left entirely theoretical, even within the fictional framework of the film, where it would be easy to gin something up.
This is an entirely theoretical loss. The whales are inhuman, but unlike the whales of Moby Dick, we are meant to empathize with them deeply, and directly. They are able to form a psychic connection with the na’vi through their hair tendrils, as are most Pandoran creatures. This is how the young Sully boy connects with Payakan, and it is how the connection between the species as a whole and the audience is forged. The bridge of empathy between the wild beast and the thinking, sapient creature is a concrete reality of the world.
Thus is the victimhood of the whale by the whaler made aesthetically perfect. We can know they are noble victims, swimming to their doom, facing death at the harpoon-point of the vile humans with all the grace of the greatest of Christian martyrs!
There is nothing for us to judge them on except for this perfect noble sacrifice. There is no aesthetic nit to pick, no taste that can sour in ones mouth, only the pure corruption of human greed against the noble purity of cetacean virtue. It’s a matchup that is just about as rigged as one could possibly make.
It makes one wonder: is it really necessary? Is it not sad enough that poor whales are being slaughtered for their fluids? Must we up the stakes and the drama to ensure that the audience is entirely on the right side?
Yes. That is the true project of this film, to create something more aesthetically perfect than reality. This is the actual gambit, to craft a world that is easier to live in. To show you the glory of human creation, and perhaps have some vague hope that a bit of it may be reflected on the reality around us, once we come up for air.
Strata 2: Wash Away the Sins of Nature
The natural world of Pandora is simply better than that of Earth. This is not stated outright in the films, but it is a clear theme which becomes evident if one reflects on the facts which we are presented.
Nature on Pandora is unnaturally harmonious. The na’vi slot into it as masters of their environment, but not through domination, but rather through mutual cooperation with individual creatures, and with a sort of Gaia intelligence, that surrounds and imbues everything. We are presented with a perfected form of nature, where things can truly understand one another, where meaningless death and suffering are avoided, where everything that exists works together towards some harmonious purpose.
This is, of course, how people sometimes think of nature on earth (see: the Gaia hypothesis), but it is not true, at least as far as we can tell. Of course, some parts of the natural world seem to fit together, but the gears are greased with blood. All around you, there is a charnel house of death and killing, an unending churn of mutual killing and hatred that drives the evolutionary engine.
This is brought up in… Moby Dick! Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale, I wrote extensively about the vision of nature, and specifically the sea, bering an unending horror show of death and destruction, beneath the veneer of a perfectly operational system. The very idea that there is some harmony, some sort of plan, is an absurdity on its face.
To pick out a less horrifying example: consider the humble bat. For decades, scientists believed that bats could avoid one another in the midst of their seemingly chaotic flights by use of echolocation. But, the advent of high-speed and low-light photography revealed the truth: bats bump into each other all the time. It’s just that they don’t do badly enough to die. That’s all that evolution cares about: Does it prevent you from reproducing? If not, keep it, who cares. If it actually helps, then it will continue to show up, even if it makes other parts of life harder.
So: The films in the Avatar franchise are showing us a sort of perfected nature, free of its sins. We do not see the meaningless and anonymous deaths that fuel all living things, but rather only the harmonious system that they are all part of. The whale is not an unknown and unknowable force of great power, it’s your old buddy who is gonna sing you a tune.
The project of Avatar is creating a whole world that is conceptually and visually more aesthetically pleasing than the natural world we actually live in. You cannot live in the ocean in our world, humans aren’t built for it, you will simply run out of air and die. But on Pandora, a na’vi can bond with a glowing sea creature that looks like a pair of gelatinous angel wings, and then breathe underwater as long as they like!
The magical power of psychic empathy, borrowed from alien beings, allows all barriers to be crossed. It grants limitless power, and in a way that does not disrupt the environment. This is the truy fantasy at the heart of the story.
But wait… we’re not done.
Strata 3: The Ultimate Form of the Perfect Victim
Now, you may say, I am blowing a small subplot way out of proportion. This movie isn’t even about the tulkun, it’s about Jake Sully and his family, and their journey to find a new home. Our point-of-view characters are not the space whales, they are still kept at a distance; surely the messy struggles of these space cats are more natural fodder for traditional stories?
O! If only this story were just about some intelligent space whales, and their unfair slaughter at the hands of evil humans. If only it were merely a Fern Gully, and not the more insidious project which spreads a truly evil ideology at its very core! O, my shipmates, turn back now, for we are truly reaching the very depths of depravity at this point.
Let us discuss… the na’vi.
So, on the surface level they are obviously appropriative of indigenous cultures and lifestyles in a sort of amalgamated, undifferentiated way. The forest tribe from the first movie being a kind of mish-mash of American indigenous peopls, while the water tribes from the new films are South Pacific Islanders of various types. I mean, there’s mountains of evidence, but all you really need to look at is the casting of the chiefs of each tribe: the forest tribe had Wes Studi, the water tribe has Cluff Curtis.
But, much like the tulkun improves upon the vicious and unpredictable nature of the sperm whale as a victim, the na’vi are an improved, more aesthetically pleasing version of indigineity. There is none of that messy history to worry about, no internecine conflicts to speak of, no messy, inferior, human flaws to get in the way.
Besides their perfect, harmonious relationship with their surroundings, and their repression by evil, greedy humans, the na’vi have on great advantage over real-life indigenous people the world over: they are aliens. They are disconnected from the mire of the human experience, they represent something beyond our understanding. The perfect and most noble of all savages., they’re not even depicted as particularly savage, just noble.
This also provides what is perhaps the most important aspect: they are fictional. So, you are free to imagine yourself among their number, perhaps as another traitor to humanity like Jake Sully. You can speak their language and wear their traditional dress, and nobody will bother you with good cause, because the na’vi are totally fake. Made up. Fictional, perfect, alien martyrs, the ultimate power fantasy for a guilty colonialist conscience.
Strata 4: The Power of Victimhood
This process of aesthetic perfection, of seeking a more and more perfect and pure martyr and victim, is not an accident, and it’s not finished yet.
We often think of victims as the weakest in society. But in psychology, the position of the victim in the triumvirate of victim, rescuer, and persecutor, the victim has the most power. This is why the most powerful people in our society are always claiming to be oppressed in some way, why christians in America still pretend they are living in ancient Rome and must hide their faith on pain of death.
To be a victim is to shed oneself of the responsibility to act. It is also to give onself the freedom to act in whatever way one sees fit. If you act to save yourselfe, you are a greater hero. If you act to make the problem worse, you are the greater tragic victim. Nothing is your fault, you are freed from sin by your very situation, by forces outside of your control.
Jake Sully is not the perfect victim, he’s still mostly human, tained by human culture and sympathy. His wife, Ney’tiri, is also not the perfect victim, she is driven to great rage and acts in a way unfamiliar and alien to us humans in the audience. She is too much of an indigenous stereotype to engender our ultimate empathy.
No, the perfect vitims that Jim Cameron has created for us are the Sully children. Part human, they are marked with “demon blood” in the form of an extra finger on each hand. They are victims among their own people. They are the victims of their parents imperfect parenting. They are torn from a familiar environment and set adrift amongst a strange people, and must overcome that social and physical barrier, adapting to a new situation. They are born into a struggle which they did not make, the war the humans bring, and which their parents stoke as a guerilla campaign.
The perfect, cultureless, blameless, fragile, hated by all. The ultimate victims. They are to be the true protagonists of this story, and thus the true aim of the entire endeavour is revealed. Creating a method for you, the viewer at home, to embody this perfect victimhood, to feel that rush of power, to step into this mixture of oppression and great freedom.
You are part of a harmonious and perfect system, the only conflict is external. Thus, you are free to enact any and all violence to protect that system. You are repressed at every layer of society: family, tribal, geopolitical. It is only on a level of individualism that one can be safe and complete.
And so, we arrive at my original point: Avatar is a power fantasy. It is a medium through which the audience can experience the fantasy of complete and total victimhood, on multiple levels at once. A method of completing appropriation of victimized cultures through the medium of a perfected and alien nature.
One might say that these movies represent the full power of aesthetics given form. How far can they really take you? The act of relentless perfection, seeking the perfect cinematic and graphical form of nature. Simply iterating and working harder and harder to improve a crtaft untl you create a sort of cursed object by accident.
To be clear, I don’t think Cameron is malicious. I’m not out here promoting some sort of conspiracy. I think he comes by all of this honestly, I just also happen to think that he has created something truly grotesque, and perhaps evil, if it is possible for a piece of art to be evil.
Hoo boy, well, that was a lot of fun. I do enjoy stretching my critical muscles a bit. I must apologize for the lack of Moby Dick posts lately, it has been on my mind. I appreciate all the comments I receive! I hope you enjoy this little diversion.
On one final note, I would sincerely advice you to not see this movie. There is an organized boycott from many Native American groups, with good reason. That article serves to make much the same argument as mine, in far less dramatic fashion, with the words of actual indigenous people, and with evidence from the mouth of the director himself.