Foreign policy: Diffusing arrogance in ‘Avatar’
GIVEN THAT it was, at its core, primarily a big-budget action film, “Avatar’’ may be the most dissected blockbuster in history. Since its release, countless armchair philosophers and film critics have debated its many messages. Is it mostly meant to be anti-American? Anti-imperialist? Pro-environmental?
It certainly was polarizing. Enthusiasts pointed to the new-age-infused beauty of Pandora’s moon-wide biological network. Detractors yawned and said they preferred the film back when it was set on earth and titled “Dances with Wolves.’’ But it was the military angle that came through most clearly, making “Avatar’’ as much about the Obama era as about the tastes of audiences.
It was one of the most nakedly anti-jingoistic big-budget films ever made. The mercenaries who seek to destroy and kill whatever and whomever is necessary to mine unobtainium (couldn’t director James Cameron come up with a more original name?), a valuable resource found on Pandora, speak in the language of the US military, with mentions of fighting “terror with terror,’’ preemptive strikes, and gripes about the need to respect holy sites. (The film does point out that the grunts are contractors, not military personnel, but it certainly does not go out of its way to emphasize the distinction.)
“Avatar,’’ in short, delivers - though that may be too passive a word for a movie composed almost entirely of exclamation points - an explosive depiction of what happens when a powerful, technologically advanced society unleashes itself on a smaller, weaker adversary for questionable purposes. And it’s a message that bears at least some similarity to the shift in tone in American foreign policy Barack Obama adopted when he took office.
Obama made a swift point of disarming the perception of US arrogance. Early in his presidency, he gave conciliatory addresses in Europe, Latin America, and South America. Then he gave a June 2009 speech in Cairo in which he called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,’’ calling for the importance of the two sides “recognizing [their] common humanity.’’ Conservatives were outraged, dubbing Obama’s trips his “apology tour,’’ while many liberals breathed a sigh of relief that after eight years of endless arrogance and unilateralism, America was ready to rejoin the world.
In “Avatar,’’ the protagonist Jake Sully transforms from a participant into an opponent of human intervention , in a journey that roughly mirrors the shift in tone from George W. Bush to Obama. Jake could also stand in for many Americans. At the beginning of the decade, they were sure of the America’s righteousness in its foreign-policy initiatives. Halfway through the decade, as the body counts mounted and they became more acquainted with the people being bombed in their name, they began asking questions. By the end of the decade, they were convinced that America had not used its power wisely, and were ready to reassess their country’s role in the world.
Of course, “Avatar’’ takes things a step further. Jake doesn’t organize an anti-imperialist march or email his congressman on earth to pull funding for the corporation pillaging Pandora. Rather, he actually joins in the Na’vis’ fight against the human interlopers. And Hollywood, being Hollywood, sanded away most traces of nuance. In “Avatar’’ there’s never any argument the Na’vi pose a threat to humanity, nor any argument - at least none not seeped in barbarism - that humanity has any right to immolate the Na’vi homeworld in pursuit of a precious material.
Still, “Avatar’’ can be seen as a sort of Cairo speech for Hollywood. The film, which has raked in more than $2.5 billion worldwide, grossed two and a half times as much abroad as it did domestically, and it’s impossible that its references to US military-style language and tactics -which were delivered with the subtlety of one of Pandora’s impossibly large dragon-like creatures swooping down and attacking some helpless prey - went over the head of rapt foreign audiences.
“Avatar,’’ like Obama, presented an America not afraid to confront its own mistakes - projected in 3D onto stories-tall screens all around the world. It’s the sort of high-decibel mea culpa that might actually help change how America is viewed.
Jesse Singal, a frequent contributor to the Globe opinion pages, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.