I’ve finally seen Avatar, and it’s as amazing and spectacular as everyone says. The 3D experience is exhilarating, the plot is tight and smart, and the concept is brilliant. It’s one thing to write a story from an alien’s point of view; but Cameron has gone one step further, by allowing a human being to become an alien. (I know that also happens in District 9 – but in Avatar you really start to see and feel the world from this new, extraordinary perspective.)
I do have a couple of gripes about the movie though. And I accept that my criticisms probably say more about me than they do about James Cameron.
But really, who would actually want to live on that ghastly planet full of simpering size zero models? They’re all so skinny! Where are the tubby aliens!
I also have a problem with the sheer unremitting niceness of the aliens. Admittedly, Neytiri the cute alien love interest, does get to snarl and be cross from time to time, and those indeed are her sexiest scenes. But the deal is: humans, especially American soldier humans, and American mean-minded bureaucrat humans, are a Bad Thing (except for our small team of liberal-leaning American nice guys, including one Hispanic woman.) And the aliens, by contrast, are a Good Thing. For they are ‘primitive’, at one with nature, in touch with their feelings, and receptive to the gaia of the planet in the way that rich materialistic Westerners (like me and, quite possibly, you) simply aren’t.
Well okay, it’s a movie, and that’s the story, and I’m not going to knock it. But there’s something about this vision of the sacred primitive that has always got my goat. Because in reality, lots of ancient and primitive cultures have been violent and warmongering. Some civilisations, like the Maya, died out because of greed and war. The Incas and the Aztecs were also brutal violent cultures; and their Spanish invaders were no better, morally speaking, but also not that much worse.
And that’s humans for you. We are a violent, predatory, competitive species, and there’s never been a time in history or pre-history when that hasn’t been the case. And no wonder: we are products of an evolutionary system that privileges survival over all else. Nature is red and tooth and claw – damn, I wish I’d said that! – and the only way to stay alive is to kill better, flee better, or hide better than all the rival species.
If primates had remained in the trees, and jackals had become sentient – would the world really be a better place? Would capitalism be more humane and fair, if snarling hyenas in suits ran the banks and the financial institutions? Would the streets be safer if wolves were in charge of the Neighbourhood Watch scheme? Or wouldn’t they just – being wolvish by nature – steal and kill and mug unsuspecting elderly wolves?
Lions are the kings of the jungle; but they are lazy, arrogant and savage beasts. Would sentient lions do a better job of this planet? Or wouldn’t they just sleep for eighteen hours a day then nuke all the other lions for two or three hours before going to bed again?
Evolution is a cruel schoolteacher; and for that reason, my guess it that most aliens we encounter – all of whom will have been subject to evolutionary forces - will be just as violent and selfish and brutal as we, as a species, are.
Of course I like to believe that humanity is capable of better things. Humans can be wise, poetic, liberal, gracious, and kind. (I’m not saying I am any of those things though.) But generally, I would say – looking around a post-Iraq War world, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Copenhagen summit, at a time when greedy bankers who almost destroyed our financial system are being rewarded by massive bonuses and new highly paid jobs – I’d say we are a species that has a long way to go before we can call ourselves a civilisation.
In Avatar, the balance of nature is vividly dramatised as a bond between all living things. In evolution, I would more cynically argue, the balance of nature is that if there are too many herbivores, the predators will catch them more easily and then there will be fewer live herbivores. And if the predators get too skilful, they’ll kill too many prey; and then they’ll die of starvation.
Evolution is a battlefield littered with corpses; it’s really NOT that nice.
That doesn’t mean I’m defending the humans in Avatar. Nor am I denying the beauty of Nature, and the extraordinariness of the way so many diverse creatures sustain life in a complex web of inter-relationships. But ‘one-ness’ with Nature only gets you so far; it takes hard work, and moral courage, to pursue and enact the ideals of justice, peace, cooperation, democracy and fairness.
So we, as a species, have a long way to go; but I’m betting that most other species in the universe will have the same problems, and the same flaws, as we do. For that reason, I’d prefer a less rose-tinted view of alien life. Let them have flaws; let them make mistakes. Let them be the slaves of their own evolution – whether they are predators, prey, parasites, or symbiotes.
And let’s also hope that they, and we, learn to work together and with others, to build a culture that isn’t based around the desperate desire to thwart and humiliate others, in order to be ‘top dog’.
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