Existential Despair and Avatar
“Avatar” made me want to do a lot of things, like become an eco-terrorist. Perhaps I’m not the best standard with which to judge how the highest-grossing film in history affected most viewers, but it turns out many Americans, and not just the LSD-casualties, found themselves longing after the lush world of Pandora and its pantheistic Na’vi inhabitants. It seems that “Avatar” appeals to an instinct inside each of us — an instinct that wishes to reject everything about the world we currently live in.
Whether James Cameron intended it to or not, “Avatar” is emerging as the most effective critique of modernism since “Hair” (which, for the record, made me want to drop out of school and live off of my parents in a loft while pretending to draft dodge; which would eventually lead to up to the establishment of an actual love-tribe in Big Sur somewhere.)
Most critics compare the themes presented in the movie to “Pocahontas” or, more maturely, “Dances With Wolves,” but that does not explain the large emotional impact the show has been having on its viewers. The movie transcends a mere anti-imperialist/pro-environmentalist agenda and instead attacks the values at the core of modern life (and I mean that in the best possible way). “Avatar” is the first popular movie in a long time to present an alternative to our culture — one that, despite being literally alien, might be closer to humanity’s true essence. Instead of the point being “let’s just leave the Indians alone” or “humanely assimilate them to our way of life” or “appreciate their culture in the way you appreciate art you can’t understand” the movie wants to grab you by the throat and scream “LET’S BE LIKE THIS.” It’s not about sleeping in cool hammocks or going for walks amongst glowy mushrooms, it’s about being in touch with our human nature.
It’s hard for most people to not laugh at this idea, but maybe it’s true: the Neolithic revolution was the worse thing to ever happen to humanity; “Avatar” showed many that being ‘civilized’ and being ‘human’ are contradictory ideas.
The Neotlithic revolution, by the way, is anthropological term to describe the point where humans discovered farming and “civilizations” began to form. Before that humanity existed as tribes of hunter-gatherers in what anthropologists call the Paleolithic Age, which sounds like it made life really nasty, brutish, and short; but, then again, it did comprise more than 99 percent of human society.
In the wake of “Avatar’s” premier, news sources reported that many viewers left the film feeling depressed and “lost” about their relationship to contemporary society. Some people even contemplated suicide with the realization that we are trapped in a world that will never be like Pandora. Is this merely the result of the cinematic idealism of Cameron, who portrayed an utterly impossible society that violates the human condition too much to ever be considered possible? Or does the movie instead appeal to an intuitive presence inside all of us — not mere animal instinct to return to nature — but true “humanity,” that is, the kind of existential condition that characterized the vast majority of our species’ existence. Too bad we killed all the wooly mammoths.
Jeff Silberman is the views editor. He can be reached for comment at .