The genius of an oeuvre is measured by the breadth of its message – Avatar as not “just another war movie”

by Kim Bizzarri

Following last night’s choice of the Oscars’ jury to award Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker with the Best Picture prize, the debate has since then moved to the pubs and the ether. It appears to be primarily concerned with whether Bigelow’s portrait of “the” war does justice to the genre and whether, with time, Avatar will come to be recognised as more deserving of the aspired title. The debate however is having the effect of reducing Cameron’s gargantuan critique of modernity to “just another war movie”, adding to the already popular dismissal of the film, by the intellectual left, as a western guilt-fantasy. 

Lets start by considering the assumption that Avatar is “just another war movie”.  

If indeed we accept that Cameron’s intention was to provide us with a science-fictional portrait of war, then we must also conclude that von Trier’s Dogville is nothing more than an aesthetically minimalist representation of the Great Depression. Just as von Trier exploits the Great Depression as a historical backdrop against which he develops a provocative portrayal of human nature, so does Cameron in the use he makes of military intervention in Avatar.  

I can understand that the topical violence that characterizes both projects might easily lend itself to the juxtaposition of one film against the other but, beyond that, the two projects remain profoundly different, both in terms of their subject and in the breadth of their message.  

Whereas The Hurt Locker is a self-proclaimed war movie, Avatar is not. Avatar is at its core an ecological movie, which offers a powerful and accessible critique of modernity that brings to the fore what Horkheimer and Adorno would have referred to, perhaps more poetically, as the dialectic of enlightenment. At the heart of the film lies a critique of the artificial separation of the physical and the metaphysical that is characteristic of modern, western philosophies, and which we carry with us since Plato’s times. This original sin, which gave birth to modernity, is what has condemned us as a civilization to our expulsion from the Garden of “Pandora”, with a progressive loss of our connection to nature and, by virtue, of our humanity. It is this slow process of de-humanisation that has left us, in Cameron’s view, both physically and metaphorically crippled, and which Cameron chooses to embody in the character of Private Jake Sully.  

Although not as elegant in its execution as Lawrence’s celebrated allegory of our infertile modernity in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Cameron’s juxtaposition of the physically challenged Sully to his muscled Avatar-counterpart is certainly reminiscent of the powerful juxtaposition of the wheelchair-bound husband of Lady Chatterley to her virile and rural lover. Ironically, what posterity has come to recognise as one of the literary masterpieces of the 20th century, was originally slated by critics as pure filth. Whether this will be another element that Cameron will come to share with Lawrence, only time will tell. 

What is certain, however, is that in his critique of modernity, and not just of war, Cameron draws repeatedly from the wealth of insights provided by theories of “deep ecology” and “ecological psychology”, such as those developed by Arne Naess and Theodore Roszak. And while there is a middle ground between modern capitalist societies and “primitivism” – used here with reference to its theoretical meaning and not derogatively – the two are juxtaposed as a way of conveying a strong sense of the void that separates us from our nature. 

Cameron’s constant recalling of the deep and spiritual connection with Gaia, or Pandora if you prefer, makes it difficult to push the radical environmental message of this film to the sidelines in favour of a reductionist military interpretation of the film. Military intervention in Avatar is not employed in a context of war, but in one of violence in its broadest application, and one that finds its expression in the association of militarism to that of power, or “hegemony” if I may quote Gramsci. 

Whilst the violence resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan originates in the relatively recent ideological agency of the neo-conservatives, the violence portrayed in “Avatar” is driven by the material interest of transnational capital dating back to Colonial times of the Dutch West India Company – and whose pillaging and plundering continues today through the agency of international trade rules at the service of the modern corporate oppressor of the likes of Shell, Monsanto, Motorola and so forth.  

The kind of violence portrayed in Avatar addresses therefore far more universal and profoundly metaphysical questions of human nature, hubris and modernity that transcend not only the historical context of the Iraq and Afghan wars, but of war itself. 

The power of Cameron’s critique lies therefore in the breadth of its message, for it allows to draw from the allegory of the Na’vi’s faith to serve as an avatar for struggles as diverse as those affecting the oppressed Palestinians or the indigenous tribes of Bolivia; from military occupation, to environmental depredation. For this very reason, it feels unfair to reduce Avatar to just another war film because it constitutes the first mainstream blockbuster movie to give us a critical and progressive view of our “human ecology”, one that, in contrast with The Hurt Locker, offers us a more holistic and somewhat Aristotelian interpretation of human nature.

Kim Bizzarri is a doctoral candidate in multilevel governance at the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of a book on the challenges of global governance. He collaborates regularly with Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth Europe and ActionAid.  He can be reached at:

9 thoughts on “The genius of an oeuvre is measured by the breadth of its message – Avatar as not “just another war movie””

  1. Exactly, I couldn’t agree more! I, too, was extremely dissapointed upon learning that ‘The Hurt Locker’ (just another war film) had been awarded the most Oscars. ‘Avatar’ was a truly magical film to watch in 3D, whilst offering political and environmental insight into the West’s attitude towards power over preservation. As you so correctly point out, maybe time will prove Cameron’s ‘human ecology’ approach to be recognised as a masterpiece of its era.

    1. Honestly, I saw ‘The Heart Locker’ quite by chance last night and am still totally bewildered as to why it was awarded Best Film. Cameron must be feeling so insulted having lost out to the usual run-of-the-mill American film on war. It does give insight into just how stressful it must be working in Iraq as a soldier and what they have to face on a daily basis but there was none of Cameron’s genius behind it; maybe…just a lot of industrial/government backing!

      1. Obviously, I meant ‘Hurt Locker’; that comes from thinking in Italian ie. how they pronounce it…sorry. It was still pretty rubbishy, though.

  2. “Industrial/government backing”?
    Avatar was a hollywood blockbuster desgined to entertain the masses with special effects and a sub-standard storyline and character development. It was a rip-off of many other films. In my opinion it was simplistic, racist, and badly written. The Hurt Locker did not have government/industry backing, and had way less hype associated with it. It offers little social commentary, and is more about a white guy coming to save some helpless nature worshipers and getting the girl than anything else. As an allegory to colonialism it did not go very deep and an parallels to real life were obvious, with little analytic value.

    1. When you are endowed with a prosaic mind ill-equipped to handle irony, things might look that way. But at least in your case it is balanced by the remarkable skill to completely miss the point. Shame.

    2. “Sub-standard storyline and character development” this is the critique most associated with Avatar it is also the most shallow and besides the point thing that can be said about the movie. For a century movies have been judged by their “literary” qualities, story and character development, which is fair considering that so far technology has prohibited a movie from transmitting emotion and a message through it’s visual qualities. So far, that is to say until, Avatar. What is groundbreaking about avatar is that it manages to move you through it’s visuals. That it manages to show one something so beautiful and yet so familiar that it makes one cry when the brutality that is also familiar comes and destroys it. Criticizing Avatar for a “sub-standard storyline and character development” is like criticizing a Monet or Michelangelo’s David for “sub-standard storyline and character development”. That is were the genius of Avatar lies. That is probably why movie snobs such as yourself have seen more fit to reward a standard story like Hurt Locker then a visual masterpiece like Avatar, because the movie world is dominate by writers. In 10 years nobody will remember Hurt Locker but everybody will remember Avatar.

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