Nobody is ever going to claim that Avatar (2009) is highbrow or art house, or that it’s meant for an elite audience. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood blockbuster telling a story we all know (does Disney’s Pocahontas ring a bell?). Its concept was groundbreaking in only one respect: the use of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). Despite it being quite a generic movie story-wise, the potent combination of CGI, 3D, and this being James Cameron’s first feature film since Titanic managed to catapult it to the top of the box office. It broke the record of all time highest gross – a record held by Titanic since 1998 – bringing in $2,782,275,172. And that’s why Avatar is definitely a relevant film for this series: it reached a staggering amount of people, who did not receive the film’s message passively. No, this movie sparked responses from every possible direction, and not of all them were friendly. Which is where Avatar’s place in society becomes important.
Everyone always interprets a message differently. Some see Avatar as imperialist and/or colonialist, some see it as anti-war propaganda, it can be seen as a pro-environmental message, possibly anti-capitalist, and Weekly Standard’s John Podhoretz goes as far as to call the movie “anti-American.” Seeing as the story seems to be almost directly inspired by Pocahontas (though neither the Disney film nor the actual woman are credited), the link with the plight of Native Americans should not be ignored either. Whether you agree or not with any of these interpretations is of course up to your own discretion. I just want to emphasize that Avatar is important because it elicits all these reactions from so many different groups.
I am going to assume that you have watched Avatar at some point in your life. If not: there will be spoilers ahead. The film includes some (blatant) references to icons of both society and popular culture. The line “You’re not in Kansas anymore, you’re on Pandora” serves to highlight the alien quality of this new planet, before we even leave the military base. We are taken from the mundane Earth to unreal Pandora, which even seems to reference The Wizard Of Oz’s iconic use of TechniColor, so bright is the scenery. And, acting like the diligent and avid cinema-obsessed fangirl that I am, I watched the extended cut. It fleshes out the story of Grace’s school and allows the Other Guy (Pocahontas’ Kokoum) a more dignified end than is seen in the theatrical cut. More than that, it features a scene set in Grace’s school. The scene is notable for its prominent referencing of The Lorax, a story by Dr. Seuss adapted into a TV series (1972). I’m betting it’s not a coincidence that The Lorax’ main message is pro-environment either.
One entire sequence features a reference to a major icon recognized by our global society: 9/11. The scene where the American invaders destroy Hometree is reminiscent of the terror everyone experienced when first watching those images on their TVs. Hometree formed the basis of the Na’vi society, it was the place where they felt safest. And then it’s destroyed. By Americans. That last nuance is probably one of the most gutsy moves in modern cinema, because it takes a horrific moment from American history and turns it on its head. Americans, protectors of freedom, become the terrorists.
Which links back to Franklin’s fourth freedom: from fear. It’s difficult to definitively say which of the Four Freedoms is featured most prominently in this film, they are all included in one way or another. Mainly through a lack of that freedom. As just stated, the indigenous Na’vi are terrorized by the Americans. But Americans are also taking away certain liberties from their own. Freedom of speech and expression is definitely not prioritized within the military. This becomes poignantly clear when one of the few Americans on the side of the Na’vi decides that she “did not sign up for this shit.” Through choosing to disobey direct orders, she claims her agency while distancing herself from the American delegation on Pandora.
That’s the first and fourth freedoms covered, but the second and third are just as important in my humble opinion. Freedom of worship is directly addressed: the faith of the Na’vi is ridiculed by various American characters, on a number of occasions. More than that, those in higher positions within the military hierarchy fail to acknowledge that the Na’vi’s beliefs are echoed in the nature that surrounds them everywhere. Which eventually becomes their downfall: they never anticipated that the deity of the indigenous could be real, and they are taken unawares when Eywa decides to defend her People.
Finally, I identify freedom from want as being most poignantly present in the character of Jake Sully, our protagonist. Since his legs were paralyzed, he is constrained to his wheel chair. While my previous post posited that freedom of information is as relevant today as the other Four Freedoms, a case can be made for mobility as a form of freedom as well. Whether social or physical mobility. If your mobility is limited, you are not free. At all. Your choices are limited, your opportunities are limited. Which reflects how I would view freedom from want as well. I truly believe that mobility equals choice equals agency equals freedom. It is no surprise that social mobility – which is impeded on by racism and sexism –remains to be as relevant today as it was a decade ago, a century ago. It is everyone’s most basic freedom.
The Four Freedoms series focuses on films covering a form of freedom (or lack thereof). It tries to link the discussion to historical context and current relevance. On the 24th of May, the Four Freedoms will be awarded to the determined laureates. Find all posts in this series. What film should be covered next?