The Return of the natives  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The New Statesman has a slightly harsh review of James Cameron's "Avatar" (though not as harsh as John Pilger's) and a similar story evolving in India (minus the cool floating mountains) - Return of the natives.

James Cameron's Avatar tells the story of a disabled ex-marine, sent from earth to infiltrate a race of blue-skinned aboriginal people on a distant planet and persuade them to let his employer mine their homeland for natural resources. Through a complex biological manipulation, the hero's mind gains control of his "avatar", in the body of a young aborigine.

These aborigines are deeply spiritual and live in harmony with nature (they can plug a cable that sticks out of their body into horses and trees to communicate with them). Predictably, the marine falls in love with a beautiful aboriginal princess and joins the aborigines in battle, helping them to throw out the human invaders and saving their planet. At the film's end, the hero transposes his soul from his damaged human body to his aboriginal avatar, thus becoming one of them.

Given the 3-D hyperreality of the film, with its combination of real actors and animated digital corrections, Avatar should be compared to films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or The Matrix (1999). In each, the hero is caught between our ordinary reality and an imagined universe - of cartoons in Roger Rabbit, of digital reality in The Matrix, or of the digitally enhanced everyday reality of the planet in Avatar. What one should thus bear in mind is that, although Avatar's narrative is supposed to take place in one and the same "real" reality, we are dealing - at the level of the underlying symbolic economy - with two realities: the ordinary world of imperialist colonialism on the one hand, and a fantasy world, populated by aborigines who live in an incestuous link with nature, on the other. (The latter should not be confused with the miserable reality of actual exploited peoples.) The end of the film should be read as the hero fully migrating from reality into the fantasy world - as if, in The Matrix, Neo were to decide to immerse himself again fully in the matrix.

...Avatar's fidelity to the old formula of creating a couple, its full trust in fantasy, and its story of a white man marrying the aboriginal princess and becoming king, make it ideologically a rather conservative, old-fashioned film. Its technical brilliance serves to cover up this basic conservatism. It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the "military-industrial complex" of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs: a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of abeautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle. The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man's fantasy.

At the same time as Avatar is making money all around the world (it generated $1bn after less than three weeks of release), something that strangely resembles its plot is taking place. The southern hills of the Indian state of Orissa, inhabited by the Dongria Kondh people, were sold to mining companies that plan to exploit their immense reserves of bauxite (the deposits are considered to be worth at least $4trn). In reaction to this project, a Maoist (Naxalite) armed rebellion exploded...

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