If there is anything the Avatar films symbolise, it is the bond we as humanity have with planet Earth. Although the films are set on Pandora, this Greek name refers directly to our own planet. In ancient times, Pandora was the name of the goddess who represented Mother Earth. In her jar, she brought all the gifts and bounties for humanity. Literally, Pandora means All (Pan) Gifts (Dora). In later, more patriarchal eras, Pandora changed from mother goddess to the first woman created from earth and water, by order of chief god Zeus. In the process, she also acquired some more villainous traits: Hermes imbued her with a morbid curiosity, and in doing so she caused mankind much misery. The woman – instead of being the giver of life – suddenly became the cause of all wrongs on earth. Her jar of gifts turned into the famous box of all disasters: Pandora’s Box.
Perhaps not surprisingly, her name refers to the words pandemic, pandemonium and panic. We live in a time when Pandora’s Box seems to have been opened and all calamities are pouring out over the world.
In the Avatar films, it is clearly explained what is causing all the disasters: the greed, curiosity and conquest of ‘The Sky-people’, or humans. Instead of watching a science fiction film set in the future, we are looking at a mirror, reflecting our own history and imperfections.
In the first film, 13 years ago, we see how humans colonise the planet Pandora to mine the precious element Unobtanium. This comes at the expense of the Na’vi’s habitat. The ‘Hometree’, home of the indigenous Na’vi is razed to the ground without mercy with missiles, firebombs and bulldozers. It is one of the most intense scenes of the film that touched many viewers. But really we were sitting in the cinema watching the deforestation of the Amazon and so many other forests and jungles falling victim to our unbridled lust for profit. In Brazil, the previous president Bolsonaro wanted to clear the entire Amazon, forcibly remove the indigenous Indians, and make the land available for palm oil, meat industry, and other large-scale projects. The same is happening to jungles in Indonesia and Africa. The habitat of indigenous species has been disappearing at a rapid pace over the past few decades, so we have landed in the sixth great ‘Mass Extinction’. More than a quarter of all animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction.
The last mass extinction, which marked the end of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, was caused by the impact of a meteor. But in our time, we ourselves are the cause of species extinction. The Avatar series seems to want to remind us of this in no uncertain terms. However, fiction and reality still seem far apart. Whole tribes simply deny the harmful impact we humans have on nature and the climate. Some, such as oil companies and other multinationals, do this from commercial interests in order to continue plundering the earth’s resources for as long as possible; others do it from spiritual motives: ‘the earth will be fine’, ‘global warming is of all times,’ ‘Perhaps this is what it’s meant to be’ and still others continue celebrating under the motto: ‘After me the deluge,’ or ‘maybe it’s time for mankind to disappear. In short, as humans, when we see the ecological disaster unfolding before our eyes, we tend to bury our heads in the sand.
We would rather not see it, except in the movies. Then we can sit quietly in our cinema seat and not have to draw any consequences for our own lives. Apparently, a disaster has to be felt first for it to spur us into concrete action.
When the coronavirus caused deaths, suddenly anything was possible: lockdowns, testing, stop on air traffic, etc. But as long as the environmental disaster has not reached our own beds, we continue to stare passively ahead. We would rather watch the World Cup in Qatar, which cost some 200 billion, or set off fireworks for 100 million. In our unbridled greed for money, Dutch individuals are most likely to invest in a company like Shell because it yields the best returns. We do want to do something for the environment, but it should not cost us anything. We enjoy the good life like guests on the top deck of the Titanic, but do not realise that we are running straight towards the abyss like a herd of wildebeest.
The question is whether Avatar wakes us up or just makes us doze off further into a comfortable sweet sleep. We would rather laugh at a girl like Greta Thunberg than take her seriously.
In part two – Avatar; The way of Water – we see a water world in which many elements are borrowed from the culture of the Maoris of New Zealand and the Polynesian peoples of the Pacific. An area also abused by Western nations for their own gain, conquest and for nuclear testing such as on the island of Mururoa. In the film, we see an unadulterated whale hunt, where a few litres of the whale’s precious elixir of life – a kind of cod liver oil – makes $80 million. Instead of the exploitation and destruction of the jungles, as in Avatar 1, here we see how humans exploit the oceans and fish. From the cod liver oil of Pandora’s whale, you can become immortal. It is the funding source of all colonisation. Instead of learning from the inner wealth and spiritual values of the indigenous Na’vi – the Way of the Water – we are destroying the very thing that can save us.
In the year that the Netherlands apologises for the slave trade in history, it would be appropriate to look at how we continue to milk continents like Africa, Asia and South America for raw materials like lithium for our smartphones and electric cars. We apparently just don’t want to realise that our overconsumption and luxury casts a giant shadow on the other side of the world. Or as the Na’vi say: Everything is connected to everything else. Our use of plastic, oil, palm oil, concrete, metal, meat, cosmetics, etc. has an indelible impact on the earth. We have lost the balance. The connection with Mother Earth.
Now this is not new; we have been doing this for centuries. What is new is that for the first time we are looking at our own expiry date on this planet. If we continue at the current pace, our own lore is at stake.
Besides rampant economic greed, we also encounter parallels in Avatar with today’s war industry. Colonel Miles Quaritch, the ‘bad guy’ in the film, looks suspiciously like someone like General Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary army. When a few hundred young Russian soldiers were killed in an attack on New Year’s Eve, he responded with a laconic ‘Goodbye, boys. Happy New Year!’
Or: “Just because you have no arms or legs or have gone blind doesn’t mean you can go home. You can work in mine clearance. Then if a mine explodes and your metal leg flies off, we’ll weld a new one on.’ Such a text could have come straight from Colonel Quaritch from Avatar addressing his young recruits. Reality and fiction blend seamlessly, but somehow we find it difficult to connect the conclusions from the film with the world around us.
We can easily point the finger at Russia in this day and age, but there are also three fingers pointing back. The war industry has boomed improbably since the invasion of Ukraine. Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the US, China and so many others have once again entered an arms race, spending billions, due to increased tensions on the world stage. The sky is the limit. Billions needed for restoring the earth, or reducing poverty, are suddenly spent on the opposite: violence and destruction.
The old patriarchal system – all male leaders, boys play with toys – is heading straight for our downfall, rather than saving her. The masculine energy originally meant to protect the vulnerable and precious in the world has blown through into a machine of self-destruction and violence on one side, and control and totalitarianism on the other.
Avatar presents us with two scenarios. One is a technological world, where everything is determined by science, technology, and digital marvels. An addictive world of convenience, comfort and well-being. The other is a world where spiritual values, nature and ecology again take a central role, á la the life of the Na’vi. Perhaps our future is a combination of both, but then we need to change our course and abandon our arrogance and conceit. Indeed, currently, the two lifestyles are still diametrically opposed. Think of the oil pipeline at Standing Rock, where Indians and activists tried in vain to protect a nature reserve. Or the Gain-of-Function research of medical science, where we mess with nature and make viruses more dangerous and infectious. Still, things like shamanism, naturopathy, spiritual methods and other alternative ways of living are somewhat laughably dismissed as ‘floaty’ or ‘unscientific’. It is time we closely scrutinise and evaluate our elitist view of man and our Western paradigm and take to heart the messages that a film like Avatar shows us.
Otherwise, we are heading straight for the catastrophic disaster scenarios that are likely to unfold on Pandora in parts 3, 4 and 5 of Avatar.
For the only bright spot in this doomsday scenario, we have to go back to Greek myth. When all disasters have escaped from Pandora’s Box, there is one gift that remains: Hope. Perhaps that is what we need in the coming year to give us the courage to strive for a more beautiful world – despite everything.
Ton van der Kroon