Avatar: environmental politics and worldwide success

6 November 2013

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Peter Kramer is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia. His recent books include The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (2005), 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010) and A Clockwork Orange (2011).

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar

In mid-December 2009, James Cameron’s militant environmental Science Fiction epic Avatar was released in over 15,000 cinemas around the world.[1] Cameron’s eagerly anticipated successor to his record-breaking 1997 film Titanic had originally been scheduled to appear in cinemas in May 2009. However, due to production delays, its release was shifted from the preferred pre-summer slot to the Christmas season, which has become increasingly important for Hollywood’s biggest films in recent years.

This shift meant that Avatar’s release coincided with the final days of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Arguably, this conference marked the high point of worldwide media attention to, and public debate about, global warming in particular, and environmental issues in general. However, the Copenhagen Accord, drafted by representatives of the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa on 18 December 2009, and ‘take[n] note of’ – but not ‘adopted’ – by the assembly of all conference delegates the following day was widely perceived as a disastrous failure.[2] It seemed highly unlikely that this non-binding agreement could guarantee the drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions needed for the prevention of catastrophic global warming.

While political efforts to mitigate climate change thus failed, Cameron’s film about the 22nd century, in which humanity, having largely destroyed the Earth’s biosphere, wreaks havoc on the distant moon Pandora before being defeated by the natives, succeeded beyond all expectations. The film took $0.8 billion at the North American box office and $2 billion outside North America; the total earnings of $2.8 billion accounted for almost 10% of all the money spent on tickets for the thousands of movies shown in cinemas around the world in 2010.

It is tempting to relate Avatar’s astonishing success to the intense public debate about climate change at the time of its release. More specifically, one might say that, against the backdrop of the failure of real-world environmental politics at the Copenhagen summit, Cameron’s film offered both a terrifying vision of humanity’s future and also an attractive, albeit utterly fantastic alternative. In other words, at the very same time that politicians were unable to develop an adequate response to climate change on Earth, Avatar offered an imaginary solution to the environmental destruction faced by the inhabitants of Pandora; importantly, these inhabitants include a number of renegade humans who find a new and better life on the alien planet.

In this article I want to map out several developments in Hollywood cinema leading up to the release and success of Avatar, paying particular attention to James Cameron’s previous films and to the global dimensions of Hollywood’s operations in recent decades. I then want to explore some of the ways in which we can make sense of Avatar’s story and its worldwide success, in particular what the film might have to tell us about environmental politics after Copenhagen.

Global Hollywood

In a 2011 interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel, James Cameron refers to Hollywood as a ‘state of mind’ rather than a place.[3] More specifically, Cameron, who was born and raised in Canada, describes Hollywood as a kind of network which links creative personnel from many different countries and enables them to make films anywhere in the world with a view of reaching audiences around the globe. With specific reference to Avatar, a film he wrote, directed and produced, Cameron talks about Hollywood’s power to tell archetypal and universal stories, which resonate deeply and widely around the globe, and he acknowledges his moral responsibility to try to do good with his films, among other things by reminding viewers that humanity is in the process of destroying its habitat.

Cameron has been pursuing the theme of global destruction with remarkable consistency ever since he started writing The Terminator in the early 1980s. In most of Cameron’s films, the threat of large-scale destruction is associated with nuclear weapons. Indeed, Cameron’s latest biographer, Rebecca Keegan, argues that his discovery, at the age of eight, of a pamphlet about civilian fallout shelters and his subsequent realisation that the world might come to a nuclear end at any time, was a formative experience, which informed much of his later work.[4]

In The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991) a devastating nuclear war is unleashed by a network of defense computers that gain self-awareness. In True Lies (1994) Middle Eastern terrorists smuggle nuclear weapons into the United States; in the end one of them explodes over the ocean without causing much harm. Despite the comic tone of the film, it is clear that a successful terrorist attack would have had terrifying global consequences. In Aliens (1986) a nuclear explosion destroys a human colony on another planet which has been taken over by alien creatures. Of equal importance is the fact that the company responsible for the planet’s colonisation has been willing to sacrifice many lives so as to get hold of alien specimens for its bio-weapons division. At the end of the film one is left to wonder what might have happened back on Earth if the company had succeeded with their efforts to weaponise the aliens. The Abyss (1989) revolves around an underwater encounter with aliens and the dire consequences which the use of nuclear weapons against them might have. Indeed, according to Rebecca Keegan, Cameron originally intended to feature ‘a wave of biblical proportions’ towards the end of the film: ‘Angry with humanity for playing at nuclear war, the NTIs [non-terrestrial intelligences] have raised the wave to teach us a lesson.’[5] This ending is included in the director’s cut of the movie.

In all of these films, Cameron also develops the theme of technological hubris: Humanity is heavily invested in developing ever more powerful technologies (notably weapons and computers); invariably, people lose control over the use of these technologies, with immensely destructive consequences. This is also one of the central themes of Titanic. In this film the ‘Titanic’ is presented as the largest man-made vehicle in history, a ship, it is said, that God himself could not sink – and yet it only takes an iceberg to turn it into a watery grave for most of its passengers. In retrospect it is difficult not to regard the film also as an environmentalist allegory: Since the break-up of giant polar iceshelves is one of the consequences of global warming, the iceberg sinking the ‘Titanic’ appears to be a harbinger of further destruction to come (the kind of global destruction which forms the backstory to the action in Avatar).

How important are the themes of global destruction and technological hubris (with a more or less pronounced environmentalist inflection) in Hollywood cinema in recent decades? To answer this question, we can begin by examining Hollywood’s biggest box office hits. Due to ticket price inflation and fluctuating exchange rates, it is inadvisable to compare box office figures across decades, but if we look at shorter periods of time these factors are unlikely to distort the picture substantially. Therefore, I have identified Hollywood’s ten biggest domestic and export hits for each five year period since 1977 (a year which for several reasons constitutes a turning point in Hollywood history).[6]

independence day pure movies

As far as Cameron’s films are concerned, Terminator 2 comes in at no. 4 in the domestic top ten for the years 1987-91 and at no. 1 in the export chart. Titanic is the number one film in both charts for the years 1997-2001, and Avatar tops both charts for the years 2007-2010. Then there is the German filmmaker Roland Emmerich, who – much like Cameron – has been pursuing themes of global destruction and technological hubris, often with a decidedly environmentalist slant, ever since his student days at Munich Film School in the early 1980s. He has placed two of films in the top tens. While the global disaster movie 2012 (2009) was at no. 8 in the export chart for 2007-2010 without making it into the domestic top ten, the alien invasion film Independence Day (1996) was the second biggest export hit of the years 1992-96 and the fourth biggest domestic hit.

Of course, with The Day After Tomorrow (2004) Emmerich has also made the only Hollywood blockbuster dealing explicitly with the catastrophic effects of climate change. The story of 2012 largely revolves around global flooding; while such flooding is a likely effect of man-made global warming, in this film it is not brought about by humans – yet the parallels are suggestive. Similarly suggestive is the depiction of the alien invaders in Independence Day which reveals striking similarities to the ruthless, exploitative and destructive approach taken by humans on Pandora in Avatar. Indeed, in their disregard for other life forms, the aliens in Independence Day could be seen as an exaggerated version of humanity itself.

There is not enough space here to extend this discussion of Cameron’s and Emmerich’s films to the remainder of Hollywood’s biggest hits since 1977, but it would be easy to demonstrate the prevalence of themes of global destruction (or the threat of global destruction) and technological hubris in both the domestic and the export charts.[7] Just think of the Star Wars saga and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the James Bond and Indiana Jones films, Armaggedon and the Matrix trilogy, The Lion King and the Ice Age movies. In some of these films, environmental concerns are made explicit, wheras in others we may find them allegorised.

Thus, the themes of Avatar fit in well with patterns among Hollywood’s top grossing movies in recent decades, which, in conjunction with the heightened concern about global warming surrounding the Copenhagen Summit, may help to explain Avatar’s enormous success. I now want to consider briefly what Avatar might mean in the post-Copenhagen world we live in.

Copenhagen and Beyond

My initial response to Avatar in December 2009 was enthusiastic and hopeful. It seemed to me that Cameron’s film made a valuable contribution to the public debate about global warming, then reaching its peak with the end of the Copenhagen summit. I was particularly interested in the contrast between real-world high politics and Hollywood fantasy. Whereas the Copenhagen Summit seemed to indicate that governments were unable or unwilling to agree on drastic changes in their climate-change-related policies, the story of Avatar revolves around, and thus both celebrates and models, a process of radical transformation – for its human protagonist, the alien tribal society he enters, and the global ecosystem this society is part of. And whereas much reporting about environmental issues had been characterised by skepticism about the possibility of necessary change, Avatar made the vicarious experience of personal, social and political change available to everyone for the price of a movie ticket.

The film’s key image in this respect is perhaps its final shot before the credits: Neytiri, a native to Pandora who has fallen in love with Jake Sully, the film’s human protagonist, tenderly holds the body he has used as an avatar throughout the story. With the help of the planet’s neural network of trees, an attempt has been made to transfer Jake’s mind permanently into this no longer alien body so that he can fully live in this no longer alien world. If the attempt fails Jake dies, which happened to a friend of his under precisely the same circumstances earlier in the film. As an audience, we are now in the same position as Neytiri, both emotionally and optically. We are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the transfer attempt, examining the avatar’s face for any sign of life. As a result of camera and character movement in this final shot, the camera – and thus each one of us – is eventually positioned exactly where we assume Neytiri’s face to be when – in a tight close-up – Jake suddenly opens his eyes and stares directly at the camera, that is both at Neytiri and at us.

The thematic and emotional resonances of these final frames are complex. They are the culmination of numerous references to the act of looking and to its deeper meanings throughout the film: Pandora’s natives greet each other with the phrase ‘I see you’, which is meant to express a deep connection between them. Jake’s connection with Neytiri is thus foregrounded when he looks at her at the very end. But he also looks through and beyond her at us, reaching out from the fictional world of the film into the reality of the cinema auditorium. In this context, Jake’s look comes across as a disruption of familiar viewing positions and a challenge to each viewer. By opening his eyes, Jake demonstrates that his transformation has been completed, and also – when this is seen against the backdrop of numerous earlier references to sleep and dreams in the film – that he is now, finally, fully awake. With the beginning of the credits, viewers are soon thereafter reminded that they, too, will have to wake up – by leaving the world of the film and returning to their everyday lives. Jake’s look at the camera challenges them to consider the transformative power of what they have seen and whether, like Jake, they are ready to change their lives. In the light of the film’s emphasis on militant resistance to a destructive military-industrial complex one might even experience Jake’s look as a question – whose side are you on? – and as a call to action.

When, soon after Avatar’s release, it turned out that its popularity exceeded all expectations, I assumed that this success was partly due to the fact that Avatar’s story resonated so strongly with both the public debate and widespread private concerns about environmental issues throughout 2009 and 2010. There was anecdotal evidence that many people found their viewing of Avatar to be a profound and indeed transformative experience, influencing their personal attitudes towards nature and modern civilisation and their own place within these two. What is more, there were reports that activist groups around the world mobilised the film’s iconography and storyline in staging protests against destructive outside interventions into their living environments. All of this seemed to suggest that, at the very moment when politicians failed to sustain a top-drown process aimed at mitigating climate change, here was a film that contributed to an evolving bottom-up process of personal change and political activism around the globe.

This is the analytical perspective I adopted in the first few months after the film’s release. However, I returned to Avatar and the debate about climate change at the end of 2010, the focus of my critical engagement shifted. This shift was partly brought about by the coincidence of reading two authoritative discussions of the current state of the politics of climate change from opposing ends of the political spectrum. In the run-up to the UN’s follow-up conference to the Copenhagen summit in Cancun, Mexico, at the beginning of December 2010, an editorial in the Economist with the title ‘How to live with climate change’ stated bluntly: ‘It won’t be stopped, but its effects can be made less bad.’[8] Noting the minimal publicity for the Cancun conference, the editorial concluded: ‘There is a growing acceptance that the effort to avert serious climate change has run out of steam’. With not much hope for mitigation, efforts should now concentrate on adaptation to climate change.

At the very moment when politicians failed to sustain a top-drown process aimed at mitigating climate change, here was a film that contributed to an evolving bottom-up process of personal change and political activism around the globe

When I then searched for comments on Cancun by leading environmental campaigner George Monbiot, I found a piece he posted already at the end of September 2010. It was entitled ‘The Process Is Dead’ and noted: ‘The best outcome anyone now expects from December’s climate summit in Mexico is that some delegates might stay awake during the meetings.’[9] Monbiot judged climate change policy to be ‘the greatest political failure the world has ever seen’: ‘there is not a single effective instrument for containing manmade global warming anywhere on earth.’ He concluded: ‘we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialise… The conversation starts here.’

Although Monbiot did not make it explicit, on the basis of his other writings we can speculate that he intended this new conversation to be not only – or even primarily – about climate change, but about global justice. If this is correct, then the Economist editorial cited earlier was definitely part of this new conversation when it highlighted the responsibility of rich countries to help poor countries adapt to the disastrous effects of runaway global warming. Of course, global justice has always been a crucial aspect of the debate about climate change, but until recently it was possible to privilege the latter over the former. The most urgent task for many activists and commentators was to prevent runaway global warming; this attempt at mitigation would hopefully be complemented or followed by a re-distribution of resources so as to improve the lives of the poorest people on the planet.

One could perhaps say that the narrative model underpinning the debate went something like this: People gradually become aware of a threat to their existence; they realise that destructive developments will soon reach a point of no return, after which wholesale devastation is the most likely outcome; perhaps inspired and guided by great leaders people rally together, overcoming their differences, so as to stop these developments before they reach the point of no return; if people’s efforts succeed, they will not only prevent a catastrophe but they may also all be better off than before the crisis. By and large, this is, of course, the narrative model of Avatar and many other Hollywood blockbusters, which allows them to feed into the debate about climate change mitigation.

By contrast, the conversation privileging global justice would appear to be linked to a very different narrative.[10] Here, devastation is not looming in the future, but it is already taking place, and has indeed been going on for decades, with – in addition to the billions living in abject poverty – millions of people dying from easily preventable causes every year (preventable through the re-distribution of resources, that is). There might be widespread awareness of this state of affairs, but, by and large, social divisions are not overcome and there is no coherent programme of collective action, so that much of the misery continues and some of it escalates. There are no deadlines or turning points which could structure this narrative, there is little room for great leaders to make decisive interventions, and final victory can only ever be imagined for the distant future. It is not even clear what would count as success in this story: Of course, every life is worth saving and therefore every rescue is a success, but even an amazing achievement such as halfing the number of easily preventable deaths still leaves millions of corpses every year.

This is not an easy story to tell, and I don’t think that Avatar or other Hollywood blockbusters can offer us much support when we are trying to come to terms with global injustice and our ethical obligations in a deeply unjust world. The only exception I can think of among Hollywood blockbusters is Schindler’s List (1993) – but that’s another story.[11]

[1] Lars-Olav Beier, ‘Und Jim erschuf den Film’, Der Spiegel, 14 December 2009, pp. 142-3, here p. 142.

[2] Cp. the Wikipedia entry on the Copenhagen summit, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UN-climate-change-conference-2009, last accessed 9 December 2010.

[3] ‘All der Mist passiert wirklich’, Der Spiegel, 3 January 2011, pp. 109-12, here p. 109.

[4]  Rebecca Keegan, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, New York: Crown, 2009, pp.1-2..

[5]  Keegan, The Futurist, pp. 108-9, cp. p. 86.

[6] Peter Krämer, ‘Hollywood and Its Global Audiences: A Comparative Study of the Biggest Box Office Hits in the United States and Outside the United States Since the 1970s’, Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies, ed. Richard Maltby, Daniel Biltereyst and Philippe Meers, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 175-6..

[7] Cp. Peter Krämer, ‘Welterfolg und Apokalypse: Überlegungen zur Transnationalität des zeitgenössischen Hollywood’, Film transnational und transkulturell. Europäische und amerikanische Perspektiven, ed. Ricarda Strobel and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2009, pp. 171-84.

[8] ‘How to live with climate change’, The Economist, 27 November 2010, p. 13.

[9] George Monbiot, ‘The Process is Dead’, posted 20 September 2010, http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/09/20/the-process-is-dead/.

[10] Cp. Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: How to Play Your Part in Ending World Poverty, London: Picador, 2009.

[11] Cp. Peter Krämer, “The Good German? Oskar Schindler and the Movies, 1951-1993”, Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema, ed. Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013, pp. 125-40.