Film: Taking The Mask off “Avatar”, by Pranada Devi

A couple of years ago when the film Avatar came out, it was touted as carrying an environmental message about love and respect for Nature. Its lush visuals and special effects made it the highest grossing film ever. Is it a champion for living in harmony and interconnection? That’s not so clear.

The movie, set on a distant planet called Pandora, is named for the genetically engineered bodies, avatars, into which a handful of human visitors direct their consciousness so that they can walk among the native humanoid species, the Na’vi. The atmosphere on Pandora is toxic to humans; they must wear gas masks to protect themselves from rapid death.

One of the visiting humans, Jake Sully, is a former Marine who finds himself in the situation rather accidentally after his brother, a scientist, is killed and leaves behind a Na’vi avatar body no one else can use. In his ignorant and fearless way, he manages to win the trust of the Na’vi as none of the other avatars have been able to do, and learns from the tribe how to climb trees, track animals, tame them for riding, and respect Nature. This leads him to a crossroads where he must decide between the good of the Na’vi and the financial gain of his employers who want to use the Na’vi’s land for their own destructive and lucrative purposes. When the Na’vi learn that he has been working for these people, they throw him out of their tribe. He then accomplishes a feat only five Na’vi have accomplished in their history in order to regain the trust of the tribe and rally them to fight his former employers.

In other words, take away the science fiction, the rubbery and slightly lizard-like alien bodies, the surreal blue and purple landscape, and you’ve got Dancing with Wolves.

The idea of the outsider coming in and going rapidly from bumbling inept to precedent-setting leader is actually pretty offensive, when you think about it. It implies that the outsider’s life and values equip him to be even better at what a civilization holds dear than those who have been born into it and dedicated their lives to it. In other words, an arrogant marine from a polluted planet does better at co-creation with Nature than those who live and breathe it and taught him everything about it? I found this to be the least credible bit of the whole movie. It also suggests a troubling dynamic where the outsider is still a conqueror, if a benevolent one.

Beyond this, there is a very real problem with the idea of Avatar being some kind of flagship for living in harmony with Nature. Not least, it presents Earth as an already lost cause, left behind polluted and defiled by humans in search of the next best thing. (Earth is not a lost cause! Get active!) But Pandora itself is not an ideal model. Humans here can only interact with its flora and fauna in strictly controlled environments, wearing masks or inhabiting impossibly expensive avatar bodies while their own bodies lie immobile and unconscious in a box. The overall energy is ungrounded and disconnected. It implies that we cannot connect with Nature as we are – that it is lost, or hostile, and that we must leave our bodies or even leave our own planet in order to find a sense of connection.

Avatar ends with Jake leaving behind his human body forever to live in his avatar as one of the Na’vi. I don’t consider this any kind of victory. A movie that promoted remaining fully present in one’s own body while also being fully present to the Nature that surrounds us every day would be a true environmental messenger. Avatar, unmasked, is just a lot of expensive CGI wrapped around an old plot that encourages us to long for something unreal.


Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and  serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects.