Avatar: an all-purpose allegory

James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar has becoming something of a political rorsarch test around the world. The story of the alien Na’avi’s struggles against the invasion of Earth’s military-industrial complexhas taken on some surprising allegorical means for movements around the world: Palestinian protesters in the town of Bilin dressed up as Na’avi recently to protest ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
OREN ZIV/AFP/Getty Images
OREN ZIV/AFP/Getty Images
OREN ZIV/AFP/Getty Images

James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar has becoming something of a political rorsarch test around the world. The story of the alien Na'avi's struggles against the invasion of Earth's military-industrial complexhas taken on some surprising allegorical means for movements around the world:

Palestinian protesters in the town of Bilin dressed up as Na'avi recently to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales has praised Avatar as a "profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature." Chinese bloggers have compared the film's story to the exploitation of Chinese citizens by government-backed real estate developers -- a factor that may have contributed to the film being pulled from Chinese theaters.   Activists ran ads in the Hollywood newspaper Variety comparing the Na'avi to India's forest-dwelling indigenous tribe, the Dongria, whose territory is now threatened by a planned bauxite mine. Environmentalists Lori Pottinger compared the story of Avatar to the Brazilian government's plans to build dams in the Amazon Basin. Russian Communists described the film as an attempt to justify Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize.  New York Times columinist Ross Douthat called the movie "an apolologia for pantheism." David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute says the movie is about "defending property rights". Last but not least, Cameron himself says the movie is an allegory about the U.S. war on terror

Personally, the movie struck me as a critique of counterinsurgency: the humans talked a good game about cultural understanding and minimizing civilian casualties to reassure the folks back home, but they were really just on Pandora to conquer and exploit.

James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar has becoming something of a political rorsarch test around the world. The story of the alien Na’avi’s struggles against the invasion of Earth’s military-industrial complexhas taken on some surprising allegorical means for movements around the world:

  • Palestinian protesters in the town of Bilin dressed up as Na’avi recently to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
  • Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales has praised Avatar as a "profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature."
  • Chinese bloggers have compared the film’s story to the exploitation of Chinese citizens by government-backed real estate developers — a factor that may have contributed to the film being pulled from Chinese theaters.  
  • Activists ran ads in the Hollywood newspaper Variety comparing the Na’avi to India’s forest-dwelling indigenous tribe, the Dongria, whose territory is now threatened by a planned bauxite mine.
  • Environmentalists Lori Pottinger compared the story of Avatar to the Brazilian government’s plans to build dams in the Amazon Basin.
  • Russian Communists described the film as an attempt to justify Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. 
  • New York Times columinist Ross Douthat called the movie "an apolologia for pantheism."
  • David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute says the movie is about "defending property rights".
  • Last but not least, Cameron himself says the movie is an allegory about the U.S. war on terror

Personally, the movie struck me as a critique of counterinsurgency: the humans talked a good game about cultural understanding and minimizing civilian casualties to reassure the folks back home, but they were really just on Pandora to conquer and exploit.

Then again, it could have just been a movie about aliens.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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