Avatar: an Alien Invasion Film

“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”

― H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

 

The plot behind Avatar is simple: aliens leave their home planet, which they have depleted of natural resources, and invade a new planet with the hope of stealing its natural resources. Luckily, the people rise up and kick the aliens out with the help of a handy computer virus and the President’s kick-ass fighter pilot skills! Oh, wait a minute, that’s Independence Day… Joaquin Phoenix melts their skin with water and beats them with a bat? Nope, that’s Signs. Right, right, this movie is where the cowboys blow up the aliens that are searching for gold.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Avatar is just another alien invasion film, except that this time, humans are doing the invading. And what are they invading for? Energy resources of course!

The corporation that is inspiring the ruthless invasion in this movie is referred to as “the Company,” as James Cameron is rarely a fan of subtlety. The Company is after a super-conductive mineral named unobtanium, which is used for all sorts of things, including energy production. They fund an expedition to a moon, referred to by the humans as Pandora. Pandora appears to be a giant rainforest and is inhabited by the Na’vi, giant, blue-skinned humanoids with cat-like features and cat-like reflexes. The Na’vi live in complete balance with nature, so naturally they are upset by the idea of humans mining their world for unobtanium. The Company funds a project called the Avatar program, where scientists mix human and Na’vi DNA to create Na’vi bodies that humans can “drive”. Being inside an avatar allows for humans to explore Pandora since its air is toxic to humans and its environment is difficult to navigate. The Company, who is represented on Pandora by a character named Selfridge (more subtlety), also hopes that humans who appear to be Na’vi will be more effective in convincing the Na’vi to allow humans to mine on Pandora.

Selfridge to Grace Augustine (lead scientist in the Avatar program): “Look, you are supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. Isn’t that the whole point of your little puppet show? You look like them, you talk like them, and they’ll start trusting us. We build them a school, we teach them English. But after, what, how many years, relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.”

Augustine: “Yeah that tends to happen when you use machine guns on them.”

Selfridge: “Right. Come here. [holds up mineral] This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for 20 million a kilo. That’s the only reason. It’s what pays for the whole party. It’s what pays for your science. Comprendo? Now those savages are threatening our whole operation, we’re on the brink of war and you’re supposed to be finding a diplomatic solution. So use what you’ve got and get me some results.”

The Company recruits Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine, to take over his late twin brother’s avatar. Sully is approached by the head of security on Pandora, Colonol Quaritch, and asked to spy on the scientists, whom he believes to be less and less accepting of the idea of mining unobtanium. Sully becomes a bodyguard to Dr. Grace Augustine, the lead scientist in the Avatar Program, and her assistant, Norm Spellman. While Augustine and Spellmen are out researching the local flora, Sully’s avatar is attacked by the local fauna and is forced to flee into the forest. He is rescued by Neytiri, the Na’vi chief’s daughter. Neytiri determines that Sully is protected by the Na’vi goddess, Eywa, after Sully is touched by a seed of the Eywa tree. She then takes him to her her mother, Mo’at who is the clan’s spiritual leader. Mo’at says that it is the will of Eywa that Sully learn the ways of the Na’vi. As Sully becomes more and more integrated into the Na’vi’s society, he begins to regret his mission to spy on them for Quaritch. Sully learns that Selfridge and Quaritch want to mine directly under the Na’vi’s village, (called Hometree). Quaritch becomes impatient and threatens to use force to remove the Na’vi if Sully does not convince them to move in a timely manner:

Selfridge: “Sully, find out what the blue monkeys want. You know I mean, we tried to give them medicine, education, roads. But, no, no, no, they like mud. And that wouldn’t bother me, it’s just that their…their damn village happens to be resting on the richest unobtanium deposit within 200 klicks in any direction. I mean, look at all that cheddar.”

Sully: “Well, who gets them to move?”

Col. Quaritch: “Guess.”

Sully: “What if they won’t go?”

Col. Quaritch: “I’m betting that they will.

Selfridge: “OK, OK, OK. Look. Look. Killing the indigenous looks bad. But there’s one thing that shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement. I didn’t make up the rules. So, just find me a carrot that’ll get them to move. Otherwise, it’s going to have to be all stick. OK?

Col. Quaritch: “You got three months. That’s when the ‘dozers get there.”

 

Instead of convincing the Na’vi to move, Sully takes out a bulldozer that is set to destroy a sacred sight to the Na’vi and Quaritch manages to catch it on film. Quaritch also raids Sully’s personal video logs and shows Selfridge one of the logs where Sully admits that the Na’vi will never leave Hometree, so Selfridge, somewhat reluctantly, orders a raid on Hometree.

Col. Quaritch to Sully: “You let me down son. So what, you find yourself some local tail, and you just completely forget what team you’re playing for?”

Augustine: “Parker, there is time to salvage the situation.”

Col. Quaritch: “Shut your pie hole.”

Augustine: “Or what, Ranger Rick? You gonna to shoot me?”

Col. Quaritch: “I could do that.”

Augustine: [to Parker Selfridge] “You need to muzzle your dog.”

Selfridge: “Yeah, can we just take this down a couple notches, please?”

Sully: [to Col. Quaritch] “You say you want to keep your people alive? You start by listening to her.”

Augustine: “Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in way that you can’t imagine.”

Selfridge: “Aw, you know what? You throw a stick in the air around here, it’s going to land on some sacred fern for Christ’s sake.”

Augustine: “The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground. It’s all around us. The Na’vi know that, and they are fighting to defend it. If you want to share this world with them, you need to understand them.”

 Col. Quaritch: “I’d say we understand them just fine thanks to Jake here…

[Sully on tape]: “They aren’t going to give up their home. They’re not going to make a deal. For what? For lite beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never going to leave Hometree.”

Col. Quaritch: “So, since a deal can’t be made I guess things get real simple, Jake.”

Augustine, Sully and Spellmen are able to escape from the base, with the help of helicopter pilot, Trudy Chacón. Sully is able to rally of the clans of the Na’vi to attack the Company forces, in an attempt to drive them from Pandora for good.

Sully prays to Eywa to join their fight against the humans. The Na’vi fight against the humans and just when it appears that all hope is lost the animals of Pandora launch a concentrated attack and take out the remaining humans. The humans are forced to leave Pandora with the exceptions of Sully, Spellmen and a few other scientists. Sully says: “the aliens went back to their dying world. Only a few were chosen to stay.”

The plot’s similarities to an alien invasion film are a metaphor for how ridiculous it is for a company to come in and take a society’s natural resources. The audience is always behind the humans in an alien invasion film and feels a sense of global pride when they work together to kick out the invaders. So why do we think it is okay to send a company to a foreign country to drill for oil and commit atrocities to the people and the environment there in the process? Sully claims that the Company was able to do this by making the Na’vi their enemy: “This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on s*** that you want, you make them your enemy, then you’re justified in taking it.” The humans develop a convenient racism towards the Na’vi, calling them blue monkeys and referring to them as if they were animals, and so they feel justified in destroying them. Fortunately in this narrative, the weaker force is both able to revolt and win their revolution (with aid from nature herself!) against the invaders, even if that is not the way it is in real life.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

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Force of Nature— do we still have time to make it better?

This episode is a different kind of energy narrative than I have discussed thus far, usually I focus on the energy resource rather than the effect of the technology that the resource on the environment, but I couldn’t resist writing about this episode. As I’ve mentioned before in my discussion of the original Star Trek, warp cores use dilithium crystals as fuel. I’ve also written about the political struggles that dilithium has caused between the various warp capable species. However, in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) there appears less of these political struggles and so I found interesting that the TNG writers decided to through a wrench into the perfect “warp drive”. Now it appears that warp drive may be as damaging to the galaxy as gasoline was to earth. It appears that the utopian solution of the future is not a solution after all.

TNG 7×09 ‘Force of Nature’ Trailer by TrekCore

 

The Enterprise travels to a region of space where warp travel is difficult, in pursuit of a missing Federation ship called the Fleming. The Enterprise discovers that the Fleming has been destroyed and finds an unusual object amongst the debris. The object begins generating a verteron field, which is dangerous to the Enterprise. Before the Enterprise can take evasive maneuvers, the field disables their warp engines and takes down their shields. A ship approaches the Enterprise and beams two of their crew aboard Main Engineering. When Lt. Cdr. Geordi La Forge asks the intruders why they have boarded the Enterprise they say, “we are trying to make you listen. You are killing us.”

The intruders are Herkaran scientists, who have been disabling ships in their region for some time. According to their research, warp fields cause a “dangerous reaction” in their region of space and if “something isn’t done” their planet will become “uninhabitable”. La Forge comments that the Herkaran’s research has been reviewed by the Federation Science Council and that they saw no link between warp fields and the degradation of their planet. The Herkarans respond that their research was only preliminary at the time of the Science Council’s evaluation and that if they requested the Science Council’s review again that it would take too long for them to conduct another evaluation and in the meantime their planet would be destroyed, so the Herkarans started disabling ships to get the Federation’s attention. The Herkarans agree to help the Enterprise repair its engines in return for their agreement to review their research, and Picard accepts their offer.

One of the Herkarans, Serova, assists La Forge in fixing the Enterprise engines. La Forge complains to her that she has caused him weeks of extra work. Serova responds by saying: “I’m sorry you’ve been inconvenienced. But that’s all it is—an inconvenience. Our concerns are much more important than the condition of your engines.” Serova later exclaims that there is no point in trying to talk to La Forge, who is one of Starfleet’s warp experts, because he has “already decided not to listen,” and then she storms off.

La Forge talks to Serova’s brother Rabal after Serova leaves. He claims that Warp Drive has been around for three centuries and that it is a proven technology. Rabal says he held the same position four years ago before he began to study his sister’s research. Rabal tries to explain just how dangerous he and Serova believe warp drive is to their system by explaining that they will need to convince the rest of Herkaras to forgo using warp drive, which will leave Herkaras isolated from the rest of the Federation.

Cdr. Data reviews Serova and Rabal’s theories and concludes that they are theoretically possible but that there is no evidence to suggest that the phenomena is occurring now. Data also claims that in order to develop the rift that the Herkarans are afraid of that there needs to be a warp field that is much more powerful than any that could be developed by a starship. The Herkarans argue that the warp field effect is cumulative and that the many starships over the area will create this effect. Data again agrees that this is possible and suggests that the Science Council send a research team to further analyze the Herkarans data. Serova complains that this will only cause more delays.

In act of desperation, Serova transports back to her ship and engineers a warp core breach, this causes Serova’s ship to explode and the rift that she theorized to develop in space. The Enterprise realizes that they now must travel through the rift to rescue the Fleming. As Data and La Forge are working to get the Enterprise safely through the rift, they discuss Serova’s proven theory. La Forge regrets not listening to her more closely, but Data reminds him that if she had been willing to wait and do further research on the effect of warp fields the rift would not have formed and she would not have lost her life. La Forge asks himself why he was so resistant. Data responds that perhaps Serova’s “aggressive methods” that created an adversarial situation. La Forge remarks that he taking Serova’s assertions personally: “Maybe…I was a little threatened, the thought that warp engines might be doing some kind of damage.”

La Forge meets with Rabal in Ten Forward while he is waiting for the preparations to the Enterprise to be done.

Rabal: “I don’t think we can look at space travel the same way anymore. We’re going to have to change.”

La Forge: “I’ve been in Starfleet a long time. We depend on warp drive. I just don’t know how easy it’s going to be to change.”

Rabal: “I won’t be easy at all.”

As usual after some difficulty, the Enterprise is able to rescue the crew of the Fleming and navigate through the rift. In the dénouement of the episode, La Forge claims that the warp field effect will not only effect this area of space but other areas as well given enough warp traffic. The Federation Science Council issues new orders that until they can figure out how to counteract the effect that they should slow the damage as much as possible, therefore areas of space that are likely to be effected by warp fields will be restricted to essential travel only and all federation ships will be limited to a speed of warp 5 except in cases of extreme emergency. The Federation will share this information to other warp capable planets that are not in The Federation.

The episode ends with the following conversation between La Forge and Picard:

Picard: “You know, Geordi, I’ve spent the better part of my life exploring space. I’ve charted new worlds, I’ve met dozens of new species and I believe that these were all valuable ends in themselves and now it seems that…all this while I was helping to damage the thing that I hold most dear.”

La Forge: “It won’t turn out that way Captain. We still have time to make it better.”

This episode is analogous the fossil fuels/global warming debate. A group of scientists realize that warp technology leads to the degradation of the environment. However, the Federation, which has become dependent on warp technology, is slow to accept this idea until there is a major environmental event. Fortunately, the Federation calls for change in the warp-use of all of its ships except in emergency situations. This immediate and expansive action is not something that has happened yet in regards to global warming. Whether or not there are more pressing matters is technically up for debate, but ultimately I think that before it’s too late we need make sure that La Forge’s words are still true: “do we still have time to make it better?”

Writer activism through the study of energy narratives

I was inspired to create this blog by reading Rob Nixon’s definition of a “writer activist” in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Writer activists are “combative writers who have deployed their imaginative agility and worldly ardor to help amplify the media-marginalized causes of the environmentally dispossessed” (Nixon 5). Nixon divides the writers he refers to as writer activists into three categories: “some have testified in relative isolation, some have helped instigate movements for environmental justice, and yet others, in aligning themselves with pre-existing movements, have given imaginative definition to the issues at stake while enhancing the public visibility of the cause” (5-6). It is the goal with the creation of this website to be able to place myself in that third category and put my knowledge and passion to good use.

While, Nixon focuses on writer activism in both fiction and non-fiction, characterizing the latter as being underrated, I believe fiction to be a powerful rhetorical tool especially when discussing topics that are highly politicized. The United States is split by party lines; as a result, there is quite a lot of political debate and every issue under the sun. I know that many of my conservative friends would often become defensive about topics such as climate change, sustainability and fossil fuels, even though I’m certain that you will never catch a conservative saying “burn, baby, burn” when discussing the environment. Fundamentally, we all have the same idea about the planet: a healthy planet leads to a healthier society, so why aren’t we working together to achieve this goal? BECAUSE the issue is too highly politicized. Conservatives and liberals alike often feel that journalistic and scientific reports have some sort of political or social bias. However, fictional accounts about the very same issues are not met with the same sort of scrutiny and often allow a person to experience a viewpoint different from their own in a non-threatening way.

While the goal of this blog is to reach out to the everyday person, I am not making the argument that sustainability and environmental responsibility are personal, private issues. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t bother with reducing the amount of energy you use or stop recycling but ultimately we need to reform on a global scale to curb climate change and to stop energy industry abuses. However, as I mentioned before, our world leaders tend to only focus on these reforms when all other major political concerns have been satiated for the time being.

Therefore, we the people of the Internet, need to have the energy discussion so that politicians can take a page from our e-book and get cracking.