Avatar is the movie James Cameron has been dreaming about for over 20 years. It took that long for the technology to catch up with his vision. Worth it? Yeah, worth it. I usually only see movies in the theater if something is guaranteed to blow up. Avatar met this requirement, and if you wear the 3D glasses, exceeded it. Beyond the explosions and mind-numbing CG goodness, Avatar is a film I recommend for dreamers everywhere.
As lucid dream writer Rebecca Turner suggested, the movie actually feels like a lucid dream. Let’s see: a man goes to sleep, wakes up in a new body, and cavorts around in a magical world full of waterfalls and long-legged sexy smurfs. Except for that last detail, this is the proto-typical lucid dream.
Cameron says the movie was inspired by his childhood romance with sci-fi fiction, and the Internet is awash with theories of his other cultural references such as the story of Pocahontas, Fern Gully, and the Thundercats. But at its core, it is a movie about cultural clash, colonial exploitation, and the dangers/ecstasy of “going native.” As such, it’s a CG remake of the film The Emerald Forest, which also features the destruction of the forest (read: the Amazon) by ginormous bulldozers.
Borrowing from Indonesian Shamanism
These culture clash themes are brought to the climax (won’t spoil, promise) during a communal ritual celebrating the web of life. The participants are tapped into the world tree, and ancestral information flows both ways, to the past, and to the present. According to David Price, a professor of anthropology at St Martin University, this ritual is loosely based on Papua New Guinean shamanism, as researched by University of Southern California anthropologist Nancy Lutkehaus who was consulted for the film.
Cameron’s scene designers actually listened to the cultural consultant. This in itself makes the film worth watching. The indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea, and indeed, many indigenous cultures in the Western Pacific, are strong dreaming cultures. In an essay in Dream Travelers, Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern discuss how indigenous cultures of Papua New Guinea, the Hagen and the Duna peoples, use dreams to communicate with spirits and ancestors. In this worldview, the dead and the living share a network of information, and influence each other.
Another culture in Papua New Guinea, the Kasua, are taught to shape-shift into animals in their dreams. As described in Roger Lohmann’s essay “Dreams and Ethnography” in The New Science of Dreaming, dreamers make a sacred bond with their dream animal. In waking life, this chosen “avatar” animal is taboo to kill.
This is reminiscent of the Navi’s relationship to the dragon-creatures they ride and “meld” with; their bond is one of friendship and cross-species communication, not hunter and prey.
Is Avatar political? Nah… it’s just anti-civilization
Closer to earth, David Price also illustrates how Avatar closely parallels current strategies by Western civilization to “get in the heads” of native populations who happen to sit on land and resources we have deemed important to national security. Price suggested that Cameron was alluding to the controversial alliance between the US military and American anthropologists, known as the human terrain system (HTS), which still active despite increasing resistance by the American Anthropological Association.
Price makes the connection to Avatar plain: “Like the HTT counterparts, the Avatar teams openly talked about trying to win the “hearts, mind, and trust” of the local population (a population that the military derisively called “blue monkeys”) that the military was simply interested in moving or killing.”
But Cameron maintains his movie is not anti-American, and his anthropological consultant also denies that she discussed this topic with Cameron and his staff.
Well, if Avatar isn’t anti-American, then it’s anti-globalization.
Dreaming for the Earth
I love sci-fi fantasy for the way it approach political and cultural issues through dreams, visions, and other worlds. But as a lucid dreamer, I know that it’s more than a metaphor. Lucid dreaming can be used in service to the earth’s silenced voices and colonized landscapes. We heal the internal landscape by tending to what shows up.
Turns out, there’s already people living in the vast wilderness of dreams. They’ve been there all along. This is how lucid dreamer Erin Langley approaches lucid dreaming: as a chance to interact with the earth dreaming.
As Erin says, from an indigenous science perspective, dreaming is the real world, and what we do (and who we are) in that realm matters. I like to think Cameron would agree.
Avatar approaches these sticky issues of cultural critique without making the Western viewer feel like shit. Instead, we are given a fresh chance to “go native,” buck the colonial agenda of the globalized uber-economy, and reconnect with the living spirit of creation of which we all participants.
It’s not really that intelligent of a movie, in an analytical way, despite that a linguist created the language of the Navi over a thirteen month period before training the actors.
Rather, it’s somatic. It feels good.
The action/romance/plot falls flat sometimes, but it’s so beautiful, who cares? We know the surprise ending won’t be surprising, and seeing Sigourney Weaver essentially make a caricature of her role as an older, gentler but still chain-smoking Ripley is comforting.
But the dreamy feel of the movie lingers for hours afterwards—I actually saw men discussing it in the bathroom, yeah, in the US—reminding us that we all have an ancestral connection to the planet, no matter how disconnected we may feel thanks to our neolocal lifestyles.
And yes, Avatar hints, we really are cutting down the Amazon, still, at an increasing rate actually, even though those statistics are totally boring to the reading public.
Avatar: it’s a wonderful ride with just a decent balance of action, romance, and deep thinking, although the technological aspects of the movie are by far the most impressive. You’ll walk away feeling transported, and questioning: “Am I dreaming?”
Further Reading about dreams and shamanism:
Dream Travelers: sleep experiences and culture in the Western Pacific, edited by Roger Lohmann, 2003
Entering the Circle: Ancient Secrets of Siberian Wisdom Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist, by Olga Kharitidi, 1997
Conscious Dreaming: a spiritual path for everyday life, by Robert Moss, 1996