We would have entered the Anthropocene, a geological era where humanity influences the planet. The Avatar franchise is known for its green dimension. How does James Cameron approach the Anthropocene? Gatien Gambin, PhD student in Cultural Studies, explains it in The Conversation.
Warning spoilers: the following article presents some elements of the film likely to reveal the plot.
On December 14, 2022, thirteen years later Avatar first namedirector James Cameron (titanic, Abyss, terminator) delivered to the public the continuation of the adventures of Jake Sully and Neytiri.
Avatar, the way of the water begins at the end of the first film, after the Na’vis, the indigenous people of the moon Pandora, have freed themselves from human imperialism. Ten years pass before the latter return with ever more warlike intentions. It is also the return of Miles Quaritch, the ruthless colonel left for dead at the end of the first opus, but whose memory was transferred into the body of an avatar. His mission: to kill Jake Sully, both to put down the Na’vi revolt and to take revenge. Jake and his family are forced to flee and find refuge with an island tribe, the Metkayinas. A new setting is offered to the spectators: flying mountains and lush jungle give way to paradisiacal maritime landscapes.
The way of the water revives and deepens the universe of the Na’vis which is brought to develop in no less than three sequels – for a total of five films. Praised for his visual technique and for his ecological purpose, Avatar 2 is nevertheless criticized for its patriarchal representations.
In this, the film falls short of the social issues of its time; the resonance of Cameron’s work with his time lies elsewhere: Avatar 2 is a work that revolves around a central concept of the 21ste century, the Anthropocene.
What is the Anthropocene?
The Anthropocene would designate the current geological period, when human beings have become a geological force in their own right. The conditional is important since the term proposed by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Paul Joseph Crutzen and the biologist Eugène Stoermer is controversial.
Although it appeared at the turn of the 2000s, the validation or invalidation of the term by a group of scientists (the Anthropocene Working Group) was only to be pronounced at the end of year 2022. Their job since 2009 is to observe the Anthropocene as a unit of geologic time, but the debates surrounding it go beyond the sphere of geologists.
Some refute the term itself: according to the Swede Andreas Malmlecturer in human ecology, it would be better to speak of Capitalocene to designate the damage of capitalist system on the environment ; it would be necessary, for the anthropologist Anna Tsing and the philosopher Donna Haraway, talk about Plantationocene to target more precisely the model of slave plantations which, through the establishment of monocultures and human exploitation, leads to a relationship of domination of the ecosystems and the humans who inhabit them.
The definition of the Anthropocene has become a political issue since the concept carries with it a critical charge on the models of modern societies and their ways of inhabiting the world.
From an ecopoetic point of view, that is to say the study of the relationship between a text and its ecological context, the Anthropocene can also be understood as a contemporary myth.
This is considered Jean-Christophe Cavallin, a researcher in ecopoetics, for whom it is above all a new context from which new stories emerge. Although he is mainly interested in literary productions, films such asAvatar and Avatar 2 are examples of works emerging from the Anthropocene in that they are articulated with the symbols and stories that nourish it as a myth, in particular the human will for domination and technical power.
Human superiority questioned
In an interview for CNRS Journalthe anthropologist Perig Pitrou observes that the Na’vis live in an animist society which is opposed to the naturalist model of Western societies: they consider themselves equal to the rest of the living and the non-living on a spiritual level, something difficult to conceive for Westerners for whom our species has a spiritual superiority.
The Anthropocene results from a relationship with the naturalistic world as much as it maintains it: by considering himself superior within his ecosystem, man holds a central position there, and his impact on his environment reinforces his assertion of his supremacy.
The Na’vi, on the other hand, maintain a relationship of humility in the face of the fauna and flora that surround them. In Avatar 2, this vision of the world is embodied in the relationship of the Metkayinas and the Tulkuns, a species similar to our whales endowed with an intelligence and a culture that exceeds that of humans. The members of the tribe are all related to a Tulkun by a brotherly bond. They live in harmony with this species. However, a threat hangs over the Tulkuns: they are the prey of humans who kill them to extract a substance that interrupts human aging. During a long scene of maritime hunting, James Cameron shows all the human ingenuity deployed to kill these creatures; combat engines triumph over the living, human interests take precedence and the harmony of this ecosystem is broken.
By contrast, centering the story on the point of view of the Na’vis allows James Cameron to present humanity as incapable of any relationship to the world other than its domination – the scientists of the first episode and their benevolent curiosity are almost absent from this second opus. Avatar 2 thus affirms a position vis-à-vis the Anthropocene: it rejects the consecration of the human as a superior entity within an ecosystem.
The reign of technology
The Na’vis, the fauna and flora of Pandora constantly remind humans of their weak condition: everything there is dangerous for humans, even the atmosphere that they cannot breathe. In this environment, without his machines, he is nothing.
In this new opus, the human landing on Pandora shows that man disappears into his machines. After the destructive landing of the ships – several hectares of forest burn because of their retrorockets – it is not humans who come out, but robots and gigantic bulldozers.
Nothing new for the spectators of the first opus who find these machines, but in a disturbing light: they go out in flames and their dazzling lights make the pilots disappear in their combat robots. It is no longer humans who invade Pandora, but machines.
The concept of Anthropocene is related to the technical development of mankind. At its heart is the idea that the Earth is a system that can be controlled, in other words a machine that our engineering skills can master.
For Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, this postulate is that formulated by the first “anthropocenologists”. They defend through this concept the hypothesis that geoengineering – techniques aimed at manipulating the environment and the earth’s climate – is a solution to ecological problems. The underlying idea is simple: the negative impact of man on his environment would prove that he now has the capacity to repair it.
This conception induces a strong link between man and machines, it supposes that thanks to them man can control his environment. Avatar 2even more than the first, presents this link in a negative light through its images and its narrative: it is presented as constraining and destructive, it imposes itself on man for his survival and devastates his environment.
This critical scope remains ambiguous for a film which is a debauchery of visual technique, as was the first part. James Cameron is keen on new technologies. Avatar 2 therefore does not assume that the technique is bad, but it shows the inhumanity of machines when they are used for the purpose of control and domination. Humans are absorbed in the machines with which they commit cruel acts. If the Anthropocene is the reign of technology, then Avatar wants to show the dangers and the dehumanization that results from a technical domination of the world.
Future challenges, for the franchise and for humanity
The Anthropocene, beyond its geological, political or mythical dimension, remains above all a “haunting metaphor of anxiety” (Jean-Christophe Cavallin), that of seeing living conditions on Earth deteriorate inexorably. Avatar 2 shows a new form.
In the first part, the conquest of Pandora aimed to extract a mineral to solve an energy crisis on Earth. The second part exposes a new challenge: Pandora must be colonized because “the Earth is dying” and humanity needs a new home. However, the plot centered on the revenge of Quaritch evacuates this problem. The fate of the earthlings remains unresolved, but the sequels will no doubt focus on these issues.
Let’s hope that they will be able to adapt to those of the Na’vis, since the strength of the franchise Avatar is to adopt the point of view of the dominated people and to legitimize its acts, rare thing in the hollywood industry.
For the moment, in fact, the antagonists are crooked soldiers and industrialists. What will happen when earthlings, with less warlike intentions, arrive on Pandora in search of refuge? Will the film dare to present all of humanity in a negative light?
Ethical, ecological and political reflections around space colonization are topical; the aftermath ofAvatar, on this subject, promise to be interesting. They will also not fail to expose new links to the ecological anxieties and hopes of our time, and will open up new avenues of reflection for the analysis of what is already emerging as a franchise of the Anthropocene.