Thinking About Avatar This Morning

Like many Americans this past week I went to see Avatar last night with my dad and my two sons.  The buzz on the web about Avatar has been intense, and much more favorable than what the critics have mustered up so far.  Count me in as one of those who thought it was something more than a traditional film, so full of imagination and visual power that it was different in kind than most films today.  It was, perhaps, a portent of what is to come, as advances in animation and 3D - and the ability for visionaries like Cameron - to imagine what to do with these extraordinary new tools available to them today.  

But what is sitting with me this morning is its message.  At its core is a very direct anti-Americanism, or least an anti-corporatist/militarist America, and in that sense it feels very much like a film originally conceived and reactive to the global image of America during the Bush era.  

Without giving away too much for now, I kept thinking that in many ways this film was really designed for a global and not just an American audience.  At its core it is an attempt by a harmonious people to repel the advance of what can best be characterized as American imperialism.  This sentiment is sure to strike a chord with a great many people in the developing world today, and speaks to something that I have been concerned about for some time - that for many in the world today the US has become the latest manifestation of West's imperial/colonial tradition, a tradition which frankly did a great deal of damage to many societies and cultures across the world. 

For American audiences this idea of America as an imperial power rather than as history's most powerful  inspirational liberator will create a narrative dissonance, a non-comforting message during this holiday season.  In our historical narrative and understanding of ourselves, America was born through the overthrowing of an arrogant, greedy colonial power, and has remained - WWII, Cold War - in our minds liberty's greatest global champion.  There really isn't a narrative available in the US today that positions us as imperialists/oppressors, which is why this film will be so jarring for some, and why I think its ultimate audience is global, not here in the US. 

That for many the experience of Western imperialism/colonialism has been so culturally devastating, and there is a great worry and fear rampant in the world today that America rather than a brake on that global tradition has become its latest champion is a global dynamic that I think many American elites are simply unprepared for today.  I have felt it in my travels these last few years.   There is a restlessness out there as societies across the world mature, modernize, and their people become more educated, affluent and information rich.  There is a growing desire for self-determination alive in the world today by the world's rising powers and people, a sense that as they master the first stages of modernization they want to manage the next stages with less intervention  - cultural, economic, political - by the West.  Fareed Zakaria has described this dynamic as the "rise of the rest," which for us here at NDN is seen as a new stage in the recent extraordinary wave of globalization which has spread across the world these last 20 years.  

We are in so many ways entering a new stage in the geo-politics of the globe, something that I still think we are simply not talking enough about here in the US. For many I know there was a naïve sense that with Bush gone the global American image and cultural power would be in "recovery," returning to where it was before the misguided and damaging years of Bush.  But as the current Administration is discovering, the global Pax Americana which kept the world peaceful and prosperous needs to be seen now as a relic of 20th century global politics, and not something that is going to convey to this new century.  New global arrangements, with America in the lead but playing a different role, will need to be fashioned.

So while I am not agreeing with the characterization of the US in Avatar, it cannot be dismissed as the rantings of a Hollywood liberal.   Cameron is tapping into something deep and powerful flowing through the world's rising people today, and in that sense this great movie really be even greater than the historically significant special effects so many have focused on so far. 

Go see it.  It is an incredible film, one of the best I've ever seen.  And feel free to share your thoughts about it here.

Update: In a very short period of time Avatar has broken $1b in receipts, with only a third of that coming from the US.  It has become a truly global media event, quickly.

Update Mon Jan 4 - Gideon Rachman pens this interesting column in the FT, "America is Losing the Free World," which explores some of the same themes.