As _Avatar_ gradually accrued its second billion dollars in the last few weeks, coverage of the film itself (rather than its receipts) sank from complacent praise to idle speculation. Was the film racist? Well, accidentally. Is there going to be a sequel? Sources say! And how about that sex scene? The weirdest thread, perhaps, was the series of accusations of plagiarism. Across the noisome world of entertainment blogs, _Avatar_ was accused of plagiarizing a half-dozen works, from 1970s American comics and Soviet novels to 2008’s _Delgo_. The latter holds the record for lowest gross of any film to open on more than 2,000 screens, according to movieline.com, at $684,782; quite a bit, come to think of it, for a movie starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jennifer Love Hewitt this side of 30.
The latter accusation is totally spurious, of course—a movie shot as _Avatar_ was couldn’t plagiarize much more from a film released in 2008 than its advertising campaign. Measuring up the ratio of the films’ relative success (2921:1), jealousy appears to furnish the motive; and, when one stops to examine the coverage, incompetence airs the charge. Movieline.com’s comparison of _Delgo_ and _Avatar_ racked up their “7 eeriest parallels”; by the site’s own standards, its ‘discovery’ was a spooky plagiarism of _The Hero with A Thousand Faces_’ monomyth. “[B]oth films have heroic male leads who sprint through woodsy shadows in foreign lands; both films feature tough but emotional female leads; [. . .] both films feature big, scary, fanged monsters of various types threatening their heroes; [. . .] and both films feature all of the above as individual hurdles in the undying quest for love.” (It was proof by screenshot, especially the sixth point: “both films feature alien warriors uncorking their fiercest battle cries.” If Gerald Butler is more genetically abdominal than human, as he appears, one may add _300_ to the list.) The most specific point of dispute was the shared fantasy of a field of flying rocks, the adjudication of which must await _Swift v. Miyazaki_.
Much more plausible was the accusation on behalf of the beloved Soviet sibling novelists of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, leveled by the Communists of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region. (The very same group, you might not recall, thought Cate Blanchett’s accent in _Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull_ was literally criminal; sadly, they only managed a boycott.) My sympathy lies here, first, because there’s something to the claim, minor as it may be: the Strugatskys’ “Noon Universe” contains a planet named Pandora, and on that planet there live a race named the Nave. Of course, the difference is more than syllabic: the Nave are totally without Internet; they aren’t even blue; and seeing as they transformed their planet into a jungle resort rather than fight off Earthlings, the Nave can only be to the Na’vi as Mohegan Sun is to the last of the Mohicans (which might, come to think of it, have been the point of Cameron’s homage).
My deepest sympathy lies not with the merits of the case, however, but the plaintiffs. There’s real pathos in a twenty-first century communist from St. Petersberg (neé Leningrad) lamenting that the latest and biggest American import is “harmful for western civilization” and, like all poisons, an inversion of his own nation’s cure—not least because, these days, it’s unclear whether the man counts as a citizen of “western civilization” at all, as it seems increasingly to exclude even ‘Eurabia’. And I mean ‘cure’: like most science fiction—and, specifically, like the contemporaneous American _Star Trek_—the “Noon Universe” was a utopian fantasy of post-colonial internationalism expanded to the galactic scale. _Star Trek_’s was defined by the pacifist and presciently anti-globalist “Prime Directive,” which dictated that, foremost among all prohibitions, humans may not interfere with the development of alien species, nor even contact those technologically equivalent to Earth’s “indigenous peoples.” In the “Noon Universe,” by contrast, an “Institute of Experimental History” turned out ‘progressors’ who selectively interfere with alien cultures in order to advance their technological and historical development to ‘the end of history’: a galactic COMINTERN.
There are no progressors in _Avatar_—and, insofar as the communists’ case for plagiarism is less convincing than that for the film’s harm—no progressives ought endorse it. As laughable as something like “experimental history” may sound now, it deserves credit for how straightforwardly it allegorizes Soviet policy; _Avatar_, like _Star Trek_ before it (and like American liberalism all along), posits a utopianism that, in the final analysis, can only be called accomodationist in its failure to imagine outside the real order in which it is contained. _Star Trek_’s “Prime Directive” was as frequently violated as the sovereignty of the third world in the Cold War—and, there as here, the abrogation was rationalized as preservative of a morally weightier and supposedly necessary strategic balance (or, as Obama put it in his speech on his escalation in Afghanistan, “global security”).
The case against _Avatar_’s utopianism is more complex—and it is bolstered not by highlighting the parts of the film that have been plagiarized from others, but rather by focusing on where it is nearly unprecedented. Critics eager to eliminate the film’s originality, once we dismiss the more trivial discoveries, have mostly settled on its recapitulation of the “White Messiah” trope, witnessed most visibly in recent years in _Dances with Wolves_. The movie’s moral failing on this score is real, though—since this is the strongest argument of all for its unoriginality—it’s repetitively so. Besides, to call Jake Sully a “White Messiah” is to neglect that, much as we might wish to keep him, by the end of the film he is no longer even a human (let alone white) Messiah. If we take the film’s biological premise on its own ludicrous terms, as we ought, Sully has ‘gone native’ more radically than any fictional character before him. And so, though Avatar most certainly commits the crime of awaiting a “White Messiah,” its successive and naïve faith in actual racio-biological transcendence perhaps affords it a pardon.
Rather the case for _Avatar_’s originality is identical to the case against its politics. What’s unique about _Avatar_’s narrative world—which I specify purposely, since no one can reasonably claim the film is visually derivative, the _Fern Gully_ comparison notwithstanding—is _zahelu_, its condition of possibility and ultimate end. To critics well-disposed to the film, _zahelu_ is its singular moral achievement, within its world and ours: a source of transcendent sexual, emotional and even ecological good, allowing for perfect balance among individuals and between the human and natural realms—and, impossible as it may be in practice (and skeptically as the message may be received when delivered by computer generation) an ethos for our own imbalanced world.
It would be silly to criticize Cameron’s utopian _ewya_ for assuming an impossible biological order; as Nick Cox has so articulately argued earlier in these pages, the film’s triumph is its insistence on the continued value of utopia even as fantasy. Yet I would argue that the political failure of Cameron’s specific presentation of _zahelu_ is that—just as _Star Trek_ rearticulated the states of exception that riddle neoliberal internationalism, and just as a white envy of indigenous cultures can only be routed through a “White Messiah”—_zahelu_ only reinscribes the biopolitics Cameron intended to fantasize a way out of.
The most glaring example: though _zahelu_ among the Na’vi appears to be a truly collective and collaborative experience, zahelu with the native animals is an exact replica of domestication by humans on Earth. Sully is taught to be ‘one’ with his dragon, or whatever it is—and thereby instrumentalizes it, with more command than even the most skilled human rider over his horse. Cameron thus appears incapable of imagining a contact with nature other than the very same human mastery he appears so authentically to loathe. Worse yet, _zahelu_ reinscribes the logic of colonialism even within the world of the film. _Zahelu_ between Na’vi and other fauna is not only an exact replica of the human relationship to nature: it is identical to the _zahelu_ by another name that allows Jake Sully to vicariously experience Pandora through his Na’vi host body (the ethical—and experiential—status of which is never clarified). Sully’s transformation into a Na’vi is initiated in the medical laboratories orbiting Pandora, and completed in the shamanic ritual on the surface. That the two processes should be complementarily complete a larger one, however, only underlines the Na’vis final residence within our own familiar world of domination and colonization.
As original as _zahelu_ is (especially when seen to be a means to the larger end of _ewya_), an antecedent has been claimed for the version practiced by the human scientists in Avatar: a short story entitled “Call Me Joe,” written by Poul Anderson in 1957. Therein a crippled human ‘psiman’ controls the mind of an artificial organism, genetically engineered to explore—and populate, with priests and everything—the surface of Jupiter (I know, I know—they didn’t). As in _Avatar_, the symbiosis becomes disconcertingly real. Whereas James Cameron remains enthralled to the subcultural zeitgeist of transhumanism, however, Anderson preceded it; in his precedence, he also anticipated its discomforting consequences. Joe, there, is the artificial organism—and it’s he who colonizes his weaker human host. Lightly offensive to the disabled as it may be, this twist recognizes within its shared premise with _Avatar_ what Cameron did not: that the extension of one’s body over another’s will always invoke resistance. In Cameron’s rush to escape the human lifeworld, he remained bound by its strictures; in Anderson’s more limited inhabitance of the terms of his own fiction, he succeeded; yet, in the popular analysis, the relation between the two will only mention that the former plagiarized the latter.