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Not Quite Paradise: Treatment of Animals in 'Avatar'

March 1, 2010

Jonathan Fine, Contributing writer

In his spectacular new 3-D film "Avatar," writer/director James Cameron gives the science fiction genre a lush and beautiful world called Pandora. Bioluminescent plants illuminate the nighttime forest, and fog-shrouded mountains float inexplicably in the air. Pandora is inhabited by the Na'vi, whose nature-loving society coheres around an omnipresent goddess figure called Eywa.

The Na'vi seem to have a deep reverence for all life on their planet, but this respect ultimately does not extend to all of their fellow creatures. This inconsistency raises some interesting questions, as I will explain here. The behavior of the Na'vi is no fault of their own, of course--they are fictional characters, let us remember, and computer-generated ones at that. Rather, James Cameron bears the responsibility of compromising the integrity of his own creation.

As hunters, the Na'vi place great emphasis on the importance of a "clean kill," in which their prey experience minimal suffering. In an early scene, Jake Sully (a U.S. Marine in the body of his "avatar," a male Na'vi) gets himself into trouble on Pandora with a pack of angry nantangs. These are fierce, doglike creatures. They are about to kill Jake when Neytiri, a female Na'vi and Jake's eventual love interest, comes to his rescue. She has to kill several nantangs in order to save Jake, and she is devastated by this needless loss of life. This is fairly standard "noble savage" characterization. The Na'vi love everything on their planet and waste nothing, in sharp contrast to the rapacious, imperious American military-industrial presence on the planet. The soldiers have come to steal Pandora's vast underground stores of a precious mineral. They are unconcerned with matters of ecology or justice.

The Na'vi, on the other hand, are a profoundly moral species, perhaps due in part to the direct communications they're able to have with their ancestors and their god. But when it comes to the relationship between the Na'vi and the ikrans, perhaps the most important animals on Pandora, this morality breaks down and is superseded by Cameronís need to deliver cheap thrills to his audience.

Ikrans are huge, resplendent airborne predators that are wild and hostile until tamed by the Na'vi. The Na'vi accomplish this by seizing an ikran and forging a psychic connection with it. Once this is done, the ikran is bonded with its master for life. The Na'vi use the ikran to hunt and travel--but primarily, it seems, to go on death-defying, swooping joyrides.

And there's the rub: how is it consistent with Na'vi morality to use a fellow creature in this manner? The neurological connection that binds a Na'vi to his personal ikran is less about harmony between two souls than it is the subjugation of one animal's will by another's. A tamed ikran loses much of its autonomy. In depicting the ikrans as somewhat awkward and unwieldy until they are tamed, Cameron subtly encourages us not to be troubled by this loss of autonomy.

If ikrans were vital to Na'vi survival, one could explain the arrangement between the species in terms of evolutionary codependence. But as far as we can tell, the ikrans are basically personal vehicles and status symbols for the Na'vi. It's hard to see how Eywa, the great deity of Pandora, would condone this kind of thing.

To extend our animal-rights reading of "Avatar" a little further, it's worth asking why the Na'vi need to exploit any animals in any fashion. This is a highly evolved species, after all. They are resourceful and compassionate. They have the gift of a tangible psychic connection with their ancestors, their god, and all living things on their planet. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? The Na'vi are natural vegans. Pity James Cameron didn't see it that way.

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