It’s probably just a coincidence that the blue-skinned, endangered aliens from the planet Pandora in the mega-hit “Avatar” are called the Na’vi, which is Hebrew for prophet. It couldn’t be that non-Jewish writer and director James Cameron took the term deliberately to make a point that in these victimized, ultimately triumphant underdogs we were to see a glimpse of some conflict in the offing. Could it?
Probably not. But it is one of the things to ponder about a movie that borrows so much of its essence, while leaving so much to interpretation.
As the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun, and that’s particularly true of the entertainment world, where the biggest sensation in Hollywood in the pre-Oscar weeks is this CGI-laden reboot of an overused plot device.
The stranger-in-a-strange-land who learns the ways of another culture has appeared on the big screen in such historical fiction as the Disney cartoon “Pocahantas” and the films “Last of the Mohicans,” “Dances With Wolves,” and “The Last Sumarai.” A variation on this theme, with a title that gets right to the point, was “A Stranger Among Us,” in which a gentile cop played by Melanie Griffith goes undercover among chasidim.
Often the transitional element of these films is that the male protagonist turns against his native people to protect his adopted culture, usually motivated by a love interest. That’s precisely what happens in Avatar, although the twist is that only hero Jake Sully’s mind is with the adopted blue-skinned alien people, operating a synthetic avatar body.
The villains in Avatar look, dress and talk like the American military, which was probably mostly a practical consideration for director James Cameron. But it’s easy to speculate about a commentary against U.S. imperialism and adventurism. There are plenty of other analogies to be made, from the destruction of rain forests to the annihilation of Native American culture.
And if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is something that, well, occupies your mind much you will probably see some elements of it in the film, too. That’s what happened when Juliano Mer-Khamis, a Palestinian-born filmmaker and actor saw Avatar. Mer-Khamis, who has a Jewish mother and Arab father, makes no attempt to be objective in the conflict. After seeing the film he caused a ruckus in a California suburb (unidentified in press reports) by loudly comparing the destroyers in the film to the Israelis and the peaceful Na’vi to the Palestinians. The story has been told in Maariv, the LA Times and the Palestine Note blog.
“No one dares to make the real analogy,” Mer-Khamis told Maariv. “’Avatar’ is one of the bravest films made. It portrays the occupation, but people aren’t making the analogy. Many would like to be like the blue people but don’t understand the meaning. This is why people got angry at the movie theater. It is no secret that I think the Israelis are occupiers and the Palestinians occupied. Israel sits forcefully on lands that belong to others and this is exactly what the movie is talking about.”
The analogy wasn’t lost on Israelis either. On the satirical TV show Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country), a blue skinned ambassador from Pandora appears to forge an alliance with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But when the Na’vi diplomat compares his people to the Palestinians, the actor playing the right-wing Lieberman breaks off the talks with the business end of a gun.
Surprisingly, we haven’t heard much from Jewish theologians likening the plight of the Na’vi to our millennial story of triumph over victimization and preservation of culture. And surely the grand battle between overwhelming forces trying to destroy the tiny paradise whose guardians surprise with their ferocity can draw a few analogies to the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, too.
It’s precisely because the plot of this film is such a template that people can interpret what they what they wish from it. Much of science fiction is allegory and because everything in it is so far removed from our daily life it’s natural to wonder what inspired the writer or if there’s a point to be made.
Since the definition of avatar, based on the Hindu concept of a deity descended from heaven but lately popularized in video game use, is a template that takes on the characteristics of the user, it seems only fitting that people look at the movie through their own rose-colored 3D glasses.
And if Avatar does end up sweeping the Oscars, our multiple interpretatiions would bolster Cameron’s claim that, despite the lack or originality of the plot, he has truly created art.