On January 17, 2010, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks wrote a review of Avatar with the title, “The Messiah Complex.”
He argues that the fable of our time is “the white messiah complex” in which “the adventurer” joins an indigenous population and “emerges as their messiah” to overcome “our own rotten civilization.” He cites other stories in this mold such as A Man Called Horse and Dances With Wolves. To Brooks, the movie “is a racial fantasy par excellence.” He points out that this complex is, in a word, offensive. He ends his review with a blistering summary about the white messiah:
“It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.”
I agreed with his op-ed until it ended. I feel it’s incomplete because he left out the transformative element of science fiction. Avatar followed the formula of the white messiah, but it also went beyond this complex, way beyond it. Why does Brooks overlook the obvious? THE WHITE GUY LEFT HIS BODY. In fact, Jake Sully left his species altogether at the end. Is this white self-hatred? Is it simply the phenomenon of “going native”? Or is it more than all of that?
Though spliced with human genetics, the avatar is based on and compatible with the Na’vi species. It’s not a rationalist and technocratic white guy who came into the tribe; it was an alien hybrid using an inferior wifi connection. In this movie the white guy had a broken body, the white guy couldn’t breathe Pandora’s air, and the white guy’s life wasn’t saved by his species' technocratic superiority. His salvation came about by one of the most amazing science fiction inventions since the virtual world of TRON - a living planet with an organic network.
I first came across this concept of a planet with a living consciousness in the Star Wars series. The novel Vector Prime developed a concept of organic technology versus the mechanical. Organic spaceships versus X-wings. Avatar runs with this theme. Pandora is invaded by us, the sky people and our mechanical devices. But unlike the Star Wars storyline, the Na’vi’s organic technology prevails. When the Great Mother uses her link to all the species evolved on Pandora, the mechanical technology of the sky people is doomed. Yet Brooks gives this concept short shrift:
“The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.”
This, I sincerely think, is a stunning lack of imagination. As I sit here typing, I think to myself: wouldn’t it be great if instead of typing I could just plug into the organic network and send my thoughts to Fantasy Matters? Would a camera ever be necessary if I could send the images I see with a simple thought? Why would I ever need a 3G phone if I had the Matrix-style hardline via fiber optic hairs on my body? And what I wouldn’t give to be able to link with my own cat. What IS she thinking when she races from the basement to the second floor of our house at top speed? An organic network that connects us to all living things is like the Force via the internet.
Again I wonder, is it a Messiah Complex when the white guy becomes an alien hybrid who rejects his own culture and evolution? Brooks completely fails to see that is not the white guy who saves the Na’vi, it’s the Na’vi who save the white guy. Without the Great Mother to transfer his consciousness to his avatar, the hero would be dead and so too his journey of self-discovery.
Brooks may be a master at political analysis, but when it comes to science fiction he just doesn’t get it.