Published February 03, 2010

Doug Casey on Avatar & Pop Culture

(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)

Doug: Lobo. I saw it. Let’s talk.

L: Ah, you mean the latest, greatest, highest-grossing blockbuster movie of all time – and not incidentally, environmental extremists’ wet dream – Avatar.

Doug: Yes. I want to start by saying that I did actually enjoy the movie, though it’s certainly no cosmic breakthrough on any intellectual front. It’s a little bit of Romeo and Juliet, a bit more of Pocahontas and John Smith. Elements of Bambi meeting the soldiers and battle equipment from Aliens. The South Park guys nailed it, as they usually do, with their spoof, “Dances With Smurfs.” But the visual effects were stunning.

L: [Laughs] They even picked the right skin color.

Doug: That’s right: blue aliens, blue Smurfs.

L: Dances with Wolves came to my mind right away as well, featuring a soldier with a heart of gold going over to the natives. It also reminded me of a cartoon movie released back in the early 1990s called FernGully, about a magical rainforest inhabited by wonderful creatures that some evil company wanted to chop down.

Doug: Yes, it appears that whenever a resource company sees a beautiful rainforest, they simply can’t resist destroying it, as if wanton destruction were their Prime Directive. And mining companies in movies must have recruiting posters that read: “Join us! Visit exotic, distant lands. Meet strange, interesting people. And kill them.”

But it’s understandable. After you invade a place, devastate it, and take whatever you want without even asking if you can pay for it, it wouldn’t make for much of a drama if the natives were just nasty brutes that needed killing. Where would the moral conflict be? That’s where a mining company comes in. Every movie-going moron knows that only a mining company could be evil enough to attack Smurfs living in a rainforest.

That said, I did enjoy it. I watched it in 3D, in an Imax theater here in Auckland. But the question is what people take away from it. Is it mainly the entertainment provided by the fantastic graphics showing an alien world full of amazing plants and animals? Or is it the… not so subtle ideological values that permeated the movie.

L: Subtle as a sledge hammer.

Doug: One of the things I noticed – and this is true of many things – is that even though the movie is full of typical left-wing Hollywood values, there were still things in it that were good from a libertarian viewpoint. There had to be, if only so people wouldn’t be completely bummed out. But I got to wondering if this might be part of why so few people have internally consistent values. Most people never sit down and sort out the grains of salt from the grains of pepper in their intellectual diets. They are so thoroughly mixed up together in films like this, it can actually be hard to do.

L: I understand just what you mean, but people who haven’t seen the movie may not, so let’s get a synopsis. I should also warn anyone reading this who has not seen the movie that we won’t be able to talk about any of the major ideas in it without giving away important plot twists. So, if you don’t like spoilers, go watch the movie and then come back and read the rest of this conversation.

Doug: Although a critic will tell you that the proper way to see a movie is to know how it ends, so you can better assess the art of how it’s constructed along the way….

Anyway, the movie is a science fiction scenario in which humans have gone to a planet in another star system far from Earth to mine a super-valuable mineral called “unobtainium.” Gotta love that name. Unobtainium has long been an engineer’s catch phrase for pixie dust – but it's still funny. The planet, called Pandora, is populated by giant, blue-skinned aliens who live in harmony with the rainforest that covers the place. These guys are the heroes, resisting the humans who, among other things, want to chop down the giant tree in which the tribe lives. A human soldier’s mind remote-operates an artificial body like that of one of the natives, called an avatar, and he is tasked with infiltrating the native society and getting them to leave their sacred tree. He ends up switching sides, of course, as the soldier does in Dances with Wolves.

L: And of course the Bad Guys work for a mining company, which has hired a private army to boot the natives out of the way. This scenario is so contrived – not to mention copied from a half-dozen predecessor stories – that the richest deposit of unobtainium within 200 kilometers is right under the beautiful natives’ sacred tree. Kilometers! As though a civilization that can look for minerals across light years of space couldn’t look for them more than 200 kilometers away…

Doug: [Laughs] You’d think that if $400 million couldn’t buy you an original screen play, it could at least get you one with some common sense…

L: The Bad Guys are such cold-hearted, money-grubbing stereotypes, they were like cartoon caricatures. On the other hand, you’ve got heartless bad guys, and underdog good guys fighting for their homes and freedom from oppression – that’s a good, positive theme. It’s mixed in, like you say – it often seems to me that they have to stick some sort of libertarian message in, or they just don’t get the audience as emotionally involved in the cause as they want.

Doug: That’s why it’s hard to sort out. It’s like sorting out the differences between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the U.S. The Democrats have an overt philosophy of collectivism – but you’ve at least got to respect the fact that they are consistent about it. The Republicans don’t really have any philosophy at all, unless you could call saying, “We won’t go as far as the Democrats” a philosophy – so, although they’re arguably less evil, they have to be totally disrespected as spineless hypocrites.

Of course, Republicans say they believe in economic freedom – but don’t, while they actively dislike social freedom. Democrats say they believe in social freedom, but they don’t – although they definitely hate economic freedom. Being offered these two parties in the U.S. is like being forced to choose between Scylla and Charybdis – you lose either way.

It’s very much the same in the movie. If you’re on the human side, you have to accept the genocide of the natives. If you’re on the other side, you still have to totally suspend disbelief and be anti-technology, since it might hurt the planet. The alien natives are so pure and good and noble that you can only be living in an alternate reality. Apart from the fact that it’s all geochemical fantasy: there are 92 naturally occurring elements in this universe, and unobtainium isn’t among them. Clearly, at least to me, the director was trying to make this a morality myth. Too bad the morality is so confused.

I’d like to see a movie in which the hero is an unalloyed good guy.

L: Well, there was the 1949 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper. That one’s not very realistic either, but Rand didn’t write the character of Howard Roark to be realistic; she created him to be a pure archetype. He’s a moral example – unalloyed good.

Doug: [Laughs] Well, yes, that would qualify – but that movie was made in a different era. Perhaps one movie every 50 years with an unalloyed good guy is all the public can handle... we’re about due for one. I can’t wait.

L: One of the things I find most insidious about this movie is this business of the alien natives being portrayed as an environmental extremist’s ideal of pure goodness.

Doug: Yes, they are primitives, with bows and arrows being their most advanced technology – all human technology is depicted as being destructive in the film. The primitive society is just the way extremists would like to see all people living on our world today – those that don’t want to see humans wiped off the earth. This completely ignores the diseases, chronic risk of starvation, savage wars, and other terrors that were the daily fare of primitive humans. But in this fantasy, these noble savages live in harmony with nature. But, frankly, who wants to live in harmony with germs, viruses, fungi, and carnivores that are actively trying to kill you?

Not only that, but enviro-extremists on our world today fantasize that Mother Earth is alive – they call her Gaia – and that we nasty humans are killing her. Somehow volcanoes that spew mountains of toxic chemicals into the air don’t count. Nor do asteroids and space debris that periodically crash into the planet, destroying most living things.

But in the movie, Pandora really is alive. The natives can communicate with animals via natural fiber optics that are part of their hair, and with the trees that network the whole planet and store the memories of their ancestors. If that were true on earth today, then cutting down the forest really would be the crime environmental extremists make it out to be. But it’s not. And the movie reinforces values driven by the environmental left, based on a pure fantasy that does not apply to the real world.

L: That’s what I’m saying. The movie is a realization of a vision of indigenous peoples that’s not true. It’s never been true. Primitives on earth have almost universally been war-like. It was not only white people who practiced slavery. There’s a reason why Hobbes describes primitive life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” So, my concern is that people will transpose the values from the movie to reality. They’ll see international mining companies as being like the one in the movie, even though real mining companies go to great lengths to avoid conflict with local populations and in most cases actively try to help them. Many viewers will see the poor natives in Bolivia or Bangladesh as being like the ones in the movie, even though they are as often as not trashing the local environment in scores of ways, including mining using unsafe chemicals. The movie is a fantasy, but the stereotypes have direct analogs in our world today – and they are wrong.

Doug: Yes. The Na’vi – the  blue people of Pandora – are portrayed as living in a real garden of Eden. As you say, reality on our planet is different. For one thing, many real primitive tribes were devastating to their local environments. For example, at least before the evil white man imported horses, it was very hard for North American Indians to take down big prey like buffalo unless they stampeded the whole herd over a cliff. They weren’t environmentally friendly on principle; that’s just currently fashionable enviro-imagination. They weren’t trying to maintain the balance of nature; they simply lacked the technology to do more damage.

But it’s a false dilemma. What’s missing here is an understanding of property rights.

If the Sky People, as the humans are called in the movie, came and found something of value on Pandora, it would have been incumbent upon them to respect the property rights of those already there, and find a way to trade for what they wanted. This apparently never occurred to the humans in the movie, who simply show up and take what they want by force. That’s called “stealing” and it has natural consequences…

L: The movie even makes that point, if perhaps unwittingly. If you steal something, people resist. The Na’vi resist, so the evil mining company pays a fortune to hire an army, create avatars, etc., and eventually suffers a great economic loss as a result of having disrespected the locals’ property rights. How could that be more profitable than finding places to mine where there were no Na’vi? Or mining underground and then restoring the minimal surface disruption to its original state? Or coming to some kind of a mutually beneficial agreement?

Doug: Right. The movie makers created a straw-man enemy, just to be able to knock him down. They don’t even bother to explain how it was legal for a private company to murder natives in this future. Usually only governments or their minions, like Blackwater, can do that with impunity…

That reminds me of another thing that bothered me about the movie. In it, the soldiers and their more powerful technology are depicted as the Bad Guys, attacking the nice blue people. But if the blue people had had superior alien technology and had been ruthlessly wiping out the humans, those same soldiers would have been the Good Guys. In Aliens, the excellent movie I referenced earlier, Sigourney Weaver uses a robot to fight the bad alien.

And then there’s the female helicopter pilot who switches sides at the end of the movie. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, whether she’s a hero or a traitor. Did everyone she killed deserve to die? If you’re caught in the wrong war, do you have the right to shoot your officer? Joseph Heller, in Catch-22 said that the enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed. There are moral ambiguities in the movie that are never clearly dealt with. It’s almost like they rolled dice to assign character values, just to get your emotions worked up. I prefer to have the motivations of characters explored. There’s a difference between a real catharsis and just having your emotions played with…

That is a real problem with professional soldiers, of course; they do whatever they’re told, including attacking and killing whoever they’re told, because that’s their job. There’s very little moral reasoning among such people.

L: That’s an interesting point, and perhaps a redeeming feature of the film. As you pointed out in our conversation on the military, when you have people trained to act without thinking, it’s dangerous. This movie did show that, especially when, towards the end, the guys in charge tell all the humans in their base that the natives have amassed an army, and they now need to exterminate them, or the humans themselves will be exterminated.

That’s typical of politicians in the real world; they push people into conflicts where they must kill or be killed. Look at Viet Nam – the commanders and soldiers on the ground did some bad things, but the people who are really to blame were those bastards in Washington, or Hanoi, or wherever, who put them in such a situation to begin with.

Doug: I agree. There were definitely some sergeants that deserved fragging. And some captains, colonels, and generals. And some presidents. But the higher up the command chain you are, the more likely it is you’ll escape punishment for the crimes you commit in office – even though you deserve it far more. It’s quite perverse.

L: Any other redeeming aspects of the movie? Usually with these anti-human environmentalist movies, it’s not enough for the corporations to be simply making money in some disapproved way. In order to really get the audience riled up, the companies have to start killing people or committing other serious crimes. In this case, we have a moral underdog fighting genocide and winning – that’s a positive message, isn’t it?

Doug: Sure. In human history, whenever a more advanced civilization has encountered a less advanced one, it’s been bad for the less advanced one. Every time. For one thing, the larger, conquering empire usually brings diseases the smaller, isolated tribe hasn’t encountered. And, of course, throughout history, might has made right. There’s value in pointing this out.

But this is not a function of capitalism, as it’s portrayed in the movie. To the contrary, capitalism is a matter of trade and voluntarism. The way I see it, the essence of capitalism is good and pure and noble. The problem is that humans suffer from flaws – which movies like this are correct to point out. For all I know, humans wound up on Earth as a prison planet for crimes they committed elsewhere in the universe. Maybe CS Lewis was right in how he portrayed the Silent Planet in his Perelandra Trilogy. The possibilities certainly appeal to my solipsistic tendencies, as well as my love of SF.

But with these stupid movies, it’s always a case of mistaken identity; they can’t identify the real malefactor in the tragedy, which can turn the whole exercise into a black comedy if the viewer is a cynic.

In any event, as we discussed in our conversation on Rome, conquest is not profitable in the modern world, as it was in the ancient. War destroys the value in a conquered society – it’s just not profitable to cart off the women and the gold like you used to be able to do.

L: Nukes don’t conquer, they simply obliterate. And slavery no longer exists – but probably not because people have evolved beyond the capacity for it. It just became uneconomic in the industrial world and will be ever less so as technology advances. Which brings us back to the movie being stupid for portraying a future mining company acting like old Spanish conquistadores.

Doug: Another interesting thing is that the movie has been banned in China, except for the 3D version in the few theaters that can handle it. Apparently the powers-that-be fear that the Han extracting resources from Tibet and other poor areas in western China might start sympathizing with the locals, and stop working in the mines and so on.

L: Really? I thought it was a fear of rebellion among the ruling class.

Doug: I suppose any state naturally dislikes any movies that depict anything other than support for the state and its programs. All Soviet movies were basically propaganda. But when they try to censor things like this, it inevitably backfires on them. People resent it and go looking for it. People may in fact be idiots, but they don’t like to be treated that way.

L: I always wondered if V for Vendetta was allowed to show in China.

Doug: I sincerely doubt it. “V” is one of my favorite movies of all time – and it’s seriously subversive. Everybody should watch it every year.

I wonder if there’s a way this movie, Avatar, could have been made so that it was just as exciting and visually impressive, but so that it was morally uplifting, instead of morally confusing.

L: Well, there’s the angle of the conflict between a more technologically advanced society and one less so. You could center a story on that conflict and make it just as heart-rending and both more relevant and more constructive for the world we live in by exploring that theme. Maybe like 300, but with more story and less obsession with gore.

Doug: That might work. 300 was well done in every way. And based on a true story of men defending their homeland against invaders. But the gore couldn’t have been cut out. It’s the way it was.

L: I’m sure you’re right about that, but it’s not my favorite kind of entertainment. What about investment implications – see anything in this mix?

Doug: Well, as a straw in the wind, this movie’s $2 billion take at the box office can be seen as an argument for expecting metals supplies to continue being restricted for some time to come. As you know from your work, traveling around the world looking for good metals projects for International Speculator subscribers to invest in, governments everywhere are raising the cost of mining through ever more onerous regulations and every higher direct taxation.

L: That’s where they aren’t shutting off vast tracts of mineral-rich lands to exploration completely.

Doug: Right. This movie is a clear sign of strong public sentiment in favor of policies that restrict mining, even as the Earth’s population keeps growing and is going to need more and more metals. A hundred years ago, when you found a deposit, you could put it into production in a matter of weeks. Now, it takes nine years on average – if you can get the permits at all.

So, with demand on track to continue rising for decades to come, existing supplies in depletion, and new supplies being restricted, the trend is for higher metals prices for the foreseeable future.

L: Short-term corrections aside.

Doug: Yes.

L: Well, that’s clear enough to me. You know, several readers have asked us to talk about movies as we did about books – not just this movie. Maybe we should take that up next week.

Doug: Sounds like a plan. I have lots of favorites – and I’ll tell you why.

Though Doug and Louis are not particularly fond of “green” fanatics, they would agree on the importance of picking only the best – and most responsible – mining companies. And the only way to do that is getting your boots on the ground and kick rocks in fly-blown places yourself… resulting in triple-digit returns for the subscribers of Casey’s International Speculator. Learn more here.

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