by Guy Walker
The Southern Congo was once a lush jungle of overgrown canopies and its endless tendrils of ivies, every possible limb was some resplendent baronial violence towards the sun and rain, some orgiastic excrescence of tubers and outgrowths and sacs of decay and disassembly. The jungle shrieks with predatory insects through its serpentines of mist, and keeps secret the hidden homes of the mantled guereza, the de brazza’s monkey, swamp monkeys, chimpanzees, and lowland gorillas. I’ve never seen a primate in the wild, but I can imagine their strange yet familiar wisdom, always in the eyes, patiently sticking long twigs into termite mounds, or walking the forest floor on their knuckles, or repelling from limb to limb with some intuitive nimbleness, a familiar silhouette against the penumbra of sunlight overhead.
But the Congo is home to an estimated 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt (it’s surely far more than this estimate), one of the essential elements in lithium-ion batteries, which is used in every smartphone and especially electric car. You used to be able to sink your shovel into the ground and soon find the crudely black and turquoise stone of heterogenite, and refine it into cobalt, similar to the early days of finding crude oil bubbling up to the surface in Pennsylvania. But now there are mines, massively sprawling complexes of ruined earth, clambering with thousands of child slaves, unaccounted for deaths and injuries, with three-quarters of the country living on less that two-dollars a day. Who knows what the collected loss of life is for the jungle that was once there. Who knows the embattled mythic squawks now muffled in the ruined debris. It’s all for one precious element, critical to prevent the batteries in smartphones and electric cars from bursting into flames.
But without it, we couldn’t run our modern world. We have sacrificed every former dependable instinct that’s been passed down from countless generations in exchange for the convenient use of ruining our brains, so much so that without cobalt—if all our phones simultaneously burst into flames, and we were left staring into charred rectangles that no longer allowed us to escape our naked misery—we would instantly become beasts, prowling the fearful world with clubs and hatchets, ready to kill and maim and even self-immolate without access to our favorite drug. Or perhaps, in this Malthusian catastrophe, we’d be desperate enough to advance space travel enough to take us to new distant planets, to extract all its usable minerals that only serve to prolong our shivering mortality a little longer.
Avatar: The Way of Water is about you. Its villain characters aren’t the scarred and scary renderings of humanity’s collective failings; it’s about how you and your modern-but-so-ancient appetites are destroying the world you profess to love. The first movie covered our blundering of the land and forests; so this second epic covers the oceans, in a Melvillean sprawl of triviality, how we will kill everything grand and beautiful and sentient to not die ourselves, even if that means living on a completely charred and desolate planet.
Avatar: The Way of Water is all about the tulkun, the whale-esque creatures that are hunted down for a minuscule amount of yellow liquid that is secreted from a gland at the base of their skulls. When the liquid is captured, the rest of the whale is discarded, and the ship becomes another abattoir of waste, another bestial indulgence against the chimera of death. Of course Cameron isn’t making an allegory of the past. Of course he’s not saying how whaling used to be so bad because we just used a bit of blubber to light our lanterns, or how the Chinese cut off the dorsal fin of a shark and toss out the rest of the still-living shark to sink and die a miserable death. There are still whales swimming their infinite undulating laps around the world’s oceans today that are old enough to have survived humanity’s barrage of industrial whaling two hundred years ago. And so it’s tempting to grant those whales some special lore, to say they’ve personally witnessed the hailstorm of harpoons whizzing by their heads, seen all their siblings and cousins sucked from the sea and into the sky, and lived to tell about it. Cameron is adamant that the tulkun aren’t whales. But of course they are. They hold the secret ingredients to immortality because whales are the closest things we have to an ancient sentience that is somehow more alien than our most realistic sci-fi renderings.
An immortality drug today would obviously be siphoned and hoarded with drooling greed by the richest and most powerful. It might already exist. It’s hard to imagine Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos ever dying from old age, from a normal deterioration of the bones or brain like the rest of us. After all, Theodor Adorno did say, “Very evil people cannot really be imagined dying.”But we all carry on our days as if this won’t happen to us. Stuck in traffic going back and forth from a job we’re mainly indifferent about, in and out of cafés for a midday dessert because we deserve it, at home binge watching Ted Lasso on the background as you simultaneously send some emails from your laptop as you simultaneously scroll through Instagram reels on your phone, all the while there is an invisible eldritch daemon latched to your neck like a menacing golem character, his fangs slowly pulling the life from you, and we don’t seem to notice enough or care enough to do anything different.
Cameron observes something hauntingly obvious in all of us. The more wealthy we become—whether it’s individual or collective wealth—nothing about the nature of ourselves ever changes. In the first volume of the franchise, Giovanni Ribisi’s character is still only interested in improving his golf stroke on a rolled out putting green inside their mother spaceship—there’s no excited curiosity of the outside, no thrill even for the ravenous adventure of dominating another planet. Yeah, but it’s a movie, you say. The ultra rich must have endless orgies on super yachts all day long, or at least be so occupied with maintaining their empire that they don’t have time for our trivial pastimes. But you don’t need to look further than the here and now. Elon Musk is a real man, at the helm of many enormously complex companies, and in his free time, he only troll tweets, like a pimply-faced virgin, and then he proceeds to gloat that his tweet about putting cocaine back in Coca-Cola is the most liked tweet of all time. Appetites don’t change, not for the super wealthy, not for most everyone.
There’s some horrible familiarity in all this. Elon Musk famously wants to begin colonizing other planets because we’re so expediently ruining this one. And while Tesla is slowly transitioning away from its nickel and cobalt batteries to the safer iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries, Tesla has helped transform jungles into wastelands. Avatar isn’t about Elon Musk or the Tesla company, but then again, is it? Or rather, is there some ineludible conceit of our destiny that James Cameron predicted, some pattern of despair throughout history that says if we ruin a place we’ll then sail across the horizon to find a new place to generate our wealth a little longer—before that too runs dry?
I don’t know how visual effects and computer generated imagery works. But I’ve heard from many grown adults who play video games that video games these days are almost as realistic as Avatar’s graphics. This is a problem of course, not because these grown adults seem to be perfectly fine screaming profanities into a headset, embarking on these adventures of make-believe gallantry while the world is crumbling out their window, but rather because Avatar, for all that it achieves, can only be consumed as a video game. Its failure is not necessarily its fault, but rather inherent, because it is a movie,because the cinema is consumed the way memes and video games are.
Alain Badiou wrote about this extensively. According to him, the cinema can be a unifying avenue of creative impulse, not all that different from love. Just as love can rupture the automated tedium that courses through our everyday lives, and the dull worship of banality and our siloed domesticities, good cinema has the power to highlight the extraordinary substance of everyday things we take for granted. For Badiou, cinema can be “an art grounded in the fondness of all classes, ages and peoples for an important man being doused with liquid manure by a tramp.” Nico Baumbach writes a worthwhile essay for the Los Angles Review of Books, on Badiou’s “Cinema,” in which he lays out how cinema’s truth procedure distinguishes it from the other arts, as having nothing to do with communication or entertainment. This, according to Badiou, has to do with the constitutive impurity of how cinema is made and consumed. It is impure to all non-art—all that exists outside the realm of art, all the horrible routines and indifferences of waking up and going on as usual. It has to do with how movies are experienced—Avatar is not consumed as an urgent proclamation of our destruction of the Earth, but purely as a three-hour-and-ten-minute 3-D saga of escapism, a florescent titillation of beauty and horror. It has to do with how movies are produced—they are collaborative efforts, with call times, and catering logistics, and actors and grips and best boys who have no personal interest in the motive or vision of the original author. Even if someone like Terrance Malick takes full control, and aimlessly stalks yet another couple through a tall grass prairie, as they caress the heavy hairlike fronds with their fingertips, it is already bastardized as a work of art because movies are contaminated by the genre clichés that are required in order to attract the masses to keep the machine of capital going to incentivize making more of them.
Badiou writes again, that films with an overt agenda are naturally misled. “The oppressed peoples of the earth are not objects for the exquisite inner turmoil of European consciences.” Perhaps this is why Cameron didn’t make a movie franchise of epic proportion about the slaves in the Southern Congo mining for cobalt so we can drive Teslas, simultaneously reassuring ourselves that we are part of the solution. The planet of Pandora and the blue Na’vi people are better suited for our appetite of entertainment, rather than ramming some political guilt trip down our throats. (But still, the cobalt that is used in lithium-ion batteries isn’t necessarily what corrupts electric cars into the masturbatory hogs of pretension that they are; Tesla drivers have irrevocably replaced BMW drivers are the worst people on the road, cutting off every poor grandmother that can’t keep up with its Ludicrous Mode. There’s something hardwired into the cars themselves that attracts these kinds of people.)
Matt Christman, of Chapo Trap House, made an astute point on their “Tulkun King”episode, stating that in our crumbling world of environmental and economic collapse, driven primarily by our unwavering worship of capital, a good movie is the best we can hope for. Like it or not, there will be no proletariat revolution, he said, because we are zoo animals that would rather entertain ourselves to death than do anything to change the grotesquerie of failure we’ve made. Because, he went on to say, at least a movie like Avatar leaves you with some feeling, an ache or earnestness for something else, and not the same predictable expenditure of meme-worthy wit and nihilism and irony that modern cinema is fully consumed by. This is where Avatar succeeds most.
The cultural role of movies like Avatar seems obvious. Our lives are dull undulating narratives, together they are concerted disappointments, like storms of rotting effluvium that wastes against forgotten shores. We huddle into crowded and stinking corrals against the ruined frontier, assuring ourselves that something better will eventually come for us. There is no new world to discover, no riveting stampedes to stomp out into the unknown and brave yourself against. There is no real danger, at least not one that makes every day that you survive a miracle. So we stare into these endless spinning pistons of hypnotized boredom, we watch superheroes flying through time and shattering some evil quantum particle to save the world. We’ve become rodents who only hit the lever to continue the drip of dopamine. Avatar’s most redeeming quality is that it’s screaming at you every frame of the movie that you and your lifestyle is ruing this planet, not Pandora, and you’re ruining it forever, beyond repair. But it can only do so much. It’s a movie after all, and it needs to entertain.
Will you manage to get out and see the movie? You look out your bedroom window. A garbage truck is reversing into a narrow alleyway, its brick walls etched away and plastered in soot and graffiti like the sordid backwash of time, pigeons crowded together on the edges of blackened parapets huddle for warmth in this forgotten strip between apartment buildings, never getting sun except for a few minutes in the low winter light when it passes between the corners of the high opposing walls. The garbage truck woke you, as it usually does on the weekend. This hangover is maybe the worst you’ve ever had, my god, you wish you had a nurse to bring you something to alleviate the splitting pain in your head. The dumpster spills out and spreads onto the street like a piñata of sanguinary gore; some friendless barefoot man dragging a blanket behind him so dirty it looks as though he was a child dragging with him his favorite blanket and just kept walking forever and dragging this worn rag of filth behind him for decades. He peers into the dumpster, scanning the top of it, lifting the occasional leaflet of crumbled degeneracy, emptying an already empty chip bag into his hand in the hope of a few comestible crumbs would fall into his ashen palm.
If you can lift yourself from the fetal position, this pathetic contortion of pale limbs, you’ll get yourself to the movies. You’ll watch Avatar: The Way of Water. You’ll sit in your recliner with your buttered popcorn and Coca-Cola (noticeably without cocaine) fizzing up and tickling your nose, your 3-D glasses reflecting the blue Na’vi warriors like two miniature television screens, two space-age scrying stones of digitized glee, staring up at the massive screen like it was a madonna of desire. The whole audience of hungover and impotent cretins, staring up with their mouths agape, hiding from the world for over three hours. You’ll consume Avatar the way you consume Marvel movies, the way you consume fast food. It will taste good. And then you’ll defecate onto the already sullied floor, and you’ll leave. And you’ll be fine again. Everything will be just fine. Do not worry.