A Tree Falls in the Woods: Avatar as the First “Post-9/11” Film

When you’re not a professional film reviewer, when you don’t live in New York, when the only advance screenings you attend involve a doctor doing something untoward—when these things are true, trying to write about a new film can seem almost useless: The pros get all the good meat, and you’re left to dig around for scraps.

That’s why I usually write about films that have left the theaters, sometimes years or decades prior to my writing. It’s easier—and often much more fun—to try to make an old film important or interesting again, through a deeper kind of analysis, than it is to try to express the importance of a new film when each reviewer you read has beat you to every punch you can think to throw.

With James Cameron’s Avatar, though, which has just opened nationwide, two things are different.

First, on reading the reviews (Ebert, Denby, Stevens)—and especially on seeing the film—one gets the sense that this event simply matters too much for any writer to let it pass by.

Second, though the credentialed reviewers really do have a lot covered, the film fits so perfectly with a cultural development I’ve already written about that I cannot help myself.

In particular, we’ve all come to accept Cloverfield (2008) as a kind of slap-happy, thrill-ride retelling of the 9/11 story. In a piece on Knowing (2009), I identify that film as addressing 9/11 in a more serious and also a more distanced way, and asking spectators to do the same.

Put simply, Avatar is the last film in the series, the one that (finally!) takes up 9/11 without taking on 9/11.

Avatar‘s sprawling narrative and physical spaces center around a towering tree occupied by the Na’vi people you know so well from the trailer. When the human military destroys the tree two-thirds of the way through the film, it’s impossible not to think of 9/11.

Overtaken by flame, the tree plows to the ground, its disintegrating wooden frame rendered meticulously by the filmmakers. The collapse scatters the Na’vi through their woodsy, alien equivalent to the streets of lower Manhattan, as smoke fills the forest. Finally, when the white dust has settled, our protagonist trods through the forest in a daze, in a sequence closely resembling not only 9/11 but scenes from both Knowing and Cloverfield.

Any message in the film, though, anything you can say the film is “about,” reads as wholly environmentalist. Unlike the other two films in the trio, it really seems unrelated to 9/11 in every way except the visual. It’s on this basis that I want to claim that Avatar marks the end of our culture’s assimilation of the imagery that, it’s fair to say, has haunted us most over these last eight years.

In other words, I want to call Avatar the first “Post-9/11” film because it seems to me to be the first (popular) film to appropriate the imagery of 9/11 for “selfish” reasons—to support a storyline and a visual vocabulary unrelated to the original (recorded) event. In this sense, it’s the film I’ve been waiting for since Cloverfield—and maybe the film we’ve all been waiting for since 9/11.

16 thoughts on “A Tree Falls in the Woods: Avatar as the First “Post-9/11” Film

  1. zeeps January 3, 2010 / 10:11 am

    i’m not exactly sure what you mean by using the imagery for its story and it’s not related to the orignal.

    the 911 sequence in avatar was exactly about 911. right before you hear the colonel say “fight terror with terror”. this is a very directed comment on 911.

    avatar is a movie about 911. about how the US was going into the middle east trying to get oil, trying to convince the people to let big oil in this very foreign world and the resulting effects of this – the 911 incident – and the resulting afterwards – the war.

    the movie is a comment on the whole incident.

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  2. devan January 3, 2010 / 11:32 am

    Thanks for writing, zeeps. You make a good point: 9/11 may show up in Avatar in more ways than just the single sequence I discuss. And we don’t disagree about the “Fight terror with terror” line, either. I’d forgotten about it, but you’re right: If that sequence is somehow about 9/11—and we agree that it is—then that line really sets the tone.

    At the same time, I think I’m not alone in saying that the film’s “message” ultimately revolves around a kind of vague environmentalism. Especially when you consider Avatar in comparison to the two other films I discuss above (Knowing and Cloverfield), it’s hard to argue that 9/11 is the central theme here. 9/11 just doesn’t feel deliberate or transparent in the way it does in the others (or, for example, the way totalitarianism does in the original Star Wars). And on the other hand, the “green” talk is just so heavy-handed in Avatar.

    Remember, too, that I’m making an argument in part about the appearance of the film in relation to 9/11. Unlike in Cloverfield and Knowing, there’s really only the one scene in Avatar that reminds us visually of the 2001 attacks. Instead, on a visual level, the rest of the film pointedly celebrates the difference between the natural environment and the machines built to destroy it.

    Finally, I think your outline of the connections between Avatar and 9/11 gets complicated when you really try to flesh it out—again, unlike the film’s environmentalism (which is so simplified as to be banal).

    For example, if the marines in the film are meant to represent a certain U.S. imperialism and to figure 9/11 as a consequence of those policies, then the filmmakers would essentially be asking us to think of the Na’vi—and our protagonist—as terrorists.

    But remember, this film was made primarily for an American audience. I think it’s safe to say that most American moviegoers wouldn’t respond to a film that seemed to say, “Hey—you should know that the U.S. bears more responsibility in those attacks than you’re used to thinking.”

    It’s possible that these matters come up unintentionally, but I think it’s hard to argue for them as a comment on 9/11 (as you put it). And for me, it’s difficult to imagine that Hollywood would spend so much money on a film that would be received in the way you suggest even accidentally. By contrast, I imagine rooms full of script consultants hired just to make sure that films won’t offend the masses.

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  3. zeeps January 4, 2010 / 12:36 am

    the movie is saying exactly that – that the na’vi’s are terrorists AND the marines are also terrorists! it just depends on the spin – on the perspective.

    there is NO ACCIDENT here.

    the most interesting thing – the Na’vi that organizes and convinces the rest to go into war with the US wasn’t a Na’vi at all but a marine in avatar disguise.

    and during the big batter we see Netiri (sp?) look around in horror at all the destruction and death – it was definitely a big mistake.

    the future – the sequel – big oil will come back with the excuse now to really go into war and really take over the planet. sort of like what has happened after 9.11.

    most good movies – alot of hollywood movies have many layers to them – and alot have subversive elements.

    and they are not coincidents nor accidents – they are specificly put there by the filmmakers.

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  4. Chad January 7, 2010 / 3:43 pm

    I saw Avatar 2 times and it is telling the 9/11 truth. When they are looking at hometree on radar they say ” you gotta get at the inner core” and before they say that they are looking at the pentagon. But nothing is said. I think hometree is. The world trade and the money that was missing from tower 7 is the money metal they talk about.

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  5. Chad January 7, 2010 / 3:44 pm

    Bush is the guy with scares. He’s a dirtbag and he knocked down the towers

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  6. devan January 7, 2010 / 4:13 pm

    Some of this seems a little too conspiratorial to me, but I guess you never know…

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  7. Nordic February 10, 2010 / 9:46 am

    The main bad guy in Avatar also says something like (I don’t remember the exact words, but it’s something like this): “If you don’t give us what we want, we will make you our enemy, and then we can come and get what we want.” (an abvious reference to the numerous historical false flag operations)

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  8. devan February 10, 2010 / 9:55 am

    Nordic, I don’t see the connection to the false flag operations. Unlike the line you refer to, those were covert, weren’t they? And mostly in World War II and the Cold War?

    I don’t remember the line you mention, but taking you at your word, the main bad guy in Avatar is being anything but covert. He’s just issuing a threatening ultimatum, straightforwardly. He’s not saying, “We’re going to pretend to be someone we’re not” (as in the false flag ops).

    But perhaps I’m not understanding your brief, tightly-packed comment. Feel free to elaborate.

    Also, I do notice some suggestions online of false flag operations surrounding 9/11, but those seem to come from websites lacking enough in credibility that I doubt a bunch of mainstream American Hollywood filmmakers would lend them much credence.

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  9. Nordic February 10, 2010 / 11:13 am

    True, the line has more to do with the overall logic of the “war on terror” than with 9/11 in itself. However, I think the “we will MAKE you our enemy and then we can” part fits that overall context. Thanks for your comment.

    You are entitled to your opinion regarding 9/11. I’ve studied false flag operations and 9/11 for several years now (I recently had an article about them published in Finland’s largest newspaper “Helsingin Sanomat”, with comments about 9/11 too), and to my great chagrin I’ve concluded that 9/11 is also one of them (and I’m not saying that the *US government* was behind them). But this obviously is not the place to go into that debate, although I wish to point out that evidence pointing to “9/11 false flag” has been published on a large number of respectable forums too, including peer-reviewed engineering journals – see, for example

    “Active Thermitic Material Discovered in Dust from the 9/11 World Trade Center Catastrophe”

    http://www.bentham-open.org/pages/content.php?TOCPJ/2009/00000002/00000001/7TOCPJ.SGM

    I know, and have been personally in contact with, a lot of truthers on numerous walks of life – academics, physicists, engineers, architects, lawyers… – and I can say that they are actually very “down-to-earth” folks, none of whom would *like* to believe anything else than the official narrative.

    If you wish to understand (and I understand that you may not be so inclined) just one of the many reasons why I cannot believe in the official 9/11 conspiracy theory, feel free to have a look at my article at
    http://11syyskuu.blogspot.com/2006/02/destruction-of-wtc-7.html

    (My contact info can be found at the bottom.)

    Thanks again for your cordial reply.

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  10. devan February 10, 2010 / 11:43 am

    Hi, Nordic — Thanks for your thoughts, and for your clear expression of them. Definitely interesting to hear your perspective, and I will look at the information you’ve provided. I’m not an engineer, so I may not be able to make much of the “Active Thermitic Material…” article you provide, but your own article should be a little easier for me to get through!

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  11. devan February 10, 2010 / 11:58 am

    Read your piece just now. Interesting stuff, to be sure, though I’m wholly unqualified to comment on the characteristics of buildings in free-fall, etc.

    But let’s follow the argument for a moment. For your point about Avatar to hold water, not only would you have to be right about building 7, but somehow, James Cameron or some other high-ranking member of the production crew would need also to believe in a U.S. government “false flag” role in the 9/11 attacks—and to be able to slip the line in there unnoticed. (It would probably be important for us now to figure out the exact wording of the line, and also the context for the line at that point in the film.)

    Just my thoughts, but it seems to me that this being some kind of deliberate statement on the “false flag” hypothesis would mean an awful lot of unlikely people thinking about 9/11 in this way.

    (I say “unlikely” because of the predominantly liberal views in Hollywood and because of megalomaniacal Cameron’s own more or less avowedly liberal position—and because of the high correlation, in the U.S., between conservatism and 9/11 conspiracy beliefs.)

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  12. Nordic February 10, 2010 / 1:38 pm

    Hello devan,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m not an engineer either (although my brother, who agrees with me, is a Master Builder). I base my views mainly on four things in the case of the third skyscraper:

    1) It was destroyed in a way that matches the most skilled of controlled demolitions imaginable. Many CDs have even been botched, and I can’t believe that random fires (=the final official explanation) could accomplish what even precisely placed and timed explosives sometimes fail to do.

    2) WTC 7’s research material (=the steel debris) was destroyed before investigations began. Yet we are talking about an unprecedented, massive building disaster here! Examining the rather compact debris pile would have revealed the cause and mechanism of the destruction.

    3) After various hypotheses over the years and an admission in an interview in 2006 that “We don’t really know… we’ve had trouble getting a handle on building 7”, NIST somehow comes up with the precise cause of the destruction, triggered by a “new phenomenon”, although thermal expansion has hardly been absent in other steel building fires.

    4) Three months before the final report at the end of 2008, NIST said that WTC 7 could not have freefalled, as there was always material that needed to be broken, thus slowing down the collapse. After numerous comments and calculations from the truth movement, they acknowledged a period of total freefall of 2.25 seconds during the collapse, meaning that there was absolutely no resistance from the 80 support columns and other building material within the space of ~8 floors.

    I’m no engineer, but the above and the many other things I mention on my page make me singularly unable to take the official investigations and explanations seriously. But the over 1,000 architects and engineers of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth agree.

    http://www.ae911truth.org/

    Now that I got going 😉 I think the anthrax attacks, too, should make one weary of the official 9/11 story as well. Arabs were framed for the anthrax letters that soon followed 9/11, but the anthrax strain turned out to be military-grade and led to a US military laboratory. The White House began to take Cipro against anthrax on 9/11, and the two Senators who received the highest-grade letters had been trying to halt the rushing through of the 571-page Patriot Act legislation, largely written *before* 9/11 (of course!).

    A recent lengthy article by The Wall Steet Journal concludes that the FBI has been effectively disproven in their attempts to blame the anthrax operation on an individual government scientist:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704541004575011421223515284.html

    Quite revealing, and well worth reading.

    Related to the line in Avatar and its possible 9/11 significance: there are actually many famous Hollywood people who have problems with the official 9/11 story, such as Charlie and Martin Sheen, Ed Asner, Daniel Sunjata… – see eg

    http://blogs.kansascity.com/tvbarn/2009/01/rescue-me-chara.html

    Talking about Hollywood, what about the Lone Gunmen episode that aired in spring 2001, a few months before 9/11, in which the protagonists realize that the passenger plane had been taken under remote control and was destined to hit the North Tower of WTC in a false-flag operation?

    Or the Coup record label designed in the summer preceding 9/11?

    http://breakfornews.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=827

    Scroll down to see the real cover and carefully note everything in the cover.

    Interesting, no? To me these (and many other things) minimally indicate foreknowledge of what was to come. And I’ve read from reliabilish sources that the CIA has ties with the entertainment business, so I have my suspicions about the source of some of the inspiration.

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  13. Nordic February 12, 2010 / 12:40 pm

    Hi Devan, I found the exact quotes in http://www.foxscreenings.com/media/pdf/JamesCameronAVATAR.pdf

    * * *

    GRACE
    They bulldozed a sacred site on purpose,
    to trigger a response. They’re
    fabricating this war to get what they
    want.

    NORM
    I can’t believe that.

    JAKE
    Yup. That’s how it’s done. When people
    are sitting on shit you want, you make
    them your enemy. Then you’re justified in taking it.

    * * *

    And as already noted:

    QUARITCH
    Our only security lies in preemptive
    attack. We will fight terror
    with terror.

    * * *

    I incorrectly remembered that the “make them your enemy” sentence was said by the evil colonel.

    P.S. I understand if you don’t wish to publish my last lengthy reflections on 9/11. More on topic, however, was my comment about what I’ve read may be a good proportion of Hollywood luminaries entertaining “conspiracy views” about 9/11, and I’d certainly be interested in reading your thoughts about the pre-9/11 “Lone Gunmen” episode and the pre-9/11 “The Coup” record cover.

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  14. devan February 12, 2010 / 9:16 pm

    Hi, Nordic — Sorry; I’m happy to approve your comments. I’ve just been away from the site for a few days. (And not likely to catch up this weekend.) I’ll look forward to reading them next week.
    Best,
    Devan

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  15. Nordic February 14, 2010 / 8:12 am

    Ok, thanks, Devan!

    A video and text summary of the Lone Gunmen episode can be found here:

    http://www.prisonplanet.com/multimedia_priorknowledge_lonegumen.html

    Please also have a look at this:

    http://imagining911.blogspot.com/2008/11/clues-are-right-in-front-of-your-eyes_11.html

    As you can see, the destruction of the Twin Towers had actually been thematized very extensively prior to 9/11 in popular culture. Some of the resemblances to real events are truly fascinating, even mind-boggling.

    Like

  16. Adam November 10, 2010 / 10:52 am

    I saw a lot in the film that made me think and i defiantly agree with Zeeps. Its about the prospective of who really is the terrorist.

    I’m still undecided on 9/11 itself. All i know is that the buildings looked like they were in free fall and building 7 went down without any reason. Very suspicious but the majority of people would never believe this even if the evident was in front of their face. We are so busy with video games and films today that nobody wants to worry about such things. In conclusion, i’ve recently decided that not everybody is going to understand and therefore we can’t do anything about it. so im trying to forget about the mass murder committed in the name of money.

    i don’t know were exactly you guys are from but im british and i heard a story well known on the internet of british soldiers dressing as arabs and shooting civilians. When the local iraqi police arrested them and refused to release them the british government destroyed the prison, shot some of them and took the men themselves. These were not just soldiers, these were special forces…They had orders…

    http://www.theinsider.org/news/article.asp?id=1556History has shown us that political

    One of the only ways people can express themselves and hope other people realise is by having these messages that can be hidden in films such as “Invasion Of the Body Snatchers”.

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