By: Virginia Li
In the face of climate change, society is not only at the apex of technology and research, but also social conflict and environmental justice. Today, the intricate relationships between the natural and social world are growing increasingly fragile, and if not better understood or maintained in the future, will possibly threaten humankind’s quality of life and existence on Earth. Growing environmental consciousness has influenced industries and other stakeholders to shift their anthropocentric values in order to better maintain the environment. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Bong Joon Ho’s Okja (2017) explore the intrinsic value of life and humanity’s impact on the planet, leaving the audience to ponder their own relationship with the natural world.
Avatar, 2049, and Okja are science fiction films that explore societies ravaged or threatened by anthropogenic environmental degradation. Each film has a unique protagonist whose journey allows the audience to explore different aspects of environment discourse. Firstly, Cameron’s Avatar highlights different environmental attitudes, as the Na’Vi’s ecocentric principles conflict with the Resource Development Administration (RDA)’s anthropocentric values. Furthermore, Cameron mirrors the interrelated, dynamic relationships within ecosystems on Pandora with those on Earth; all life is connected and will be impacted by a change in the natural network. As the protagonist, Jake Sully, spends more time on the planet, his life becomes intertwined with the Na’Vi, and he realizes the devastating environmental impacts of his employer’s plans.
Conversely, 2049 reflects on social inequity, and how its injustices essentially revoke the marginalized of their personhood. In the Blade Runner universe, Earth is ravaged by pollution and natural resources and animals are considered rare, expensive goods (1:11:55). Replicants are treated as a slave labour underclass due to their lack of humanity, and often complete menial or gruelling jobs that humans would prefer not to do. The audience follows Officer K on his investigation for a missing Replicant child, who serves as a symbol for a potential revolution, as its existence reveals that Replicants are not only biologically equal to humans, but also able to form connections, essentially granting them personhood.
Meanwhile, Okja is a commentary on the livestock industry and its inhumane treatment of animals. The titular Okja is a genetically-modified “superpig,” a species that is marketed as a sustainable food option and potential solution to world hunger because it has more biomass, consumes less feed and produces less waste (4:53). After raising Okja in the countryside, Mija, the protagonist, travels across the world in order to rescue her pet companion after Okja is taken away to be slaughtered. Mija then discovers the cruel conditions in which the superpigs are kept in, and fights against the unrelenting, apathetic corporation in order to free Okja.
Of the three works, the common themes of exploitation and “othering” are explored throughout the respective protagonists’ journeys, who, in the end, find a way to help the marginalized and exploited population or individual. There is a clear social hierarchy, where humans perceive themselves as superior to other species, and subject the Na’Vi, Replicant, and superpig populations to some form of exploitation, physical violence, and marginalization. The central antagonist of each film justifies their respective actions due to their anthropocentric beliefs, valuing resources only based on how they benefit humans. These themes support each directors’ purpose in making the audience reflect on the current socioeconomic and environmental conditions in the contemporary world: the natural world is entirely marketable based on its anthropocentric utility.
In particular, Cameron encapsulates exploitation colonialism in the Americas, with human-Na’Vi relations paralleling that much of the relationship between the European settlers and North American indigenous populations. While Dr. Augustine believes that the Avatar Program will help build better relations with the Na’Vi, corporate administration wants to lay siege to the Hometree. For example, Quaritch reveals his violent plans to assimilate the Na’Vi. “I want you to learn these savages from the inside. I want you to gain their trust. I need to know how to force their cooperation or hammer them hard if they won’t” (22:40). Cameron also demonstrates social exclusion of the Na’Vi, as Quaritch exclusively refers to them as “savages” or “hostiles” (22:40). When the RDA learns that the Na’Vi do not plan to leave the HomeTree, it decides to mobilize its military units and attempt to forcefully remove the Na’Vi in order to extract the unobtainium. With little regard for the inhabitants of Pandora, the RDA focuses on the profit margin of the land’s resources, and embodies a similar tyrannical, acculturating nature of the European settlers.
Meanwhile, 2049 illustrates the oppressive nature of the social hierarchy, and establishes a class order in which Replicants are treated as commodities. As Dr. Stelline describes, “Replicants live such hard lives, made to do what we rather not” (1:19:05). Replicants are almost physically and intellectually indistinguishable from humans, but are incapable of feeling emotions. Their lack of emotion, or humanity, effectively strips them of their personhood, placing them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. With programmed self-determinism, Replicants are designed to comply with humans’ orders, thus removing their freedom and independence.
It is even suggested that Replicants compete against each other for social status, which is notably demonstrated between Luv and K’s confrontations. Luv is the devoted assistant to Wallace, and even considers herself superior to K, who deviates from the Replicant norm. To illustrate, Luv repeatedly refers to K as if he is a pet, and even calls him a “bad dog” (2:00:40) when his investigation is sidelined. Both Luv and K were created with specific responsibilities, but Luv perceives herself to be better than K, because she commits to her predetermined purpose.
Although Okja does not marginalize a humanoid population, it does demonstrate livestock corporations’ exploitation of animals. To the audience, Okja is revealed to be a sentient, intelligent animal who continuously displays empathy and cleverness throughout the film, even willing to sacrifice herself to save Mija (13:50). However, the Mirando Corporation views superpigs as products rather than animals, and refuses to give up Okja because she is a profitable property. Mirando Corporation’s exploitative, cruel nature is further emphasized through dark, grey imagery within the Mirando laboratory and slaughterhouse, subjecting superpigs to derelict living conditions (1:40:12), forced mating (1:12:17), and violence (1:17:50).
Despite similar themes and messages, Avatar, 2049, and Okja differ in production elements. Each director utilizes setting and background to not only build a world and atmosphere, but also to help support the theme and message of his film. For instance, Cameron uses intense graphics and colours to create Pandora with its bioluminescent flora and Mesozoic-like fauna. In contrast, 2049 takes place in grisly, dystopian California, with heavy use of purple lights, dark skies, and heavy rain. Beyond Greater Los Angeles, there is little to no civilization: San Diego is a junkyard wasteland and Las Vegas is covered in a permanent, orange smog.
Okja, on the other hand, incorporates both the natural and urban world in contemporary Earth. For example, Mija, who is from the countryside, travels to Seoul to find Okja, and stands out in her red jacket, amongst the grey, suit-cladden crowd (34:23). Despite different settings of the three films, the respective directors manage to uniquely create visual and emotional experiences that evoke the audience’s appreciation of their current Earth.
Furthermore, the films are of different genres, which also result in different target audiences. Regardless, each film promotes a global message that can be understood and appreciated by a general audience. Both Avatar and 2049 are action sci-fi films which optimize visual effects and action sequences rather than personal moments that highlight character depth. Nonetheless, the crisp imagery of their respective worlds allow the audience to compare the dystopian planet’s fictional condition with the current, real Earth. In contrast, Okja is an action drama, which portrays more scenes that highlight Okja and Mija’s companionship; such personal, emotional scenes allow the audience to empathize more with Mija. Notwithstanding, Ahn Seohyun, who plays Mija, outshines the other films’ leads by displaying unending compassion and dedication to Okja through tears and defiant cries of the latter’s name.
Overall, in comparison to Okja, Avatar and 2049 deliver a promising narrative and potent message, but their visual effects overshadow the director’s purpose. Thus, of the three, Okja is the most emotionally compelling through a combination of production and narrative. While Avatar and 2049 successfully deliver moments of thought-provoking tension and provide a definitive hero to support throughout the film, Okja pulls at the heartstrings, reminding the audience of animals as man’s best friend. Bong successfully highlights the intrinsic value of life by demonstrating animal sentience and intelligence, as well as utilizing images of the idyllic South Korean countryside to allow the audience to marvel at the beauty of the natural world.
To conclude, each film displays its individual, unique strengths in storytelling through its production and narrative elements. Beyond their respective messages, each director successfully executes their respective vision through different techniques of cinematography, lighting, sound, and CGI. Cameron, Villeneuve, and Bong all respectively deliver a promising narrative with underlying themes of exploitation and othering, ultimately reflecting on the complex intricacies of today’s social conditions, and their effects on the natural world around and beyond us.
You can watch Avatar on Disney Plus, and Blade Runner 2049 and Okja on Netflix Canada.