Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar – or the perils of stakeholder dialogue

Let’s admit it, Crane and Matten so far haven’t ventured too far into the Science Fiction genre in the movies they picked for the book and their classes. This might change though now with James Cameron’s (the guy who made ‘Titanic’) latest movie ‘Avatar’.

Before we go on, it’s fair to say that it takes the (nerdy?) eyes of a business ethics professor to see all sorts of things in this piece of celluloid which we don’t think has been the prime intention of its creators. In the main, this film (watch it in an IMAX, if at all possible) is a wonderful visual experience, with beautiful 3D-shots of fantastic landscapes, fairytale animals and a really stunning screenplay. No wonder then the film has netted US$1.3bn in the first two weeks at the box office and is already the second highest box office hit in history. It is 225 minutes of forgetting everything and just being swept away in a dream-world – what a fun it would be to ride these magic birds and fly through a universe of translucent flowers, bewitched trees and flying islands of jungle landscape…

This said then there are a number of things worth commenting on from a business ethics perspective. First and foremost, the human invaders of the planet ‘Pandora’, where those native ‘Nav’is’ are living is no one less than an evil mining corporation in its pursuit of the precious, energy yielding mineral ‘Unobtainium’. Unfortunately, the mineral is buried beneath the monstrous tree which is the main living space of the Nav’i tribe. This is funny in itself. No longer governments or galaxies are clashing here – no, it’s a private corporation, helped by a monstrously armored crowd of private security contractors.

But the scientists of the corporation have devised means to communicate with the aliens: they have developed a machine which allows some humans to assume the body of the aliens and enter their territory with the mission of convincing the natives to leave their living space. As things go however, the main hero of the film, after entering the world of the Nav’i, gets to like them just a bit too much, falls in love with one her warrior princesses and ultimately changes sides. In some ways one could say, a botched approach to stakeholder dialogue.

Now this has happened before. Quite a number of CSR activists, NGO leaders and other antagonists of global capitalism had their initial career in business and changed through exposure to its impacts on the environment, indigenous populations etc. It also shows that approaches to stakeholders which just intend some manipulation of those groups, are ultimately doomed to fail. And that’s where the movie goes on to, until the final battle sets the humans back and sends them to where they had come from.

Don’t get us wrong; none of this we think is what the film is really about. And that’s ultimately a weak point of the movie – in our view. The story is just too full of distracting details. That includes the somewhat awkward love story, the references to imperialism, the Iraq war, global terrorism, opaque religious symbolism, or the general anti-technology message – in a film, no less, which delivers this message through the most advantaged technology which cost some $250m to produce.

So its mostly fun to watch, and entertaining is what the film does really well. Or, as David Denby put it in The New Yorker: “The movie’s story might be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on!”


  1. Thanks for sharing this interesting review of Avatar and its relation to stakeholder dialogue. I will have to watch it in the near future.
    What do you think should be different in the movie? Any suggestions?


  2. Hi Dirk and Andy, thanks for your marvelous review. I have already watched the movie twice and I love it! In addition to the (failed) stakeholder dialogue I think it would be interesting to discuss the natural philosophy of the Nav'is versus humans from a business ethics: While the former believe in panteism and deep ecology, the latter are (totally) remote from nature relying on (advanced) technology. In that respect the movie Avatar might enhance a (philosophical) discussion about the underlying assumptions (of business). It is an easy entry to interest present and future students in the subject of (business and marketing) ethics. Best, Frank

  3. I saw right through the Avatar shield and began to reflect on its impact on viewers in Peru and other countries where there is continuing strife between mining operations and native people groups. The oversimplification and extreme villification is ok in fiction but in real life there are two sides and a balance can and must be achieved.


Have some thoughts you want to share about this post? We would love to hear them, so comment here (all comments will be moderated to prevent spam and random acts of advertising)...