First, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Avatar was an unbelievable visual spectacle. That’s what everyone will be talking about, I’m sure. In fact, the quality of the 3-D effects, the richness of the visual world that James Cameron has created, and the thickness and believability of the visual characters are, without question, marvels to behold. Is that enough to warrant the price of admission? Actually, yes, I think it is. In fact, 3-D might be Hollywood’s salvation against online piracy: you just can’t duplicate Avatar‘s big screen, three dimensional effect on your computer screen.
In their day, Star Wars, Jaws, Terminator, Jurassic Park, Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, Lord of the Rings and even the original King Kong were equally heralded as unbelievable, game-changing visual spectacles. When viewed today, all of them –even Lord of the Rings, which was released just a few years ago– appear quite pedestrian. Visual technology in the multimillion dollar, cut-throat film-making industry is as temporal as it comes. The reason that most of the aforementioned films are still watched and talked about today is that their underlying stories were actually quite good and, frankly, timeless. The exception in that list is Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, whose story was so cliched and forgettable that I’m sure many readers of this article have never even heard of the film.
The lesson here is that great special effects are certainly capable of creating a spectacle and, indeed, generating a great deal of box office revenue. But for those of us who care about the quality of film and the long term film-going experience, it’s not so much flash and revenue that we worry about, but rather the substance of the story. So let us leave aside the spectacle of Avatar, as I’m sure others will gleefully discuss that aspect of the film well into numbness. Let us instead worry about the nature of the story. And this is where I get a bit concerned.
It’s a passably acted, well directed, comfortably paced and very entertaining action-based science fiction film. Should you spend money to see it in a theatre? Absolutely, I say. But once more I am disappointed by Hollywood’s inability –or unwillingness– to deviate from, frankly, an offensive and cliched storytelling trope: once again, the American White Man saves the natives.
Now, I am not the first to make this observation. Annalee Newitz over at i09.com has a tight little essay called, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?” and a Google search of the words “Avatar” and “racist” results in hundreds of hits. For each article that explores this idea, there’s unavoidably at least one apologist/commenter who offers something to the extent of, “It’s just a movie. Stop over-analyzing it.” So, if you’re one of those people, and you’re over the age of 15, I will disrespectfully suggest that you fuck off and get yourself a better education. All right?
If you haven’t seen the film, it’s about humans going to a rainforest-type world called Pandora to negotiate for rights to mine a mineral. When negotiations fail, they turn to military means. To enable these means, the humans have developed organic bodies that resemble the natives, who are called the Na’vi (because nothing says foreign like a superfluous apostrophe), and download their consciousnesses into those bodies to allow them to interact with the natives. These are the titular “avatars”. For those of you unfamiliar with Hindu mythology, an avatar is the walking, human incarnation of a god. With the name, you begin to see how the various races are being subtly presented, with the human “gods” being referred to by the natives as “Sky People”.
The hero, Jake Sully, eventually changes sides and ends up falling in love with a native girl –a sort of princess, of course– and leads the Na’vi to resist the militaristic humans.
On its face, the idea of introducing the alien society to the audience through the eyes of a human avatar is a clever storytelling device. The problem is that the device reinforces the dichotomy of Us and Them, rather than striving to portray both groups as equal, as is the script’s nominal intent. As the i09.com article accurately points out, this is another case of “Dances With Wolves” syndrome, wherein the non-White society is validated by the arrival of the White man.
And it’s always a White man. In fact, it’s always an American… White… Man. He is always fearless but naive. He is always charming, though, in the way he magnanimously accepts the berating for his naivete, because he’s so comfortable with his powers and his non-fragile ego. He always manages to get a native woman to fall in love with him, because somehow his courage and qualities are more attactive than those of the native men. He always manages to use his knowledge of his original land to garner him power in his adopted land, always rising to the position of tribal leader. And despite original friction with the masculine forces among the natives, he always manages to win over the warriors by showing his own innate strengths and courage.
Dances With Wolves is only the most famous of these stories. Pretty much every episode of the original Star Trek, in which Kirk must blend in with the native population, followed the same formula. Future versions of Star Trek dumbed it down even further. The classic novels of early American space opera and adventure pulp fiction —Tarzan, or Jon Carter of Mars, or Last of the Mohicans— pretty much invented the formula. In every case, a courageous White Man (because he’s always white and he’s always a man) visits a less technologically avdanced society, manages to not only be accepted by them, but also wins the love of the local alpha female and ascends to the rank of tribal leader, essentially “doing it” better than any savage could.
How does he manage to do this? Often it is by solving the fundamental (though blatantly obvious) mystery of the tribe. That mystery usually has something to do with the quality of tribal life lost in modern North American life, something that is part religion, part environmentalism and part social duty. In Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner’s revelation occurs when he finds himself fighting to defend the women and children of his tribe, rather than fighting in a nameless war for a President he has never met. In his case, the solvable mystery is one of tribal or familial connection, reinforced by an ecological dependence that was depicted through his tribe’s search for buffalo. In Avatar the solvable mystery is profoundly offensive to anyone who’s ever studied a scratch of anthropology: the New Age interconnectedness of all things, exemplified in the film by a “scientific”, quantifiable measurement of “energies” flowing between all poles of the forest.
Which brings me to another point of annoyance with this film. The way it sings paeans longingly to what I call “white guy spirituality”, is saddening more than it is infuriating. In our increasingly secular society, devoid of traditional spiritualism with which to draw a personal connection, Westerners seek to co-opt the spiritualism of other cultures. I feel sorry for those who do this. From Madonna’s superficial embracing of kabbalah, to the throngs of white pilgrims on India’s shores, literally seeking “enlightenment” as if it were a product to be purchased in Walmart’s aisle 73, generations of Westerners have been unconsciously following the template of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, wherein a white man goes to Asia and masters the exotic spiritual arts that have been depleted from his own civilization. I’ve lost count of how many white friends have returned from their first trips to India, disappointed that they didn’t find instant spiritual awakening in their package tour of the Taj Mahal.
Avatar sickeningly features empty phrases about “energies” and “life forces” and “interconnectedness”, as if the screenwriter were cobbing notes from any 3rd grade class on Native North American culture. It betrays a basic conflict within the filmmaker: on the one hand there is a profound ignorance of both religion and science, and on the other hand there is a grugding appreciation of the value of both. The result: an embarrassing inability to rationalize their duality, not just in life, but within the simpler confines of a movie script. As one internet commenter so aptly put it, “this is the first one-dimensional 3D movie I’ve ever seen.”
As one who has traveled to five rainforests around the globe, and who has done scholarly work with Aboriginal peoples living in rainforest regions in Guyana and Thailand, I could not help but feel insulted on behalf of the people with whom I’ve worked. Avatar, so much like Dances With Wolves, Tarzan, Last of the Mohicans and Jon Carter of Mars, portrays tribal forest-based societies as caricatures and stereotypes, though I’m sure that was not the filmmakers’ intent; they just don’t know any better. Much like so many episodes of all the various Star Trek series, in which the know-it-all (mostly white, male and American) Federation heroes deposit themselves on an alien planet, then quickly summarize a culture according to a simplistic formula or description (eg, Vulcans are logical, Klingons are warriors, Ferengi are greedy), allowing them to influence and control that population, the main humans of Avatar –all white American men, with the exception of Sigourney Weaver– have quickly summed up the natives as environmentally conscious warrior types. The White American Males are allowed to be complicated, with conflicting motivations and moral dilemmas. The natives are simplistic, unchanging, easily misled and conveniently quick to forgive.
On more than one occasion, a well meaning white American, in all seriousness and gravity, has turned to me and asked, “And what are the beliefs of your people?” or words to that effect, as if “my people” could be presented in a single bulleted PowerPoint slide. Imagine if an alien were to ask a typical North American Westerner the same question. Can any society be summarized so simply? No group of people is homogeneous and monolithic. To suggest that one is serves to infantalize that population. This is the true legacy of European colonialism, reinforced for generations through our adventure literature and now our science fiction TV and movies. I think there is a reason that science fiction finds resonance among so many young White Western men, in particular. It is because the genre, when written poorly, harnesses the racial fantasies of this demographic, turning every lonely White teen into Jon Carter, Hawkeye or James T. Kirk, fearless White warriors who can find respect, love and sex by solving the mystery of a foreign, tribal people and easily winning dominance over them, like the domestication of a herd of wild, hierarchical animals.
As Annalee Newitz put it, “Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode.” I can’t help but think of the scores of Western students I know who have traveled to the developing world and come back with proud tales of “going native” and “immersing themselves in culture”, while never mentioning Mommy’s credit card tucked safely into their money belts. But the fantasy of “understanding” persists, as a way of keeping the privileges of Western lifestyle while pretending to access the supposed wisdom of the tribal society.
This is not to say that James Cameron has deliberately made a white supremacist film. Quite the contrary, his unveiled intent is to portray the White American masculine ethic as one of hamfisted ignorance, intolerance and profound inner weakness. He does this by showing all the bad guys as cartoonishly evil and unidimensional. The film is, after all, a none-too-subtle metaphor for Western imperial intrusions into Aboriginal lands for the purposes of mineral extraction, a practice that is current and serious. In this sense, I applaud Mr Cameron.
But I so sorely wish he had not indulged his puerile fantasies about Aboriginal cultures. As Annalee Newitz so perfectly phrased it, Avatar is at its core a racial fantasy. And thus the cycle of miseducation continues anew.