Review: Avatar

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.

10 thoughts on “Review: Avatar”

  1. This is a great review, I saw it yesterday and have to agree 100%. Thank you for the well informed and clear analysis!!

    Cheers, Robert

  2. What’s wrong with living in balance and harmony with nature?

    What’s wrong with having the kind connection in relationships that the film depicts?

    What about the fact that Jake Sully is not just a white man, but a disabled white man? Does that change the analysis at all?

  3. interesting review…

    -hollywood’s primary function & survival mechanism is to make money by making movies that sell to it’s audience, more subject to the drab laws of supply & demand, than `racial stereotyping’. And when the producers/writers/directors et al happen to have an ancestry & gender that is similar to it’s largest intended audience (triple criteria group) aka `American White Man’.. then it’s likely that people with limited imagination or empathy will be more to be receptive to seeing something similar in some superficial respects to where they’re coming from. Among the ways to change that is by creating movies that are superior and celebrating them when they come out.

    you undercut the seriousness of your argument by cursing….rhetoric of righteous anger, while probably justified,diminishes the seriousness of your premise and purpose. so that’s fucked up:-) Second, I think using the term `aboriginal’ itself is proof of adopting the very methods that you rail against. I’m not aware of any group of people that initially used that word to describe themselves. By using `american White man’ language you perpetuate the very propaganda that you’re speaking of.
    I’m wondering why we don’t call Europeans in Europe with family ties dating back centuries aboriginals as well. I have a south asian ancestry and still pissed at people who refer to First Nations as Indians. But instead of complaining about it, I rather dream up ways to change it so that the truth is the princple that is consistently applied in every conversation. or why Christopher Columbus `discovered the New World’ when millions of people were already living there.

    Generic denigration does more harm than good, better to laser focus on malignant qualities and use a scalpel to cut it out..not particularly productive to hand a lumberjack an axe and asking him to swing away at a cancer-ridden body.

    There are people in other countries with different degrees of pigment who think Baywatch is what America looks like, or think Jerry springer is a representation of the true American

    If the movie generates a sense of compassion and respect for justice, thru fictitous exploitation (that sadly has mirrored reality) of the `native’s and environmental destruction, then i think that’s good.

    there’s an appeal in natural stories when most people live `civilization’, whether it’s a denigration against another culture, or just a human tendency towards the grass being greener on the other side, people craving what they don’t have and failing to adequately appreciate what they do have, I’ll leave it for people to determine themselves.

    You mentioned something about western students and coming back with proud tales of `going native’ et al.. they are students for a reason, they need to learn something, hopefully they find a wise teacher to teach them, sooner rather than later, otherwise the cycle of ignorance, apathy, incompetence and just plain stupidity will continue.

    I think to address the perceived and very real short-comings of the movies requires people not to limit their efforts at making change by writing diatribes, as formulaic as the movies they comment on, in radio talk show host language… but support a better film, state that there’s a better way of moving forward, create something novel that stands the test of time and transcends the trivial pettiness that many people thus far are unfortunately afflicted by and limits the full potentiality of their life.

    I think the true positive value of the movie comes from it’s ability to nurture a sense of compassion, empathy and justice… and intolerance to the evils of unjustified violence, greed run amok, moral apathy and blindly doing your job irrespective of the impact on the world at large or a group of innocent people.

    Any great movie has different stories, it’s how they blend, interact and provoke, that helps to create something that stands the test of time. Unfortunately great story-telling isn’t a commodity, it’s a rare skill that not enough people can or know how to cultivate…

    Overall movie was good entertainment, pioneering with 3D technology, story could have been better..

    also think it’s funny that my rambling review of the review was probably longer than the review itself:-)

  4. I’ll wait for it to come to TV so shan’t be englamoured by the 3D wizbangery but the reviews I’ve read or heard made me think of Last of the Mohicans et al. The film may be simplistic and banal but the fact that it’s giving the RWDBs apoplexy suits me.
    Re Whitey always getting the Princess, Pocahontas is buried on the banks of the Thames, abandoned in London by Smith.

  5. Heartily agree — both the “Dances with Wolves” syndrome and the “Whiteman spirituality” are blatant failings, though not of evil intent, but rather a lack of imagination and (as a more serious problem) lack of knowledge.

    Bravo! Thanks for such an eloquent and insightful review.

  6. This is a helpful and well-written review, but why pay to see the film in the first place? Hollywood’s marketing machine talks up these bloated tentpole monstrosities into cultural “events” that one feels obligated to see, but one *always* has the option to vote with one’s feet and invest one’s time and money in the worthier offerings of finer minds. I’ve gone twelve years without ever once watching Titanic, and trust me, my life is none the poorer for it. I don’t need the visual richness of Cameron’s immersive 3D world–I have the visual, sonic, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory richness of immersive reality. I don’t need Cameron’s impoverished imagination and historical blindness–I have the works of Shakespeare and Zhuangzi, Black Elk and Marx close at hand. The savior fantasies of delusional white males will become irrelevant as a matter of course when China overtakes the US economically and non-white Americans overtake white Americans demographically. In the meantime, any kind of publicity–good or bad–perpetuates the structure of financial incentives that allows and encourages this kind of soulless (or pseudo-soulful) spectacle to keep being made.

  7. The New York Times
    Printer Friendly Format Sponsored By

    January 8, 2010
    Op-Ed Columnist
    The Messiah Complex
    By DAVID BROOKS

    Readers intending to watch the movie “Avatar” should know that major events in the plot are revealed.

    Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.

    This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

    Avid moviegoers will remember “A Man Called Horse,” which began to establish the pattern, and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” More people will have seen “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Samurai.”

    Kids have been given their own pure versions of the fable, like “Pocahontas” and “FernGully.”

    It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen.

    The formula also gives movies a little socially conscious allure. Audiences like it because it is so environmentally sensitive. Academy Award voters like it because it is so multiculturally aware. Critics like it because the formula inevitably involves the loincloth-clad good guys sticking it to the military-industrial complex.

    Yet of all the directors who have used versions of the White Messiah formula over the years, no one has done so with as much exuberance as James Cameron in “Avatar.”

    “Avatar” is a racial fantasy par excellence. The hero is a white former Marine who is adrift in his civilization. He ends up working with a giant corporation and flies through space to help plunder the environment of a pristine planet and displace its peace-loving natives.

    The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments — are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. They’re tall, muscular and admirably slender. They walk around nearly naked. They are phenomenal athletes and pretty good singers and dancers.

    The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master.

    Along the way, he has his consciousness raised. The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.

    The natives help the white guy discover that he, too, has a deep and tranquil soul.

    The natives have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones. When the military-industrial complex comes in to strip mine their homes, they need a White Messiah to lead and inspire the defense.

    Our hero leaps in, with the help of a pack of dinosaurs summoned by Mother Earth. As he and his fellow freedom fighters kill wave after wave of Marines or former Marines or whatever they are, he achieves the ultimate prize: He is accepted by the natives and can spend the rest of his life in their excellent culture.

    Cameron’s handling of the White Messiah fable is not the reason “Avatar” is such a huge global hit. As John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard, “Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance.” The plotline gives global audiences a chance to see American troops get killed. It offers useful hooks on which McDonald’s and other corporations can hang their tie-in campaigns.

    Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

    It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

    It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.

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