Skip to content

On Avatar

3 January, 2010

On Avatar

I saw Avatar last night. There’s a lot to say about it. First, let me get the whole race thing out of the way. Not because it’s unimportant — it’s not, and the critics are right and correct in their complaints. It is sort of Dances With Wolves or any other film where the white folks are evil colonialists and the blue folks are going to teach them something. And it is told through the POV of the Earth person, rather than the people who adopt him. And yeah, he saves them all. Even more importantly, though, is that this particular trope is included mindlessly in the service of another one, that of technology and modern values against pastoralism and valuing the natural world. I think that this is really the kernel of all the race issues people have noticed, but haven’t mentioned. For me the real problem is that, in setting up the dichotomy of ‘people in touch with nature’ vs. ‘people who have destroyed their world through greed and technology,’ Cameron et al. have clearly not considered that race and questions of race will exist in the minds of the audience. TO me, that’s something worse.


I’m not sure how I feel about this film, because there’s a lot more to it, or maybe I’m just wanting to read more into it. At any rate, I’m going to go through it point by point, so if you don’t want to read about the film, stop here.

Still here?

First — The Na’vi are just really cool looking. Giant blue stripey vaguely feline people. I can see how people complain about the whole Native American look, but honestly, I wasn’t so much bothered with that, if only because their clothing and hair could have been just as much Native American, but from South America — with a touch of Aborigine, really. So if there is a complaint here, it really should be that Cameron and his team picked and chose traits that seemed to go with people who live in a tropical rainforest, and then tweaked them a bit for the Na’vi who live on the plains and near the sea. In some ways, this was distracting, but it also made sense, in that a pastiche of different looks and traits pulled from a lifetime of reading National Geographic (that’s what it felt like, at least) may have been as much about trying to extrapolate from what we know of Earth, and applying it to another planet. So in a way, you can reverse engineer this to a conversation where the filmmakers said to each other, “So we want pastoral people, hunter-gatherers, with an animistic belief system — what can we take from Earth?”

Thus, what we learn of Na’vi custom is pretty much derivative/imitation: for example, the Na’vi thank their prey when they make a kill, and try to make the kills as clean as possible. They don’t kill unless it’s necessary, but they certainly aren’t peaceful. There are snippets of dialogue that tell us that there have been wars between the different Na’vi people, and we know they will defend their territory. They can also tap into the spirit of their world, and to the spirits of all the dead. But when it comes down to it, we do have the eternal conflict between colonizers and colonized, and one of the real problems in this film is that that’s really secondary to the plot. As far as I can tell, the filmmakers really weren’t thinking about race or colonialism at all. The Na’vi are less a people, and more caricatures who serve as foils in a cautionary tale about not appreciating Nature.

Nature, or rather, the planet Pandora, is one of the stars of the film. The depictions of the planet are stunning, and really, I think it’s worth seeing the film if only to see the world-building. It’s amazing and gorgeous. We mostly see the rainforest parts of the planet. It’s like, and not like, every rainforest we’ve ever seen. The plants are gorgeous and huge, and many of them phosphorescent and beautifully coloured. There are misty mpuntains that float. This was problematic for me. That much disbelief I have trouble suspending. Having said that, they are sooo cool! The animals are pretty cool — there are canine-like hunters, hammer-headed-rhino-like giant critters, something vaguely huge and feline, and dragon-things. It’s as if the filmmakers took examples from both dinosaurs and early mammals, and combined them to make something new. I think it’s pretty effective. For me, though, the best, and most creative part of the animals is that all of them have appendages that can be joined to a set of feelers in the tails of the Na’vi. Joining appendages allows the animals to join thoughts. It’s a bit of a jar to realize that only the Na’vi seem to be able to jack in and impose their will on others; in a planet where everything is clearly very interconnected, there is still a clear hierarchy, and the anthropoid critters are on top. The Dragon-things are pretty high up the chain, too, it seems. Unlike the six-legged horse-critters, who can bond temporarily with any rider, the dragon-things bond only with one Na’vi, and for life. Still, easier than on Pern, due to the lack of telepathy needed, harder ‘cos they try to kill the person who wants to bond with them. (yeah, problems with number in that last sentence — sue me!)

Enter into this pristine landscape People from Earth. It seems to be the same Earth that spawned the Alien films, an Earth where man has destroyed most of the environment through greed and warfare, and giant corporation(s?) with mercenary armies have led expansion further out into space. This particular group is searching for Unobtainium, an element that exists to take the piss. And the corporation will do anything for it. Enter our Avatars, Na’vi versions of humans who can link into their empty brains and drive the bodies from comfy (not if you’re claustrophobic) couches that have some sort of embedded psi-links. I’m not even going to go into how bad the science here is, because it’s a cool idea, after all. But there’s also a huge plot hole. Our hero, Jake, is supposed to gain the trust of the Na’vi by joining their group, which he does, and trying to negotiate a peaceful move of their homes away from the larges source of snipe nests unobtainium. So he’s there long enough to gain trust, live with them learn their ways, and become one of them … and never bothers to tell them why the Earth folk are there??? Really? Really? You’d think if he cared, he might have warned them somewhere in the process.

But obviously, he can’t, because that would ruin the whole Evil Corporate Interests Ruining Nature For Fun And Profit &tm; theme. Because really, the crazed colonel in charge of the mercs wants to kill all the Na’vi, just because. He is that mean. He doesn’t even care about the snipe unobtainium, just doing the soldier thing and killing blue cat-people and mocking the scientists.

And so we come to the end of the film where the bad guys look to be winning, until lo and behold, a plucky Latina pilot helps to rally the scientists to get Jake into his Avatar so that he can lead the Na’vi against his own kind. But will they trust him? And why should they listen? they have a war leader, after all. Ah, but Jake listened to his teacher and mate when she told him about how, in times of crisis, the Na’vi had been brought together by the rider of the super-dragon-thing…

Yeah, he dumps his dragon for a better model, rallies all the Na’vi, and prays to the planet to help. And the planet answers, but not till Cameron has killed off the plucky Latina and a bunch of Na’vi, not to mention the leader of the scientists (Sigourney Weaver, who is as good as ever). And then, in a terribly written ending, Jake tells us that “the aliens” were forced to leave Pandora, and the planet, or its deity, Eywa, uses its super-special “jack into the planet’s energy” powers to transfer Jake’s mind to his avatar’s body forever and ever.

This is the one thing that I think could really have made an interesting film. The ability to truly change from one thing to another, to place a mind and soul into another body — can that make a person that thing? One of the chief issues whenever we speak of race, and especially of racism and white allies, is that the white person can never truly know what it is like to be Other. Jake becomes Other, but in a world where there is no one but the Na’vi. Moreover, he never can lose the Earth marine that he was. The Na’vi have accepted him as one of them, but he didn’t start out that way. There are so many interesting questions that the film could have asked, but didn’t. But then really, should I have expected more?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 January, 2010 6:17 am

    Remember that film-makers think in pictures first.

  2. 3 January, 2010 7:13 pm

    good point!

  3. 3 January, 2010 9:20 pm

    Hello there. I just discovered your blog. Listen, this might be a long shot and it may be rude but I need to ask you the following: could I email you? The reason I ask this is because I am an undergraduate student at a college in Jersey city. I have taken courses in Latin, French, Medieval Art, History, theology and philosophy with the intention of becoming a medieval historian.Throughout the semesters I have been in college my grades have ranged from 3.68 to 3.86. I am an honors student, involved with numerous clubs, and being offered membership in two honors societies.And I am scared as hell. I saw your post on another blog about the problem of overproduction of medievalists. As I have read more I keep thinking to myself "if I go into grad school (I am looking at Fordham) and it turns out that I go with the intention of getting a PHD what happens when I graduate? Will I become jobless and then homeless?"Essentially I am terrified. I am so sorry that this has nothing to do with your post on Avatar. But as a medievalist who appears to be working hard in academia can you please tell me if I am chasing a pipedream or if there is a chance in acadamia for myself?Thank you.

  4. 4 January, 2010 6:50 am

    I'm seeing this tomorrow night. I've met a few people locally who've been working on it (the CGI stuff was done by Weta Digital in Wellington). One of them described it as 'Dancing with Smurfs'! I must admit I haven't been expecting too much in the way of a great story – just good visuals. I hope I am pleasantly surprised.

  5. 5 January, 2010 3:50 am

    Identifying the native with the natural world is a classic feature of colonial rhetoric.

  6. 5 January, 2010 6:18 am

    That was partially my point.

  7. 5 January, 2010 7:26 am

    Yes, I'm just agreeing with you

  8. 5 January, 2010 5:58 pm


  9. 6 January, 2010 8:09 pm

    I went into the movie expecting nothing and was surprised that I kind of enjoyed myself.But, wow, the race thing…it bothered me. I'm bored of seeing the same story of white guilt without anything new. Your last paragraph is really interesting and not something I thought about. If those questions would have been addressed, the film would have been way more satisfying to me. Great points.

  10. 7 January, 2010 4:54 am

    Chris — yes — the address is in the sidebar

  11. 7 February, 2010 6:53 pm

    I have seen Avtaar. I greatly admire the film. But I do agree with your last paragraph.Let us hope the Director addresses the issue in the next film. This is Diana from Israeli Uncensored News

  12. 25 February, 2010 11:22 pm

    This was interesting to me, although I haven't yet seen Avatar, because the whole colonial guilt thing comes close to a question I'm concerned with in fiction. It came up today on an interview on my blog with an Australian YA author, Kate Forsyth, regarding the tricky issue of cultural appropriation: is one ever justified in using another culture's stories, particularly those of a historically oppressed culture, in one's own fiction? An excellent European Australian children's writer of the 1970's, Patricia Wrightson, found herself shunned because of her use of Aboriginal mythological material in her children's fiction. Obviously the treatment by the European colonists of Aboriginial Australians has been deplorable and, as in the US, there are still all sorts of issues about social deprivation. Even so, my strong feeling is that stories belong to the world, and – so long as an author is sensitive to the problems and principled in doing the research necessary when attempting to depict a society and culture not his/her own, it can only enrich us all to learn about one another. This is all a bit off the subject of Avatar with its imaginary planet, except, as you point out, stereotypes such as the 'hero' being one of the colonists rather than one of the natives – etc, etc. It's always irritated me – even in books like the Narnia stories – that you have this whole WORLD in which the natives are so feeble they have to rely upon a few human (English?) children to sort out their problems for them.

  13. 27 February, 2010 6:07 pm

    At least in the Narnia stories, there is a good reason for that. Lewis makes clear from the beginning (or at least in the chronological beginning of Narnia itself) that the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve are given dominion over Narnia. So it makes sense that they should fix it. Where I see the problem with that is that we really don't know how Jadis managed to take over — what happened to all the humans? Because after all, in The Horse and His Boy, there are clearly lots of them around in Calormen and Archenland. I may have to blog about that, because really, it makes sense that the Pevensies should come back and put things right in Prince Caspian. Hmmm. There are some serious ethnogenesis failures in Lewis' world.

your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: