With the end of the semester comes a few things: time to go see movies, time to write blog posts, and a giantsnowpocalypse. Last week, my dad, brother and I braved the weather to go see Avatar. Luckily, I had been insulated from the some of the hype. I had seen a positive review or two and an article about the development of the Na’Vilanguage, but I did not have especially high expectations. I also had not seen a movie in 3D yet and was curious how that would turn out.
Before I start analyzing the shit out of this movie, let me say that it was really good. The 3D world of Pandora (the alien planet) is immersive and intricate. I felt like I could have watched it Planet-Earth style with descriptions of the fantastically imagined world. The story was thankfully simpler than most of these epic action flicks. The writers let the complexity of Pandora and her Na’Vi inhabitants fill the story-space of annoying sidekicks and significant objects. Avatar runs long at around 160 minutes, but it doesn’t have any to spare and the experience isn’t one shot too long. I would recommend it to even my most educated film-snob friends.
That said, I’m an English major and the film is a text. In the following analysis, I’m not trying to say the film is racist or anti-racist or that Jim Cameron is an imperialist or a closet-supporter of Leonard Peltier. I’m concerned with the way cultural products like Avatar put elements of our society on display. I’ll be looking at what the movie says about the way we talk – our discourses – about race and colonialism. I’m not saying anything is good or bad for the movie, just what I see in it. First I’ll go through what I thought was a bit problematic about the film from a post-colonial perspective, before arguing for a different reading. This is your official spoiler warning. You are warned, but I wouldn’t worry about knowing the secrets before seeing Avatar, you probably won’t enjoy it any less.
Quick and dirty plot-summary: Avatar, set in 2154, is about former-Marine Jake Skully (Sam Worthington) who’s paralyzed from the waist down, but gets enlisted in a colonial project on the alien planet Pandora. Jake’s brother was a scientist and part of the avatar project in which humans remotely guide human-Na’vi hybrids in order to learn about the indigenous population under the watchful eyes of caustic-but-good-hearted Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). Jake’s avatar falls into the hands of the Na’vi and he becomes integrated into their society. When the corporation and its mercenary forces decide to wipe out all the natives they need to in order to get to vast reserves of the precious metal “unobtanium,” the scientists and Jake join with the Na’vi to fight off the corporate invaders and send them back to Earth.
In the Na’vi, Cameron seems to have created the other par excellence. The indigenous people are 9 feet tall, blue with big yellow eyes and the physiques of hipster boys. They have broad noses and prominent foreheads and a long black braid. The braid is where the “magic native-nature connection” is given a tech twist. The Na’vi use nerve fibers at the end of their braids to connect to their horses and wyverns and can guide them through thought. It’s like their own USB connection to Mother Nature. The Na’vi can also plug into some external hard drive tree and listen to the voices of their ancestors as well as connect to each other so as to enhance the power of their linked swaying and praying. It’s silly and plays into old stereotypes of native peoples as mystically connected to nature, but it also seems like something I would have thought of in fourth grade, in a good way.
There’s also a seriously noble savage thing going on with the Na’vi. They’re portrayed as primitive yet civilized in their manners. We never see them eat and it would be hard to imagine their table manners. There are no scenes of Na’vigrooming or any other practices that traditionally mark “savage” people. A great effort is made to make sure nothing about the Na’vi could be culturally objectionable. They live more or less like primitivist hippies and we all sympathize at least a little with primitivist hippies, especially if they’re doing okay on their own. Yet at the same time, the Na’vi are aliens. This tension reaches an awkward breaking point when two Navi (or one and one avatar) have sex. Cameron stays on the side of relatability and Na’vi sex ends up looking a lot like human sex. Yes, it is between the invader-avatar and the native princess. Yes, they are automatically married afterward. They may be aliens, but they’re prudes just like us, so it’s okay.
All the voice acting for the Na’vi is done by actors of color. At least when we meet the aliens, we know who they’ll sound like. I really can’t quite decide how I feel about this racialization of the Na’vi. Ever since Jar Jar Binks, I instinctively flinch when aliens start talking like black people. The cultural association between black Americans and aliens is an old and enduring one (think Brother from Another Planet and the music of Parliament Funkadelic, Lil Wayne and Kid Cudi). This connection between aliens and social alienation is complex and I don’t trust Hollywood to handle it well – need I mention Jar Jar again? On the other hand, in a story of colonization primarily for an American audience, would it be better to have some white actors in there? Or some black colonists? I think probably not. Colonization – including current economic practices we call neo-colonial – and the corporate-military alliance of which it is a product, has been conducted by and for the profit of white people against people of color, and I think it’s good Cameron depicts it that way. Using prominent Cherokee actor Wes Studi as Na’vi chief (and can’t we get some non-hierachical aliens?) Eytukan leaves little to the imagination as far as the allegorical element is concerned.
One issue I do have is the depiction of the Na’vi’s triumph over the corporate invaders. The Na’vi are of course hunter-gatherers, although not overly peaceful ones. They use bows-and-arrows tipped with poison and ride awesomewyverns. (For anyone who could throw a spiral in elementary school, a wyvern is like a small dragon). But the humans have mechs and helicopters and lots of guns. Actually, one of the least believable things in the movie is lack of progress in military technology in 144 years and it still wouldn’t be a contest in terms of military strength. But the Na’vi have what all people of color have when they beat white people: a mystical connection to nature and a white dude in charge! Just when things are looking grim, Gaea-equivalent Eywa sends giant badass animals to wreck the humans, in order to preserve the balance of nature. The Na’vi didn’t beat a Western military with wooden weapons, nature beat them. American (or stand-ins like the corporate militia in Avatar) military defeats cannot be shown unless they involve other-worldly powers getting involved. We often talk about Vietnam in the same way, talking about how America lost the war to the jungles of the Vietnam rather than the bullets of the Vietnamese. With the way the media describes it, it would be easy to think the U.S. is helping the Afghanis and Iraqis in their countries and fighting someone or something separate and different. Cameron seizes upon this cliché in order to depict what we otherwise cannot imagine: the defeat of a Western military power.
Also, the prophecy-called hero of the indigenous resistance is a white former-marine playing astral projection dress up. I’m just saying.
But here’s where things get interesting. The Na’vi win. And not like in Pocahontas which is set against the viewer’s knowledge of the genocide that was well under way at that point in history. Since this is a future world, they win for real, sending the colonizers – represented by the corporate-military alliance of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the K.I.A. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) back to Earth at the barrels of guns or in pieces. But it isn’t just theNa’vi sending the invaders away, the scientific team (Skully, Dr. Augustine, avatar guide and science dork Norm Spellman (Joel Moore), their military pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) and Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao)) joins the Na’vi very quickly. There is no discussion of non-violent resistance or any real attempt to negotiate, the intellectuals – including all the women and people of color among the humans – show no hesitation in siding with the thecolonized against the colonizer and shooting humans. By the end of the film we have a clear division between the white male capitalist imperialists fighting ruthlessly for profit and everyone else siding with the indigenous Na’vi fighting to save their homeland. The best line in the movie is when Quaritch says to Skully in the heat of battle, “How does it feel to be a traitor to your race?” The film’s answer is: Great! In this way, Trudy is perhaps the most interesting character. She’s a member of the military, but through her contact with the scientists gains empathy for the Na’vi. She refuses to fire missiles at the natives’ home, this is according to the traditional script. But what isn’t is when she rapidly turns her guns on her fellow soldiers. There’s no discussion of how she knows the men on the other side and has served with them, nothing about their wives and kids. She dies in combat, and there was never a question of an ethical third-way.
Avatar’s most important depiction is the threat posed by colonialism. There is no question in the film that human settlements on Pandora can lead to anything but destruction. The invaders must be met with immediate and overwhelming force if victorious resistance is possible. This necessity is something everyone in the film understands but is almost never the message of media representations. Usually they end with reconciliation, as if mutual understanding were the goal the whole time instead of repelling colonizers. In Avatar, any understanding of the indigenous people means war with the invader. A friend sent me this piece which sees Avatar as a white guilt film, and I guess it is insofar as white people as its beneficiaries can’t talk about colonialism without feeling guilty. What sets Avatar apart is that it suggests a positive alternative to paralyzing guilt: becoming a traitor to the dominant race. Maybe the violence just makes for a crowd pleaser, but the fact that the movie ends with intellectuals and those outside traditional ideals of white masculinity joining indigenous people to successfully fight off an invading army of corporate mercenaries left me leaving the theater very happy.