Avatar (2009) – Directed by James Cameron – Starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, and Giovanni Ribisi.
Or: James Cameron Hates America, Watto, Skids, Mudflap, and George W. Bush.
Where George Lucas gave us racist stereotypes dressed as cartoonish aliens (in PHANTOM MENACE) and Michael Bay gave us racist stereotypes dressed as robots (TRANSFORMERS 2), I spent the first hour of AVATAR worried that James Cameron was simply giving us racist stereotypes dressed up as really tall Smurfs. Cameron clearly traffics in the historical waters and cultural weight of American racism, but it’s far too easy to racially dismiss AVATAR as “Dances with CGI” and condemn Cameron for making another “White People Make Better Indians than Indians” movie. There’s more going on here.
While AVATAR qualifies as neither a great film nor an enlightening film, Cameron doesn’t go the Lucas/Bay route and CGI-up stereotypes so we can continue to laugh at such racist Hollywood favorites as the big-nosed, money-pinching Jew (as Lucas does with Watto) or the gold-tooth wearing, shucking and jiving inner city black kid (as Bay does with Skids and Mudflap). Instead, Cameron turns American Indians blue in order to both evaluate our contemporary ability to use technology to put on an avatar and change our visual identity, and to offer an environmental critique of contemporary American politics, capitalism, and the military.
Frankly, it’s sort of a stunning attempt from a brilliant visual director who tends to make rather dumb movies.
James Cameron makes big movies and often emotional movies but he doesn’t make very smart movies; there’s not a lot of moral ambiguity in the Cameron-verse, where there are usually clearly drawn good guys and clearly drawn bad guys shooting at each other to create awesome looking explosions. Nothing illustrates this more than the switch of the Schwarzenegger T-800 being a bad guy in one movie and a good guy in the next simply by reprogramming it; Cameron cares far less about the journey as he does the destination.
Even in AVATAR, Jake Sully has basically one scene where he’s conflicted about what he’s doing. First, he’s a spy whose firmly on the side of the company, then he’s conflicted about who he is, then he lies to his Colonel so he can keep being blue, and then he wants to be blue all the time.
And then Cameron spends two hours blowing cartoon shit up cooler than anyone else can blow cartoon shit up.
AVATAR is, pretty plainly, a cowboys and indians movie where the cowboy “goes native” and ends up fighting against the system that produced him, and the film does fall into the racialist trap of having Jake often make a better Na’vi than the Na’vi themselves make: he’s not only chosen by the Na’vi’s god as being special but he manages to tame the big red flying dinosaur thing that only five other Na’vi have ever done in the entire history of their people.
So, yeah, there’s that, and Cameron doesn’t get a pass for falling into that trap.
That said, Cameron doesn’t simply repackage the Hollywood Indian as blue aliens just so we can continue to traffic in the same old racial stereotypes; that is, unlike Lucas and Bay, Cameron doesn’t offer the stereotype as a source of derision or for our amusement, but so he can critique contemporary American culture as one that has lost its way.
Or maybe one that never really had the right way to begin with.
What sets AVATAR apart, too, is the totality of its condemnation. At the heart of AVATAR resides a rejection not only of a military, capitalist, genocidal approach to dealing with another culture, but of racial paternalism. When the Na’vi accept Jake’s avatar into their culture, we learn that he gets an inside pass that Sigourney Weaver and the scientists haven’t received, either, and they’re clearly the good humans in contrast to the evil company/military variety.
The Na’vi, in short, have not only rejected the “Sky People’s” military but their scientists who think of the Na’vi and Pandora simply as biological parts to study, and treat them, in their own way, as stupid savages that need to be taught the human way in human schools in order for the Na’vi to get out of the corporation’s way. When Jake becomes hybridized as a human soul in a Na’vi body, he’s really hybridized as being a military creation living inside a scientific creation, and it’s this hybridization that leads to the Na’vi accepting them into their midst.
The Na’vi god, then, seems to see that change is coming and that the Na’vi must learn to navigate this change in order for them to survive. It’s not that they must lose their culture, or have their culture assimilated into an American way of life, but that they can learn from Jake in order to defend themselves. They need to be open to an outsider’s way in order to defeat the outsiders, so while Jake is sent into Pandora to spy on the Na’vi, the Na’vi god seems to want the Na’vi people to bring Jake in so they can use him, too.
Honestly, AVATAR isn’t really suggesting that Jake makes a better Na’vi than any Na’vi does at all, but that he holds a uniquely qualified ability to become the specific military leader they need against this specific military threat. The Na’vi need to learn to teach him how to be one of them so he can become that military leader they need. Nearly all of the “Na’vi ways” that he’s taught end up having a specific military benefit: riding Pandoran horses and dinobirds, shooting with a bow and arrow, and connecting with the big, light-up tree all end up playing a vital role in the big battle. I’m not going to claim that the Na’vi god or high priestess intends for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) to sex him to help turn him against the humans and keep him loyal to the Na’vi, but I’m not saying they’re all that surprised, either.
Importantly, too, while Jake may get to do a few things better than the Na’vi, and while he gets the credit for leading the troops into victory, it’s Neytiri who saves him at the end. She saves him twice, in fact – first saving his avatar from the Colonel and then saving his human form from oxygen starvation.
Ultimately, the stereotypical trap that AVATAR not only doesn’t fall into but outright rejects is the “vanishing Indian” myth. In the typical “white man makes a better Indian than the Indians do” story, whatever victory is accomplished by the white man’s cultural shift is soaked in sorrow because we know how it all ends – it’s a victory in battle but not in war.
Because AVATAR CGIs reality into fantasy it can offer a real victory. The environmentally conscious aliens can defeat the big industrial power, allowing Cameron’s repackaged racial fantasy to resonate with a hopefulness about a nation finding a better way to move forward through inclusion rather than genocide. It’s not so much about finding people who look like you, but finding a shared ideology. When Jake and the Colonel have their final throwdown and the Colonel asks Jake how it feels to betray his race, we can already see that the question is the wrong one.
Cameron’s message in AVATAR really isn’t about “going native” as much as it about a nation rejecting the ideals of Bush and the Neocons, who have highjacked an already imperfect American ideology with its preemptive “shock and awe” approach to dealing with those who are different from us, who seek to destroy what they fear but do not understand.
There’s something to be said, too, for the manner in which this identity transformation takes place. While the film does embarrass itself by taking the “you can tell I’m siding with the natives because I’m wearing war paint” route, the transformation of Jake from human to Na’vi is achieved through the transference of his consciousness into a lab-built Na’vi body, but he needs to learn about Na’vi culture before the avatar is anything but a false face. In this regard, Cameron is making a technological critique about the dangers of identity hopping – just because you can look the part doesn’t mean you can understand the part.
It’ll be interesting to see how AVATAR ages. The big CGI sequences (which make up the bulk of the film) are really a sight to behold but the story is a bit simple and predictable. Cameron the Writer offers too much hack and ham throughout the film, which will hurt AVATAR as the CGI that dazzles us today becomes commonplace tomorrow.
I’m not really a huge Cameron fan, either, though I usually enjoy his movies the first time around. Technical whiz that he is, I only think one Cameron movie qualifies as a true cinematic masterpiece (ALIENS), while only two others (ABYSS and TITANIC) ever draw me back in for repeated viewings. His Schwarzenegger Trilogy (TERMINATOR, T2, and TRUE LIES) has aged as well as old milk.
Heck, even his TV show was only visionary in being the first of many Jessica Alba projects to bore us to tears.
AVATAR just might be the rare Cameron movie that gets better as it gets older, however, and as discussion of the film starts digging beneath the surface to examine the themes and issues at play here, AVATAR might be seen as a film that’s more than just a landmark effects film. Dismissing AVATAR as an empty spectacle is as much a mistake as dismissing it simply because he turns Indians blue.
Cameron really is trying to give us a story here, and he’s trying to offer social commentary, and he’s trying to have a real environmental consciousness, and he’s trying – whether it’s the conflict between industry and environment, or the conflict between two different cultures – to suggest that we can still move forward as we hold onto who we are.
I give him credit for that. James Cameron isn’t so much an old dog learning new tricks as he is an old dog learning new philosophy. You can knock him for not having all the answers, yet, or for relying on a few too many Hollywood tropes better left behind, but unlike the bulk of his characters, Cameron seems to finally have figured out that the journey is every bit as important as the destination. It’s gonna be interesting to see where the AVATAR story goes from here.