Tuesday, January 5, 2010



Yeah, okay, the CGI was amazing, and on the whole it was entertaining enough.

But now that we've got that out of the way...

Much of the film was distractingly silly, in a way that relates directly to its political failings. A great deal has been said, very masterfully (especially by Annalee Newitz), about the problematic colonial 'saviour' fantasy playing out in Avatar, so I went into the cinema with probing Magical beak at the ready.

(To dispose of this objection quickly: the film features human beings from a corporation backed by armed might who seek, out of a profit motive, to relocate a racially distinct indigenous population with cultural features strongly recalling stereotypical representations of native Americans, namely war paint, 'feathered' clothing, and bows and arrows. If anyone still wishes to argue the film-makers don't specifically invoke colonialism - an intertwined complex of racism, militarism and capitalism - please do so elsewhere.)

The weakest aspect of the story is that Jake Sully, who initially comes as part of the invading force, is apparently divinely ordained as The One who will lead the indigenous people, the Na'vi, to success in their struggle against humanity. Two issues with his portrayal really leap off the screen.

One is the astounding, untenable ignorance with which he approaches the Na'vi and their planet, Pandora. This just defies belief: he goes wandering into a completely alien forest, in a completely alien body, without the faintest clue about the completely alien perils he might face. He wanders off mid-mission to poke completely alien plants that - for all he knows - might eat or poison him; and when faced with gargantuan and dangerous animals he hasn't the foggiest how he ought to respond to them, so he shoots randomly. Despite the enormous expense they have incurred to transport him to Pandora and kit him out in this new blue body, none of his employers sees fit to ground him in even the most basic facts about the hostile environment in which they want him to operate, nor does he - apparently entirely lacking in curiosity - ask.

This is the guy your amazing life-force-embodying-tree-goddess, allegedly calling upon the cumulative wisdom of thousands of sentient beings of times past, chooses to lead the people? ...and specifically, this guy is chosen over the careful, respectful, interested scientist Grace Augustine, for inclusion in the Na'vi community?

Second, the inevitable counterpart to Jake Sully's ignorance is the collapse of the Na'vi into a cartoonish bunch of mystics. There's a lot to be said for the attractiveness of their culture, like the respect for life and biodiversity, but it all becomes undermined by the film-maker's Super Duper Top Priority, i.e. that Jake Sully must be the one to lead them to victory. Quite aside from the fact that at the time of his selection by the floating seeds he appears to be totally, wilfully clueless, there's also the manner in which his eventual leadership is established. Are the film-makers genuinely telling us that in a society where mastering the flying Toruk brings pre-eminence, no one for generations other than this n00b has successfully completed the relatively simple task of flying above it and dropping onto its back? Moreover, the story implies that the Na'vi are so utterly simple-minded that they'll immediately accept not just the help but the leadership of a traitor whose deception and betrayal have just destroyed their sacred home, just so long as he turns up on the back of this red dragon.

This ridiculousness, again, has its source in the imperative that this member of the colonising force must be the one who leads the oppressed people to victory. The film-makers are simply more interested in the colonisers than the colonised, and this ideological perspective warps an otherwise promising story. It's also for this reason that the audience never gets to meet Na'vi who aren't members of the royal family, or to witness any complex dynamics within Na'vi society (by contrast to tensions within the human camp). Heroism is not available to the oppressed group.

All of this makes the movie less believeable, less interesting and less meaningful than it could have been. In other words, it's not critics of Avatar's approach to colonialism and racism who are spoiling the story with their politics. The film-makers have been more than adequate at doing that themselves.


I am indebted to conversation with Badly Drawn Pig, who astutely points out that this problem may inhere in the very concept of "The One" to begin with, especially when "The One has traditionally always been a dude ... here to save all us sissies".

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