imperial avatar

On the Old Mole Jan 11, 2010, Denise Morris & I discussed Avatar, the expensive and profitable 3-D blockbuster, written and directed by James Cameron.

The movie is set in 2154 on Pandora, the Earth-like moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri system, where the RDA Corporation is mining for the incredibly valuable mineral Unobtanium, and employs former marines as security. The local population includes the big blue Na'vi, who are in tune with all the life on their planet, venerate the mother goddess Eywa, and dress in a pastiche of scanty Native American and African tribal styles.

In Hinduism, an avatar is an earthly manifestation of a deity. In computing, it's a representation of the computer user or a virtual online body of a gamer. In Cameron's film, avatars are physical bodies, genetically engineered hybrids of humans and Na'vi, and the avatars are "driven" by humans whose DNA has been used to construct them. Or, in the case of the protagonist Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, the twin of that human. Jake is a former marine, who uses a wheelchair because he was injured in combat, and cannot afford the surgery that would again enable him to walk (so, they haven't solved the healthcare issue).

He's promised that operation as soon as he completes this one, which consists of using his avatar to get to know the Na'vi and persuading them to leave their homelands so that the territory can be mined. Running around in his new, blue body, he meets and falls in love with Neyteri (played by a blue CGI version of Zoe Saldana). Neyteri is the daughter of the local king Eytucan (played by Wes Studi) and of the tribe's spiritual leader Mo'at (played by CCH Pounder), who advises that Jake may be important. Jake learns Na'vi ways so well that he is not only initiated into the tribe, but even becomes one of only a handful of people ever to tame the flying beast the Toruk.

When the corporation man Parker Selfridge (played by Giovanni Ribisi ) and the security chief Colonel Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) decide to give up on persuasion and try shock and awe instead, Jake sides with the Na'vi, prays to Eywa, and leads the bow-and-arrow wielding natives to victory against the high-tech invaders, with the help also of a few other turncoats including the scientists headed by Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver), and the helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon (played by Michelle Rodriguez)

(For more on earlier plans for the film (Cameron's scriptment) see CHUD. For more on indigenous Americans and the national security state, see the anarchist library .

Some conservatives have objected to the movie.

But according to the (usually conservative) David Brooks, it's a White Messiah story:

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.

Something like Brooks' argument was made earlier and in more detail by Annalee Newitz of io9:

Think of it this way. 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. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He's becoming alien and he can't go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he's hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a "cure" for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it's only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

And Denise notes

Yes, white America has fantasies about race relations, but we also have strong tendencies toward individualizing these problems. Does the film illuminate something about the collective struggle for sovereignty even as it uses individuals to drive the narrative? Based on the context of the film, what do we know about America other than it is an imperial nation? Are audiences moved at all away from the notion of America as leader of the free world?

A writer in La Jornada in Mexico notes the hype:

"Avatar's" promotional blitz has been driven by three main factoids: it's the most expensive movie in the history of movies, it has revolutionized the world of special effects and it was shot in 3-D. Nothing about the intricacy of the plot or the depth of the characters, the substance of "Avatar," as presented to us through its marketing managers, is the shine of it surface. French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari write that the meaning of a cultural good always exists in the connections that it establishes with its external image. With this in mind, "Avatar" can be looked upon not only as a movie, but as a metaphor for an entire country: the United States has become the greatest hype on the face of the earth. . . .

In spite of its disintegrating capacity to serve as the leader of the world - a failure that, against the backdrop of a rising China, is evidenced by and embodied in the United States' economic dependency and its inability to get a handle on the Middle East - Washington continues to intoxicate America's collective imagination with the semantics of superpowerism. This grand and noble portrayal of the United States, however, has become nothing more than a figment. A giant, swiftly unraveling hype. Avatar America is a sign that is independent of and disconnected from what it is supposed to signify, the irreal meaning of which can only be glimpsed through a suspension of reality and a leap of faith.

There's a disjunction, for instance, between the film's representations of those scientists and the realities of social scientists working with military occupations:

Anthropologically informed counterinsurgency efforts like the Human Terrain program are fundamentally flawed for several reasons. . . . On the big screen the transformation of fictional counterinsurgent avatar-anthropologists into insurgents siding with the blue skinned Na'vi endears the avatars to the audience, yet off the screen in our world, this same audience is regularly bombarded by media campaigns designed to endear HTT social scientists embedded with the military to an audience of the American people. The engineered inversions of audience sympathies for anthropologists resisting a military invasion in fiction, and pro-military-anthropologists in nonfiction is easily accomplished because the fictional world of a distant future is not pollinated with the forces of nationalism and jingoistic patriotism that permeate our world; a world where anything aligned with militarism is championed over the understanding of others (for reasons other than conquest).

Critics have also noted, among other things, the film's sexism:

If Jake's attraction is primarily sexual, it has to be interpreted through the historical White fetishization of women of color. From the slave masters' midnight visits to the contemporary exoticization of Asian and Black female sexuality, women of color have served as the leading figures of White sexual fantasies. In this context, when Jake Sees Neytiri (undeniably, a woman of color), how do we know that he isn't just seeing a hypersexual body that he can use for his own pleasure?

Cameron himself commented on the importance to him of making the female lead character sexually attractive: "We looked at designs for the Na'vi that initially were much more alien," Cameron said. "When we would draw Neytiri and she had fins on her back and gills and all kinds of weird protuberances and so on in odd places, the question was, well, would you want to do her? No? OK, let's back off from that. . . . "

Feminists have also commented on the film's portrait of people with disabilities.

Stuart Klawans comments on the movie's techno-spirituality:

Let the exposure of Sully's immobility and isolation point toward everything in you that Avatar leaves unengaged. Despite being the most miraculous of the holiday's movies, Avatar does not plug into your physical self-awareness; your connections to the people around you; your potential to think and feel more deeply, and more independently, than Cameron asks you to.

Other viewers, similarly,

came away thinking that I might like to try the Xbox version of the Avatar adventure, with opportunities to win battles of liberation using fantastic weapons upon exotic landscapes. Of course, I realized as I was pulling out my car key that a more effective spiritual reversal would have me renouncing all my capital-intensive desires and the battles they advance. . . .A truly improbable Avatar reversal would produce a global back-to-nature movement liberated from plastic 3-D glasses because something like "real nature" was being returned to its sacred center of attention.

And :

Sully, the marine who is "really" a tree-hugging primitive, is a paradigm of that late capitalist subjectivity which disavows its modernity. There's something wonderfully ironic about the fact that Sully's - and our - identification with the Na'vi depends upon the very advanced technology that the Na'vi's way of life makes impossible. . . .

If we are to escape from the impasses of capitalist realism, if we are to come up with an authentic and genuinely sustainable model of green politics (where the sustainability is a matter of libido, not only of natural resources), we have to overcome these disavowals. There is no way back from the matricide which was the precondition for the emergence of modern subjectivity. To quote one of my favourite passages in First As Tragedy: "Fidelity to the communist Idea means that, to repeat, Arthur Rimbaud, ... we should remain absolutely modern and reject the all too glib generalization whereby the critique of capitalism morphs into the critique of 'modern instrumental reason' or 'modern technological civilization'." The issue is, rather, how modern technological civilization can be organised in a different way.

 

Comments

The first filmmakers were

The first filmmakers were inventors. And then came the artists. The former like Louis Lumiere believed that "cinema is an invention without any future" but the latter realized it was the future. James Cameron belongs to the second group. He waited fifteen years for technology to catch up with a story he wanted to tell and even the promotional blitz doesn't do justice to "Avatar." Technology has revolutioned film making and "Avatar" is that revolution - certainly, not the Che kind, but a revolution nonetheless. None of the blurbs above mention why the film is successful and if critics believe that connecting with the massess does not matter, it is a good thing they are not in the movie business.

Let's address some of the criticisms against the film:  
It doesn't represent reality - Because its a fantasy film, its the one genre which guarantees that the public will willing suspend their beliefs. Maybe the binaries are a tad simplistic, but most fantasy stories operate on simple divisions - the good, the bad, and the wise. The "good," go through a rite of passage before they make the right decision.
Savior complex - Well, humans and First World countries in particular have messed up the world and the onus is on those who created the mess to recognize their faults and correct them. More importantly, the message that the film conveys is that those who destroy need to save themselves first from their own destruction.
Politics - The film is anti-war, anti-U.S.military, pro green, pro earth, even pro new-age spiritualism!!!
Leaves you unengaged - Sorry, outvoted by the public here.
As for arguments against technology and capitalism - Let us first recognize our own locations and the medium we are using to communicate.

Obviously, unlike the critics mentioned in the review, I loved "Avatar." To me, its a story told well. I also like its political messages. And now that the Vatican has denounced it, I have even more reason to defend the film.

Second to Pavithra's commentary

 This is movie with heart, a spiritual story of doing the right thing, even if it costs one ones' "new legs" or results in being jailed. Neytiri is an inspiring and brave person - saving Jake more than once and also giving up her birthright by choosing him as her partner (since he is a weird puppet guy with four fingers etc). What an awesome heroine!!! Zoe Seldana is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent and is a New Jerseyite - yet the film has been bashed because she is a woman of color and the Na'Vi resemble - to some - a stereotyped race. Hmmm.. they seemed pretty self reliant, honorable, caring, wise, intelligent, civil, and braveheart...reminding me of many native peoples - such as the Bushmen, Nez Perce, Japanese, the Scots.... (notice Mel Gibson caught no heat like this for Braveheart). Jake being a para has been way analyzed as well, often negatively. But he is an honorable person at heart, regardless of his being a PWD or not. He does not by himself "save" the natives, or even himself...he gives, he loves, he cares, and that he ends up with legs is secondary to his ending up alive at all, rescued as he is by Neytiri, and healed of his "madness" by Eywa.

 

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