Avatar, colonialism, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said, James Cameron, noble savage, Orientalism, Racism
Continuing my series on cinema and/as exorcism (see more here, here, and here), some thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the worst Orientalist fantasies in recent memory (though I don’t want to waste many thoughts on such a facile and deluded piece of rubbish) …
I would give a synopsis of the plot, but I don’t need to if you’ve seen Dances with Wolves, Glory, Seven Years in Tibet, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, The Children of Huang Shi, or any other film where a white European character stumbles into a culture of noble but blinkered primitives and then proceeds to save them not only from his (and it is always his) fellow Europeans, but also from themselves. In Avatar, the protagonist is an ex Marine named Jake, who is sent to a lush planet called Pandora to help run the Na’vi people (essentially three metre tall humanoids with better abs) off of their sacred land so a nameless company can harvest the minerals that lie beneath it. This is that same story, again, though done without any of the subversive gestures that distinguished the recent District 9, which shares a good few plot elements with all of these films but manages to be something other than the standard Orientalist bullshit. From the opening generic tribal drumming, Avatar confirms every last sentence of Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism.
Argument one: Avatar is the most astonishingly racist film since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, perhaps worse even than 300. The film’s noble savages, the Na’vi – many of whom, though they are computer generated motion captures of real actors, are played by non-white actors – are an amalgam of all the noble savage clichés dating back centuries. They are in touch with nature. They believe, in fact, that their planet, Pandora, is one he living organism (Pandora’s bookshops must sell a lot of James Lovelock). They are violent but admirable. They like to hold hands and dance. They are sexually ambiguous. but still sexually appealing. They are superstitious and reliant on magic and all sorts of often brutal rites of passage. These may be noble savages in the film, but they are still savages and the film treats them as savages, as lesser people.
From the costume and character design, the Na’vi are evidently supposed to represent a smattering of oppressed indigenous peoples on Earth, from New Zealand Maori to the Navajo of the American southwest, but in blending all of these cultures into one, the film is guilty of doing exactly what it thinks it is condemning. That each of the cultures that Cameron borrows from the create the Na’vi are vibrant and complete in their own right simply does not matter. What matters is that they aren’t European and thus are an open resource to plunder when trying to define Europe over and against what it is not. This is Orientalism par excellence.
In a final insult, the Na’vi’s beliefs about their planet being a living organism are given endorsement in the film only when these beliefs are proven scientifically. This is the evolutionary narrative of history – out of darkness and into light, ironically, an idea that is deeply rooted in Christianity – in a nutshell. The Na’vi religion is nothing more than primitive science, an accident of insight that needs European systems of valuation for its legitimacy. This is, at the very best, a backhanded compliment and at worst an absolute repudiation of what the film intends. Final thought: if the humans – as one of the generic corporate faces notes – have nothing to offer the Na’vi, then why does Jake, the sympathetic white human Marine, become the long-awaited saviour of the Na’vi? Why tell the story from his standpoint at all? Why not make Neytiri, the main Na’vi figure, the film’s centre? Why not allow the Na’vi to fulfill their own prophecies? Why not allow them to save themselves? Why force them to end the film in a cold-hearted fashion, sending most of the humans home ‘to a dying world’? Why not grant them the courage of their own ecological convictions and allow them to take a hand in saving the Earth?
Argument two: to say that Avatar is ideologically inconsistent is to make a molehill out of a mountain. This is the perfect film for our times, when Barack Obama can make a speech defending a policy of perpetual war while accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, when there is endlessly debate about climate change that touches on everything except the actual problems behind the crisis (the market is not the solution, people; it is the problem). This is a film that appears to want to be an endorsement of peace but that ends in a fierce and very bloody battle for territory and resources that the audience is supposed to get behind. In a similar fashion, Avatar makes every gesture possible towards valuing nature and the Na’vi are shown – over and over and over again – being ecologically minded and treating Pandora’s animal life with respect; however, in the film’s climactic orgy of violence, Pandora’s Gaia analogue sends all manner of creatures to their deaths in the name of preserving the Na’vi, who are thus obviously the most important creatures on the planet.
This is a major Hollywood studio film – and I do know that Cameron is actually Canadian – that is trying hard to say something genuine about ecology and capitalism but doesn’t know how to say anything that hasn’t been said for the last four or five hundred years. Perhaps, more worryingly, it cannot, given that it is also one of the most expensive films ever made and it will need to recoup its costs largely in the international market, and thus cannot do anything but pander to the lowest worldwide common denominator. This is a deeply confused film that reflects in every surface the convoluted and confused nature of our culture. It is everything that it believes that it is not. We deserve this film, though I wish I could say with any confidence that we deserve better.
Argument three: Avatar is the ultimate in Orientalist fantasy. When Jake opens his eyes at the end of the film, having defeated the Europeans and sent them packing and having fully, literally become one of the Na’vi, he is living out the dreams of every white neo-pagan, Druid, or Wiccan out there who wants to truly recover a past that is, for the most part, a Romantic fantasy that has no roots in history. Unlike Wikus in District 9, who also becomes an oppressed alien but takes up arms against the oppressors because he is a selfish git largely concerned with saving his own ass (a fact that the film is smart enough to admit), Jake is a classic Hollywood hero who is able to be both coloniser and colonised at once. He is a coloniser without the need for guilt or any serious reflection on what he has done (he is instrumental in destroying the Na’vi’s village) but he is also colonised in that he can take part in a fantasy culture where everything is sunshine, simplicity, and sacredness. Jake is liberal guilt made flesh. In all of this, Cameron is ideologically at least the equal of the great Orientalist novelists, from Rudyard Kipling to Joseph Conrad, though these two have the distinct advantage of having been able to actually write.
The film, on a technological level, is a game-changer, as they like to say. As a narrative and as an example of the colonial gaze, there is nothing in Avatar that is any different, or any better, than eighteenth-century missionary and colonial writings about Egypt or India. This does nothing to exorcise the demons of colonialism or imperialism; indeed, it is a wholehearted embrace of both of these things cloaked in the shell of a protest against them.
To be fair, I’ll throw in a few positives: everything in the film from the production design to the intricately imagined and convincingly rendered worlds, looks amazing (even in two dimensions, as we down here at the ends of the Earth still don’t have a 3-D theatre) and the climactic battle is a stunning achievement in editing, effects, and pacing. Finally, Zoe Saldana as a nine-foot tall Smurf? Still hot as all hell.