Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Politics in Avatar

I am perhaps that last person in the country to see James Cameron's Avatar in 3D. I enjoyed it immensely. It was, in my opinion, a very good movie. No it was not as profound or subtle as Up In The Air, which I saw the same day, but it was a very different kind of movie. I went to be entertained, and boy was I, but I was also amazed, and transported. Avatar accomplishes exactly what it sets out to and that is high praise.

Some critics complained about the script. They're wrong. A movie like Avatar needs a simple workmanlike script. It wasn't dazzling dialogue, but dazzling dialogue would have gotten in the way of the immersive experience. Some critics complained about the acting. They're wrong. Like the script, the acting was serviceable. The actors needed to disappear behind the drama and the effects for this movie and they did that well without being wooden.

But more than these complaints I heard a bunch of complaints about the politics of the movie. Criticism hit Avatar from both the Left and the Right. The left didn't like the depiction of the Na'vi or the fact that they were 'saved' by a white man. The right didn't like the fact that humans were depicted as immoral colonialists. Both sides were straining out gnats to swallow camels in my opinion. There is something I would criticize about the movie, much bigger than either of those complaints. I'll deal with them in order.

Liberal Criticisms
I've heard Avatar compared to Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves every 30 seconds since the film came out. According to many liberals out there James Cameron is rehashing a tired Hollywood cliche about a white guy who "goes native" and then fights with the natives against his own people (see The Last Samurai). This cliche is insulting to indigenous peoples who are often portrayed stereotypically (even if the stereotype is a good one) and who, furthermore, don't need more white saviors - they've had quite enough thank you very much.

Basically this criticism is true. This is a Hollywood cliche and it is racist and demeaning. James Cameron does indulge in it to a certain extent as well.

But the criticism is way overblown in the case of Avatar. First, the movie is science fiction. These are not any historical indigenous people. They are similar to several cultures superficially, but also substantially different. There just isn't enough real substance here to make a clear and damning comparison. Secondly, the white savior in this case actually becomes a native, and saves the natives using their tools, their culture, their God. Third, and most importantly, James Cameron is a white guy. He can only make movies as a white guy, and I think this represents a pretty decent effort at moral imagination from a white perspective on issues of colonization and indigenous peoples. What we need are more filmmakers from indigenous cultures to tell their own story.

Conservative Criticisms
Avatar is full of hippy-environmentalist, anti-American, anti-military bullshit. The badguys in the movie are all military and corporate people. The good guys are scientists and naked blue people who are "in-touch with nature". They even use the phrase "shock and awe". It is just a bunch of your usual Hollywood liberal crap.

Again, I'll concede there is a level of basic truth here. Cameron does play into some stereotypes - the macho violent colonel, the calculating indifferent corporate executive, the awe-struck scientist. The overall message of the movie is in fact environmentalist and anti-violent hegemony.

But this criticism falls flat since in the context of the basic story Cameron is telling (a powerful colonial people fighting with a weaker indigenous people over a natural resource) real world analogies are abundant and overwhelmingly justify Cameron's portrayal. In fact, Cameron went easy on us colonialists. Besides the main character he puts a variety of sympathetic characters on the colonial side, not just the scientists either. There is the pilot who defects, and even the corporate executive is shown having moments of doubt. Frankly, if we were to just give a historical portrayal of similar situations like the Trail of Tears, we would have to search long and hard for any redeeming qualities in white-man.

The Real Problem With Avatar
If Conservatives are angry that Avatar portrays the violence of the humans as unjust, and Liberals are angry that Avatar portrays the Na'vi as needing a human to lead their just defense, both sides have missed the forest for the trees. The problem is that James Cameron couldn't imagine anything but a violent resolution to his story. The third act was always going to be a big guns and explosions set piece. We knew that from the beginning and the only thing conservatives and liberals are arguing about is whether one side or the other was portrayed fairly. Both agree that the violence was necessary and inevitable, they just want to see more nuance in the portrayal of their favored side.

This is the eternal myth of redemptive violence told in 3/4 of movies and books produced. In Avatar it is extremely explicit. The Goddess of the Na'vi "blesses" and even assists in the final military victory of the Na'vi. Salvation takes the form of a battle waged between good and evil. When the humans are shooting Na'vi we cringe. When the Na'vi shoot humans with javelin-sized arrows we cheer. It's that simple. Reverse this description and nothing of substance has changed, we merely tell the same story with a different protagonist and antagonist.

I can't wait for an epic science-fiction or fantasy movie where the possibility of peace is held out as a viable alternative. I suspect I'll be waiting a long time.


John said...

You nailed it.

I knew there was something I didn't like about that movie. I almost walked out. I was surprised when my wife and daughter said they loved it as we walked out of the theater. I certainly liked parts of it as you did.

But the violence is overwhelming. I was just as turned off by the violence in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, especially the movies.

And I remember so many episodes on TV where father tells son to fight the bullies, beat them up.

Jesus taught us a third way to deal with the bullies: not flight, not fight, but staying there and engaging with the adversary non-violently.

So easy to say. So hard to do.

Thanks for your extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking post on AVATAR.

love, john + + "Why 99, you know we have to murder and kill and destroy in order to preserve everything that's good in the world." --Maxwell Smart to Agent 99

Josh said...

"The problem is that James Cameron couldn't imagine anything but a violent resolution to his story. The third act was always going to be a big guns and explosions set piece. We knew that from the beginning and the only thing conservatives and liberals are arguing about is whether one side or the other was portrayed fairly. Both agree that the violence was necessary and inevitable, they just want to see more nuance in the portrayal of their favored side."

Yes! This criticism is exactly what most troubled me about this undeniably engaging and in some ways fantastic film. For all its imagination, it does not imagine anything different than the violent battle scene that so often concludes blockbuster movies of this sort. Ironically, it ultimately suffers from a lack of imagination.

I had intended to write my own review of the film, but it would now be superfluous. I'll just link to your review from my blog instead.

Doug Hagler said...

Thinking about this, I realized that given that the entire forest was a huge neural net with trillions of electrical signals going everywhere, centered on the sacred tree, the planet's intelligence could have just engineered some kind of EMP-type wave that shorted all technology, driving the humans off the planet forever since they would be unable to use electricity, much less microprocessors, on what amounts to a huge magnet.

(This would be especially good since there is no reason for the humans not to return, blanket the planet with futuristic Agent Orange, and get all the Unobtanium while giving the dying natives the finger. All they have to do is escalate and they get what they want in the short term.)

The EMP ending would have been cool, dramatic, and while it would have caused some damage, essentially nonviolent (just removing the capacity for warmaking from the human colonists).

I can't escape, though, the feeling that imaginary/CGI violence is awesome and baddass and a very exciting way to end a movie. Cultural training and testosterone, no doubt, but there you have it. This is what nagged the corner of my brain during the film, but the sense of distaste doesn't come until I am a few steps removed from it.

Aric Clark said...

Thanks for the link Josh.


I definitely enjoy my action movies, and CGI flying lizards plus space ships and floating mountains is very cool, I agree. What I said in the first paragraph stands - it is a good movie, and a fun one. It's just another example, though, of a movie which celebrates violence as the solution to life's problems. Since I was moved to address the criticisms that had been lobbed at the film by liberals and conservatives I thought I'd point out there is a much bigger ethical problem than whether it is a fair portrayal of natives and colonialists.

Jodie said...

Humm... I have not read any of the comments or criticisms so as not to ruin my first viewing of the movie, which was tonight.

My take is a little different. Yes it uses all those themes you mention as building blocks, but...

You guys almost miss the central character of the movie. The entire biosphere of Pandora is a single living entity. The humanoids are born with organic versions of USB ports that allows them to join the network, or central nervous system as they please.

(Thus combining two interesting 21st century subjects. One known as 'systems of systems', where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Individual stand alone systems, when linked, create a new system with brand new capabilities. If you own a Blackberry with add on apps, you know what I mean.

The other is an extension of the view that insect hives are so inside out that even the central organism is not the individual bugs, but the hive. Specialized bugs are like specialized cells in a human body. They are individual living entities that are born, live and die for the sake of the whole.)

This organism (Pandora) is suffering from the infection of an outside organism to which it has no natural immunity. We humans know this organism well. It has attacked and killed its own "green world". Pandora has an immunological deficiency against the infection until it gets an adequate live vaccine. The vaccine teaches the organism how to defend itself against the infection.

Every immunological response is, at the microscopic level, extremely violent. It is a fact of biology. All living creatures take their lives from the violent death of others. To deny this aspect of life is to deny life itself.

It is not so much whether violence can be sold as redemptive, but whether it can be channeled, tamed, and focused to maintain "balance", as in the homeostasis of a healthy organism, as in the context of this story, instead of used merely as an instrument of greed.

The inhabitants of Pandora have achieved a steady state of violence that is "balanced". The humans have not. The Pandorans survive their infection and live. This time. But they don't eradicate the virus. It stays in their system.

The story is of course a parable about the expansion of human >>civilization<< (humans living in cities) and the cost it has inflicted on the rest of our planet's life forms and cultures.

The jury is still out on whether mother nature will find a way to defend her self and re-establish a proper balance.

The growing popularity of post-apocalyptic story telling seems to suggest a consensus that such a day is coming. In a way we are connected to our own mother tree, and she is in her own way trying to warn us. We are, at least at one level, hearing her loud and clear.

We could get expelled from the Garden of Eden a second time.