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February 05, 2010

"Avatar:" Simple Entertainment or Destructive Stereotypes?

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It's gotten nine Oscar nominations and is destined to take home at least a couple, but how good is "Avatar?"  Here's my review.

Some have called director James Cameron's "Avatar" a visually stunning film that's not to be taken more seriously than an afternoon's entertainment at your local multiplex.  Others have called it another in a long line of films illustrating Hollywood's racial insensitivity.

Which is it?  I'll get back to that.<--break->

First let me tell you what "Avatar" is all about.  Set on the futuristic planet of Pandora, "Avatar" is about a native people, the Na'vi whose planet is being exploited for a valuable natural mineral, unobtanium, by a colony of money grubbing humans.  The humans, who include a non-money grubbing staff of scientists are trying to negotiate mining rights to the unobtanium, but if that doesn't work, they're not above taking it by force.

Sigourney Weaver is Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of a science team who've developed a way for humans to become one of the Na'vi using computers and a home grown Na'vi body.  Or something like that. 

The scientists do it to learn.  The military do it to "win the hearts and minds" of the Na'vi and get their unobtanium without a fight.

Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine who becomes part of the experiment when his brother who was scheduled for the program is killed.  As Jake becomes accustomed to the nine foot, blue bodies of the Na'vi, he becomes enamored with the Na'vi people, their spiritual connections, culture and traditions.

He also falls in love with Neytiri, the daughter of a clan leader whose people are destined for annihilation if Jake can't convince them to leave their home that sits atop a huge unobtanium deposit. 

If this plot sounds familiar to you--and if you're a fan of Kevin Costner it should--that's because this is a 3-D digital space version of "Dances with Wolves."  I'm not the first to point that out, but that's because it's way beyond obvious.

"Dances with Wolves" however was a better film because the characters, especially the Native Americans were much more well rounded

Don't get me wrong, "Avatar" is a gorgeous film.  See it in 3-D if you see it at all because it's a glorious, visual achievement.  "Avatar's" weakness is in the paint by numbers plot which even with the magnificent visuals, had me sleepy by the two hour mark. 

An example of the laziness of the plot?  The bad guy is such a cardboard bad guy, I didn't care when he and Jake finally went at it.   My only real sense of suspense was to see who would live, who would die, and what beautiful Pandora landscape I would see next.

The blandness of the love story is only saved by the chemistry between Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, even in nine foot blue bodies and heavy Na'vi makeup.

Also the name of the valuable Pandora ore:  unobtanium.

Un-obtain-ium!? 

I know this is supposed to be a special effects movie but put a couple more hours into the script why don't you? 

The only thing worse would have been if  they'd written Jake acting like a 14 year old boy like so many of these kinds of movies do.  Jake is a man and he acts like a man.  Neytiri is a woman and acts like a woman.

What the filmmakers did spend time on was the Na'vi language.  It's quite beautiful and comes off sounding very real.

And as Clarabela at "Just Chick Flicks points out, unlike many CGI movies, the digital pyrotechnics are seamlessly integrated.  Possibly because a lot of the Na'vi's world looks almost like animation instead of CGI:

Director James Cameron went through great pains to create a realistic world for this movie. He even hired  University of Southern California linguistics professor, Paul Frommer to  design an actual Na’Vi  language. Too bad for all the Trekkies who learned Vulcan and Klingon. Now the have another alien language to learn. So with  the 3-D glasses and state of the art CGI (computer generated images), you forget that most of this movie was made on a sound stage.

Now to the controversy.  There are some in the blogosphere who are upset with "Avatar" because they say it perpetuates the stereotype of the white, hero savior coming in to save the natives.

At io9 there's the post, written by Annalee, a white woman by the way, "When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?":

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

At Global Shift there's "Dances with Discrimination" by Ashley Michelle Papon:

It is, at the basic level, a re-imagining of the great genocide against people of color on America’s original colonial backdrop. And the ethereal, blue-skinned Na’vi, with their painted faces and feathered arrows, are the ideal representations of the systematic oppression that has been lobbed at various incantations of the “savage” that came before. But unlike “Dances with Wolves,” which ultimately asserts the superiority of the way of the native, “Avatar” doesn’t even attempt to hide it’s double-standard. Jake makes his last stand as the Great White Hope with the assistance of a wild bird and a sub-machine gun, effectively turning the narrative of the native into the narrative of the white savior.

Another, different argument with the film came from The Urban Gentleman:  "Avatar:" Obvious Racism?

What riddled me was the fact that all the natives were african-american, hispanic, or native-american... and when I say all I mean ALL. While on the opposite end all of the humans, all of whom were scientist or in the army, were european-american (aka caucasion). And that, that was extremely perplexing. I caught on to this about 30 or so minutes into the movie when the main native girl Netyiri, played by Zoe Saldana, brought the main human Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, to see all the other natives. I honestly don't want to drag this on and on, but let's just ask the obvious questions-- James Cameron, are you seriously telling me you couldn't have  any main human characters be african-american, asian, hispanic, etc?

I gotta tell ya'.  I get where these bloggers are coming from.  As black people, we're understandably sensitive when pop culture portrays us as needing to be saved by white people.  Or as in the case of the film "Precious," even by light skinned black people. 

The Urban Gentleman makes an especially interesting point.  Yes, there's Michelle Rodriquez who plays a human fighter pilot, but she's in a supporting role.

Having said all that, I believe the issue with "Avatar" has more to do with simplistic storytelling than anything else. 

Has Hollywood worn out the white guy coming to appreciate the natives plot?  Sure, but I tend to agree wit Gigshaft who commented on the io9 post when he said the following:

The author seems to be saying these movies show the deep down, white people just want to lead (read: conquer) the natives. Compelling idea, but is that really true? Or is it more true that the conventions of the "Hollywood Action Movie" demand that the hero end up as "on top" as the story will allow? Is it a secret desire to triumph over the primitives? Or just a desire to make the audience feel triumphant through the lead character, no matter what the situation?

It's a product of pure Hollywood storytelling. Drop your classic "fish out of water" lead character into a culture of "noble savages" and you get the ridiculous "Dances With Wolves" scenario we see over and over again, but this seems like less of a "Subconscious White Aggressor Agenda" and more a classic brand of Hollywood naivety.

Speaking as a Left-Leaning White Guy™, I can't help but feel there's a culture of "white guilt oneupsmanship" in academic criticism these days. It's like a game to see who can be more guilty.

"Avatar" is simplistic storytelling but as a film it's much more than that.  If anything, the message in the film is not about how the white hero comes in to save the natives, but how the natives are more cognizant and more appreciative of the bounties of the world around them.  The natives are the people to be emulated, not the humans.

I don't have a problem with that message.  And I don't have a problem with a white guy feeling it's a more valuable way to live.

But just for argument, let's change up the characters.  Say the lead human was a black guy who eventually became enamored with the natives.   Wouldn't the writers then be accused of perpetuating the "black guy going back to the jungle" stereotype?  Or suppose there was a character from a native population who became enamored with human society?  A native falling in love with human, aka supposedly "white culture?"  That wouldn't fly either. 

What needs to be encouraged in Hollywood is better storytelling and more casting of people of color in a variety of roles.  That's my soapbox and I'm not getting off of it. 

Cross Posted from BlogHer

***PS:  I got a note from Annalee Newitz who wrote the io9 post, that explains the "unobtanium" name for the ore on Pandora.

The "unobtanium" thing is a reference to a long-running joke in science fiction novels and films, where many writers have used the name unobtainium to refer to a scientific MacGuffin.

Thanks Annalee!


Related Links:

"Avatar" with Kids:  A discussion guide.

"The Women of 'Avatar'" by Melissa Silverstein.

Audiences Experience The "Avatar" Blues

Environmental blogger Beth Terry asks, "Avatar" in 3-D:  "What About the Plastic Glasses?

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