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Why we keep making movies like Avatar

This is a response to a blog post called "When will White People Stop Making Movies like Avatar?" by Annalee Newitz.  The post made me upset when I first read it, but I hadn't seen Avatar yet, and besides, her argument is protected by the good old rhetorical ploy, "If this makes you feel defensive, you must be a racist."  Now that I've seen the film, I disagree more strongly on a number of points and would like to share, because I feel that a lot of people have been misled and missed the point of the film.  And that's a shame, because this film has given me more hope than anything since Obama's election.

Responding to common criticisms

First, let's take care of the allegation that the film is racist, or even about race.  The discrimination I saw in the film is not racially based: the humans don't call the Na'vi "Smurfs" or "blue monkeys" or something (it's the movie reviewers who are doing that), they call them "savages."  Meanwhile when the Na'vi initially reject Sully it's not because he's a different color or even from a different planet, it's because his worldview is "insane."  In other words, this is a culture clash, not a racial prejudice.  Once Sully adopts the Na'vi's way of thinking, they welcome him and (most of) the humans reject him.  So race is not the real issue here -- it's a red herring.  I don't remember hearing a single racial slur in the whole movie, and I was listening for them.  (If I missed one, please comment below.)  District 9 is about race.  That's a different movie.  I could turn Newitz's rhetoric around here and say that if all you can see going on in Avatar is race conflict, maybe you're a racist.

How about the "noble savage" criticism -- is Avatar putting Earth's indigenous peoples on a pedestal?  The nobility of the Na'vi does not come from the primitiveness of their technology or their tribal social structure, but from their very conscious, intentional interconnection to the natural world around them, which is anything but savage.  Calling the Na'vi noble savages is an excellent example of the pre/trans fallacy: people who have a rational worldview are mistaking a trans-rational worldview for a pre-rational one.  Putting a more advanced worldview than our own on a pedestal is appropriate -- it's something we can aspire to.

FernGully, a much closer fit than Dances with WolvesSecond, the widespread criticism that the plot is derivative.  Everybody and their dog seems to want to compare this plot to other stories, most commonly Dances with Wolves.  For my part, it seems clear to me that it's closest to FernGully: The Last Rainforest or Disney's Pocahontas, with perhaps some Princess Mononoke and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within thrown into the mix.  If you're looking at the dynamic between Jake Sully and the Na'vi, A Princess of Mars is a close fit -- Dune is a nice try, and District 9 is just completely off the mark.  (Seriously, Ms. Nimitz, how can you compare Sully to the messiannic Muad'Dib and to bumbling antihero Wikus in the same paragraph?  They're completely different archetypes.)  Regardless, when was the last time you encountered a plot that wasn't derivative of anything?  So what?  What matters is the story, and in particular the point of the story.

The point of the story

This brings us to the idea that Avatar about past atrocities committed by white people against indigenous peoples, and that its point is to absolve white guilt.  Yes, the Na'vi dress and act a lot like some of the many and varied indigenous peoples on Earth.  I was particularly struck by their ritual where they sit in a circle chanting and waving in unison, because it looks uncannily like one in the documentary film Baraka.  But they are different enough from any specific culture (and our indigenous cultures are different enough from each other) that painting them with the same brush is inappropriate.  Besides, in my experience, the percentage of white people who feel guilty about what their/our ancestors did is inconsequentially tiny.  Those who feel white guilt may be outspoken, but they are not particularly influential or powerful in society.  The white people who are in power do not feel guilty for the sins of their fathers, as a rule; they're too busy committing their own!  Why would a writer-director of James Cameron's caliber invest hundreds of millions producing and releasing a film in every country of the world just to soothe the guilt of a tiny, largely powerless minority in the United States?  That would be an astoundingly poor marketing plan.

No, it seems clear to me that, as is commonly the case with science fiction, the situation being portrayed through Avatar's metaphors is not in our past or future, but our present.  The point of the film is the same one that films like Fern Gully and Princess Mononoke have tried to make, that we are not separate from nature, that on the contrary we are inextricably linked to all of Creation, and it is when we imagine ourselves to be separate that we commit atrocities.  This is not just something our ancestors did, we're doing it right now, and we need to stop or we will destroy ourselves.  The humans and the Na'vi represent alternative worldviews available to all of us, and the godlike Ey'wa is Pandora's rather more advanced equivalent of our own Gaia.

The illusion of separateness is what the Na'vi identify as "insanity" in the starpeople.  It's the same judgment that Derrick Jensen (esp. The Culture of Make Believe) and Daniel Quinn (esp. The Story of B) make in all their books, but it rings much louder in surround sound in theaters everywhere than it does on the printed page.  Despite this, Quinn felt compelled to criticize Avatar.  The irony of him calling someone else's writing "ham-fisted" and "clichéd," with "two-dimensional characters," is delightful, but alas the fact that so many critics of Avatar have failed to grasp what it's about means that future films will need to be even less subtle in order to reach them.

What is the real avatar?

John Carter of MarsSo why is Sully a white guy?  Why does it take a white guy to lead the Na'vi? Is Cameron trying to say that indigenous peoples can't lead a revolution on their own?  If that were his message, the true story of Lawrence of Arabia should be enough evidence that it's not just a white-boy fantasy; there have been times in history when an outsider's perspective and knowledge were instrumental in uniting another people.  And if we were critiquing A Princess of Mars, we could legitimately call the storyline condescending to indigenous peoples.  But by the time Sully becomes a leader, he is Na'vi for all intents and purposes; he is no John Carter of Mars (right).

I don't think the movie is really about Sully.  I don't think the title even refers to Sully's avatar.  I think the film itself is the avatar, meticulously designed to allow the people most responsible for destroying our world (our culture, and specifically aggressive white males) to personally experience an alternative worldview.

In the film, it's explained that an avatar has to be tailored specifically to its "driver," and the driver has to be put into a dreamlike state in sensory deprivation.  So if the film itself is to be an avatar for the audience, then it must be tailored for us, and we must be drawn completely into its reality and walked through the transition from our own worldview to the Na'vi's.  And that is in fact what I saw.  Consider:

  • Sully is a member not only of the oppressing species, but also a white man and a Marine.  So the aggressive white male population, infamous for our inability to empathize with people who look different from ourselves, have someone to identify with.  The rest of the audience is accustomed to white male protagonists, so they can cope!
  • Sully has at least three distinct motives for entering the avatar program: scientific, military, and personal.  So if you find any of those motives objectionable, he's still got two more chances to earn your sympathies.
  • Sully's character develops over the course of the film, allowing us to make the transition to a Na'vi worldview along with him.  If the other characters are two-dimensional, that just casts him (and by extension, us) into stronger relief.  That's nothing new in fiction, and I think it was well done here.
  • The much ballyhooed animation and 3D presentation are exquisitely convincing, or at least I found them so.  I hear that's less the case in IMAX, so see it in RealD if you can.  The only way the movie could have been more fully immersive for me is if I'd had a catheter.  What ever happened to intermissions?
  • The science is plausible, so even hardcore skeptics can suspend their disbelief.  Here are just a few of the articles in which scientists applaud the film's accuracy: Popular Mechanics, MSNBC, Ain't It Cool News.  Also, the Na'vi language was created for the purposes of writing the dialogue, so they're not just speaking an obscure human language or babbling like Ewoks -- that's a plus.  
  • What holes there are in Avatar's science can be explained as concessions to the rest of the audience or to the telling of the story: if the Na'vi had two sets of arms like all the other Pandoran creatures, for example, or if Pandora's low gravity were shown on screen instead of just mentioned, the less geeky types in the audience might have lost their suspension of disbelief.  If the humans had wanted to mine unobtanium from the floating mountains (where any moron can tell it is plentiful, due to their floating and all) rather than from under the Home Tree (where its presence can only be detected with instruments), the plot would have had to be restructured.  And if Neytiri and Sully had joined their minds during their sex scene, she would have known the humans' plan too early in the plot.  And if the corporation had invested its time and money into synthesizing unobtanium on Earth instead of mining it, there wouldn't be a plot at all.
  • Although the cast could have featured more female characters, all four of them were sympathetic, strong, admirable people.  And there wasn't a single instance of relying on a man to save them; in fact Neytiri and Trudy both save Sully's life repeatedly.  So there's no call for a feminist critique.
  • There's a romantic storyline, more or less, and enough action scenes (and svelte, scantily-clad bodies) to appeal to the chick-flick and dick-flick fans and ensure that if they don't get the point the first time through, they may get it the second or tenth time.

In summary, I think Cameron did an excellent job of crafting his film to be an avatar for the audience, and particularly for the subset of the audience who most needs to hear its message.  The fact that there's another avatar inside the avatar is just a clever narrative device, like Shakespeare's plays within plays.

So why do [white] people keep making movies like Avatar?  Because the audience hasn't got the message yet.  This is important stuff.  The future of life as we know it depends on it.  I think Avatar is the best teaching tool we've seen to date.  If you didn't become an environmentalist after seeing other films, maybe you will be after seeing Avatar.  If not, I hope you'll find reason to watch it again.

Thanks for reading!  Comments welcome!

Comments

Hiya, Ben. Since you linked me to this, I'll try to respond.First, I agree with you about the complaint that the plot is too derivative. That seems to me about the weakest criticism of a movie/book/play/etc. one can imagine; there are not all that many distinct human stories to tell, and telling an old one in a new and artful way can be wonderful. (And for scientific inaccuracy, the only important one I saw was the very blatant mind/body dualism; that's (a) a big, big mistake but (b) extremely common in sci fi, so whaddaya gonna do?)Second, I agree with you to some extent that Newitz, whose piece I read right after I saw the flick, overplays the racial angle. Calling Avatar "a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people" is overblown--but on the other hand I think you're reading race too much out of the picture. No, I didn't hear "Smurfs" (hopefully by 2154 humans will have forgotten that silly show, no?) or "blue monkeys"--but do you seriously not find the word "savages" troublesome... on grounds that are at least partially about race? "Savages"?!?Avatar shows a "native" race that apparently needs a white guy--and surely you recognize that humans are frequently sci-fi stand-ins for white people--to lead them... and a white guy who can learn enough in three months to be the greatest "native" stud in centuries. Like it or not, that has racial overtones, and they aren't very pretty ones.Third, then, the main point (for me): it seems to me that Avatar is the most beat-you-over-the-head Noble Savage movie I've ever seen. (Though I've never seen Fern Gully, Princess Mononoke, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, A Princess of Mars, Dune, or District 9.) And I'm not sure you've really rebutted that. To the contrary, you seem to have seen it the same way--you just find/found the Noble Savage story a worthwhile way to make the moral points you saw in the movie.The NS story has been around for at least two thousand years; around 98 C.E., the Roman writer Tacitus wrote Germania ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germania_(book) ), an account of the "savage" races occupying the lands north of the Empire. The book emphasized the Germans' technological and scientific backwardness, but (openly noting the irony) it also played up various supposed moral/cultural/etc. qualities about the Germans that Tacitus argued were praiseworthy. It's widely believed that Tacitus' main point was criticism of Romans for violating certain foundational ideals: "even these savages respect X, Y, and Z; if we Romans are so 'advanced,' why can't we say the same?"And that archetype has survived, and been repeated, over and over again.  What's so nasty about it is that it utilizes a pidgin, ludicrously oversimplified account of a large group of human beings (it's widely doubted that real Germans in the first century C.E. were much like Tacitus, for his own pejorative reasons, claimed they were) as a cudgel to beat a preconceived message into members of a powerful majority. The "savage" minority isn't valued as ends-in-themselves; they're just used as unwitting instruments for intra-cultural arguments about politics, religion, morality, and so on.Which is the first reason I detested (the non-visual elements of) Avatar: I found the Na'vi a simply disgusting creation--they seem to me a cardboard-cutout Little Black Sambo-style depiction of Native Americans. (Newitz points out that the Na'vi "wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes." Some of them are "horse tribes from the plains," too. And then, "savages." "Savages"!) They're never dumb or silly or funny or smelly or curious about Earth; it's just Noble, Noble, Noble--all so that the storyteller can make (what it seems you recognize are) ideological points. I think that's an awful way to depict real human beings--or fictional creatures who are blatant stand-ins for real human beings.Second, c'mon, Ben: this is James Cameron we're talking about. James Aliens/Terminator 2/True Lies/For The Love Of God Titanic Cameron. Subtle storytelling is just not in this guy's (ahem) arsenal. If Avatar had been created by John Sayles or Richard Linklater or even, say, Robert Zemeckis, maybe I could believe that there was a layer of depth to it--but this is a movie that ends with thirty minutes of "shit gettin' blowed up reeeal goood." Actually I thought the battle scenes were more honest than the rest of the movie, but I think it's staggeringly inappropriate for Native America Mark II: The Movie to end by "solving" the problem of colonialism with big explosions. That is notably not how Dances With Wolves closed.Third, I suspect some of our disagreement about the movie stems from differing perspectives upon the message you see in it. (I think your interpretation of the movie's moral is not far off; my main exception is that it needs to be noted that--again--this is James Cameron, so the points are made with massive cudgels.) It does not seem to me that the horrendous things we're doing to this planet are caused by our being "disconnected'; I think it's caused by our being selfish and (especially) stupid, which is not the same thing. And yes, Ey'wa is the focus of much of this: it's a deus ex machina (or better, as some have proposed, ex natura) both for the plot and for the implied philosophy. It was more than slightly disheartening to have the nastiness of the human establishment in the movie driven home with clear references to religious skepticism--lack of spirituality being a common "bad" characteristic of the "modern" characters in Noble Savage narratives. I take exception to the notion that environmental policy requires or implies a particular kind of spirituality; I think environmentalism is a notably brute-fact, down-to-earth effort.I think there's a perfectly good secular case to be made for not scorching ourselves off the face of this planet. I don't think inventing shallow crypto-Native Americans with a fabulous Connection To Nature that we sorry modern humans don't have is a good way to aid in the effort. And even if it were, I definitely don't think James Cameron would be the right guy for the job.

Thank you for the reply, Nate, and for explaining the "noble savage" trope, which I have to admit I was a little fuzzy on.

No, I don't find the word "savage" indicative of racism, only of culture clash.  Every definition I can find of the word -- http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/savage for example -- refers to cultural characteristics, not racial ones.  If you have a different definition based on race, please share.  The fact that racial and cultural differences have frequently coincided doesn't make the concepts synonymous.

As for nobility, you're right that the Na'vi are "never dumb or silly or funny or smelly or curious about Earth."  That's like complaining that Moses doesn't make fart jokes in The Ten Commandments, even though if he were a real person, he almost certainly made fart jokes at some point in his life.  If the Na'vi were a real people who existed historically, like the Native Americans in Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves, and if we had other accounts from other writers saying that in fact the Na'vi had all those traits, then you could legitimately say that Cameron was romanticizing them.  But the Na'vi are fictitious -- who are you to say that they act differently than Cameron says they do?  They have tails and hot-pluggable brains -- why must they necessarily have a sense of humor or an odor?  (I don't remember anything in the movie being smelly!  Guess I should have seen it in IMAX.)  In order to apply the Noble Savage trope to this movie, you are making a parallel from a fictitious culture to an actual one by picking and choosing characteristics they have in common, while ignoring their differences.

I find it interesting that you "found the Na'vi simply a disgusting creation" on the basis of their (portrayed) nobility.  So Jar Jar Binks and the other caricatures in The Phantom Menace are less disgusting, on account of being ignoble and flawed?  When presenting an alternative to our own lifestyle, is it worse to show that alternative in a good light than in a bad one?  I disagree.

You have a point about religious skepticism; I'm sorry for your sake that the film didn't portray that in a more positive light.  But if the human leaders had been believers in the Judeo-Christian God, they would have been just as skeptical about Ey'wa, because Ey'wa is not the god they believe in.  So it's a criticism not of skepticism per se, but of closed-mindedness.  Heck, the scientists had evidence of Ey'wa's existence; the leaders were just as skeptical of scientific evidence as they were of anecdotal evidence.

I'm going to say again that I don't think the Na'vi actually represent another culture at all.  They represent another worldview available to us, within our own culture.  I'm asserting that the movie is an attempt to get us to experience that alternative in the hopes that, like Sully, we will prefer it over the one that's destroying us.  And Avatar has potential to succeed where Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves failed, because the good guys win.

At the risk of belaboring my argument above, I thought of a more concise way to explain why I think the "noble savage" trope doesn't apply to Avatar.  Suppose a hypothetical film has a character named Tarkus Joszfzn.  Tarkus reminds you strongly of Thomas Jefferson, except that Tarkus does not hold slaves.  Also, Tarkus lives in the future on another planet and breathes liquid ammonia... but other than that, he's totally Jefferson.  Can you accuse the filmmaker of romanticizing the historical Jefferson through this character of Tarkus by hiding Jefferson's slaveholding past?  Or must you accept that Tarkus might not, in fact, be intended to represent Jefferson at all?

   This is the first movie review I have ever read in it's entirety (usually get bored after the first paragraph). I googled it and saw your post as well as the post you are responding to. I went to his first but quickly got irritated and started to read yours. I love Avatar all around and I think you did an awesome job defending it.