It’s as if James Cameron sat down one day 10 years ago and asked himself (as everyone should!), “how can I make a movie that is perfectly designed to please faustusnotes?” and, before he’d even had a chance to put his hand to his forehead, out of the blue came the answer: combine Nausicaa, Last of the Mohicans and Aliens! A lesser director would probably balk at this plan, but not James Cameron! He managed to pull it off, and throw in more than a little Princess Mononoke while he was at it.
The result of any such attempt, if executed by a good director – say, for example, James Cameron – and including Wes Studi in the cast, would just have to be brilliant. And Avatar is brilliant. I really can’t understand what all the criticism was about, because on any of the points where it supposedly failed, it clearly didn’t – at least within the context of big budget hollywood – and it excelled itself on so many other levels that it thoroughly deserves praise.
In essence it’s a classic anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism story with an excess of noble savage imagery, in which a representative of a powerful culture invades a supposedly savage or less-powerful culture and attempts to destroy them in order to take their resources. Like most imagined anti-imperialism stories along this line, it throws in the standard elements of the plot, with a soldier going native and the noble savages being brave but ultimately hopeless, though unlike in the standard noble savage story, in this case they aren’t doomed at the end. The story does what a lot of previous iterations of the story explicitly refuse to do – it has used the medium of science fiction to grant the natives the power they think resides in their own myth, and thus enables them to emerge victorious. This fundamentally undermines the original racist underpinnings of the noble savage myth, incidentally, which is based on the assumption that the beauty or pride of the natives is full of pathos because of their inability to endure in the face of a superior western culture – they’re doomed to die out, and we have to mourn their loss but accept its inevitability, which may also be a reflection on our own fall from the state of grace we supposedly once enjoyed in our more primitive forms. This doesn’t apply in Avatar, because the Nabi aren’t museum pieces, but a thriving culture with special technology, and in the end they use it.
I should say at this point that, although I portray the tale as “a classic anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism” story, I’m hard pressed to think of many in the modern era. “Classic” stories of this ilk are actually few and far between. Sure, we have some stories that are anti-war, or anti-particular wars (such as Platoon, or Three Kings) and we have a few tales which tell the sad story of the end of an indigenous tribe (like, say, Last of the Mohicans) and we have a few that are transparently glorifying in the conquest of the natives (Pocahontas?) and even a few which just attempt to portray them as the mysterious other (Black Robe), but do we really have very many anti-colonialism stories floating about? Sure, there may be some in print, but I think in the movies they’re actually few and far between, which probably explains the visceral right-wing response to a movie which so transparently puts America, rather than 19th century Britain, in the imperialist picture. It does so, too, with all the button-pushing tricks which James Cameron used so effectively in Aliens, deployed viciously to get us to think both ways, and to see the humanity of both sides. No wonder supporters of wars of choice don’t like it.
So what does Avatar actually do? It gives us a disabled hero, Jake Sully, whose legs are useless, who has been dumped against his will into a role he can’t perform, surrounded by people unlike him, because his brother died back home and he has the genetic fit to replace his brother in a very expensive job. The job in question is remote-control driving an avatar, the body of a Nabi alien grown in a lab, and using it to engage with the local Nabi on the planet of Pandora. He doesn’t have much else to do, the pay is good, and the military pressure him, so he goes. And as soon as he begins remote piloting that body, everything changes. Then the plot starts and he ends up being faced with some difficult choices between the needs of the soldiers and the corporation who want to exploit Pandora, on the one hand, and the needs of the Nabi amongst whom he is (literally) going native, on the other. Unusually for a hollywood movie, too, there is no artificial resolution here – he has to pick sides, and it looks likely that picking the Nabi side isn’t going to work for him.
From the moment I started watching this, I was struck by the complex ideas the avatars can be seen to embody. I immediately thought of Thomas Covenant, who thinks he is dreaming but refuses at first to engage with his world because the moment he wakes up, he’s back to being a leper; better to hang on to his reality than allow false hope, which is a problem surely Jake is going to suffer when he spends half his days in a body he can’t own, able to run and jump and fly, but the other half in a body with no legs. I was also reminded of the very new ethical controversies surrounding our real life versions of these remote pilots – the people flying drones over Afghanistan and Iraq from safe bases in the UK or America, who are a million miles from the (usually incorrectly targeted) actual people they are killing. The thought everyone has about this type of war is that its remoteness prevents people from making accurate moral decisions, because there is literally no interaction between them and the target, not even at the level of risk. But Jake Sully, while he is remote piloting, does interact with his targets, and that makes the offer of treachery he so easily takes early on in the movie all the more callous when it comes to its cruel fruition.
This movie was very well crafted, from beginning to end. Of course the actors are great, especially Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington. The world is wonderful, though I understand its blueness may not appeal to everyone. It’s clearly modeled on the jungles from Nausicaa, though there’s a strong undersea influence that I really like, and which really suits its low-gravity physics. The flying scenes are also beautiful, and very very redolent of Nausicaa at her finest. Just when the tension and boredom of his daily life begins to get too much, Jake Sully thrusts us into a beautifully-rendered combat, chase or action scene, so the pace of the movie is good despite its length. The mecha are James Cameron at his best, and also (again) the comparison of Sully on his tiny flying thing against the great corporate machines is very close to Nausicaa on her Mehve versus the Corvettes of her enemy. The Nabi themselves are very similar to Native Americans, an image which must have offended all those many Americans who don’t want to accept any particular hard realities about the behaviour of previous incarnations of Jake Sully, or the moral culpability of those corporations which “explored” the “wild” west. This similarity reached its cinematic perfection for me when I noticed Wes Studi, of Magua fame, playing the Nabi chieftain – reprising his role of Magua on the side of the good guys! And there’s more than a hint of Princess Mononoke in the relative positions and roles of Sully and his lover (whose name I didn’t quite catch).
In many ways, too, I think viewing this movie is like watching a version of Aliens remade by a more mature James Cameron. Aliens is shallow in the very best of ways, an action movie which glorifies a bunch of macho soldiers while it glorifies in destroying them; but it is devoid of any cultural context, any sense of the soldiers as having a military past, or any moral questions about who they are or what they have done in the past. The corporate operative is a cardboard cutout wall street bad guy, who from the start has no humanity. In their new incarnations in Avatar, these characters are fully fleshed out and human. The soldiers hint at their pasts, referring to conflicts in trouble spots we know of – Nigeria or “the desert” – and though they are the same rich, interesting characters from Aliens, we don’t see them in this movie in the same sense as uncomplicated representatives of the human race. These people, the first ambassadors of humanity to the Nabi, have killed humans, and are proud of it. Their leader is a noble savage figure of his own, vicious and strong and proud of it, loving his men and ruthless in his disposal of them. The corporate rep is just as scummy as in Aliens, but this time he has a conscience, and we see him struggling with it as he acts in his own and his corporation’s interests in heartless and destructive ways. As the tension mounts and the cost to his humanity along with it, we see his rhetoric escalate through a pretense at callousness to outright hatred, but it’s impossible not to notice the occasional nervous gulps, and the uncertainty. This is a man who knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he doesn’t have to do it himself, and he knows where the benefits lie. To back it up we’re given regular hints that the situation on Earth isn’t so pleasant, and the mission to Pandora isn’t just a mission of enrichment, but that there may be an edge of desperation to it. No one on the human side in this story comes out unsullied, but no one goes into it a cold inhuman monster, either. James Cameron has attempted to construct, within the limited confines of an action movie, a real semblance of the moral and cultural imperatives of soldiers and corporates in a colonial administration.
This inversion and maturing of the Aliens mythos is beautifully represented in film through the reversal of some of the key images from that movie. In that movie the hive mind was undoubtedly evil and the soldiers good and helpless – in this movie the soldiers are not good, and in control of their own situation and the escalation of the conflict, while the hive mind is portrayed as good from the start. That movie finishes with a memorable final scene of the frail human in her mechanised cage, destroying the highest representative of the hive mind. In this movie the most evil representative of the humans is in that metal cage, and the good guy is the representative of the hive mind that is being destroyed outside of it. The figures in the battle are reversed just as the moral sides have been flipped. I don’t think any of these images arose by accident. This is masterful work by Cameron, renegotiating his own opus to represent a more mature view of war and soldiers and the Other.
I’ve heard of a few other criticisms of Avatar that I’d like to look at, both political and aesthetic:
- It’s just another anti-colonialism movie: what are the other ones?
- It’s anti-American: It’s anti-imperialistic, and the only way it can be therefore construed as anti-American is if we equate imperialism and America. Does America still have a policy of manifest destiny? I’m yet to see anyone who criticized Avatar on this basis make a coherent claim that America is an imperialistic nation, or that it is still following a policy of manifest destiny. So how can this movie be anti-American? If the problem is that everyone doing the bad stuff is American, well, I think that there have been many many movies made with Americans playing the roles of Nazis, Russian spies, super-villains, etc. that were not decried for their anti-Americanism. The essence of this objection is that the movie too closely resembles a critique of the formation of America; but most of the people objecting to the movie also simultaneously object to claims that America was a colonialist project, so how can they then claim this movie is anti-American? Only by studiously maintaining that any history lesson with America as the bad guy is wrong – and any such objection is unscholarly, anti-historical, in short just plain stupid and wrong.
- The plot is crap: I don’t get this at all. The plot is very simple – soldier goes native, picks sides in a colonial war, helps the natives, the war unfolds, things happen. There is nothing complex in this plot, and as far as I can tell the only real holes in it are the usual action movie holes where people get away with things that in real life they wouldn’t (like refusing to fire on a sacred site, but not being punished; or running through a building full of cctv without being noticed). The plot of this movie is a third as complex as Last of the Mohicans, and I would say pretty much on a par with Aliens, so where’s the problem? Action movie plus simple plot, with a few minor slips to enable smooth flow of the action, is perfection, in my view.
- The anti-colonialist ideals are ruined by the going native imagery: under this criticism, it’s bad that Jake Sully helped save the natives, because in doing so he removed their agency and ability to control their own destiny, and weakened claims about their own power. This is a valid criticism, from some purist post-colonial perspective, but it fails on basic aesthetic grounds, and more vaguely on a post-colonial grounds. The aesthetic grounds is that, of course, you could make a movie in which all the people in the movie who are like the people in the audience (i.e. American) are bad, and all the people who are unlike the audience (i.e. the 10′ tall blue people with brains in their tails) are good; but good luck with that. You need a person to bridge the gap in the races to maintain the key ideas of the anti-colonial tirade, namely that we all share a common soul, and that the act of colonialism itself was not some kind of racial or cultural inevitability – it was a set of choices by people like Jake Sully who, like Jake Sully, could have chosen differently. And, more practically, you need the audience to be able to identify with the hero, while identifying with the Other through him or her. This is the radical threat of the soldier who goes native, and precisely the reason that such behaviour was so widely scorned in colonial times. Secondly, from a post-colonial perspective this complaint is overdone because colonialism usually requires interaction and interrelations between the colonised and the coloniser, it involves treachery and compliant local powers, and there is no simple sense in which the colonials and the colonisers are simply divided by a line that sets them apart. The idea of an anti-colonial narrative in which everyone amongst the colonised is pure, and everyone amongst the colonising is evil, is as simplistic as a 1920s cowboys and indians movie in which the indians are all savages who have to be wiped out.
- The noble savage thing[see footnote 1]: the thing about noble savages is that they fit into action movies a lot better than if they were just noble and not very savage; and anyone who has watched Black Robe or Apocalyptica knows that it’s really hard to feel too much for a character who is just unremittingly savage. If your movie opens with you knowingly eating raw capybara testicles, things just are going to go downhill with your audience. If, on the other hand, it opens with the opening chase scene from Last of the Mohicans, we’re immediately on your side, and we don’t want you to die. The noble savage is an idea that rightly pisses off the people on the savage end of it, but when done well it is the main vehicle by which indigenous people are able to enter the consciousness of their western colonisers as real, worthwhile people while also retaining their difference. It’s also worth noting that the full and proper definition of “noble savage” requires a kind of acceptance that the “noble” part of the native character is an anachronism, and has to give way to the modernising influence of the white man; that the concept involves a fundamental assumption that this culture must pass, and that we should mourn its passing the way we mourn the passing of the dinosaurs, with a shrug of our shoulders and a guilty relief that they aren’t stepping on our car. This doesn’t happen in Avatar, because the sci-fi medium enables Cameron to imbue their “anachronistic” gaia-worship with a magical force which prevents their passing. So what we’re left with is more of a “noble warrior” or a “paladin savage” image which is not going anywhere, thank you very much (and is fun to watch in combat).
- The deus ex machina ending: I have no problem with a deus ex machina that is set up in the plot and is a fundamental requirement of the narrative context. Joseph has to squish the Egyptians with God’s Help; Jake Sully has to have his moment with the birds
- An action movie with a disabled lead: I think that not enough has been made of the fact that Cameron cast the lead character of an action movie as a person with a disability – a significant disability. I think this is quite revolutionary for hollywood, and should be used in all future conversations in which high-minded film buffs who think David Lynch is great tell you that action movies are shallow. Piss on them from a great height with the moral superiority of your equal opportunity action movie cred. But don’t mention the interesting and unresolved tension in the movie – the utopian society Sully wants to enter clearly has no place for the disabled, and as soon as you fall off a tree in Pandora that’s it, you’re deadweight on a very anti-disability society. I didn’t see many wheelchair ramps or braille signs on Home Tree.
- The squishy ending: I really hate fantasy stories where the character goes into a world they love so much more than this one, but at the end they return to the mundane world – in this case returning to life with no legs. I am willing to settle for any kind of compromise in order to have them get their wish and stay in the paradise they want to be in. This is part of the reason I love Neil Gaiman. Also, I note that the ritual in which Sully achieves this goal looks very much like that weird dance-ritual thingy in Baraka.
I think it should be pretty clear from this review that I loved this movie. My partner first saw it while tripping, which I think she recommends; I don’t know about that, but I strongly recommend watching it, and if you like it but haven’t seen them already, check out its main influences too, because they’re great as well. And if the supposedly rabidly left-wing anti-colonialism shtick pisses you off (because you, you know, like killing people and taking their stuff), then just sit back and enjoy the awesome fireworks. Or take a chill pill.
fn1: what is it about the left that, when presented with a brilliant left-wing anti-colonial polemic, widely popular and brilliantly done, they have to bring up these second-rate, second-order nitpicks of the work? I don’t particularly care if there is some aspect of modern “ism” politics that it fails on, it still does a damn good job of attacking the thing it sets out to attack, and we should be happy about that and save our complaints about it for some more deserving project
fn2: in fact I suspect most early cowboy-and-indians movies were more sophisticated than this, portraying indians on both sides of the battle and giving them a great deal of agency, even if it simultaneously portrayed them as inferior and bad
fn3: which obviously all my role-playing readers do