Before reading any further you should check out Eric Repphun’s review of James Cameron’s Avatar, which has been astonishingly well received by critics and the unlettered, boasting an 83% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Eric has no more to do with this chorus of praise than I do, however. He’s offended by the film’s sloppy politics and egregious racism. I was nonplussed by the orgy of special effects and dazzle unaccompanied by an iota of substance in the storyline. Critics often skewer films like this for either set of reasons, so I’m not sure what’s going on.
Before I’m dismissed as an arthouse snob, I should emphasize that I’m not entirely hostile to action blockbusters, and with Eric acknowledge that “there is still a decent worldwide market for quality, historically aware blockbuster cinema, as the success of District 9 and The Dark Knight have shown us.” To these two must be added The Lord of the Rings films, which I in fact rated the best of the decade. I can certainly be impressed by films like this, but good ones are hard to come by — and Avatar isn’t one of them by a long shot. Here we have a futuristic epic set on a moon being mined for a priceless mineral (yawn), while the indigenous humanoids resist the colonial expansion threatening their ecosystem (descent of the eyelids), and one of the colonials goes native and bad-ass on his compatriots (actual slumber). Okay, so I was kept awake by the amazing CGI show, but even that stuff gets old — and fast — in a story completely bereft of narrative innovation.
But let’s consider Eric’s objections. He claims that, like Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and countless other films, Cameron’s tale suggests that the best native is a white guy gone native, superseding the actual natives who are portrayed as “noble savages”:
“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 the one 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.”
If you didn’t know The Dunedin School better, you might think Eric was writing a spoof as I once did, following the audio commentary begun by “Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky” for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. In these commentaries, Zinn/Chomsky and I exposed the racist underpinnings of LOTR, the cruel nature of the hobbits, the fascism of wizards like Gandalf, the warmongering of the Wise, and the savage stereotyping of Sauron’s minions. Jackson’s Haradrim may not be “noble savages” like Cameron’s Na’vi, but they’re typically exotic: they paint themselves, ride Oliphants, chant wildly, and have yellow, brown, or red complexions — and they’re inferior, is what matters. And don’t forget the Black Riders, of course, an offending use of color symbolism for the strongest representatives of evil. The Free Peoples of Middle-Earth, by contrast, are all white, and Gandalf even evolves from “Grey” to “White” with a capital “W”. But back to Eric’s grievances:
“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.”
Again, this almost sounds like a lampoon, except we know Eric is dead serious, and admittedly not without cause: Cameron goes out of his way to invite the Said-speak at every turn. While I have little patience with those who see racism under every rock, in this case it’s hard to miss. The film implies — like zillions of films these days — that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives. It’s a guilt fantasy about giving up one’s whiteness, but without losing white privilege. Cameron’s analog for the Native American Indian is bogus to boot, a Native American Hollywood-projection, with results as ludicrous as the patronization of Islam (and demonization of the Christian crusaders) in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t expect films to be realistic on a documentary level, but they have to do a lot better than this.
Avatar gets a rock-bottom (1-star) rating from me, because it’s thoroughly predictable, cliche-ridden, and hollow — even boring, despite the onslaught of CGI dazzle — and yes, Eric, the fantasy colonial formula is part of that hollowness.
UPDATE: Yahoo comments on the movie’s alleged racism. This part struck me: “Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the sci-fi Web site io9.com, likened Avatar to the recent film District 9, in which a white man accidentally becomes an alien and then helps save them, and 1984’s Dune, in which a white man becomes an alien Messiah.” District 9 is a bad comparison, however, because the white “hero” is driven by self-serving motives to the end (as Eric pointed out). Dune is a better analogy, though the book (written between 1957-1963, recall) remains a landmark classic and great story — as much as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as far as I’m concerned. Accusing Herbert or Twain of racism is like accusing Tolkien of sexism. This is the year 2010: Cameron can be held to better standards in a film that is trying to promote a positive message. It’s time for stories about natives who can save themselves for a change, without the patronizing leadership of the white man.