The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Pandora’s Balks

December 26, 2009

I have now seen Avatar twice, (one in each ‘D’), and I can say without spoiling anything that critics like Armand White and Annalee Newitz* are way off base in describing the film as “the corniest movie ever made about the white man’s need to lose his identity and assuage racial, political, sexual and historical guilt.” Corny, maybe a little. OK, maybe a lot. But imperialist?

According to White:

Avatar’s going-native F/X fantasy infantilizes Cameron’s technology-infatuated audience; they’ve never read Joseph Conrad on colonialism or feel any compunction about balancing politics and fantasy. There’s even a Busby Berkeley-style tribal dance to divert them. Also, Avatar’s techno-exoticism involves blue cartoon creatures, not brown, black, red, yellow real-world people. It’s the easiest, dumbest escapism imaginable.

Newitz concurs:

“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.

OK first, if these critics are right and the film is about assuaging guilt, how is that anything to sneeze at? At worst, that makes this story about an individual switching sides as a result of communicative action with another species to oppose his own culture’s hegemonic dominion because his conscience tells him it’s the right thing to do. If there was a little more guilt in this world at atrocities against indigenous people or other vulnerable populations, a little more empathetic readiness to set aside one’s desire to ‘teach the natives’ and embrace the opportunity to learn from those unlike ‘us’, a little more seeing the world through others’ eyes, and a little more efforts to assuage any said guilt through direct action, I think the world would be a better place. That’s not “rampant imperialism.” That’s the opposite.

Here’s another way to look at films like these: as a story about how individuals should act when faced with the awareness of their complicity in – and capacity to stop – a military-industrial machine about to commit great wrongs. To me, this was the thrust of the film.

But in this, unfortunately, it was poorly executed. The real problem with Cameron’s hero Jack Sully, in fact, is not his love of “exultant technological thrills” banshee-flying, or the fact that he “goes native” falls in love with an indigenous woman and her land and culture. The real problem is that he is unforgivably slow to come to grips with the key moral dilemma of the film. It is not until he actually mates with a Na’Vi and is himself threatened as one of them that he decides to take a stand against the Sky People’s war machine. Prior to that, he unproblematically wears his two hats – developing deep knowledge of / comraderie with the Na’Vi by day, reporting happily back to the industrialist-cum-genocidaires and their private contractor-henchmen by night. Bemoaning their transition from fighting good wars to pimping military services for a paycheck, how easily he forgets what good wars are about until it’s too late. By the end, he has few options at his disposal. This is no narrative of just warrior-hood; the fact that it’s being presented as such, but so badly, weakens the entire story.

Other “good” characters too seem all too easily to manage the cognitive dissonance of knowing what is in store for the Na’Vi they consciously respect and love. Grace the xeno-biologist makes a few half-hearted attempts to dissuade when the tanks are already rolling. But surely she understood what was coming sooner? Soon enough to avoid feeding all the relevant facts to “the company,” or to warn the Na’Vi, or to engage Jack Sully about the ethics of his duplicitous posturing. If anything this is not a story about assuaging historical guilt but about forgetting the lessons of history. It is as if these characters are blissfully unaware of every mind-numbingly obvious political metaphor in the story.

And so while the film is a visual marvel in every way, it disappoints in every other way. It’s not just that the plot itself is mostly lifted from lesser films like Battle for Terra (as even my seven-year-old recognized). Or that most of the characters boil down to shallow stereotypes – the greedy, oblivious, corporate industrialist, the single-minded bullying colonel, the boot-licking trigger-happy marines that seem to follow diabolical orders not only readily but happily. You go in hoping for something to excite your political and scientific imagination the way Cameron did in The Abyss, and you get a beautiful film whose message boils down to this: genocide against the indigenous is bad. I found myself looking hard for a more subtle narrative, but of those easily accessible – the relationship of science to the military-industrial complex, the interaction between human consciousness and embodiment – all were basically left to the imagination. Even the technology isn’t really explained. (How the heck do avatar riders not go mad from lack of sleep?)

But you see, this is my anthropocentrism talking, thinking that the film ought to have been more about the humans: it was, and was meant to be, about the Na’Vi and their contact with the Sky People. Through Jake Sully, we are given a primer in Na’Vi culture and biology. But even here there are many open questions. (Try this one on: Na’Vi biology allows them to literally bind themselves to the beasts they ride, yet this special ability seems to have no bearing on their own reproductive rituals. Hmm.)

So ultimately, the brilliance of this film is not that it makes you think – it doesn’t. You will enjoy it more if you don’t try. However, it does makes you feel. What Armand White dismisses as “phosphorescently pretty sci-fi dazzle” is a way of story-telling that sends a message for which a plot is largely unnecessary. Maybe it’s a contradiction to critique industrialism with a film that cost around $400 million to make. But that message (of interconnection, respect for one’s planet, simplicity) conveyed that way (a visually appealing flight of fantasy) soaks in on an emotional level in a way that environmental commercials don’t. I came home thoughtful, alert to the insignificance of many of the things I take so seriously, ready to turn off my computer and just sit quietly in front of a fire, drink some tea, curl up like a cat and do nothing but feel thankful for the amazing planet around me and its place in the universe.

*UPDATED: Thanks, Drew!

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.