Not That Into the Blue
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang
What bothers me is that despite its liberal positioning, heavy-handed environmentalist message, and critical appropriation of Bush era rhetoric, Avatar heaps all the progressive bits onto Jake Sully and his team of rogue Sky People. The Na’vi themselves are a people with no agency, portrayed as mere subjects of research, of love, of benevolence and aid. They are shown to be hardheaded, mystical, and to some extent, docile. Their physique and culture are an amalgamation of non-white entities: African, South American, Aborigine, animal and alien. “Savages,” Col. Quaritch calls them, but at least he’s the fictional villain. The real savagery is the directorial mishmash of everything non-Sky People (read: non-American, since Sully’s renegade team also consists of the token ethnic characters).
One remembers the 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation The King and I, which on the one hand tackled colonialism in Thailand and cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin to criticize slavery, but on the other, forms a grand precedent to Avatar with its dubious casting of Caucasians and Latinos to portray the Thai characters. Strange that there was a seeming dearth of Asian actors available, when the film was produced just right after the US war efforts to corral all its Japanese-Americans (the enemy, they say) and step up its military interventions in the Pacific, including Southeast Asia.
Like the Thais in the King and I, the Na’vi are some sort of grand pastiche Other. James Cameron takes this to a whole new level when he mixes not just races, but species. To the human race, the Na’vi are literally illegal aliens, much like the Third World’s peoples who are rendered internal refugees in their own land, only this time in outer space. They are the large-scale equivalent of the archetypal damsel in distress: beautiful and incapable of saving oneself. Yes, we need the white man to save the world. Again.
In fairness to Cameron, even the white man’s intrusion wasn’t enough to win. The decisive factor was Eywa, who sent her animals to clinch the Na’vi resistance. It was nature who won the war. This is a rather deceptive twist, since it goes against the core of the environmentalist struggle, which is that nature cannot fight back, nature cannot defend itself, and that it is solely the humans, Nature’s most sophisticated creatures, who have the power to destroy or save the planet they live in. Avatar’s conclusion implies that however we ravage our planet, when push comes to shove Nature will strike back to defend itself from destruction—so why make the effort to save it when it can save itself? Not only is this message counter-productive, it also strips humans of their agency.
On Earth, humans are at the core of the struggle to save the environment. In Pandora, however, we’re not. It is no wonder that Avatar and the Na’vi culture has garnered so many devotees, because it’s so much easier to live with yourself when the fight is not in your hands. If any, the allure of Pandora is its perpetually lush, unspoiled (unspoilable?) landscape—and its exceedingly tall, exceedingly slim inhabitants with beautiful blue skin and large, expressive eyes, and the sexy animalistic gestures to match their sexy, barely-there attire. Who wouldn’t want to be a Na’vi?
Avatar presents a palpable progressive slant, but despite the film’s attempts at social critique and allegory, it ends up ideologically confusing. It is certainly a triumph, not so much for writing and direction, but for animation and the art of cinematic visualization.#
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The FernGully Connection
Much has been said about the startling similarities between Avatar and Bill Kroyer’s animated feature FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). Let me indulge in a little more belaboring here with these illustrations.
Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Foreign films, Full length films. Tags: 3d, allegory, animation, avatar, casting, environmentalism, ferngully, george w. bush, imperialism, james cameron, na'vi, other, the beach, the king and i, third world, wars of aggression.