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rant: io9 Avatar Rebuttle

It’s Monday, and that means I should be writing a movie review. But instead I want to talk about Avatar again. If you haven’t seen Avatar, you may want to skip this article. Some critics over at io9 and elsewhere have been surprisingly negative about it. For example, see io9’s When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar? and Avatar: It’s not this weekend that counts, luckily (in reference to Avatar’s weekend box office take).  Now, the latter can be easily dismissed since Avatar actually grossed $232 million worldwide over the weekend.  However, there are some valid points in the former article dealing with colonialism, and also some about “white man’s guilt” that I strongly disagree with.

Another reviewer stated that they felt James Cameron took himself “too seriously”. I would point out that, rather than coming up with some sort of exotic name for the precious mineral the humans want, he simply called it the old sci-fi staple “unobtainium”. Is that taking himself too seriously? It’s not like he tried to explain The Force by inventing metaclorians.

Another example: when Sigourney Weaver is introduced on screen for the umpteenth time exiting a pod, she immediately asks where her subordinates are, who should be waiting on her hand and foot with cigarettes. Weaver is, after all, a bit of a veteran when it comes to sleeping in pods on screen. When Sam Worthington’s character first puts on his tribal clothing, we can see him picking the thong out of his ass. And he behaves as most of us would when he finds some cool flora that lights up or retracts when touched; he immediately starts playing with it just for the sheer joy of it. Is this taking things too seriously? This same reviewer also commented that some of the tribal scenes look like a yoga class – apparently they’ve never seen Baraka.

Anyway, on to the io9 review:

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.

Yes, there are absolutely parallels to America’s colonial history (Na’vi, Navajo – duh!). But there is a fundamental problem with this: are the heroes of Avatar motivated by guilt or by conscience? Certainly one could say that Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai was primarily haunted by his past. But I would argue Jake Sully and his human allies are not motivated by guilt, but by compassion, empathy, and a sense of right and wrong (justice) that transcends race and, in a first, species.

But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

Avatar is the only case I know of where the outsider goes on to become the tribe’s leader. In Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, etc. the characters do not become leaders but rather respected comrades of the indigenous people. They give advice but do not truly lead. The notion they do this because they feel guilty is disingenuous. They change sides when they realize they cannot participate in the unjust act; they realize that they have been on the wrong side of good and evil.

Avatar has a couple of characters who are not white, such as Michelle Rodriguez’s character.  How do they fit in to this “white guilt” paradigm?

Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode.

It appeared to me that unlike Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai, by the end of Avatar Jake can never go back to his old self: his human body was essentially dead and he was permanently stuck in his Na’vi form. If Jake intended to keep using his “white privilege” body, Neytiri would not have removed its oxygen mask.  Besides, Jake didn’t even want to remain in his human body because he was paralyzed from the waist down.

Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

I think most people really enjoyed District 9, precisely because Wikus is a pretty unlikable guy. He wantonly torches the Prawns’ egg sacks near the start of the film and almost revels in the distinct popping noises they make. He is essentially murdering children. District 9 is interesting because it forces an inherently evil character like that to understand first hand the injustice being perpetrated against the oppressed people. Of course he hates it, and his main motivation is his desire to return to white privilege. In other words, he becomes a hero in spite of himself. Jake Sully is a more typical hero who takes the initiative not on behalf of himself, but others, but I don’t see that as a negative.

Whites need to stop remaking the white guilt story, which is a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white. Speaking as a white person, I don’t need to hear more about my own racial experience. I’d like to watch some movies about people of color (ahem, aliens), from the perspective of that group, without injecting a random white (erm, human) character to explain everything to me. Science fiction is exciting because it promises to show the world and the universe from perspectives radically unlike what we’ve seen before. But until white people stop making movies like Avatar, I fear that I’m doomed to see the same old story again and again.

This isn’t a story about being white or blue, but about following the path of righteousness. I don’t view Avatar as another “white guilt” story, but more of the old “Empire vs Rebels” kind of story that is a slam against colonialism, regardless of what race is doing it. The fact it comes from a white director for a predominantly white audience means the main character will probably be played by – surprise! – a white dude.

In Avatar, it is not just white people who are colonizing Pandora; if you look at the soldiers during their conference scenes you will see representatives from many races. In other words, it transcends the “white guilt” story we’ve seen before and presents us with the simple truth that colonialism itself is about taking what you want from another group of people by turning them into your enemy.  You don’t need to look back to the historical record for an equivalent; we are currently living one: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We now know that there were no WMDs, that the majority of the hijackers on 9/11 were actually Saudis, and that the main issue is an oil pipeline through Afghanistan, that the US has used torture. America and its allies are actively engaged in colonialism – it’s just not as obvious as (for example) British and French imperialism was in the past.

Avatar Jake Neytiri

Avatar’s story can be read in a number of different ways.  Avatar presents Pandora within the framework of the Gaia theory: of a living, semi-conscious planet.  So in a way, the planet itself is a living organism.  In the film, Weaver’s character Grace explains that the trees make up a neural network more complex than the human brain, and Sully describes Earth as a planet with no green left.  From this perspective, the Na’vi are like the antibodies fighting off an infection, and unfortunately the infection is played by the humans.  On a planetary scale, the humans essentially multiply until all the resources have been sucked dry, and then they move to another host planet to continue the cycle, like a virus.  So Avatar is not only condemning colonialism but also our obviously destructive impact on the Earth.

I’ve also long held the belief that the alien invaders or robot overlords seen in so many sci-fi films are in fact mirror images of humanity’s dark side. It was, therefore, refreshing to see a science fiction film where this mask was removed. Speaking of masks, it’s general knowledge that people will behave differently when wearing masks – or uniforms. Throughout history, people have used masks to take on the persona of gods or animals. I like to think of the Avatars as the ultimate version of this.

In conclusion, despite Avatar’s outlandish sci-fi setting and obvious parallels to Europe’s colonial past, it is also quite contemporary.  It deals with the major issues of our time; from America’s dangerous foreign policy to the threat of global warming and climate change.  It is also in the mold of the classic “Empire vs Rebels” story.  In light of all this, I find io9’s read on the film to be incredibly narrow-minded.  Perhaps it is influenced by the reviewer’s political bias – I don’t know if Annalee Newitz fits into this category, but I imagine when conservative right-wingers see Avatar, they will probably feel like they’ve been kicked in the balls, and they will naturally dislike the film.

  • Segun

    @ latinobro
    Wow, you sound seriously angry. You should look into that. However, contrary to popular opinion, it is not racist to point out racist attitudes. Check up the definition of racism, bro!

    @ SunshineCase
    The film is multi-layered. Just because it has the themes of Gaia and corporate greed, it does not mean that other themes are not equally present. Some people can see them. Others not.

    Btw, I’m a bit surprised by yr use of the term “mulatto”. Are you trying to be ironic? Or are you unaware of the origins of the term? Most multi-racial people prefer to call themselves of mixed heritage or interracial. I prefer the term “mixed race” for myself.

  • Stan

    You missed one of the main points of the io9 article. The point is in the title, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar'” The white guilt is James Cameron’s guilt, not Jake Sully’s.

    • Robotbling

      @ Stan

      I think you missed my article’s point. Avatar isn’t set in a historical context, which allows audiences to compare its story to both historical colonialism as well as modern examples of war, while pondering how humanity should interact with foreign people in the future (on other worlds). If all you can take away from it is a “white guilt” story, then you are missing the bigger picture.

  • Doug

    I have a couple big problems with the movie. It looked really cool and all, and I had a decent time, but two things still bothered me.

    First, at the end of the film, how has Sully done anything other than put the Navi on a path that will eventually lead to their destruction? Custer’s last stand was not the US Cavalry’s last stand. The humans will obviously be back if the ‘unobtanium’ is really that valuable, and when they return, the Navi will be all but wiped out by orbital bombardment before the humans come and take whatever they want.

    Second, this movie makes almost no effort to truly understand the motivations behind the antagonist’s actions. I don’t believe a movie needs to justify wrong-doing, but it should at least make an attempt to give an audience a greater understanding of why and how a person comes to a point in their lives when they are capable of committing such evil acts. This movie just uses cardboard cut-outs of an over-macho commando who wants to destroy everything, and a greedy corporate guy who only cares about the bottom line.

    Don’t get me wrong, the movie was good, but not great. A great movie would show both what led the protagonist to choose good over evil, AND what led the antagonist to choose evil over good.

    Also, some more exploration into what is really motivating the bad guys probably would have been better for the Navi than trying to fight back against overwhelming odds. Even if you swallow the completely unlikely Navi victory in the final battle, the victory will only be temporary. It seems to me that the only way the Navi ever really “win” is by convincing the bad guys to voluntarily cease their aggression. If we never really try to understand the bad guys, we can never understand how to make them stop. Sully did more harm to the Navi than good, because instead of helping the Navi to understand the Sky People, and how to convince the Sky People to stop, Sully convinces the Navi to try to match the bad guys’ violence with more violence–a game the Navi will surely lose in the end.

    • Robotbling

      @ Doug

      I think you raise some valid points. Certainly the film’s plot and characters are somewhat flat, but it didn’t really take anything away from the experience for me personally. I don’t think the film was meant as an intensive character study, but I too would have liked to know more about Quaritch’s motivations. He was a great villain, and I wanted to know more about him.

      When corporations behave badly, there usually isn’t much else behind it other than pure greed. There are many examples of ecological disasters and native populations being treated abhorrently by oil companies for example – and part of what makes their actions so evil is that it is fueled by simple greed, and the knowledge that their bad behavior in lands far away will likely go unpunished.

      The notion that Eywa or the planet’s consciousness understood it was being threatened thanks to Jake’s appeal, and organized the fauna to cooperate in the counter attack may seem like a cop out to some people. However, I think it was one of the better uses of the deus ex machina plot device I’ve seen in the genre. It made sense within the context of the world that Cameron created.

      Finally, what happens to the Na’vi now is very much unknown. While you suggest that the humans will be back and will use even more force to take what they want, it is just as easy to believe that the humans returning to Earth will be punished for their actions. We don’t know what Earth’s policies are concerning life on other planets – what the company was doing could easily be viewed as the intergalactic version of crimes against humanity. This is something that will likely be dealt with if there is a sequel, which there seems to be a lot of interest in making now that the movie is a big success. Perhaps we’ll get to see exactly how the Na’vi fight off a 2nd wave?

  • SunshineCase’

    As a mulatto raised mostly by my african-american mother, I have to say I didn’t really see the whole “white guilt” theme in the movie. I think that anyone with an open mind would see that it was obviously about the destructive power of human greed. Or, as stated earlier, the Gaia Theory.

    By thinking that the movie was just about humans vs. Na’vi or white vs. minority is missing the point. It wasn’t just Na’vi fighting oppression. It was all of Pandora fighting the destruction of the planet bringing us back to the Gaia Theory.

    Of course if one has their mind set on finding racism in every aspect of media and entertainment then of course they’re going to find it. If I thought that way I’m sure I could make even Bambi seem like a racist bastard.

  • latinobro

    According to Anal Nutwitz at io9, I, as a Latino, have more in common with the 18 feet tall tailed blue alien Navi because of our colors than with my own white earthling. Now that’s like saying I have more in common with the colored tiger than the white man (or the white tiger). It is amazing we are so fucking sensitive to race that no one even mentions that this privileged white protagonist is a poor, less-educated, handicapped ex-marine looking for some fast cash as a security contractor having just lost his twin brother. Way to overlook the obvious as we stretch in order to make everything about racial oppression. Typical knee-jerk bending-backwards hyper-sensitive American racism that continues to shamelessly milk White Guilt.

    Cynics, not critics, deride Avatar for not having a female lead or for favoring animism or for having a white-man-savior or for showing a white man abandon his race or for having a white man as the evil-doer ad nauseum. The racist ones like Anal Nutwitz follow the same uncreative line-of-attack based on race.