Colonization in Avatar

Avatar

Tonight I agreed to go with some people to Avatar in 3D. Before going to see the movie, I was pretty unaware of what it was about. I had passed over much of the press that was surrounding the film, blissfully unaware of everything dealing with other than that it was a movie James Cameron had been working on for nearly a decade, it was primarily CGI, and it was science fiction. Now, I am loathe to pass up a scifi movie (I have sat through both Jumper–painfully terrible–and D War: Dragon Wars–so bad it is hilarious–on opening weekend), so it took little coaxing to get me to go.

Preface aside: the movie was beautiful. The CGI was stunning. The scifi environment was beyond belief (which is a good thing). The storyline was wonderful; its plot was somewhere between Ferngully and Starship Troopers. And, if this were strictly a movie review I would give it 4 ½ out of 5 stars. But this is more than that; this is a critical analysis of the social issues at play within the film. This analysis will appear after the jump, and I warn you that there are spoilers, I will try to keep them to a minimum but in discussing a movie it is difficult to forego a focus upon its plot. So, here goes:

Avatar focuses upon a human incursion upon an alien planet. The humans are attempting to colonize the “savage” alien race—the Na’vi—that inhabits the planet, in order to gain access to a rich supply of—I kid you not—Unobtainium, a mineral that though lacking in explainable uses is worth around 5 million dollars per pound… or something like that. While a peaceful takeover of the planet had been intended, things have since heated up, and the missionary school, which is attempting to bridge the gap between human and Na’vi, has been shut down due to increased tensions between species. So, a bunch of “avatars” are created through a combination of human and Na’vi genetic data, by which humans can inhabit Na’vi bodies in an attempt to smooth things over with the native species.

This plot is filled with postcolonial and racial issues, and will be the main focus of this post. To begin with, the Na’vi have—though CGI’d to look like giant, blue, catlike humanoids—facial types that speak of an African ancestry. The lead actress who plays Neytiri, one of the Na’vi, is Zoe Saldana, the woman who played Uhura in JJ Abrams recent Star Trek reboot. Along with that, the Na’vi speak English with a Caribbean accent. The inclusion of these ethnic traits is not something that James Cameron would have been unaware of, given the massive amount of money that had been funneled into the special effects of this cinematic behemoth. So, Cameron knows, and is playing with, the issue of colonized and colonizer. As Jake Sully, main character and human inhabiting a Na’vi body as an avatar, becomes introduced into the beliefs and society of the Na’vi he eventually becomes colonized by them and helps turn the tide upon the human attackers.

Though Cameron is attempting both a postcolonial and eco-friendly message, he falls short in his handling of Jake Sully. Jake, a man excluded from his own species due to his disability (he is wheelchair-bound) is capable of finding a place among the supposedly savage Na’vi. ***SUPER SPOILER ALERT*** Not only is he capable of finding a place among them, he is capable of being a “total Badass Magee” about it. In a little over three months he becomes a leader of them.

While, I admire his ability to stand up for what is right and aid his new family in repelling a hostile force, the fact that he is placed as leader over them is somewhat hard to swallow. With Jake as leader, Avatar is saying that even though he believes himself an equal to them and understands their species, in the end he is still seen as better than them. Humanness is still set apart from and above the Na’vi. Even though Jake assimilates, his association with the colonizers places him in a position of power among the colonized.

What are your thoughts? Do I have a point or am I just blowing smoke? Post them in the comments so we can get a discussion going.

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2 Responses to Colonization in Avatar

  1. Tim says:

    I really felt Cameron did a great thing by simultaneously drawing parallels between the story at hand and both colonization and current world conflict. Just in case he was too subtle he included the line “if they want something someone else has, they make them out to be the bad guys then get people to destroy them” – or something like that anyway. Good stuff :S

    But that itself maybe sums up the film and the balance that has been strived for by the creative team behind it. This film is not Terminator 2, this is a family film, and importantly so as Cameron has obviously approached this film with the intent to getting a positive message out to people. I have to say, despite some of the bordering-on-insulting dumbed down moments of dialogue, I found that the overall story never got sickly which is often the downfall to “the film with a message”.

    I too picked up on the fact that it took an American to save the Na’vi and even further than that, as a British person, I was slightly offended by the fact everyone was American (until they mentioned the world was generally fucked up by this point haha). Perhaps a less cynical way to look at the narrative choice is that it’s a call to action, to fight for what you as an individual believe in rather than what your “species” is doing as a whole. You can fight against your own people and make a difference. If that is a message instilled within the upcoming generation, we might just reclaim western democracy!!!

    Maybe I give Cameron too much credit, but I really think he has managed to present a moral and philosophic film in a way that is accessible to the widest audience possible while not too often compromising the film as an archetypal Christmas blockbuster. Most criticisms I have read across the internet, I would imagine he could take as a compliment as I get the feeling that they were very much considered dynamics with known risks.

    (sorry for the essay, I just got back from the cinema!)

  2. "BillieB" says:

    Kudos to Cameron on what he was able to present although I imagine it would have been difficult for him to create a storyline that was outside of his scope of experience or the totality of his history.

    The Sully character was indeed yet another white man who was perceived as limited in his world but assumed leadership of a people on another planet. Hmm-m, the natives/Na’vi now have an outsider as their rescuer because all the “brothers” were killed or were not equipped to step forward? How tragic but familiar. Even though he was physically transformed … blue and with a tail (I must add to my chagrin), his character, as well intentioned, is not a Na’vi. Like Cameron his history presents limitations as to how much he understands about a culture that is not his.

    It’s story time … metaphors and analogies with the wrapping of visual stimulation .. all to convey a message. This movie was more than presented or reviewed.

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