Avatar: A liberal message, complete with 3D glasses

So, I have a confession to make: I've seen James Cameron's new film Avatar two times in three days: this is a rarity. I'm not a big movie-goer generally, and am even less excited by apolocalyptic sci-fi flicks that feature large, blue alien warriors.


A friend's description of Avatar as an awe-inspiring story depicting First Nations (or African? perhaps a hybrid of the two? the debate continues)-esque aliens' struggle against a bunch of militaristic white males sounded weird and unfavourable at best, depressing at worst. And yet I couldn't resist the hordes of people telling me to see it, promising that it would be unlike anything I'd ever experienced. Whetting my already piqued curiosity, my progressive friends and Marxist father hailed it as stemming from anti-imperialist, anti-war movies of the Vietnam era. The New York Times agreed, claiming that it is "a 22nd-century version of the American colonists vs. the British, India vs. the Raj, or Latin America vs. United Fruit." And so, in spite of my revulsion for the futuristic posters taking over movie theatres and shopping malls, I grabbed some 3D glasses and dove in.


For those not already inundated with the story of Avatar, here's a brief synopsis: it's the year 2154, and (Americans, it would seem), having decimated their own planet, are in the process of colonizing the distant Pandora in the quest for the (poorly-named) resource "unobtanium." The only problem is that Pandora is already occupied with humanoids called the Na'vi, who are 10 feet tall and "very hard to kill." Rather than simply wiping out the native population, a small group of scientists have ingeniously made avatar bodies that look like the Na'vi but are controlled by human brains in the hopes of diplomatically resolving conflicts. Jake Sully, an ex-Marine, is in charge of an avatar and subsequently taken in by a Na'vi tribe, fast falling in love with their nature-friendly ways and a beautiful Na'vi princess and eventually helping to protect them from his own "sky people."


The film has received mixed reviews, from an over-the-top proclamation of Cameron proving that he is truly "king of the world" (Hollywood Reporter) to "too weird for its own good" (Guardian). For many progressive reviewers, Avatar is an in-your-face critique of colonial conquests generally and the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically. The film hones in on the country's obsession with proclaiming corporate-backed "wars on terror" in the quest for natural resources. According to this progressive-minded viewer, Cameron explicitly states that these wars are wrong, and that the country and the world are on a high-speed race to the bottom, killing anyone in the way. In just over 100 years, Cameron predicts, Marines will cite their time in Nigeria and Venezuela (oil, anyone?) while they display the same macho resource-hoarding tendencies on another planet. My progressive family and friends love this, nodding self-righteously as they watch the end of the world on the silver screen. Even Michael Moore is on board, recommending: "Go see Avatar, a brilliant movie [for] our times." And when Moore's on board, you know there's a progressive bandwagon.


Perhaps in response to such an ideological love-fest, others are not so sold on the progressive nature on the film. Annalee Newitz of io9.com wrote a biting critique recently featured on babble wherein she claims that Avatar is simply fulfilling white people's fantasy of racial identity, in which a Caucasian hero not only rejects his fellow "whities" and their colonial-racist ways, but also leads his new-found native friends in overthrowing such grotesque military might. Newitz states:


"This is a classic scenario you've seen in non-sci-fi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.... These are movies about white guilt...which is a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white."


In many ways, I agree with Newitz. My progressive and therefore oh-so-critical eye caught that the Na'vi are something between stereotypical African and stereotypical First Nations individuals: they speak slower than the earthlings and do lots of snarling and warrior calls and tree-worshipping and the like. Most prominently, and most problematic for those on the aforementioned bandwagon, it is undeniable that we only reach the Na'vi through the eyes of Sully, our white, identifiable counterpart. As Newitz proclaims, the need for a white, North American character to introduce viewers to "aliens" (people of colour, foreigners, anyone different from "us") is simultaneously one of the most popular and most racist of Hollywood's go-to tactics.


Despite this unfortunate aspect, I couldn't disregard the film's blatant attacks on the war on terror, as well as other progressive themes. Thanks in large part to brilliant special effects (seriously, see it in 3-D), the scenes of military attacks on Pandora and the suffering that ensues are powerful evocations of what I imagine war would be like. The attacks are relentless, unprovoked and murderous, and, as silly as this may sound, watching the Na'vi escape this war on terror is reminiscent of Iraqis fleeing a U.S. military attack or Palestinians being bombed by Israel, scenes that we, as North Americans, are effectively shielded from. These powerful scenes offer a glimpse into worlds unknown, and they seem real, sad and extremely anti-war.


Additionally, I was impressed with Avatar's somewhat progressive remarks on gender. Sully and his very strong, intelligent female blue-mate, in a moment of equality, choose each other as life partners, and he is eventually saved by her, rather than her by him. The film includes several strong female characters, most of whom, I'm happy to note, are instrumental in the Na'vi revolt.


Still, all of this "white-guilt" talk made me feel a little squeamish for being white and absolutely loving Avatar. Was I simply buying into the idea that white still equals might? Is it also my fantasy not only to absolve myself of my racial quandaries, but more so to "become one" with people of colour, helping "them" to rise up from injustices?


To me, the most interesting part of this debate is that while progressives spend their evenings hotly contesting the rights and wrongs of the film, these opinions are in reality quite contained, affecting a very small percentage of anyone who dons 3-D glasses: whether the film is a brilliant criticism of white imperialism or a perpetuation of fantasies of the absolution of "white guilt" doesn't really matter to most of its viewers. For most, Avatar is simply a beautiful, unmatched fantasy, perfect for escaping from the stresses of the Great Recession, the deployment of their friends or siblings to far-off wars, or the continued annoyances of media reports on climate change. The film may have some slight critiques of imperialism, sure, but this sure as hell isn't why the nearly all-male audiences joining me on those two spectacular nights were cheering on blue cat-like creatures as they attempted to defeat a nasty, futuristic version of the U.S.: they're just there for the spectacle, for the violence and for the awe.


And herein lies the heart of Newitz's point: whatever so-called enlightened statements the film does make are countered by its obsession with violence and war and blowing shit up. Avatar may point to the many ills facing our world today, but it does nothing to question them. Regardless of why Sully decides to turn against his own race, he, the white male, is still hailed as the saviour by showing his superior might. It's the same old story, it just looks....cooler. And the lesson we learn, if any, is not that colonialism is bad, per say, but that violent colonial take-over is bad. If we were all Jake Sullys instead of the evil Colonel in charge of Pandora's military take-over, it could turn out just fine; and hey, native people the universe over could even benefit from our intellectual, economic and military prowess.


Avatar is making its debut in other parts of the world in the coming weeks and I'm interested to see the reaction of viewers in these places. Particularly from viewers in those countries that are perhaps less plagued with an obsession with political correctness in the face of a history of white-dominated imperialism. Is it really as good, or as bad, as we think, or is just a movie after all?


Mara Kardas-Nelson is rabble's editorial intern.


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