In James Cameron’s magnum opus ‘Avatar,’ the Bad Guys R Us

Film review

In this film publicity image released by 20th Century Fox, Jake ...

Above: Jake Sully (played by the rather yummy Sam Worthington) inspects his brand-new “avatar” in the James Cameron epic (that’s redundant, isn’t it?) “Avatar.” Below: Jake, in his avatar, bonds with native Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana.

In this film publicity image released by 20th Century Fox, the ...

James Cameron’s “Avatar,” which I finally saw yesterday (I was waiting for the crowds to die down), is pissing off everyone, right and left. Cameron must have done something right.

Being such a political creature, if a film has the least bit possible sociopolitical bent to it, I’m going to notice it right off. In “Avatar,” such a bent abounds.

Most notably, in “Avatar,” we — the United States of America — are the bad guys. Well, not we, not really. “We” as in the military-industrial complex that has come to represent the United States of America around the world is the bad guy in “Avatar.”

I have read that, unsurprisingly, the wingnuts are not happy about this, especially given the film’s wild commercial success. (Fuck ’em.)

The villains of “Avatar” are an over-the-top corporate hack and an over-the-top colonel who work in tandem — not unlike how the Catholic church’s missionaries and the Spanish crown’s soldiers worked in tandem to conquer the “new world” — to conquer the lush planet of Pandora, which has an element (called “unobtainium,” ha ha ha) that the invading Earthlings want. (The Spanish monarchy wanted gold, of course, and the Catholic church wanted converts. We’re never told in “Avatar” what practical application, if any, “unobtainium” has, so my guess is that, like with gold, “unobtainium’s” main value is that it is, um, valuable…)

To conquer the tall, blue, feline-faced, tail-possessing people of Pandora — the Na’vi — the Earthlings (whom the Na’vi call the “sky people”) decide to infiltrate them with “avatars,” biologically fabricated Na’vi bodies that are inhabited by the consciousness of human beings controlling the biologically fabricated Na’vi bodies.

Now, the Na’vi natives are a bit too accepting of these “avatars,” whom the natives know aren’t fellow natives. If you weren’t born into and raised by the tribe, why would the tribe just accept you at all as one of them? I mean, if it were clear to us human beings that some alien race were coming to us in human bodies, would we embrace these aliens in human bodies as one of us? Prolly not.

But it would ruin “Avatar” if the avatars didn’t get some degree of acceptance from the Na’vi, and so they do.

Anyway, in “Avatar” the invading Earthlings clearly are the bad guys, and while watching what’s probably the biggest, loudest scene in “Avatar,” the Earthlings’ military forces destroying a site that is very sacred to the Na’vi, I couldn’t help but think of the internationally televised so-called “shock and awe” that many if not most of my fellow Americans got off on when the unelected Bush regime (yeah, the same regime that my fellow Americans just allowed to steal the White House in late 2000) illegally, immorally, unprovokedly and unjustly invaded Iraq, which had had nothing to do with 9/11 and which of course never possessed the weapons of mass destruction that the members of the Bush regime had lied through their fangs about, in March 2003.  

Yeah, it takes a big, tough, studly nation to attack a relatively defenseless one.

In the middle of all of this, the conflict between the rapacious Earthlings, who are represented by a very American-like military-industrial complex, and the Native-American-like Na’vi (they even wear warpaint and let out war cries), is Marine Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington, who appears to be in just about every movie these days, which is OK with me, since he has a definite certain sexiness about him), who unexpectedly finds himself recruited to man an avatar. (Of course, he has to make a deal with the devil: for infiltrating the Na’vi and helping to subdue them, the wheelchair-bound Jake is promised that his paraplegia will be cured.)

As you already know from the previews, after he’s been manning his avatar, Jake changes his allegiance from the military-industrial complex to the Na’vi.

You probably already suspect that Jake ends up being the big hero of the film, and that of course he and his female Na’vi companion, Neytiri (wonderfully played by Zoe Saldana), go from their initially tense relationship (which showcases some great dialogue) to becoming lifemates.

That the white Marine, instead of one of the Na’vi natives, becomes the big hero of “Avatar” has pissed some people off, I read in today’s news. Reports The Associated Press:

Near the end of the hit film “Avatar,” the villain snarls at the hero, “How does it feel to betray your own race?” Both men are white — although the hero is inhabiting a blue-skinned, 9-foot-tall, long-tailed alien.

Strange as it may seem for a film that pits greedy, immoral humans against noble denizens of a faraway moon, “Avatar” is being criticized by a small but vocal group of people who allege it contains racist themes — the white hero once again saving the primitive natives.

Since the film opened to widespread critical acclaim three weeks ago, hundreds of blog posts, newspaper articles, tweets and YouTube videos have said things such as the film is “a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people” and that it reinforces “the white Messiah fable.”

The film’s writer and director, James Cameron, says the real theme is about respecting others’ differences….

Adding to the racial dynamic [of “Avatar”] is that the main Na’vi characters are played by actors of color, led by a Dominican, Zoe Saldana, as the princess. The film also is an obvious metaphor for how European settlers in America wiped out the Indians.

Robinne Lee, an actress in such recent films as “Seven Pounds” and “Hotel for Dogs,” said that “Avatar” was “beautiful” and that she understood the economic logic of casting a white lead if most of the audience is white.

But she said the film, which so far has the second-highest worldwide box-office gross ever, still reminded her of Hollywood’s “Pocahontas” story — “the Indian woman leads the white man into the wilderness, and he learns the way of the people and becomes the savior.”

“It’s really upsetting in many ways,” said Lee, who is black with Jamaican and Chinese ancestry. “It would be nice if we could save ourselves.” …

Yes, come to think of it, “Avatar” is basically a futuristic “Pocahontas” in which Jake Sully would be John Smith and Neytiri would be Pocahontas.

And it did occur to me while I was watching “Avatar” that it seemed off that a a white guy who wasn’t even one of the Na’vi would end up as their savior.

I understand why historically oppressed peoples wouldn’t be pleased to see a white guy emerge as the hero, but I think that “Avatar’s” surprisingly subversive message succeeds as it does because it’s the white guy who realizes that what the military-industrial complex that he has been a member of has been doing is wrong, and so he decides to fight for the other side.

And it’s not just the character of Jake whose allegiance changes; there’s the character of a great Latina fighter pilot (played by Michelle Rodriguez, of whom I’d like to have seen more of in “Avatar”) and a few others whose allegiance changes, and this kind of pop-culture image in which the “turncoats” are the heroes can’t be good for the U.S. military-industrial complex, which expects its soldiers to be blindly obedient cannon fodder who die for rich white men’s fortunes while believing that they are fighting for such noble causes as “freedom” and “democracy” and “God” and “Jesus” and puppies and kittens, for fuck’s sake.

I mean, fuck. Before “Avatar” began, I had to watch an endless fucking recruitment advertisement for the National Fucking Guard. (The recruitment ad didn’t show any maimed or dead soldiers, of course, but looked like something out of “Top Gun,” as usual.) The U.S. military-industrial complex has millions if not billions of dollars — our tax dollars — at its disposal to brainwash our young people into believing that the U.S. military really is about defense and patriotism instead of about what it really is about: war profiteering, feeding the endless greed of the military-industrial complex and the greedy fucking white men who run it and who personally profit from it.

Trust me, oppressed peoples of the world, “Avatar” does much more for your cause by having its hero a white guy — a Marine, for fuck’s sake — who realizes that he’s been fighting on the wrong side and then switches sides, than it would have done for your cause had its hero been one of the Na’vi natives.

The millions of young American males (and females) who see “Avatar” might think twice before joining the U.S. military, and that’s a good thing for a planet that probably cannot survive a World War III.

Indeed, Cameron’s intent, I believe, was to send a message of peace, and it’s whitey, with his (and her) beloved military-industrial complex, who needs to get that message more than does anyone else. Those long oppressed by whitey already know the value of peace.

The Associated Press reports that Cameron wrote the AP in an e-mail that “Avatar” “asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different, in the hope that we may find a way to prevent conflict and live more harmoniously on this world. I hardly think that is a racist message.”

Agreed.

The AP also reports of “Avatar”:

“Can’t people just enjoy movies anymore?” a person named Michelle posted on the website for Essence, the magazine for black women, which had 371 comments on a story debating the issue [of whether “Avatar” is racist].

OK, that’s a valid question.

Although it’s a rhetorical question, the answer to the question, for me, anyway, is no, I can’t just enjoy a movie anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “Avatar.” It is a visually stunning film, and I love its profuse use of greens and blues and purples, which, actually, reminded me a lot of “The Princess and the Frog,” which, come to think of it, is a bit like “Avatar”: Both films have heroines with African blood in them (Zoe Saldana apparently has African blood in her) who meet up with bumbling men whom the heroines have to turn into heroes, and both films largely take place in green, blue and purple, swampy, lush settings.

“Avatar” succeeds on the sensory level (as it should, given the millions and millions of dollars that were put into it ) — although the ubiquitous DayGlo stuff does get a little bit tiresome after a while and although Pandora’s plethora of creatures, including its Na’vi, look way too much like Earth’s creatures, including its human beings — but sue me if I am able to enjoy a movie on more than one level.

I can multi-task; I can take in all of the technical achievements of a film like “Avatar” while seeing its obvious sociopolitical statements, statements that I can’t be accused of having pulled out of my moonbatty ass because James Cameron himself says are his intended statements.

It’s a rare film that can entertain and that can stimulate public debate on important sociopolitical issues, so kudos to Cameron for having achieved that with “Avatar.”

“Avatar” is such a cultural achievement that I have to wonder if from now on people are going to go around saying to each other, in all seriousness: “I see you.” (Even though it’s a bit cheesy, I kind of hope so…)

Yes, “Avatar” is a bit derivative of other films, not just of “Pocahontas” but also of Cameron’s past films — we even get the “Alien” series’ Sigourney Weaver as a protagonist in “Avatar” (I have to say that I found Weaver’s avatar to be a bit creepy-looking, to look a bit too much like Weaver), we get the manned robots that we saw in “Aliens,” and we even get “The Company” in “Avatar” (is the amoral, profit-piggy, generic “The Company” in “Avatar” the same one that was in the “Alien” series, I wonder?).

But “Avatar” succeeds on its own and probably will be Cameron’s magnum opus. 

My grade: A

P.S. I read a news account that President Barack Obama took his girls to see “Avatar” recently. Mr. President, I sure the fuck hope that you learned something, and that having your girls there with you drove the point home.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “In James Cameron’s magnum opus ‘Avatar,’ the Bad Guys R Us

  1. Barry G

    Hi, I came across your website by chance on a search-result. I like your perspective on “Avatar”. I didn’t think of the “bad guys” being the military-industrial complex. My perspective, living in Vancouver Canada, is that we really aren’t a “white world” anymore. So, when I see all the bad guys as being “white”, it always raises a red flag for me. Sure, James Cameron stuck a couple of latinos in the mix, but it was largely white sandy-blonde guys who were all brandishing machine guns. My version of Avatar, as a Director, would have much more blacks, asians, etc, as the bad guys. If some people are tired of stories of the “white messiah”, I am quite ready to puke from stories of the “ethnic messiah” coming to save everyone. Did they need to cast black dude Will Smith as the hero in “I am Legend”? No, they didn’t.
    Consider tv shows like Pamela Andersons “VIP”: All the guys on her team are ethnic, and all the bad guys are all white. See what i mean? I could write a book about it. Those are 2 tiny examples. In fact, I really don’t see many movies any more with a white dude as the hero. So, for all the critics who are “whitey-haters”, may I give you the most beautiful middle-finger your way! Cheers!

  2. robertdcrook

    Well, from what I can tell, the members of the U.S. military are mostly white males, that white males are represented in the U.S. military much, much more than they are represented in the general U.S. population.

    And undeniably, the conquerors of the “new world” — what is now the United States — overwhelmingly were white.

    I identified the “bad guy” in “Avatar” as being the military-industrial complex, and I stand by that; I think it’s accurate, except that military-corporate complex or corporate-military complex might be more accurate these days.

    I think that the “white Messiah fable” is a valid concern — just not really for “Avatar.” In “Avatar,” which I watched on DVD last night (the second time that I saw the film; the first was in a theater), the message, I think, was that even a white-male member of the military-industrial complex can have a good soul, and that this spiritual potential might just be slumbering with him, awakened by the right circumstances, such as happened with the character of Jake Sully. And again, I think that that is a more powerful and more transformative message for this day and age.

    I don’t think that those who have a problem with the “white Messiah fable” necessarily are “whitey-haters”; I think that they’re just sick and tired of their group of people almost never being portrayed as the heroes.

    But in “Avatar,” hero Jake Sully certainly doesn’t do it alone; indeed, his native Na’vi mate, Neytiri, saves his ass, and were it not for she, he would have been killed. I see both of them as the co-heroes of the film.

  3. wbabiak

    I thought this was an excellent breakdown of the movie. I think that those who want to write this off as a racist fable are really shortchanging themselves! Another aspect that I really loved was the goddess-centric spirituality, and the Gaian flavor of the all-life-as-one-being thing.

    The military is hardly all white, though; the demographic groups who are economically challenged make up a disproportionate number of soldiers. It’s often seen as the only way out of a life that offers too few opportunities. In other words, the military industrial complex loves to use folks of color as cannon fodder; in some communities they’re trying to take steps to lessen the ability of the military to recruit as heavily as they do.

    @BarryG, uhm, what can I say? Have you seen Prince of Persia yet? There’s a nice white hero for you…and he’s supposed to be PERSIAN. I don’t think we need to shed any tears for white actors, or the white-hero-as-archetype, just yet.

  4. robertdcrook

    I can’t complain about seeing Jake Gyllenhaal shirtless throughout an entire movie, though… “Prince of Persia” looks like it sucks, but if the critics give it a good review, I’m probably there.

  5. wbabiak

    He is certainly an eye-full, but I’m afraid I’d have trouble enjoying the movie after reading a blog post on the racebending, written by a pissed-off man of Persian descent…

    It looks like a good story, too. I just wish they’d found a hunky Persian to play the part. I’ve certainly seen a few.

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