January 24, 2010

Avatar: New World, Old Concept

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“Don’t you think it’s interesting,” my friend asked as we stepped out of Avatar, “that by the end of the film, we were cheering on the aliens who were killing human beings?”

It was no surprise that author and director James Cameron would guide us to this conclusion, as the signs manifested itself from the beginning of the film. Such included, among others, are the laughable caricatures of corporations — the CEO of the mining company whines that the noble, indigenous Na’vi are “fly-bitten savages who live in a tree”— and the military — where the evil general barks that “we will fight terror with terror” — and the obvious contrast between bright, lush Pandora and the sterile, imposing military (read: human) compound.

However, most troubling was the film’s portrayal of the Na’vi. As fellow Cornellian Josh Mitrani blogged, the Na’vi are a sort of amalgamated “ethnic”: They “have elements of blackness in them — they wear dreadlocks and cornrows … and the chick has a vaguely Jamaican accent … the image of them all meditating conjures images of Indian Yogis … the Native American aspect is also there, with the Na’vi chick as Pocahontas and Pandora as America.” This depiction, according to Mitrani, leaves the Na’vi “bereft of any unique cultural or racial identity.”

Even worse, the film creates the impression that the only characteristics of the Na’vi worth mentioning are those in opposition to the abominable qualities of the colonists. Thus, though we know that the Na’vi revere the spirits of their planet — rather than profit from it, as do the greedy corporate figures — we do not know what they eat. We know that in warfare they harness the forces of Nature — rather than technology, as do the military men — but we do not know what they do in their spare time.

In short, we know nothing about the Na’vi that is not merely a reaction to the evils of man. Cameron, it seems, is projecting his anxieties about human (read: American) society — its militarism, wanton disregard of nature, lust for profit — onto the Na’vi; in doing so, however, he reduces them to a one-dimension community that can exist only on screen.

We tend to construct the same narrative when considering the “colonized” of American history. Our media often imagines Africans and Native-Americans as living in a pure, idyllic state of nature before being yanked into our fast-paced, “Western” society. Such, however, creates a “noble savage” caricature, denigrating their complex communal structures and institutions, and encourages the false dichotomy of “colonized good, colonizers bad”.

Furthermore, this mentality—popularized through works like The Wretched of the Earth, The Battle of Algiers, and Gandhi — elides any complexity, like the “good” colonists who provided technology to the indigenous, and the “bad” colonized who owned slaves. As evidenced by the record box office sales, however, this theme remains a potent one for the American public.

It makes sense, then, that Cameron would choose to employ the “colonized good, colonizers bad” dichotomy in Avatar. Indeed, it is precisely in our “mindless blockbusters” — films that, by definition, must appeal to the broadest swaths of society — where we can locate our shared cultural values.

One would hope, however, that the artist would challenge our values and assumptions rather than gratify them, or, at the very least, add a new dimension to that which we already perceive. Avatar, though, taught us nothing original and lent no new perspective. It was merely a validation.

One may reasonably argue that this is too high a standard for what is no more than a mindless winter blockbuster. However, a winter blockbuster must not necessarily scrap depth. In fact, one such film did appear this winter: The Princess and the Frog.

The Princess and the Frog — though billed as a “kids” film — was at once a fairy tale, a rich cultural portrait of New Orleans, and an exploration of a serious question: what does it mean to distinguish between one’s wants and needs? It was as much a movie for adults as it was for children, thereby demonstrating that appealing to a broad audience and substance are not mutually exclusive.

Avatar, as an exercise in self-fulfillment, made no attempt to bridge the two. It presented a wishful history, one in which the good guys are all good, the bad guys are completely despicable, and the moral questions are absolutely clear. Certainly, we can learn more from talking frogs.

Judah Bellin is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at

judahbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin