Sunday, March 7, 2010

Avatar: Wankeriffic Neocolonial Bullshit

With all the bright lights and special pretty people of Oscar Night set to descend on the televised world in just a few hours, we’ll finally get to find out which brand of stupidity and bland taste the Academy will force upon us in 2010. Although A Serious Man is probably the only best picture nominee worth a mention during a real discussion of the no-holes-barred best film of the whole year, we’ve all spent the last two months being raked through apparently earnest discussions of the virtues of a much more “beautiful” movie: James Cameron’s “visionary” “masterpiece” Avatar.

You can probably tell by now that I am not too happy about this. Well, here’s why:

At first glance, James Cameron’s Avatar is a progressive sci-fi lover’s dream: it’s a 3D remake of Fern Gully set on a future alien world with lots of crazy technology and science. Hailed by some critics as one of the most original and groundbreaking movies of the decade, its explicit messages are anti-war, pro-environment, and pro-cultural understanding.

But dig a little deeper -- which is to say, actually watch the thing -- and a breathtakingly shallow understanding of these issues emerges from a shockingly poor execution. Avatar is Pocahontas starring a space marine: a trite and condescending film whose central plotline centers around the forgiveness of white guilt and privilege by racial stereotypes disguised as aliens.

The extent of James Cameron’s ignorance of post-colonial movements would be falling-on-the-floor hilarious but for the fact that he’s made billions of dollars peddling these naive tropes. Avatar’s indigenous species, called the Na’vi -- note that the apostrophe is literally added for exoticism -- are such a sloppy amalgamation of Native American and African tribal stereotypes that it’s impossible to take more than one or two of the forest scenes seriously. The main (white, male of course!) character is accepted as one of the tribe almost immediately because of signs they can read through their magical, deep spiritual connection to the planet. Then, over the course of a couple of training montages and three months of movie-time, he so thoroughly masters their primitive indigenous ways that he bests the tribe’s head warrior and becomes their indispensable leader in the fight against the caricatures of imperialist, technologically-armed invaders.

Tell me that this isn't one of the more embarrassing movie mockeries you've ever seen:

Even if we set aside how literally offensive this treatment of indigenous cultures is (and why should we?), we’re just left confronting a more damning problem for a $500 million blockbuster: these stereotypes are distractingly boring!

Despite studio-driven hype to the contrary, Avatar is deeply unimaginative and often poorly animated. The biology, though at times prettily bioluminescent, so thoroughly fails the most basic tests of plausibility that it’s worth a post by itself. The story is stolen from an (uncredited) sci-fi author named Paul Anderson. The treatment of nature and many of the “visionary” images are offensively poorly orchestrated rip-offs of Hayao Miyazaki’s films (particularly Princess Mononoke) -- a filmmaker whose animation (aside from the 3D gimmickery) is far more powerful than Cameron’s.

If there’s anything the Star Wars prequels taught us, it’s that faster computers rendering more CGI do not good special effects make: great graphics are the result of careful art direction and extreme attention to detail. Primarily for this reason, there has yet to be a better-made sci fi movie than 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey -- and it’s because Stanley Kubrick took the time to do things like actually write the instructions for replacing the explosive bolts on doors, or pay attention to the way that objects move in a gravity-less vacuum, or think through how a semi-sentient computer would behave when given contradictory instructions.

I’m happy to grant that the scenery in Avatar (particularly the floating islands) is stunning: it’s perhaps the one trend that the film will probably encourage in filmmaking that I’m happy about. But as a photo editor who helped put together a National Geographic calendar, I’m also unwilling to give it the widespread awe that the press seems intent on pushing on us: aside from the gravity defiance, our own planet has produced more truly awe-inspiring images than the jungles of Pandora, with more powerful real details than Cameron manages when given full free fictional reign.

With this mild success in mind, let's take a harder look at the film's deepest failure: its protagonist-species, the Na'vi.

Apparently aliens are tall, skinny, objectively hot, blue humans with a couple of catlike features who speak perfect english? That is some Star Trek: Original Series bullshit. CHIMPANZEES lack the vocal chords to articulate human language, and are already too heavy to swing from treetops without great care. How the hell would ten-foot creatures from another planet manage these feats with ease?

Why did this slip past Cameron's supposedly fantastic attention to detail? Well, let's just say he was focused on other things. In a hilarious take-down of the Na’vi’s biological design, Nina Shen Rastogi quotes a James Cameron interview with Playboy: “Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’ even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.” That's right, he said it: what responsible filmmaker would let realism get in the way of great boobs? This is science fiction, where anything goes -- even if it's fucking stupid.

By no means did the idiotic mass-market-motivated compromises stop there:

But with their long limbs, heavy tail, and opposable big toes, the Na'vi should move more like gibbons than bipedal humans. And all that upright scampering across tree branches seems wrong, too, given how heavy a 10-foot-tall creature must be—even one with superlight bones. 

Many of the choices that have obvious rationales from a storytelling perspective make for weird anatomy. Take those big, exotic eyes, which make the Na'vi look so cute and sympathetic. "Gigantic eyeballs are usually for creatures that forage exclusively at night," Sumida says. "These characters should be wearing sunglasses—they get so much light, their eyes will hurt."

And those expressive tails. Tails are an extension of the backbone, emerging downwards from the sacrum, where the hips attach. Na'vi tails, however, seem to emerge from above the sacrum, and they stick out at a nearly right angle. Sumida also takes exception to the Pandorapedia's claims that those tails are prehensile—that is, used for grasping things—and help the Na'vi balance their long torso and legs. If that were the case, the Na'vi would probably be walking on all fours, with their backs parallel to the ground.

Finally, about those boobs: It's good that they're purely decorative. Since the Na'vi seem to have zero fat on their bodies, those mammary glands almost certainly don't work. Relatedly, the fact that the Na'vi aren't placental mammals makes the presence of bellybuttons something of a curiosity.

Cameron’s only solution to this implausibility is a ludicrous incuriosity on the part of every character besides the scientist played by Sigourney Weaver. Pandora is a planet that literally has islands that somehow float in the air and a neural network between sentient trees that stretches across the entire planet -- which is another way of saying proof of a living God -- and yet no one seems interested in these facts. Mind. Blowingly. Stupid.


In truth, I don’t really care whether James Cameron's Idiot's Delight sweeps the Academy Awards. This is about something rather larger.

As I see it, the massive success of Avatar represents a cultural failure on two counts: first, America’s failure to look beyond the simplest terms of white guilt and truly examine what colonialism and postcolonialism mean for the world; and second, Americans’ sedentary acceptance of the false wonders produced for us, at the expense of the extraordinary real wonders that abound in every direction if we’d only bother to open our eyes to them.

It pains me to see critics even taking this movie seriously as a film, let alone giving it good reviews. Best movie of the year? I’d rather nominate this genius 70-minute video review of Star Wars I: A Phantom Menace.

Thankfully, its author also came through on Avatar:



  1. Great review, Nick. Post on some film blog too?

  2. alright, guess i gotta register a dissenting opinion.

    first, you're absolutely right that the movie was far from being a highly nuanced criticism of colonialism. but honestly, today there are still huge segments of the population who don't even understand that colonialism was bad. to a bunch of us it's blindingly obvious that colonialism was wrong, but for others the narrative of happy europeans crossing the world and giving advanced technology and a shot at absorbing mythical european work ethics to the savage peoples is still an accepted, understood truth. baby steps, man- a movie that depicts colonialism as a horrific monster which destroyed everything it touched in the name of making a few bucks for some racist asshole is a step up.

    that's why a bunch of conservative pundits and cartoonists are angry about it- because it challenges the 'happy age of colonialism' narrative that they still use to frame foreign policy arguments to this very day. i wish it had made a more complex argument, and that it had toned down the marines savior role, but... we live in a time where people interpret the "what have the romans done for us?" scene in Life of Brian as an realistic depiction of empire- a bunch of ingrate natives whining whilst enjoying the fruits of Superior White Labor.

    although you didn't do this, i've heard other people knocking the dialogue and felt that people weren't really watching it right- i think the use of 3D hit a mark far higher than ever before. using it to let us look in on the world, instead of having cheap shots where stuff jumps out at you, made it way more immersive. oh and the camerawork was really good IMO.

    the biological problems you mentioned are pretty goofy, but a friend of mine who majored in biology and works with it to this day was raving about it- the designs, and the evidence of common ancestry, or somesuch. i've pretty much always maintained that biology is a Lesser Science, Unfit for those of Sound Mind, though, so i could go either way on that one.

    i'm not even saying avatar is a masterpiece, just that it was a pretty entertaining way to spend a few hours and it's nice that on the side it also might have given the lie to some of the dumber colonial myths. it would be nice if we could have a major blockbuster that takes a brilliant, enlightened look at colonialism, but i'm not sure if americans are anywhere near the point where we could properly digest a movie like that.

  3. First off, I do agree that the 3D was better used than anything else I've ever seen, though I'm skeptical about about whether 3D in general for technical reasons (mostly because it fucks with color too much).

    but i'm not sure if americans are anywhere near the point where we could properly digest a movie like that.

    In some ways this is what my review is really about: Avatar's just the foil. Thing is, we've been taking baby steps for decades. Avatar is actually a baby step backwards from Pocahontas in terms of its willful use of stereotypes. I found it unwatchably distracting to see shit like the Na'vi yipping in excitement a la Disney's 1950s-era portrayal of native americans, Peter Pan. I'm surprised you didn't too. In 2010, our country should be ready for something better than this.

    Perhaps more relevantly than Pocahontas, though, compare Avatar to Cameron's Aliens, which was made TWENTY FOUR YEARS AGO and is a far better movie for many of the reasons in my review. Everything good about Avatar, Aliens had in spades: the same tight anti-corporate themes; the questionability of mining far-off worlds; lots of firepower. And in Aliens, Sigourney Weaver is allowed to be one of the best action heroes in film history while also being a woman, whereas the best thing you can say about Avatar is that it didn't completely fuck up its approach to lopsided cultural power relationships. There's also a buildup of tension that's almost unrivaled in film, hollywood or no, and it doesn't take almost three hours to play out an obvious conclusion.

    I see Avatar as evidence that we are not making progress, but are merely finding more insidious ways to wallow in our own comfortableness with our fucked up approach to other cultures (past and present). Note that Avatar only portrays imperialism as using the (now out-dated) overwhelming use of military force, conveniently ignoring any of the methods of dominance that are actually used today.

    No, I'm skeptical that this approach will ever bear fruit, regardless of how many baby steps we take.

    I don't really fault Cameron for his intentions, though. He's a little like Hilary Clinton: heart's prolly in the right place, he just doesn't really know what he's talking about and cares more about winning/making money than doing what's right. I don't fault his technique, either: he knew exactly what would work on the American people.

    But I can't watch movies, even action movies, with the goal of finding something I don't have to think about. I'm not even looking for a "brilliant, enlightened look at colonialism" in a hollywood film; I'm just sick of the open, self-aggrandizing racism in popular culture.

  4. This is actually inspiring me to go watch Aliens right now. That movie rules.

    I will go so far as to say that the aliens in Aliens have a more interesting culture than the Na'Vi. They definitely have tighter biology.

  5. I found it unwatchably distracting to see shit like the Na'vi yipping in excitement a la Disney's 1950s-era portrayal of native americans, Peter Pan. I'm surprised you didn't too.

    Actually, it specifically reminded me of a video I saw from the 2008 Tibetan Uprising-

    There we literally have a bunch of tibetans 'yipping.' there were other videos taken in other places with the same thing- i don't know, maybe thats something people do when they're excited? i'm not sure if i want to characterize that specific part as racist given that the na'vi, like humans, are shown to be capable of both reasoned speech and also getting worked up and shouting.

    In 2010, our country should be ready for something better than this.

    Should be, yeah. Is it? I think if you went nation-wide and polled people who have unfavorable impressions of Avatar, the majority would be criticizing it from the right. maybe not among people we know, but especially from older age cohorts, many of them seem to think that avatar had an unrealistic depiction of the effects of colonialism because it was too negative.

    Everything good about Avatar, Aliens had in spades: the same tight anti-corporate themes; the questionability of mining far-off worlds; lots of firepower.

    agreed that aliens was a way better movie. maybe the difference in how we see it is in our expectations? i hadn't really heard anything about it before i went in, so i was just sorta expecting a cool 3D movie where some aliens fights some people? then there were some anti-colonial themes and that seemed like a nice bonus. it would have been good if they had been better developed, but i hadn't even run into that as a selling point beforehand.

    i won't categorically say that avatar wasn't racist, because racism is way to pervasive and all, but i think the criticism from parts of the left is a little reactionary- we're so used to seeing legitimately racist stereotypes of native cultures that we now have a list of traits that can't be associated even with a made-up alien culture on another planet.

    if two armies of same-colored people fought each other, and someone from one army defected and used insider knowledge to help the other side win, i don't think we would call that racist. the same scenario but with humans and blue cat people, and we do. it certainly could be! i think in this case cameron did a fair job of justifying it, though- whatsisname has been trained as a human soldier and is aware of their strategies and goals, unlike any of the na'vi.

    the "in tune with nature connected to the planet" stuff might be a good target, although having them literally connected to the planet might change that? or maybe it doesnt? i don't know, im not a race scientist.

  6. I can't believe in all this talk about Avatar and the Na'vi no one has brought up that their genitals are on their heads and through-out the movie they ever-so nonchalantly have sex with every other species on their planet. Personally, I thought this was the most bizarre part of the whole film.

    Kudos to James Cameron for making Avatar so colorfully distractingly that nobody noticed this sort of bestiality-like kind of perversion.

  7. @Nimsofa: Haha! God, true. What a weird man James Cameron is.

    @JN: I see racism in Avatar for two reasons.

    1. A number of techniques that Cameron used to portray the Na'vi are rooted in a tradition of racist American film and literature. I'm thinking primarily of westerns and zulu films, but it goes back to the earliest days of colonization. Although this tradition has produced some great works of art, there's no denying that its methods, and sometimes even its goals, were truly racist.

    The Searchers is a perfect example here: just because John Wayne rules doesn't mean that he wasn't also a reactionary, racist asshole who made movies that were deeply offensive, and even harmful to the people they portrayed.

    Like you, I'm thrilled that we've come to a point where the explicit narrative of major films is ostensibly sympathetic to the cultural underdog, rather based on fear of the Savage. But it seems to me that we reached that point in the early 1990s with movies like Dances with Wolves, and have stagnated comfortably ever since. The way Avatar's indigenous culture is portrayed is just as stereotypical as it's ever been.

    The Na'vi are unpredictable, instinctual, proud, dangerous, strong, tribal, in touch with the earth, mystical. They all look the same, and have a monolithic culture with no substantive differences between tribal groups separated by large distances. Power is shared by a chieftain and a priest. The main Na'vi character is a strong, beautiful princess. Does any of this remind you of anything? Really, read that article and tell me that Avatar is not a textbook case of the abiding stereotypes that Dr. Pewewardy described in 1997.

    Again, here, a lot of my argument isn't so much that it perpetuates harmful stereotypes, though I'm certain that is the case. Avatar is just a movie, after all, and the fact that it portrays the aliens sympathetically and isn't about a particular human culture will probably shield actual people from harm (unlike the '50s-era westerns). My problem with the racism is more that it's a deep strike against the originality of something whose prime virtue is supposed to be originality. As moviegoers in 2010, I think we deserve better from a competent director than the same tired bullshit. As such, I see Avatar as a prime example of certain kinds of bad filmmaking.

    Except apparently Cameron was right that most Americans aren't ready to overlook their attachment to certain demonstrably false tropes about indigenous cultures (on this world or another). I'd almost have been happy if he'd sidestepped the problem by not making them look so ridiculously human. But he went in exactly the opposite direction with Na'vi design (ie, boobs on a non-mammal), making the parallels to human societies unavoidable to the point of being utterly explicit. Then he builds a culture that's NOTHING MORE than an amalgamation of stereotypes.

    It would be disappointing in any film, but Cameron's history of films and supposed liberalism make the errors downright egregious.

  8. 2. It makes no sense at all that this white dude can just spring into a new culture and so thoroughly master its ways that he becomes their new world leader in THREE MONTHS.

    Why did people so easily accept this? Because it's precisely the same old familiar white domination fantasy. Only this time it has a happy PC ending because the subjugated culture agrees to the domination. Sure, they're aliens and there are mitigating technological circumstances, but the subtext screams.

    C'mon, man, it's a totally fucked up premise for a film. It's possible to make a movie with a familiar protagonist we can relate to in strange world, without having that familiar character become the king of the racially stereotyped indigenous people at the end.

    As a side note: why are the opinions of the conservative critics relevant to this argument? Since when on this blog do we give weight to people whose worldviews we think are wrong?

  9. As a side note: why are the opinions of the conservative critics relevant to this argument? Since when on this blog do we give weight to people whose worldviews we think are wrong?

    Because you've been saying that it's time to advance beyond basic 'colonialism is bad 101' movies, and i'm saying that many americans haven't made it that far yet. i could see being more annoyed by avatar if we were all in agreement that colonialism is wrong, but plenty of people haven't even gotten that far yet.

    The Na'vi are unpredictable, instinctual, proud, dangerous, strong, tribal, in touch with the earth, mystical.

    They are, that's true. But that's a common set of values that are assigned to species in science fiction and fantasy, and I think in a lot of cases whether or not it's racist is determined solely by their relation to humans.

    In Halo, the Covenant fit that entire description, with the exception of 'in touch with the earth.' But there they're depicted as the aggressors who are instead waging a genocidal campaign against humans. I've never heard anyone call Halo racist. In Lord of the Rings the elves fit every single descriptor, but when people call LOTR racist I think they usually claim that elves are white people in disguise? These examples are just based on discs sitting on my desk, I'm pretty sure you could come up with many more examples that fit every descriptor but also occupy a wide range of positions in regard to humans in their respective stories.

    Which I guess brings me to say that the 'proud, simple, mystical' cliche absolutely has some roots in racist movies and stories (although I would also wager that some parts of it run back to mythical creatures present in European storytelling for centuries which predate modern race relations), but I don't see why it has to necessarily be racist when applied to blue cat people from space. When I saw Avatar it struck me as being a story about colonialism far more than racism. I think Cameron wanted to make a story about colonialism, and chose those traits because they make a recognizable storytelling trope that results in a more sympathetic species than having the humans show up to mine beneath some industrial culture that's already ruining their own planet, or a civilization that pesters people about the benefits of space atheism or something.

    anyway, if the humans had arrived on a planet with an unpredictable, instinctual, proud, dangerous, strong, tribal, in touch with the earth, mystical culture who happen to have technology or weird space magic that awes the humans and leaves them in a position of weakness compared to the aliens, would that be racist? and if it is just that humans are in a position of dominance compared to the na'vi, then how can anyone tell a story like this without it being racist? I'm not sold that the root of relations in the movie are a white people/other people thing, as much as its a colonialist aggressor/ colonized group relationship- something which even on earth isn't historically limited to white/other.

    and after a million words i'll conclude by saying that i'm serious when i say i'm not sure- that wasn't my reading of it, but you could be right. i don't think it was an accident that cameron chose a color that no one on earth has, but perhaps that's besides the point if everyone viewing it will conclude that the na'vi are an obvious stand-in for native americans.

  10. It makes no sense at all that this white dude can just spring into a new culture and so thoroughly master its ways that he becomes their new world leader in THREE MONTHS.

    True, but that's another standard in sci-fi/fantasy that isn't always linked to race. in the beginning of star wars Luke is a farm-hand with no military experience- by the scroll of the second movie he's "the leader of the rebel alliance." shouldn't there be a bunch of people who have been associated with the alliance for years ahead of him in line? hell, the new star trek movie had kirk go from 'dude almost flunking out of space school' to 'getting the keys to the flagship' in 90 minutes. no one wants to watch a movie where the outsider joins up and takes a glorious position scrubbing toilets for the good guys.

    it's also been two months since i've seen it, but wasn't whatsisname basically just elevated to temporary warlord? i don't remember anything about him becoming a permanent king, unless that happened because of his thing with whatshername? anyways warlord seems like a pretty sensible position for him, given that hes the only one there who knows how evil space companies operate.

    but yeah, all of this does support your point about the laziness of the story, which i won't really dispute. cameron might be capable of more, although i'm not sure how much of the badassness of aliens came from him and how much came from the other writers.

  11. @6.54 I am not so sure about your second point. I think the protagonist's ability to manipulate the superstitions of this culture is dead on. And, may in fact be the most truthful part about this film in relation to human history. The relationship of Spanish conquistadors and Incas is the closest example I can think of. Pizarro and his men were thought to be viracocha cuna or “gods.” Although, the hero doesn't rape, kill, and pillage the na'vi so its not a perfect example. But, with that in mind I think it does seem more plausible.

  12. @ JN Brilliant! does avatar follow campbell's paradigm like star wars? I hadn't thought about it. Let us see:

    1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline (I would say another planet light-years away qualifies as adventure; a check there)
    2. A road of trials, regarding which the hero succeeds or fails(I think learning the ways of the Na'vi more than covers that; double check)
    3. Achieving the goal or "boon," which often results in important self-knowledge(oh yes, he learns there ways, and then some; triple check)
    4. A return to the ordinary world, again as to which the hero can succeed or fail(certainly, in the sense that being in a wi-fi avatar is unreal; a fourth check)
    5. Application of the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world (yup, and that is exactly how the movie ends; check number five)

    Seems to fit all five. Looks like they were right to predict this as another blockbuster. That literary device is just too sexy.

  13. 6.54, thanks for the review, and thank you all for the discussion, really entertaining.

    Granted it would have probably made more sense/been more meaningful if I'd seen the movie, but now this kind of forces me to do that!

  14. Oh, I don't fault the improbable hero thing particularly, though you must admit that Luke Skywalker is at least an order of magnitude more probable than Jake Sully. I mean, Luke is the son of the most powerful jedi in history and becomes a minor leader in a meritocratic portion of his own society by being good at the things he always did well (bullseyeing womp rats); Jake's just a normal guy, who's dropped into a new and largely unknown culture with zero training and accomplishes things that exist only in their legends, becoming their sole leader basically just by a show of strength (not intelligence).

    But the lack of realism is not the point. My problem is that the improbable story IS linked to race in this particular movie. Because the Na'vi look and act so much like the hollywood stereotype of indigenous cultures (and they do! that's exactly why they're good storytelling tropes!), a white-dominance-driven storyline is constructed that's deeply disrespectful to the real cultures on which the stereotypes are based. Although Avatar is far better than any 50s western I've seen, it sits firmly in this tradition.

    Nimsofa, you're making my point for me by talking about how the conquistadors were also viewed as godlike figures: the storytelling resources that Cameron is drawing on are precisely those of colonialism. He's smart enough (and liberal enough) to know that it would never fly to portray the invaders positively, so he went for the next best thing. Jake Sully's the IMF, not the conquistadors. But dominance is dominance.

    JN, I agree that Avatar is primarily about colonialism and not racism. I just think the fact that it's ostensibly anti-colonialism yet centers around one of the colonizers becoming the world leader of a tribal culture is a major disconnect – and a tellingly successful one, since America seems to love it. That it uses racial stereotypes to further its ends is another strike against it.

    Incidentally, Peter Jackson's movies (and possibly George Lucas's) are often more racist than Avatar. That movie Zulu I linked to earlier is one of Jackson's favorites, and King Kong is less a reference to last century's racist film techniques and more an explicit attempt to bring them back into filmmaking.

    If you want to talk about the elves, I'd say that you're just right that Jackson cashes in on some of the cliches I've been talking about. Though, ultimately their portrayal is simply not one of a tribal culture, which makes it less problematic: they're a monarchical civilization that happens to live in a forest, whereas the Na'vi are the unadulterated stereotype of tribal life. This isn't about skin color so much as culture, though the Na'vi do (purposely, I suspect) share some physical traits with the stereotypical american indian in ways that Jackson's elves did not.

    Pointing out more examples of these traits in other films, particularly if you don't limit it to science fiction (since when does SF get a pass on social issues?), will only reinforce my point that these traits are so perniciously common that filmmakers use them reflexively. Avatar is a particularly bad case, but it's certainly not the only one.

    I'm not sure what's going to convince you of this if reading that Pewewardy article didn't. Except that they're blue, the Na'vi are a more straightforward example of [an amalgamation of] racial stereotypes than anything I've seen in a recent major film. Except maybe Jar Jar Binks, but I think you'll agree with me about how much he sucks.

    You apparently don't find my list of attributes convincing; so what about the Pocahontas parallels that are at the heart of Pewewardy's piece?

  15. @JJ, Thanks! Enjoy getting angry at this with me... but don't pay $15 for it.

  16. “the storytelling resources that Cameron is drawing on are precisely those of colonialism.”

    Yeah and that’s kinda my point- the story is pure colonialism, which exists outside a simple white-on-other scheme. Today the Chinese are colonizing the shit out of Xinjiang- is Avatar racist against the Uyghurs, whose resources are being exploited? Is it racist against the Han, who are in a position most analogous to the corporation, which is greedy, ignorant, and has no regard for life? I think trying to analyze Avatar on specific racial terms is a mistake because the story draws bits from across history from people who are linked not by race but by the way they were dominated.

    We live in the USA so we see Native Americans in the na’vi because that’s the story we’re most familiar with. China became uncomfortable and actually pulled Avatar from theaters, with (highly suspect) claims that it was to reduce competition for the Confucius movie. Nimsofa mentioned a parallel with the Spanish conquest of south america. The corporation in Avatar uses strategies employed by colonizers in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia- areas which all have different, clashing stereotypes in the West.

    I just looked up Cameron talking about the na’vi- he says he was "attempting to create a race that was aspirational. The Na'vi represent the better aspects of human nature, and the human characters in the film demonstrate the more venal aspects of human nature." I think the whole point of having it in space is so that we can have idealized humans versus the worst of humans, not just Native Americans versus Europeans 2.0. Tree-huggers who place value on life instead of money, versus people who kill for mining access. To the extent that these values intersect with Noble Savage stereotypes, I think they are both powered to some degree by the same reaction to modern life and industrial society- but I’m not convinced that Cameron was creating blue cat space native Americans, instead of creating his version of blue space cat utopian human society.

  17. hmmm, I've never seen the movie either....

  18. Though it's certainly relevant, the racial element is neither the heart of my colonization argument, nor the primary reason for my negative review. I only talk about whiteness because that's what Avatar happens to be about (in some deeply telling ways). I'm certainly aware that other examples of lopsided power relationships exist; but the movie was made by an American with Americans in mind, drawing on a particular history of American films. It's completely fair to analyze it in those terms.

    That said, if you look back you'll find my critique is less focused on stereotypes of american indians in particular than it is indigenous cultures in general. The reason I bring up native american stereotypes so often is that Avatar's plot closely tracks that of Pocahontas, and there's been a large and easily accessible body of work on these particular stereotypes. But I'm happy to agree that there's as much "tribal african" in the Na'vi as native american.

    The fact that they're an amalgamation of a range of stereotypes doesn't necessarily make them contradictory. Of course, it would in real life. But that's exactly what makes stereotypes stupid.

    I'm also certainly open to the possibility that Avatar will have positive effects on how people view colonialism. I hope it does! But the film has major flaws on this level, flaws so deep that I consider them fatal. A story where the main character is a colonizer who dominates the natives by the end CANNOT be substantively anti-colonialism! Period. Do you really deny that this is the plot arc of the movie?

    And of course I'm aware that Cameron's a liberal – hence bringing up Aliens as evidence of his intentions. I'm not calling Avatar despicable because it's conservative, I'm saying that it's a failure on its own terms.

    And it's not like this has never been done. MOST science fiction has better success at doing this than Avatar. Shit, a world populated by people who put their noblest virtues first is the whole damn point of Star Trek.

  19. Basically it boils down to this: I found the movie's use of stereotypes in the furtherance of the self-forgiveness of white guilt unwatchably annoying. You didn't. I think at this point we're just treading water.

  20. @6.54, not sure if you knew this, but the links you provided no longer connect to a working website, could you resend those links? I'd be interested in checking them out

  21. But yo, that was a great argument, and I'm glad someone made me lay my critique out as explicitly as I could.

  22. @J.N.

  23. Well done, the unease set in for me as soon as the voice over began.

    Basically it is about a morally ruined man who can only "move" in his dreams.

    A lot of the time I thought I was watching a Busch Gardens commercial, complete with contextless irritating fake "African" music. I was wating to see a bunch of Na'vi or whatever the hell they were called riding a Roller Coaster across the screen.

    Didn't even make it to the end. Couldn't have cared less what happened.

    It kind of reminds me of Forest Gump. If you take a step back and resist our lazy modern delusional tendency to want a MOVIE to explain the world to you and help you feel good you'll see it is actually a rather repugnant piece of visually baroque drivel.

    That man's a corporate toady and, like Lucas, has lost his soul to CGI. His movies drown in the very things he seems to be challenging, just like George...