Irradiated by LabRat
So, I finally got around to seeing James Cameron’s shiny, shiny story of awesome blue cat-people in space versus human marines. It would be something of an understatement to say that I did not like it. I will grant it was a rather unique experience in that it made me furious from a diverse array of political perspectives, however.
A disclaimer: Yes, I know it was very pretty, and I probably would have been visually enthralled had I seen it in a theater. I did not see it in a theater. I saw it when the other artist in my tattoo studio decided that that would be what played on the shop TV during my and another fellow’s session, as apparently both he and Jason are of the “works better with something blowing up in the background” school. I sympathize, as I used to do homework with James Bond movies on in the background for this very reason. However, it also turned the experience of the movie from something I watched on a very large screen in comfort with popcorn, which puts me in a forgiving sort of mood, into something I watched on a rather small screen while Jason spent all three hours of it drilling on me, followed by a 90 minute car trip spent brooding on the movie rather than the throbbing in my leg. This did not put me in a forgiving sort of mood.
So, if you liked it, or feel it was awesome just as long as you remember not to take it seriously, this is probably not going to be the post for you, as I am about to take it spleen-bustingly seriously. Archives are to your right.
Before I start bitching, I want to make one point very clear: I did not invent any of the parallels I’m about to draw. The movie makes them explicitly, anvil-to-your-face definite and James Cameron backs them up in interviews. The movie is about imperialistic, technologically superior cultures beating up on indigenous cultures over resources, which in human history has mostly been white Europeans beating up on Africans and Native Americans. (Or at least, it has been from a European perspective, which Avatar is most *definitely* written from.) The Na’vi are stated in interviews to be our “aspirational selves” while the human space marines are stated to be our “self-destructive side”. Several visual and script references and parallels are made to Native American tribes and conflicts with Europeans and Americans, and African cultures. I ain’t reading anything in, it was written in: space marines = white imperialists, blue cat people = melanistic native people, and the cat-people are just plain better than the humans.
So, let’s talk about the plot. We don’t really need to be concern ourselves with spoilers, as the entire thing is played out in the trailers for the movie and absolutely nothing happens that any human who had been exposed to anything Hollywood has put out in the last seventy years would be remotely surprised by. Crippled soldier in a dystopian universe becomes part of a program designed to convince peaceful native people to move off a desired resource, science fiction elements ensue in which he is accepted among them and learns their ways, he falls in love with and nails the daughter of the tribal chief, the space marines and the evil corporation they’re working for get impatient and decide to wipe out the natives if they won’t move voluntarily, a giant drama bomb strikes the natives and the hero’s love life, he goes to redeem himself and save the native tribes by becoming a great warrior and new leader of the tribe, as all the previous ones and their successors have been killed off in the process.
This is Mighty Whitey the movie, the biggest and shiniest and most painfully straight version ever made. In literally three months, the protagonist of the movie- who only gains that status due to having more screen and story time than anyone else, as he is every bit as interesting as paint drying on a wall- goes from having the tribal nickname “Moron” to being way more awesome at being a Na’vi than any other Na’vi living and all but one or two dead.
A major plot point in the movie is that when they become adults and fully-fledged hunters of the tribe, they bond with a flying dragon thing as their inseparable animal companion, which of course is accomplished by jumping it, having a big fight, and then sticking their USB cables into its brain until it calms down. Later on while flying around, they meet a much bigger dragon thing that they have to escape from, which the tribal chieftain’s daughter dutifully explains later has only been tamed and bonded with by a few of the tribe’s great chiefs in history, who later on go on to unite the tribes and do… something, if they bothered to explain why this was done or what results it gained was I was preoccupied. I kind of doubt they did, as plot points in this movie mostly exist to explain the next one.
Later on in the movie, the hero and a mentorish character are revealed as agents of the “Sky People” right before said Sky People come in and blow the living shit out of the Na’vi’s home tree. There is a very big and very sad scene where the tribal chieftain gets killed by a flying plot device and his daughter screams her lungs out at the hero, naturally feeling a mite betrayed after the love story. It’s a pretty bad moment, seeing as how he was deceiving them the whole time, isn’t even the same species as his love interest, and his actual species has just come in and rained firey death on his hosts.
There are more problems for both the Na’vi and the protagonist due to the love triangle plot. The Na’vi have arranged marriages, and since such things are usually conducted along lines of social status, of course the chief’s daughter is betrothed to the young warrior next in line to lead the tribe. Naturally no one has any problem with her spending all her time with the hero right up until she mates with him and seals their bond before the eyes of God (kind of literally, actually). It’s a fairly big deal and probably would have caused a lot of drama had the marines not interrupted with gunships.
How does the hero resolve both his relationship troubles and the shattered bond of trust between himself and his adoptive tribe? Do you really have to ask? He goes out and jumps on the big dragon thing and flies back to the Na’vi with his epic mount, thus impressing the superstitious natives and solving everything.
And it really does solve all of those problems. His love interest forgives him instantly. The rest of the tribe immediately accepts that this means he’s really on their side. As for the guy who WAS going to lead the tribe as the chieftain’s successor and whose betrothed he just swooped in on, he forgives the hero too the second the hero tells him he’s a great warrior and he can’t succeed without him. (No evidence of this whatsoever has been given so far, as this guy’s entire role has been alternately guffawing and scowling.)
The hero takes his great big dragon and impresses all the other Na’vi tribes and unites them to fight against the space marines. He has a touching moment with his tentacle in the world tree representing the Na’vi’s god (which is somewhat literal) praying for victory and questioning said god’s existence at once. There is a massive flying-dragons-and-arrows-versus-gunships battle that even I was diverted by while it was going on, and when things seem to be going as inevitably terrible for the arrows and dragons side as you’d think, the planet decides it’s had about enough and sics all the wildlife on the marines, thus turning the tide of battle. The Na’vi boot the surviving marines and their corporate master off the planet*, and the planet-god turns the hero permanently into a Na’vi via… means. Mass prayer plus USB.
It was really the uniting-the-tribes scene that took me from cheerily snarking at a bad movie while being tattooed that I went from that frame of mind to being simply furious with the movie. Just in case I’d missed the earlier parallels, the hero makes an explicit reference to recruiting the “horse peoples of the plains”. There are no horses on Pandora, though there are horselike creatures, which prior to that point had been called by their own name and never referred to as “horses”. There are no plains that we’ve seen, though we can probably take the movie’s word that there are, somewhere, plains. What it is is an explicit elbow to the viewers’ ribs to the American Plains Indians, the nomadic tribes of which adopted horses more thoroughly than any other native group and eventually defined their culture around them.
That was when it hit me: I was watching the movie’s version of the ghost dance, and that the subsequent battle would be Wounded Knee- only this time led by a white guy instead of a native. And, naturally, successful this time. Not merely because this time it was a white guy in a blue suit. Because the white guy in the blue suit had been, for no reason shown or suggested, chosen by God as more worthy than anyone else to save the Na’vi and lead the people. There’s nothing that fantastic about Jake Sully as Na’vi go, except he’s better at everything they do than they are and God just likes him more. No unfortunate racial or historical implications here WHATSOEVER.
This would make me less angry if it weren’t for the fact that it would have been easy to retain the story almost entirely as it was and have one of the Na’vi be the one to jump the dragon, lead the people, and act out the planetary god’s plans. Nothing about the story made it actually necessary for the hero to have that role as well as his role as the outsider and traitor-for-a-just-cause; it was simply assumed implicitly by the writers that the viewers would like the story more as “white guy dominates the natives the nice way and they love him for it”. It also would have been easy for him to show live-savingly superior skill at combat or tactics by virtue of his outside perspective and knowledge of the marines- but he doesn’t. He does everything the Na’vi way, just better.
Something else backing the human hero’s role up a bit and beefing up a Na’vi’s would have accomplished is correct another problem with the story with some unfortunate implications: there are really only two Na’vi, sorted by gender and plot purpose. Male
native people Na’vi are Angry Warrior Guy. Female Na’vi are Temperamental Spiritual Chick. (The “hot-blooded” kind of temperamental in the case of the fuckable ones, the scary kind in the ones too old for that.) The Na’vi aren’t really characters, they’re a series of talking plot devices- which is, again, very unfortunate in a movie whose explicit premise is a science fiction conflict between Euro-American imperialists and an indigenous tribe. It’s well and good to write about the natives winning their just cause in contrast to the way history has gone and the imperialist cultural justifications at the time, but if you just trade your Savages in for Noble Savages instead of trying to depict people it really doesn’t wind up working too well.
Of course, the marines don’t really fare much better when it comes to being depicted as people. Cameron has created a very literal “military-industrial complex” to be the villains in his movie; it’s never explained WHY, but the marines, including their badass commander, are taking all their orders from a smarmy corporate guy in a tie. Presumably they’re some sort of mercenary force, but all the “ooh-rah” and customary marine jargon is kept intact, rather implying that Cameron thinks this is the way things already are. (Said commander going on to babble about “shock and awe” tactics and battling the “terror” of the Na’vi rather ham-handedly shores this up.) Needless to say, when the order goes out to just slaughter the Na’vi, the marines all cheer except for one who’s had contact with the scientists researching the planet, who are the only sympathetic humans besides the hero in the movie.
Really, the one marine who does join the hero in defending the Na’vi is the only character I could really sympathize with in the entire movie. The hero just wants to become one of the Na’vi, which is also basically true of all the scientist characters, who spent the entire first half of the movie pouring contempt on the marines, including the hero. Trudy the gunship pilot doesn’t want to be a Na’vi and doesn’t hate her own species, she joins the rebels solely because killing helpless people is wrong. As she was not fucking the hero and doesn’t want to be a Na’vi, needless to say she does not survive the movie.
I could rant on about some of its other unfortunate messages- like “curiosity is bad and parochialism is good if you’re already awesome”, “any knowledge you don’t intuit or receive from tradition and god is worthless and potentially dangerous”, and “violence is bad unless you’re shooting strangers you don’t recognize”- but I’ve gone on for more than two thousand words now and I think I’m about ranted out.
Also, I want a giant battle suit. And to be able to substitute rage for oxygen. Seriously, that climactic battle scene was freaking cool anyway.
*Missing from the movie for plot reasons is the suggestion that sending your technologically superior and extremely pissed off enemies into space, which is full of giant rocks they have the means to drop on your head, can be an extremely poor tactical decision.