Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Warning: Spoilers!

So, Avatar is taking some flack for being unoriginal and racist: the latter accusation is usually couched in terms like "noble savage" and "magical Negro".

As for unoriginal—well, yeah. I'm not willing to go so far as Steve Perry, who claims it's not possible to write anything original: it all depends how fine you want to slice it. But SF movies typically deal with the Big Ideas that print SF was dealing with thirty to fifty years ago. It's not profitable, I think, to spend time and energy arguing over whether Avatar was more ripped off from Ursula LeGuin, Poul Anderson, or Andre Norton (or fill in your own candidate), not to mention legions of nameless pulp cover artists. It's also clear that Cameron intended Avatar to be at least partly an unobtainium-fueled homage to classic SF and the SF fan community.

As for racist?

On the face of it, that seems like a ridiculous accusation given that the humans/whites are the Bad Guys. By movie logic, that's all you need to know, right? But there are subtler forms of racism than, for instance, the kill-the-Japs logic of WWII-era propaganda movies. Look at Walkabout: the Aborigine character is ostensibly the hero, but since he neither speaks English nor generates subtitles, he's effectively voiceless. His opinions on life and the universe appear to merit no attention. It's a "good" stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless.

So, what about Avatar? Well, the "magical Negro" claim just doesn't hold up. Typically the "magical Negro" (substitute any minority) sacrifices her- or himself, or is sacrificed, to save the white characters, in this case the humans. But, if you've seen the movie, you know that salvation for the human race is not on offer. In fact it's possible (though not mandatory) to interpret the ending as suggesting that humanity is doomed, trapped on a dying planet without enough resources to sustain a space colonization program. Humankind is sacrificed to save Pandora and the Na'vi.

The trope at work in Avatar is technologically superior humans vs. morally superior aliens. This is a very old SF theme, in fact I would call it one of the founding themes: if you're not picky about genre boundaries you can see it as far back as Dunsany. Literarily, it probably does owe a lot to Rousseau's "noble savage" idea. But I think it deserves to be seen in context, as a rejection of one of the other common SF tropes: that technological advantage confers moral superiority. Tech-empire as Manifest Destiny: the point of view represented by the corporatary types in Avatar.

Neither of these tropes really lends itself to nuance. It's interesting to compare Avatar to District 9, which touched on many of the same themes—but the aliens there were technologically superior, with space flight and mysteriously powerful biotech. That context made it possible, I think, to offer a little more moral complexity.

District 9 was a riskier movie in many ways: the aliens were much less humanlike, less likable by our standards of cute and cuddly, and one could honestly say they represented a credible threat to Earth (not the castaways with their barely functional ship, but the presumably numerous and powerful home planet). Peter Jackson is brave enough to argue that we should treat aliens compassionately and respectfully even under those circumstances. Cameron didn't go that route. He's also making way more money than Jackson did with District 9—but then, it's not as if Jackson needs to worry about dying in poverty.

The claim's been made that all of the actors who portrayed human characters in Avatar were white, while all or most of the actors who played Na'vi were not. (Seems to me the actor who played the helicopter pilot had a Hispanic last name, though.) If it's true it's a bit disturbing—but you could take the first half as a sinister suggestion that all of Earth's nonwhite people have been killed off or marginalized to the point that they aren't trusted on space missions.

(Actually, how many nonwhites have we put into space? Darned few. Possibly that's Cameron's point: the future of Avatar definitely isn't the happily multiracial future that we see in Star Trek.)

As for the second half, there are a couple of possible explanations: Cameron felt that minority actors would get inside the whole oppression/exploitation thing better than white actors; Cameron wanted to offer minority actors an opportunity, and since they were going to be heavily CGIed their looks wouldn't matter that much; there was some quality of movement or appearance he was looking for that white actors couldn't supply even with the CGI; or it just kind of turned out that way. I dunno. I'm not sure I can buy the last one, and all the rest leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it was just that, having decided the human half of the movie would be all (or mostly) white, he wanted some balance.

The point that really bothers me is that the Na'vi seem helpless to do anything for themselves without human leadership. One can talk about the difference between battlefield warfare and guerilla warfare, between a soldier's training and warrior culture: one can reasonably argue that the information and expertise supplied by the humans was indispensable to the Na'vi resistance. But there's no reason one of the Na'vi couldn't have captured the uberdragon and become the war-leader. What if that had been the female lead? With the humans as her trusty strategic advisors? Wouldn't that have been a fun twist?—and frankly rather more empowering.

As a story, Avatar was good but not great. One big weakness I see is that the main character has everything to gain and nothing to lose by switching sides. It would have been a much more interesting movie if he'd had something to live for on the human side—a girlfriend, family, a healthy body. Or, if there had actually been anything honorable about the human position. As it stands, he would have had to be both stupid and amoral to stay with the humans.

As a movie, of course, it rocked. The bar for CGI has officially been raised (again). Sigourney Weaver just gets better and better. And you have to love a planet with tubeworms for shrubbery.

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