Just saw Avatar. Quick thoughts. Execution, great. Technology and visuals, revolutionary. Story, tired. Cultural implications, huge. Lots of spoilers, though I feel like I’m one of the last folks on earth to see Avatar.
I’ll concentrate on the cultural implications of the movie. One can totally see what James Cameron is trying to do here – to show another culture in a protagonistic light, to welcome the audience into this “exotic” and different culture, to get us to relate to the characters, their plight, to make us feel their pain when their home is destroyed. He even goes as far as to make Jake Sully choose to abandon his (Western) culture to join the Navi (what I feel is simply a shortened version of “Native” or, in other words “primitive” – I know this point can be argued).
So there’s this clear dichotomy between Western culture and non-Western, primitive, “Indian”-like culture – cultures traditionally placed on a power scale in which Western culture is seen as superior. Avatar puts a lot of effort in stressing that the culture of guns and technological advancement is not necessarily superior – a point we are duly convinced of by the end of the film. By the end of the film, we, like Jake Sully, are drawn into this exotic culture, and we embrace it as a culture that, within this fictional world, is better than the gun-toting, tree-blasting military officials that represent the Western world. And then we go back to our own Western world, our consumerisms, our commodifications, our very Western-centric culture.
As a matter of fact, Avatar puts us, the audience, in a privileged position to embrace a “primitive”, “inferior” culture. By the end of the movie, we give ourselves pats on the back for being open-minded enough to see that a non-Western culture is superior to our own.
Here’s where things get problematic. The protagonists, the natives – they’re visually (and aurally at times) portrayed as aliens, different, foreign. Here’s that thing with system and culture again. System being what we’re told, culture being what we internalize and feel. Sure, at the end of the movie, in an almost tongue-in-cheek way, the humans are called “aliens”. But, dude. They LOOK like us. That we can’t deny. We’re just not blue, lanky creatures with pointy ears and flat noses.
Good for us for embracing a culture so very different from our own. Good for us for accepting the visually (and underlying tones of racially) and culturally different groups. But this film PUTS us in this position of privilege, PUTS us in this place where we can be entertained by the struggles of the Navi, and yes, even relate to them in some way. But the fact that we feel good about relating to a culturally different group (and then using that for commercial gain – James Cameron, once he breaks even, will be making bank) carry with it invisible, subconscious reinforcement of the pre-existing cultural power structures in place as it relates to the Western world and how the Western world perceives and relates to non-Western cultures. In the case of Avatar, these cultures become appropriated through the narrative, and appropriated by us, even being represented by Jake Sully taking on the form of a Navi by the end of the film. We each become a Jake Sully by the end of the film. But at the end of the day, only a Western protagonist can really save the day. Only a Western guy can change himself, and thereby change the world.
Furthermore on the two-dimensionality of the Navi, the film falls into that dangerous polarized categorization of good guys and bad guys. By making the “bad guys” (the humans) SO bad, while the Navi can do no wrong (there wasn’t even a bad Navi who went to the side of the humans – but of course, our human protagonists side with the Navi) – that’s a bit overcompensation, don’t you think? That, or all Navi are homogenously earth-loving and good-doing. Or victimized.
I’m not going to belabor the point more – I think I already have. I will say, though, it was a very enjoyable three hours, but the 3D aspect of it is completely unnecessary.