I watched Avatar last night. I was curious about the movie for its technical achievement and the sci-fi dealing with imperialism story theme, but 15 minutes through the movie though, the main question in my mind was: puke now or puke later?
The film is discomforting and dated in its colonial, imperialist politics. Basically, paralysed former Marine ends up controlling his deceased identical twin brother’s Avatar (body made from combined human-alien DNA, remote-controlled using the human’s brain) on an alien planet called Pandora. There, he ends up “going native,” hooking up with the chief’s daughter, selling out the locals, and then redeeming (not in my eyes) himself by stopping the Earthmen from destroying the planet for resources. He then completes the going-native cliche by submitting to the Mother-Earth-Divine-Goddess deity of the locals to permanently become one of them. Uh, yeah.
Nothing we haven’t seen before, right? It’s Pocahontas, but with blue aliens. Add a bunch of cliched sci-fi tropes, sprinkle in a Nature-über-alles moral, hit up the Westerns for bad-guy dialogue ideas, and there you have it. Except for the racial politics: the local Pandorans, called the Na’vi, are of course, black.
Some of them speak English with really bad African accents (is it Nigerian? Ghanaian? Moroccan?), wear regalia lifted piece-by-piece from turn-of-the-century – not this century, the last one – photographs of the Masai (down to the hairstyles and beaded chokers), have a pattern of brightly-coloured dots on their skins a la tribal scarification, and their warpaint looks suspiciously like the manhood rituals of some South African tribes. The Na’vi are referred to as savage and primitive (by the military and corporate characters), fetishised for their relationship to Nature (by the female lead scientist, a role Sigourney Weaver was wasted in) or idolised by the male lead, Jake Scully (all one word to the Na’vi).
There are tribal prayer scenes that bring to mind the drumming circles at Trinity-Bellwood Park on a Tuesday night. Scantily clad natives contrasted by the civilised white scientist who maintains her decency, wearing t-shirts and hiking boots as an avatar. Trilling, snarling in anger, and exposure of fangs, animalistic displays of emotions by the Na’vi. There are several tests of belonging, which JakeScully aces, until he becomes an outcast whereby he gets back into the good books by claiming a legend. JakeScully then experiences hero-worship from all the Na’vi, including his former arch-nemesis.
To me, the sketchiness of the film’s politics can be summarised in one line, screamed at JakeScully by the cowboy/general during their final confrontation:
“How does it feel to betray your race?”
Dude, these are aliens, which makes the correct word here “species.” Then again, the actors playing the lead aliens are all black (save one, who’s Cherokee), so I guess it might be an accurate statement. We have the wise and benevolent chief, his wife, the spiritual woman (who dismisses what she does as being voodoo or witch doctoring, when all her performances are white interpretations of both), the daughter – alien hotness promised to the leading warrior who she ditches to take a chance on JakeScully being alpha male. Because this movie plays up to colonial fantasies, we know that JakeScully is the alpha male, and the lead warrior is nothing but the noble savage provided for contrast.
I had (mistakenly) thought we had advanced past all the imperialist colonial fantasies, but judging from the response to Avatar and Cameron’s interview quotes, we are not. Space, the final frontier, I guess. Colonialism apparently left no lessons behind for those in power, only those oppressed.
Worth noting: subplots commenting on (dis)ability; performances of the male; the planet as mother; corporate greed chaperoned by military might.