30 January 2010


I saw this again tonight, in 3-D IMAX.  It gave me a bit of a headache... that's a lot of stimulation to take in.  But it also gave the opportunity to do more than "sit there stunned" like the previous time I saw it.  I also started to think about the movie.

It's entirely valid to think that movies and entertainment don't mean anything or shouldn't mean anything.  You may roll your eyes at any suggestion otherwise.  That's fair.  But I disagree.

Spending time immersed in a story and becoming emotionally attached to the characters and ideals therein has an effect on you.  You're not going to walk into Avatar an industrialist and walk out an ecoterrorist, but spending so much time sympathizing with the a group of people means you're going to begin to be inclined towards their point of view.

As for the environmental message, I'm all for that.  I thought that part of the movie was a little preachy, actually - there was little subtlety to the "military-industrial complex bad, natives good" theme.  But no one ever accused Avatar of trying to even come within arms-length of subtlety.  This is a movie that slaps you around with bright colors, vast vistas of landscape, and a simple message overall message.

But I have been thinking about the other elements of the movie.  Obviously, the Na'vi are a very thinly-veiled pastiche of native peoples from many places, although predominantly they appear to represent Native Americans.  This isn't too much of a revelation, I'm sure, any more than it would be if I pointed out that there were "horses," "pterodactyls," "rhinos," "monkeys," and "panthers."  Slapping a shiny skin and an extra pair of limbs on was the usual approach.  All of these elements have an important role to play: they make it much easier to relate to the movie.  We know how we feel about horses and how cute monkeys are.  It's not even much of a stretch to imagine how awesome it would be to ride a pterodactyl, although the greater amount of foreignness there required a much larger amount of screen time to accommodate us.  The technology was nothing revelatory, either - the internet age is familiar enough with "avatars" and robo-suits not to blink.  And everyone feels badly for what was done to the Native Americans and what is still being done to the indigenous tribes of South America and Africa.

Very little was unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

This makes a lot of sense.  It's really easy to relate to familiar things, and this was all familiar with just enough wonder and strangeness to make it exotic.  Nor am I saying it would have been better if it was unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

But it does have implications.

Part of the problem with everything being recognizable is that it's very easy to transfer.  Someone who loves big cats will probably love the big shiny panther in Avatar, for example (although some others may find the creature off-putting in comparison).  And our sympathy for the Cherokee transfers very easily to a blue people who have to walk their own Trail of Tears.  Does it go the other way, too?

The Na'vi are essentially the "noble savage" made flesh.  They reject modern medicine and technology in all forms, and embrace a pantheism that rules their lives.  Their noble primitive wisdom eventually proves to be true, and the modern world is rejected in shame.  But I think these ideas wouldn't have gone as smoothly if the Na'vi hadn't also been blue aliens on another planet.

So what the movie says about the Na'vi, it seems to me it will also naturally imply about Native Americans and other indigenous peoples.  And in that regard, it's a little sad that the Na'vi are such a bland stereotype.  War whoops, bows-and-arrows from horses, war paint, shaman and chief leadership, no crafts or technology beyond simple beads.

Our stereotyped idea of panthers get shiny skin and extra legs.  Our stereotyped idea of pterodactyls get bright spots and extra wings. And our stereotyped idea of native peoples get a color change and a few more feet of height.

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