Spoiler alert! I’m about to spoil the whole movie; so if you care stop reading.
In the early 1960s Rod Serling observed that, in his teleplays, he could have aliens say things that Democrat and Republican characters could not. From that observation sprang “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “Eye of the Beholder,” two rapier sharp and thoroughly mainstream denunciations of McCarthyism as goosed by the Twilight Zone.
Similarly, once public opinion turned squarely against Generalissimo Bush’s Iraq War II in 2007, Hollywood responded with harsh, realistic films like “Stop Loss” and “In the Valley of Elah” that attempted to demonstrate the difficult sensations of that quagmire. While the films had no problem stating their political purpose they failed to resonate financially and intellectually with the polity. Like Serling, James Cameron has found surrealism to be a simpler path to an effective political polemic. Avatar is an over-the-top unapologetic left-wing hook — a parting swipe at the miserable Bush Aughts.
The plot to Avatar is simple and predictable: think “Dances with Wolves” meets the Endor battle scene in “Return of the Jedi”, with a generous pinch of “Dune” flavoring the whole stew. Time and again, the surrealism of the venture rescues its tougher political points. The vaguely Afro-Polynesian-Native American dandruff-shampoo-blue hued Na’vi are almost too precious in their literal oneness with their planet — they embody the simplistic deification of indigenous people that a dreadlocked freshman white dude might trumpet in between bong hits in his dorm room at an obscure small liberal arts college in southern California. As glorious as the cultures of obscure tribes in the Amazon may be, would this dreadlocked Strawman give up his sedan, dorm room and zip locked narcotics to become a Tree Person? Of course not. Unlike Amazonian tribes, however, the Na’Vi are not human. Using the biological UBC cord in the Na’vi’s ponytail to mindmeld with the local fauna happens to be the logical way to get by on this imaginary world. Here the 3D aspect of the flick is also vital, as it creates an otherworldly sensation of size, scope and gravity. The texture of the 3D surrealism allows the Na’Vi’s actions to be a demonstration of how to live on their planet, rather than being a neo-luddite scold about how humans should live on Earth. This allows the truth of the films’ strongest rhetorical punches — “there is no green left there”; “they destroyed their planet” — to land without being undermined by their facile moralizing.
Far more interesting than the Na’Vi are the “villains”. I use the worry quotes because Avatar does nothing to Otherize the human inobtanium Colonizers of Pandora and the Na’Vi . The Oppressors in this case are a private mining company replete with a military wing. The fact that they are almost all white and speak with an American (not British!) accent is surely no mistake. Lets face it, there have been lots of white American colonizers in the scope of human history. At no point does the leader of this venture disobey orders from high command and go too far in his inobtanium conquest, thereby showing himself to be a rogue amongst otherwise noble people. None of the bad guys commit any sort of destruction or rape or act of private unconscionable immorality that reveals their evil souls. In the climax of the movie, when the Colonizers destroy a precious tree to get at the inobtanium underneath to the dismay of the Na’Vi, they appear distressed by what they have done. The leader is a smart corporate project manager type that does not appear far removed from a protagonist in a contemporary TV procedural drama. The military leader is the sort of square-jawed mix of violence and cunning that is the star stuff of a million action movie heroes. When he hollers “we will fight terror with terror” and the Colonizers do just that he is simply revealing the complicity that all of us not bad Americans share in Iraq War II, whether we thought it was a good idea at the time or not. Avatar does not let the average American off the hook in the way that most entertainments do.
Some have argued that there is a racist element to the white marine avatared Na’Vi leading the Afro-Polynesian-Native American real Na’Vi in their fight against the Colonizers because this shows that “indigenous peoples” were not up to this task themselves. The other jaw of the “white savior” trope is that it allows the oppressors to redeem themselves by becoming one with the Natives; this is the soft way that “Dances With Wolves” Otherized the white Union Army but forgave the crowd that was busy sympathizing with Kevin Costner’s character. Here the surrealism of the movie distills its politics. Our hero doesn’t join the Na’Vi’s culture; he literally becomes one of them. In so doing he acts, in the final battle scene, as a missing link to a more “natural” state of being rather than an industrial one. In Avatar, humans cannot meld cultures with the Natives, or simply find the capacity to treat them right and be down with them as we all are now, of course. You either are one, or a rare select friend, or you are not.
The final scene of the movie is a Trail-of-Tears-like procession of not quite villainous white Americans being frog stomped back into their spaceship and off Pandora. Like the whole movie it is very predictable, but one only realizes how unusual such a scene is when one sees it.
Avatar is painted with a broad brush and is over the top and unapologetic in its moralizing. In it’s audacity, and beneath its pyrotechnics and holy moly 3D, it offers a mule kick in the solarplexis about the kind of violence and imperialism that most Americans know about but rarely pause to consider.
Bravo Mr. Cameron! Bravo!