Some interesting critiques of Avatar

I thoroughly enjoyed Avatar, and was at the same time unsettled by a few things: the technocentric metaphor of the "planetary network" on Pandora, the way redemption and success largely comes through violence, and a few other things. It's not a grand film in the sense of deep character study or original plotting, but let's not forget that this is a movie, where image and movement matter--and for those like me who enjoy a bit of the Sublime in their moviegoing experience--Avatar is not just eye candy. The visual (and aural) component of this film does a better job of immersing you in an imagined Edenic-and-exotic extraterrestrial world than anything I've seen yet. It is meant to be consumed visually, and it's an offering within the genre of science fiction, and a very specific and longstanding subgenre thereof--not Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov, but Anne McCaffrey's dragonriders, Andre Norton's juvenile novels of Witch World, and Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom. If anything, it takes that genre and gives it a harder edge by inserting the realpolitik of imperialism and global capitalism.

In our world, Gaia has never come to the aid of the indigenes as she does in The Emerald Forest, or as Eywa sends help to the Na'vi in Pandora. At least, not as dramatically, though one might look at cancer rates and climate change from such a perspective (certainly you'd not be the first to attribute calamities to human hubris and a higher power). But as satisfying as the final counterattack is in Avatar, it rings hollow from the standpoint of allegory, because if this is a cautionary tale about our behavior towards less powerful people and/or Nature, that ain't gonna happen here.

Though I think she goes too far (and exudes a callow snark), Maria Bustillos makes a valid point about movies like Avatar and Dances With Wolves: the white guy turns native and ends up being their hero: a recurring trope that helps expiate White Guilt. Annalee Newitz in Gawker carries the argument further to stories like Dune, and makes a telling point by contrasting this with the "white guy turns native" theme in District 9, whose protagonist has a decidedly less heroic story. In most such movies, Newitz argues, the white changeling's rise to hero among the natives is a way of retaining white privilege while simultaneously purging guilt--a having-the-cake-and-eating-it solution that is certainly common in the pat resolutions of Hollywood "message" movies.

There is plenty of that in Avatar, and plenty of fodder for critiques of racial and gender stereotyping and Othering. But to leave it at that is to oversimplify the movie and to disparage the ability of people to read the film in more critically empowering ways.

One of these alternative readings is argued by Louis Proyect, who looks at Avatar as a surprisingly subversive anti-Imperialist film, despite all its aggrandizement of machinery and violence. Even more striking is the reading proposed by a commenter on that same blog, who goes by the login of ceti (ha!). Italics are mine in the following:

The cliches in Avatar are far too obvious to be not intentional. As a blockbuster it has to be fairly unsubtle if it means to deliver a message to those who need it most--the gamer/grunts who will fill the ranks of the US Army/military contractors of the future. Indeed, both Robocop and Starship Troopers were supposed to be allegories for authoritarian corporatist futures, but the satire was too subtle for most.
Here's more:
I commented on this at io9 and basically stated it is fairly obvious that Avatar follows some very common tropes in Hollywood depictions of colonial struggles. Add to this Gandhi where white actors played a disproportionately large role, or Waltz with Bashir which is told through the eyes of Israeli soldiers as opposed to Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, and many other examples. The expiation of guilt is a common theme, as is transgressing the boundary between oppressor and oppressed. Even the assumption of leadership is quite common. Just watch The Mission.
However, so have these hand-wringing commentaries about white guilt become fairly predictable. They come out after every film in this genre. Not to say they are unwarranted, but they have also become part of the dialectic of this type of filmmaking.
What I find uncharitable though is that these films are indeed difficult to get past Hollywood's ideological filters. Cameron's reputation guaranteed that he'd be able to work on this film for four years with wads of cash. Additionally, Cameron’s use of new CGI tech allowed him to bypass the one big controlling factor in films of this magnitude and with this many battle scenes--the fact that the US military is often involved one way or another and thus massages the message so to speak. In Avatar, the US Marines really do get their asses handed to them which would have been impossible if the Defense Department was consulted.
As for Cameron, Avatar marks a very interesting evolution. In fact, Avatar plays as the inverse of Aliens, as well as serves as his damning comment on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Western civilization as a whole. While the spoken references are fairly obvious there are also some no less unsubtle visual cues from Vietnam to Native American cultures. The female Na'vi even ululate when going into battle. Some other clues abound--the Colonel mentions he is a veteran of campaigns in Venezuela and Nigeria, which points to continual 21st and 22nd century resource wars that eventually wreck the planet.
And it's true that Jake Sully represents and relates to the average boy gamer/grunt who the US Army today wants to enlist as their future soldiers. The technical wizardry of the film is for this demographic, but the storyline intends to lead them away from their technological terror to embracing an indigenous/treehugger perspective. Hokey and cliched as it might seem at first, I think Cameron's intention is to subvert this very militaristic segment of the population and invert they way they see their world. I think there is strong evidence for this intent other than serving as a lame explanation for why Avatar's plot is so contrived. Rather than catering to the more sophisticated crowd which could probably take offense as the unsubtle script, it is the former group that needs the most enlightening before they march off to another colonial war.
This is a pretty startling analysis, but the comparison to Verhoeven's films is worth considering, as is the observation about the military's role in movies that make substantial use of military hardware. The military forces in Avatar sure look a lot like modern day American soldiers, but is that who they are? What government do they represent? Are they even soldiers, or are they hired mercenaries? One doesn't see the U.S. Army "getting its ass handed to them" in many films, and there is plenty of ass-handing in Avatar that could easily be read as an anti-Imperialist revenge fantasy.

(And perhaps that explains the almost comical swagger and pronounced headlessness of the AMP suits worn by the soldiers?)

Hardly the tarted-up dose of the usual corporatism that some have decried in the movie. Who is, finally, the movie's intended rhetorical (not commercial) audience? Is it young men (and women) like Jake Sully and Trudy Chacon, the rebellious pilot?

Interesting things to speculate about. For all its flaws, I think the movie complicates the genre rather than being easy to classify, and I'm excited by its more progressive critical readings, like the ones suggested by ceti. But when all's said and done, I'm a Cartesian modernist at heart, and so I'm in love with the visual feast that is Avatar--the forest, the Roger Dean-esque Hallelujah Mountains, the delightful bestiary, and of course, the hardbodied runway-thin Na'vi, whose size and strength are an almost perfect match for the way de Soto et al, et seq described the Apalachee.

But maybe it wasn't written for me.


Prezi + Video + Machinima

Ubercompression on the intro and outro videos in this piece, so if you want to see better versions of those, click the embeds below. But try the Prezi first.


Where to find me these days

I seem to have fallen off the blogwagon completely, partly due to a sudden uptick of activity among friends & family on Facebook. Status updates and shared links there have become an easier outlet for my thoughts & rants. I considered redesigning jsclark.net, but just don't yet have the time.

So for now, here's where to keep up, if you so desire. In many of these venues you can friend me, subscribe to an RSS feed, or otherwise pull the info to a page you check regularly.

My Twitter updates feed into my Facebook status, so there's no need to list it separately. I also participate in the "more serious" social networking services LinkedIn and Academia.edu.

I also have a Slideshare page and a Youtube profile (where I hope to be uploading some more Second Life machinima soon).

Second Life
Look for me as JS Saltwater, or find my nature parcel by searching in-world for "Tallahassee Beach."

I'm pretty good at tagging interesting pages that I run across, but be warned it's a motley collection. I also try--with less success--to keep my LibraryThing data current.

That's all I can think of at the moment, but I'll come back and edit this post if anything else occurs to me.