Wednesday, January 6, 2010

James Cameron's "Avatar"

I wasn't going to start out with a look at "Avatar", but it is quickly becoming one of the biggest money makers ever and thus will have a direct impact on our culture. I didn't take any notes, but as many reviews state, the story isn't all that difficult to digest, and the movie wears its heart on its sleeve.

I was fascinated by the racial undertones of the film, but the website io9 has already done pretty good job with its popular article entitled When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar? It is about "Avatar" being a racial fantasy of a white man becoming a better native than the natives.

If you don't know the story by now, let me do a quick summation. In the future, humans have run out of resources on Earth and are now searching for an extremely rare mineral with the unfortunate name of "unobtanium". This mineral is abundant on the alien moon Pandora, an world teaming with exotic life, including the Native American-like Na'vi. The Na'vi are 10 foot tall blue cat-like humanoids who commune harmoniously with the flora and fauna of their planet. They even have the ability to "plug-in" to the world and commune with other life forms like they belong to a living computer network.

In the midst of this world is the humans who want to raze the Na'vi village for the large deposit of unobtanium under the Na'vi's ancient sacred tree and village. They have created Na'vi bodies called "Avatars" and humans can place their consciousness into them and become a Na'vi themselves for short periods of time.

Enter Jake Sulley, a soldier confined to a wheel chair who takes over for his deceased brother in the Avatar program. He finds himself being terrificly suited for being a Na'vi avatar, and is reluctantly accepted into the Na'vi village. Of course, this causes problems with the private military commander, Colonel Quartich. He wants to run the Na'vi out of Dodge and take the mineral by force, and he doesn't care who gets hurt in the process.

In some ways, the colonel is one of the more interesting characters in the film. The interest is not in his complexity, but his utter lack of complexity. He is a stereotype, and a bit offensive at that. You would think that in 2009 and the days after the economic collapse, the "company man" would be the bad guy. While the company man isn't a good guy, he shows a little hesitation in wiping out the Na'vi village. The colonel, on the other hand, has no qualms about wiping out the Na'vi as fast and efficient as possible, with no concern for the life of his savages.

It's an interesting choice, and is one that, I suspect, plays very well oversees. The colonel is definitely American, and even southern. Why make him southern? Probably because the cliche is that all southerners are racist, so it's easier to buy a gruff talking southerner as the violent military commander. Once again, interesting because this movie makes a big deal about understanding other cultures, yet has no problem with upholding this one old stereotype.

As I mentioned before, I find it interesting to make the military guy the bad guy. In the United States today, our military is still fighting 2 wars and supporting our troops has been a sticking point in the national conversation. Why make the military guy the bad guy? It seems to me that it would have been more relevant to place the company man in the position of uncaring baddie and make the solider more sympathetic.

The movie tends to play like a video game, with the hero Jake Sully having to complete a series of levels before being accepted by the Na'vi and participating in the final battle. Jumping from limb to limb, taming and riding exotic creatures, and understanding the ways of Pandora all smack of video game storytelling, which is becoming more and more of a trend in Hollywood. Once he completes one task, he can move on the next, progressively more difficult task. By the end, he masters the skills of being a Na'vi, and is rewarded for his ability to adapt. Roll credits.

There is no denying that the movie is stunning visually, and that the point of the movie to be an amusement ride. The shallow story has obviously not stopped people from marveling at the amazing computer generated imagery of the film. For some Americans, though, I could imagine that the movie may be a little uncomfortable due to the negative stereotypes that we have tried so hard to get past throughout our history. Overseas, however, may not understand the depth of these stereotypes, especially since (I'm obviously making a big assumption here) they may see the colonel as more representative of the U.S. in recent times.

While stereotypes and cliches aren't always a bad thing and can help to establish a character quickly, filmmakers may want to be aware of portraying someone in an offensive way. It's not even purely about being offended, but it can take the viewer out of the story and make them dwell on the negativity.

1 comment:

  1. I would have to agree about the negative stereotypes of Avatar. For me it was quite annoying that the Na'vi tribe was a smooth mix of rural African and American Indian. And honestly, I didn't notice that the colonel was more of a bad guy. I thought he wanted to wipe out the tribe cause he was pissed that they scarred him, not so much him being a southerner. But your observation was an astute analysis. I saw it more as a one man venegance machine. But you took it somewhere new.

    Thanks for starting this blog. I'm glad. You should get paid for your reviews. That would be cool huh?