-Avatar Review

February 11, 2010

by Tina Shannon

Navi Protest in Palestine

Palestinians dressed as the Na’vi from the film Avatar stage a protest against Israel’s separation barrier. Go to link below to view slide show.


by Tina Shannon

Avatar is a movie that let’s you settle in and take sides. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. You might think it’d be a downer that being human is pretty much synonymous with being a bad guy in this film. Not so.

Admittedly, the war-machine society visited upon the planet Pandora is all too recognizable. Right away we know that we are looking at a reflection of our own predicament. Even the humans doing research to understand the native Na’vi culture, and sympathetic to the Na’vi, are subordinate to the military objective of grabbing Pandora’s resources.

But as the film continues, we are offered an out. Yes, we poor humans sitting in the movie theatre are stuck in our real lives trying to wrest our means of living from a war machine very much like the one on the screen. Yet for the duration of the film we are allowed to escape by identifying with the glorious Other.

In this case the Other is a graceful, physically-fluid human-like creature, the Na’vi, embedded in an emerald green world of nature. We are given a man to act as intermediary for us, a man who has lost use of his legs and goes through the process of switching sides.

Sure, there are some pretty scary (and in the end extraordinarily powerful) wild things roaming the woods, but the Great Mother is watching over us all. And harmony is not only possible, but is attained right before our eyes. Emotionally we enter this world, and we sense the possibility of alternatives to what we have. We are not asked to think about what it would be like to live differently; we are given a chance to experience it.

Now, I may be leading you to believe this movie is a bunch of fluff, well designed to emotionally serve an audience of stressed and alienated moviegoers who are not getting their share of harmony on this planet. But what’s so bad about that? Let me say thank you to the director, James Cameron. A little relief is in order every now and then.

Avatar is so well designed that the computer generated images flow seamlessly with the live action shots. The 3D images are incorporated into the fabric of the film, not used as special effects. The movie takes you away. And so, as a filmgoer, you lose yourself in the film. I don’t know about you, but that’s why I’m willing to sometimes dig into my pocket and shell out the money to see a movie on the big screen. Avatar is a perfect candidate for that choice.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is that as you identify more and more with the Na’vi of Pandora, you develop an almost visceral negative reaction to the behavior of the humans. The humans are closely associated with machines, war machines in particular. The protagonist travels between the two cultures, the culture of machines and the culture of nature, by leaving his human body behind and occupying a Na’vi body.

Technology is the bridge for this metamorphosis. The purpose is not intended to be a spiritual metamorphosis, just a physical one for the purpose of information gathering and a hearts-and-minds sort of neutralizing of the native resistance. The wheelchair-bound status of the protagonist intensifies the liberating emotion of the transformation.

There are many satisfying aha-moment details along the way for those of us with a progressive bent, like the fact that our protagonist can’t afford the procedure that would restore his legs and that’s one of the reasons he’s signed up for this tour of duty.

Of course, the use of Other/Native in film and literature as romanticized relief for a public held in thrall to imperialism is nothing new. And romanticized the Na’vi are. Yes, the good guys are really good. They have tendrils that attach and commune with all other living things, even their Home Tree for cripes sake. How much more good can it get?

Using minority peoples to consistently stand in as metaphor for Other serves to legitimize the idea of them as Other in relation to the majority group. This is not useful to society. It’s perhaps the most harmful aspect of cultural stereotyping. But it seemed to me that by creating an Other that although humanoid was not human, the issue of cultural stereotyping was blunted if not entirely transcended.

The fantasy of these extra-tall blue creatures with their supra-human abilities made it seem like the message was intended for all us humans. And it came out something like – let’s not end up getting sent back to our dying planet on a cold metal ship.

Maybe we shouldn’t ditch all those fabric arts programs with the budget cuts? You know what I mean, more colorful fabric art, less cold metal war machines. And we could certainly learn to be better guests, right?

But seriously, the thought that so many young people are seeing this movie is encouraging. Yes, it’s simplistic. And you have to remind yourself that despite all the bad human behavior on display we do possess plenty of good qualities. You can see them all around you and some were even up on the screen.

This movie points toward a different way to be human, a way to transcend all we’ve been told about human nature by recent popular culture. More than a story about resistance to colonization, this movie is about transcending our culture of war. That’s why the protagonist is a young white male and a product of that war culture. His escape to the Na’vi is a metaphor for the breakthrough we all need to make.

Avatar opens up the possibility of this breakthrough by creating space for it in our minds. If our protagonist can break free from the militarism that shaped him, and in the process, become his own hero in a new world of empathy and harmony, then maybe we can too. This movie has the emotional power to make us feel the possibility and also desire it.

All in all, the movie points a positive way forward for the human race while allowing us some fun at the same time.

Definitely thumbs up for this movie.

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