Cowboys and Indians in Space? Assessing Avatar

While I must be one of the only people in the world yet to see James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, I have noted with interest the continuous volley of criticism and praise for the film, especially among indigenous people.

(For those who’ve been living under an unobtainium rock, Avatar is the story of a cultural clash between the super-tall, nature-lovin’, blue-skinned Na’vi people of Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system, and the humans who run a mining colony on that moon. Because Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to Earthling lungs, scientists created avatars — human/Na’vi hybrid life-forms remotely controlled by some kind of mind-meld — so humans could explore and exploit the moon’s resources.)

We begin with CBC’s Jesse Wente, who describes Avatar as “a technical marvel and first rate eye candy” that nonetheless ends up wrapping “a fancy new coat [around] a frustratingly outdated story.” To Wente, the Na’vi are clearly stand ins for First Nations people, whose survival against outsiders is only possible (or even conceivable) “after one of the colonists becomes one of them” — literally! Going native, indeed.

And it’s not only indigenous critics who have picked up on the apparently less-than-original quality of the film’s plot: some go so far as to accuse it of being Pocahontas in Space 3-D.

Driving that comparison home are a pair of YouTube mash-ups: the first is an Avatar trailer mixed with audio from the Pocahontas trailer, while the other reverses the order (the editing here is inspired). A similar treatment was applied to Dances With Wolves.

The Na’vi are a forest people, so maybe it’s hardly surprising they’d find some kindred spirits among actual indigenous peoples in Ecuador, as we see in this video from Public Radio International:

And what if there is a subversive quality to the film the critics may have missed? According to Julia Good Fox, it is “a willful oversimplification to reduce [Avatar] to mere white-savior and/or going native comparisons” à la Dances With Wolves. Good Fox rebuts such cynicism, asserting that the movie is another great example of the director’s “ongoing interest in the possibilities of individuals [to] connect to each other’s humanity despite overwhelming hurdles.” As for the idea it’s “overly-derivative,” Good Fox says that’s kind of the film’s point: by “purposely making heavy-handed cultural references … the audience [is able] to recognize the network of connections to other films, history, and recent political and contemporary events.” Although she by no means finds the film to be flawless, Good Fox clearly has little patience for those who reflexively dismiss the film.

Yet, what some call deft, others label daft. Daniel Heath Justice also seems to see the promise of Avatar, acknowledging its “impressive moments of depth and narrative brilliance,” but says it ultimately falls well short of its potential. With its use of “stock heroes and villains” and “expedient moralizing,” Justice accuses the film of leaving the audience “with a self-congratulatory feeling of having grappled with major issues without having actually dealt with any of the real complexities of colonialism, militarism, reverence for the living world, or environmental destruction.” In other words, towering ambitions, terrible execution.

When a film elicits such intense reaction across an undeniably broad spectrum — never mind what the Chinese government and the Vatican think of Avatar — you have to at least marvel at its reach. If there’s anyone else left out there who still hasn’t checked it out, perhaps we can go and see what all the fuss is about. James Cameron may need the money to make an even bigger Avatar 2.

One thought on “Cowboys and Indians in Space? Assessing Avatar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.