Stumbling out of the Imax theatre, $35 poorer and eyes feeling like candy had been poured into them for two-and-a-half hours, we spotted a colleague who had also been seeing large blue people. Whadya think we asked? Ahh they replied, liberal Hollywood stuff – you know, Dances with Wolves and all that. Ya, I said, but what a visual ride.
What a visual ride indeed. Not many have dared decry Avatar for its effects extravaganza, and I certainly immersed myself in James Cameron’s CGI world for the entire experience. But corny and tragically simplistic dialogue aside, there is something else about Avatar that was nagging at me, and the Dances with Wolves comment nailed it: it’s the white American hetero-male saves the helpless indigenous people all over again.
The fact that the alien peoples (Na’vi) can’t get their shit together until a white American military man in a blue person avatar rides in to save the day is the principle thing wrong with this uber-spectacle. One can walk away from the film conflicted: it’s a critique of military culture and a valorization of the environment and human connection to ecology, but wait, while their forests burn and missiles fly, the Na’vi gather round a tree to sing? No damnit! That’s not how AMERICANS do it! And then the speeches about “our land” and our struggle and all that, led by of course the white American guy whose macho might and military mind save the day for these tree-loving aboriginals.
So there it is, that’s why Avatar is the new, more expensive, 3-D version of Dances with Wolves. Sure I wasn’t bored and for sure I was dazzled – the aesthetic and technical achievements were well worth the millions they spent on it and the talent that poured into the project. But couldn’t a new world have included a new Hollywood narrative? Not all the money in the world can apparently produce that.
I was thinking along these lines when I suddenly stumbled on Hamish Ford’s excellent article in Australia’s National Times, just published today (well, tomorrow if you’re in the Western hemisphere). Ford nails it. No one likes a killjoy, but the film’s made over a billion already – there’s room for criticism in the sea of adoring film critics. And Ford brings it:
Avatar’s rendering of the Na’vi is not only textbook Romanticism, these very handsome “noble savages” go beyond even Rousseau’s fantasies, but its truly patronising account of indigenous culture is crucially revealed when we witness its lack of intellectual and creative agency at the moment of truth: in the face of imperial human power. Towing the familiar liberal line, for the “other” to be “good” they must need one of us to save them. When it comes to facing the destruction of their idyllic habitat by the marauding invaders, the Na’vi have no answer. For that they need US soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington).
Yep, Dances with Avatar – nice on the eyes but damn lacklustre on the culture and politics.