human behavior

Defending Avatar

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Race & Ethnicity, Reviews by humanb on January 26, 2010

A friend of mine wrote a scathing review of Avatar. He despised it. I loved it.

I had made a conscious decision not to review the film because I knew everyone was desperate to have their say, and I doubted I could add anything new by way of compliment or critique. When I made the mistake of volunteering to my old college friend that I loved it, I had the distinct impression that I had instantly shrunk in his estimation. In a matter of seconds it seemed like I had gone from being an intelligent friend, to an idiot.

Maybe not, but he did hang up on me very soon afterwards. He’s a busy guy, so I’ll stop being paranoid now. But my paranoia did motivate me to offer something of a rebuttal to his bashing of the film.

I cut and paste my comment to his blog post, Avatar Sucked. His words are in bold.

The story and plot are retarded and predictable.

Retarded? That’s an insult, not a critique. The story IS predictable however, but Cameron wasn’t writing a thriller. The film was intended to be a simple morality tale about goods and evils.  Evils: 1) destroying one’s planet (Earth in the film); 2) making an enemy out of a people if they have something you want (literally stated in the film); 3) corporate exploitation of the natural resources of a people without regard for the wellbeing of those people; 4) the use of overwhelming force to take what you want; 5) the disregard of ‘alien”, plant and animal life; and 6) racist, supremacist ideologies based in absolute ignorance of a people who you couldn’t bother to understand.

Cameron very consciously had the humans use the most offensive of racist labels to illustrate the evil of racism in the film and in the real world. It’s just a morality tale, and like most science fiction, it challenges xenophobia (while ironically using positive ethnic stereotypes to flesh out its Na’vi characters.)

UPDATE: 20th Century Fox describes the film thus:

“The themes of protecting the environment, respecting life, and yearning for a peaceful planet have united moviegoers worldwide…”

The dialogue is incomprehensible. You kind of have to stop listening to what the characters are saying in order to enjoy the visuals.

I disagree. I found most of the dialogue fairly straightforward and comprehensible, albeit banal. Much of it wasn’t bad, just not good. However, the one-liners put in the mouths of “the main dude” and the villainous head of security were horrendously awful. I physically cringed. Those you DID have to ignore to enjoy the predictable plot ride and the visuals.

The visuals are amazing…but so fucking what?

You sound like you have a lot of anger towards this film (which I can understand), or a tepid appreciation for cinematography (which I highly doubt). The visuals in this film were fantastic. Cameron showed remarkable creativity in drawing another world in such minute and original detail. The night scenes on Pandora were magical. The flora and fauna were strange but familiar, silly but intimidating. See the New York Times article about how the world Cameron created invites us to look at the natural world and science with wonder:

The directing of the visuals was also spectacular. Pretty much every scene involving the flying animals was directed to perfection, as were the scenes with the “main dude” and the Na’vi princess hunting in the forest.

This movie is racist as fuck. I mean gut twistingly so…to the point that my friends and I were dying laughing by the end at how disrespectful it was.

Hmmm… Like you, I avoid like the plague most films that feature a white saviour to the colored masses. You couldn’t pay me to see The Blind Side or that old Michelle Pfeiffer movie where she is a teacher in the inner-city, or many other films of the genre. I think both of these examples are true stories and I honor the white women in them who tried to make a difference in their areas of influence, irrespective of the color of those they helped. We need people of whatever color helping others in need of whatever color. However, I don’t enjoy watching “white man saves the day” films. I think we need more stories of people helping themselves, in film and in life.

The thing about Avatar, though, is that you see what you want to see and you judge Cameron in the way you are inclined to judge writers who tell such stories.

See the New York Times on this very thing:

Or Australia’s Ann Coulter having a bitchfest about the anti-Americanism in the film:

I didn’t see the main character in this film as a white hero who saves the inferior natives from themselves. I saw him as a flawed human with an initially inferior and ignorant worldview (shared by all humans), who helps save the natives from his own race. The message here is that it takes someone intimately familiar with the evil of his own, to defeat that evil. The evil humans (and the humans are undeniably portrayed as evil in this film) attempt to “civilize” the natives with human schools and human infrastructure (as mentioned by the CEO) and these attempts are portrayed as culturally inappropriate and useless overtures to a highly developed culture and ecosystem that doesn’t require improvement. The film actually explicitly states that the people of Pandora require and want nothing from humans. The film argues that the civilization of Pandora is almost utopian: superior. The humans represent an inferior culture, worldview, way of being, and way of living. I think it’s highly significant that the human who is rehabilitated by adopting the Pandoran worldview goes so far as to deny his humanity to become a native. If that doesn’t argue for the inferiority of human culture, I don’t know what does.

Not only does the white guy have to save the stupid colored natives…but of course the best woman the natives have, the hottest, smartest most capable woman…falls for the “outsider”.

This is debatable. I certainly understand your disapproval. They could have easily made the girl in the film less noble to her people. He didn’t need to get the princess. I thought the film did argue well enough why she would be open to him though. She is shown as being among the few Na’vi who attended the human school and learned English. She was obviously open to learning about them. She is also the only female and only one of two females discussed as a hunter. The larger impression is that males are still the primary hunters. She would be attracted to a fellow hunter like her intended mate, and like the human warrior. She was visibly impressed with how quickly he learned to hunt in the Na’vi tradition. She was initially annoyed but also impressed by his reckless bravery. He was by definition the most attractive human because he was the only one who sought to learn their ways.  I think she was also depicted as being fairly free-spirited and independent, albeit loyal to her people to the point that she was going to witness his execution after his betrayal was disclosed.

Finally, you’re a man. I’m a woman. I always fall for the outsider. Give me the one that’s not like the others every time.

The acting is a mixed bag. Main dude and Sigourney are okay but the rest suffer under the burden of the shitty dialogue.

Yes, a mixed bag. I thought the Na’vi princess was pretty good. All the Na’vi were interesting. Michelle Rodriguez was annoying, and the “main dude” was actually the weakest actor when he played his human character. But the acting was good enough to carry the story.

UPDATE: Well at least one person agrees with me and argues further that the actress Zoe Saldana, who played the Na’vi princess, was damn good:

But the most egregious “Avatar” snub was for Zoe Saldana. Her turn as Neytiri, the blue-skinned alien huntress, is truly the heart of “Avatar.” Neytiri’s every movement and facial expression was created by Saldana on a motion capture stage. She went through months of training for the physical demands of the role, along with learning an entirely new language for most of her dialogue. Cameron told New York magazine he feels she deserves recognition for her work: “Every second of the performance is Zoe. To carry a film on her shoulders and to step up every day for over a year is no small task.”

3D is OVERRATED! I’ve now seen two movies in the new 3D. It’s not that good. the corners are fuzzy. and while the old 3D made it look like the movie was coming for you…the new stuff makes it look like you’re IN the camera watching…kinda cool, but ultimately not good enough to be trumpeted.

This is a matter of taste I think. What was good about the 3D in this film is that it wasn’t employed to make things jump out into the theatre. It was employed to take you into the forest. I thought it did that well. I would be curious to see the film – yes, again! – in 2D to see the difference.  I like 3D. I like the idea of movie-going being an event that may require equipment. I like surround-sound and getting lost in sounds and images.

I now feel about James Cameron the same way I feel about Spike Lee and M. Knight Shyamalan…”You’re an amazing director, but for the love of GOD…let someone else do the writing.”

I agree. Movies by these directors with better scripts would be off the chain.

Avatar sucked.

Couldn’t disagree more. It was a fun ride. I loved it.

If it makes a single blindly pro-war citizen more conscientious about the use of force…

If it makes a single oblivious polluter or energy-guzzler more conscientious about the environment…

If it makes a single soft-bigot more conscious about his prejudices…

If it makes one adult fall in love with a trip to the movies again…

Then it succeeded in doing what Cameron wanted.

My Final Comment

To think that anyone who likes this movie must be an idiot would be ungenerous and arrogant. Just as thinking people can be Republican (though I’m no Republican), thinking people can like this movie too.

With much respect,


UPDATE: My review of another blockbuster special effects extravaganza, 2012, stands in stark contrast to my review of Avatar, and clearly demonstrates that I can appreciate the kind of criticism Avatar has received.

UPDATE: I’ve seen The Blind Side. It wasn’t my idea, but there it is. It was actually pretty good, primarily because it was a true story about a group of remarkable people – black and white – with a limited amount of Hollywood cheese.  In the film and in real life, the white people AND the black guy saved each other.

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  1. JW said, on January 27, 2010 at 10:36 am

    By taking an ancient story and recasting it on an alien planet in the middle of the next century, Cameron has created a world that is similar to our own and recognizable yet still completely different.

    So each person who sees it can extract the message they want from it.

    If you want an uplifting message about how Earth is worth fighting for, it’s there. If you are a libertarian and see everything in terms of property rights, you can see a message that property rights are worth fighting and dying for (a particularly unimaginative interpretation, if you ask me). If you are inclined to see Hollywood as a cog in a vast corporate power structure enforcing the dominant paradigm, you can see Avatar as a banal projection of white guilt/savior fantasies that is designed to make white folks feel ok about all the destruction they have wrought over the centuries. If you think of Hollywood as a leftist cancer undermining America, you can see it as a piece of unsubtle America-bashing (as per the Miranda Devine article you link to). Or, if you see Hollywood as gutless and insipid, you can see Avatar as a movie that wanted to criticize the Iraq war but pathetically failed to draw the necessary conclusions ( Apparently, some Chinese see it as an unintended parable for the China’s ruthless and unstoppable development.

    But in the end result it’s a movie. It’s clearly a piece of fiction about a company that doesn’t exist (RDA) looking for a (joke) substance that doesn’t exist (unobtainium) on a planet that doesn’t exist (Pandora). If you see parallels to Iraq, or 19th century imperialism, or China, then that is by act of imagination. The movie itself is about futuristic stuff that doesn’t exist. I think unobtainium is a bit of a metaphor for the movie – i.e. you are never going to obtain what this is all about.

    I don’t think your friend’s criticism is entirely fair. It is a piece of entertainment, first and foremost. That means that the hero MUST be someone we can relate to and he MUST end up saving the day. These rules date back to Homer.

    And you friend has deliberately chosen to draw the most negative interpretation. He is deliberately approaching the movie from the point of view of a victim, and he interprets it as saying that you need a white man to take care of yourself. Perhaps because I am a “white man”, I saw it from the exact opposite point of view. I saw it as bearing a message for members of dominant groups (white folks, Westerners, human beings?) that sometimes you have to “betray” your own people to do what is right. Sometimes you have to take risks, risk exclusion and ostracism, and decide for yourself what is right.

    Anyway, if I were a director I’d be pretty happy to have made a blockbuster movie that has generated as much debate as this one! At least the movie has people thinking and talking. I don’t know that anyone would say that about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

  2. humanb said, on January 28, 2010 at 12:16 am

    You make some excellent points about the film and about how people interpret it through the filter of their own preoccupations. I won’t make judgments about how you or my friend approached the film, but we have clearly demonstrated that this film is a success in so far as an unoriginal script with mediocre dialogue and a predictable plot, succeeded in doing what few movies do, in inspiring intelligent dialogue and vigorous debate. That is perhaps the definition of a good film.

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