Avatar: Beauty & the Beastly Ideas

I finally went to see Avatar , the 3D science fantasy juggernaut which is pleasing audiences around the world. People have claimed that it is Dances with Wolves in space and alternatively, that it is the best picture of the year. It is, in fact, an extraordinary achievement.

In an AOL poll, during the first week of February, Avatar came in second to The Blind Side, as best picture choice. Blind Side is the story of a blonde, middle-aged, ex-cheerleader, now married to a fast food franchise holder, who drives her 7 series BMW to the ghetto to rescue a black boy and motivate him to a career in the NFL. Classic “wealthy-noble-white-saves-intellectually-and-motivationally-impoverished-(fill in the blank inferior).”

To the AOL audience, this straightforward take on a traditional theme makes a better film than Avatar, in which the “inferior” race ends up surviving, throwing the white invaders off their planet, and only assimilating the white leader’s intellect, while discarding his broken body. (Sorry if this was a spoiler.) But talk of best picture, or white-saves-inferior, really overlooks the achievement of James Cameron, the writer-director of Avatar.

Cameron knows how to tell an action story. He sets up his good and bad characters and his environments with efficiency, and paces his action sequences to build and release tension and create a sense of inevitability. His dialog may be simplistic and his character development sketchy, but his stories move and pull viewers in. So his messages are effectively conveyed, even his very traditional, overt “white-man-saves-inferiors” story line.

But while making that criticism, we may miss even more dangerous messages touted by Cameron, which have been consistent themes in all of his movies. Cameron’s films (not just Avatar) promote the themes that violence is the only solution to social problems and that brute force is better than intellect for solving conflicts. These themes exacerbate the unalloyed racism about which so many people have already commented.

Avatar is the story of a fighter who is wheelchair-bound, but who wants to go on working as a corporate mercenary. This mercenary is sent to a moon of a planet in another galaxy where a corporation is eradicating the humanoid and other populations in order to simplify mining operations. The mercenary develops a love of the local humanoids, the Na’vu, and leads them in the struggle to throw off the corporate invasion of their world.

The corporation exists in three parts:

  • The nasty “get-it-done” management part;
  • The brute “kill-‘em-all” security forces part; and,
  • The noble “we-must-study-them/it” science/intellectual part.

“We must get samples” is the scientists’ tag-line, seeking to study everything before the corporation destroys it.

In Avatar, the scientists are the red shirts. In the original Star Trek series, you could always tell which character was going to die in an episode by the color of the shirt they wore. Red shirts were characters who helped the action along by being expendable.

The Avatar corporate researchers, ostensibly in 2154, never ask permission to take samples and never discuss the ethical questions about such sampling that are common in 2010. This is eerily reminiscent of the current news stories about Henrietta Lacks and the cells taken from her without permission, which became the HeLa line of cells used so widely in medical research. But concern with the feelings or rights of the Na’vu is irrelevant to the story as were Henrietta’s to her story .

Henrietta Lacks

The dynamics between the competing corporate groups of white people, and which of those groups will end up ruling the moon, is what holds Cameron’s interest. It’s hard to sympathize with the researchers, as they are wiped out by the corporate mercenaries. But they remind us that, for Cameron, intellectuals are unnecessary and expendable.

The scientists get enough samples to clone the Na’vu race. Then they create a high tech mind-meld through which humans can integrate with the minds of the Na’vu clones, using the Na’vu bodies to explore the moon with human intelligence consciousness. The mercenary “hero” is one of the humans who use this mind-meld.

To set the scene, in our hero’s first contact with the Na’vu he learns that they believe that killing, even in self defense, is not something to celebrate. The first animal he encounters is both bullet proof and ferocious looking, but does not attack him. Essentially, for Cameron, this world is primitive because it doesn’t understand the value of violence, aggression and killing.

Mind-melded into his cloned Na’vu body, our hero travels the moon with the scientists, meeting and developing relationships with the Na’vu and spying for the psychotic killer head of the corporate mercenaries. Like Lt. Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, or T.E. Lawrence, he learns the natives’ ways and beliefs.

But unlike Dunbar or Lawrence, the native culture doesn’t mature the Avatar hero’s mercenary mind set. Where T.E. Lawrence strove to give the Arabs self-government, and Lt. Dunbar left the Lakota to save them from pursuing army forces, our Avatar hero organizes his bow-and-arrow wielding Na’vu to make a Light Brigade-like heroic charge against the tanks and mechanized mercenaries of the corporate army.

It is the core of Avatar’s message that the hero must “save” the Na’vu by transforming them from fearless, pastoral “primitives” into fearsome warriors, heedless of strategy or tactics and willing to throw themselves, armed with bows and knives, against mechanized troops with automatic weapons.

Because the Na’vu mind-meld with the animals and even plants on their moon, the hero’s transformation of the Na’vu results in the transformation of the entire eco-system from pastoral primitive to fearsome warlike. We come full circle. The non-aggressive monster from the first reel joins the attack on the mechanized troops, bludgeoning them with its bulletproof head, while the hero’s Na’vu girlfriend shoots arrows as rapidly as machine gun fire, and they all celebrate their new-found aggressiveness.

The grand battle takes place in a gravity vortex of floating mountains. The corporate forces use propeller driven heli-planes and mechanized walkers we have seen in many movies. But the hero does not lead the Na’vu to use their own environment to develop any innovative tactics. That would be thinking, not shooting.

Even the Ewoks of the Star Wars films were more creative and self-preserving than Cameron’s Na’vu.

Thinking about fighting or how to fight is antithetical to the message. Fighting is good. Thinking and planning is bad, or at least irrelevant. Dramatic is good. Intellectual effort to make something effective, rather than dramatic, is pointless. Leave the thinking to your betters – don’t try it on your own.

Cameron is a closet Republican. While mouthing anti-corporate platitudes, he embraces the “Party of No” stance that all social strife can be solved with more force, less thought, simple sloganeering and appeals to fear and anger. And, like his Republican compatriots, he rakes in the dough with a stirring yarn which evades, rather than deals with, real social problems.


Yet Cameron clearly deserves the best director Oscar for Avatar. The film is an extraordinary accomplishment in film making. It is a 3D spectacle which succeeds entirely without the silly visuals past 3D films have had. We aren’t just looking at spears or thrown object flying out of the screen at us. In Avatar, the 3D images show us depth and grace and movement in both fore and background.

But this technological marvel is simply window dressing for ideas put on film by D.W.Griffith in Birth of a Nation and in hundreds more films since. People say that technology evolves faster than humans. But we must hope for, and work for, a future less dystopian than Cameron’s vision that brute force necessarily trumps intellect, diplomacy and attempts at reasoned understanding, all in a hodge-podge of 19th century racial posturing.

Tom Hall

Published by the LA Progressive on February 12, 2010
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About Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family lawyer in West Los Angeles. He is from Boston, and was raised in Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quakers) to think that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people in techniques for disciplined nonviolent demonstrating. After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make a comfortable life. The Bush administration shocked him back into social concerns. Now he’s working to see that the Obama administration lives up to its progressive promises. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.com