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


  1. Jason says

    In reading this article and then the comments that fallow, I came to the conclusion that….. well not to sugar coat it but none of you seem to grasp a single concept. The world is a broken place, the weak eat the strong to survive. Nature it’s self is a violent and unpredictable thing. It also seems that we continue to forget the lessons that history dose teach. While violence isn’t pretty or nice it can be necessary for survival. There has always been those who are willing to exploit and conquer any one weaker than them. This has been going on since the dawn of our exsistance. Every civilization or tribe in history has fought against its neighbor because they had something their neighbor didn’t in some form or another. If you have a society completely made up of sheep then the wolves will come in and feast on it with no one to stop them. People say we are a product of natural selection, survival of the fittest, how can one survive with out being willing to kill in return? Seems all you own concepts are in conflict.

  2. Daedalus says

    Reading your review, I think you missed the main theme of Avatar. It wasn’t about violence as a panacea to everything.
    It was more about the danger of the growth of the corporate state for which nothing is more important than profits, and anything will be crushed that stands in the way. Mercenaries will work for these massive corporations and do their bidding for pay. The hero, a Marine, takes the job, but is converted by the beauty of the natives’ lifestyle. They also had warriors to defend their culture. In this sense it is very much like Dances with Wolves.

    But it is much more a warning to us about the danger of the corporate state that we are rapidly becoming, especially with the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. A corporation is an amoral machine designed for profit and profit alone. And now corporate and Republican money in the billions is pouring in to buy our democracy and what is there to stop it?

    Progressives should hope that Avatar is distributed far and wide. Sure, the violence is overdone, but it was heroic, as the natives triumphed in the end over the injustices dealt to them. Movies seem to need violence to tell a story, as when the Lakotas rescued Dunbar against the cavalry in Dances with Wolves. It is a natural human reaction to the injustices which have gone before, to set things right, and that seems to be necessary when confronted with overwhelming amoral force which won’t listen to reason.

  3. kelly says

    Unfortunately, in your dismissal of ‘Blindside’ you forgot to mention it was a TRUE story with a verifiable ending. But why wouldn’t you.

    • Tom says


      It’s important to distinguish “TRUE story” from story based on a true incident.

      The Blind Side is a FICTION story based on a true incident. The fictive “truth” that the film portrays is that EVERY black man in the ghetto is a violent drug dealer or criminal and EVERY black woman there is a drug addict and/or whore. The story makes the black characters’ ONLY hope of escape from poverty, ignorance and inferiority the intercession of a saintly white woman.

      Neither the white nor the black characters in the film are given much dignity or complexity, as they walk through roles supporting the sanctification of a blonde ex-cheerleader.

      The audience is given essentially NO exposure to what real life is like where the young man comes from and no real insight into what the star’s motivation is, or any look at why the young man and his community need the private intercession of a wealthy individual to get what public schools should be providing for free.


  4. Adam Eran says

    @TCinLA, What irony! A belligerent response!

    Are you saying you’d challenge us lefties to a battle of wits, but it’s against your principles to fight unarmed people?…;-)

    The problem with retribution — and it’s all justifiable — is that it tends to become the Hatfields and the McCoys, with both sides escalating until they’ve forgotten the source of the dispute, even as they’re lobbing grenades at their opponents.

    Eventually we get to be treated as we treat those other people, even if *they* are really the scumbags, and we’re pure as the driven snow.

    And the U.S. has not exactly been unprovocative, spending more than the rest of the world combined on its military. Robert Fiske (a veteran Middle East reporter) says that, given the provocation, what’s surprising is how mild the Arab reaction to the West has been.

    • TCinLA says

      Having re-read your post, the facts are you fail to “get the idea” and are arguing about something that has nothing to do with the movie, so past this response, continuing an intellectual discussion with an unarmed opponent isn’t really fair.

      I hate it when people supposedly on “my side” are as big a bunch of witless idiots as the other side.

      Back about 40 years ago, my great-grand-uncle, who spent his life working for Harry Truman, gave me the best political advice there is: “The only ‘good Republicans’ are pushing up daisies.”

  5. TCinLA says

    If you people knew what you were talking about, you wouldn’t need crutches for your brains. I know for a personal fact that Cameron is no Republican. So far as I am concerned, a little retribution and revenge against the scumbags is not a bad thing, but then your kind of lefty is always telling me I’m not a lefty.

  6. Adam Eran says

    One more comment about this. The excuse for violence, especially the most horrific, is almost always retribution. Rambo is always abused before he explodes in a fury, trashing his abusers. Hitler was simply paying back the allies and Jews for the treaty of Versailles.

    So retribution spurs a cycle of escalation, in which each aggrieved party justifies its increasingly harsh response because the other “hit him first.”

    The real key to stopping this is in not responding in kind. Not so easy, either.

    For example: The U.S. supported Suharto as he harshly crushed Indonesian Maoist rebels (estimated killed: 5 million), but those Maoist rebels really acted on Mao’s behalf, and Mao killed 70 million of his own fellow countrymen when he was in power. There’s no reason to think Mao wouldn’t have done something similar if he or his proxies came to power in Indonesia.

    So Suharto was barbaric, but the question is: how does one oppose barbarity without becoming a barbarian too?

    The same fellow who counseled turning the other cheek, and loving one’s enemies also told his followers that they needed to be innocent as doves, but cunning as snakes.

    A matter for some extraordinarily nice judgment, if you ask me.

  7. Adam Eran says

    Cameron is the least of our troubles. The U.S. has a centuries-old culture founded on, and steeped in violence.

    Just the history of wiping out native populations with out superior armaments is extremely long — never mind our colonial depredations in the Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, etc….

    In just one episode, after the Georgia courts affirmed the right of the Cherokee to their land in the Southeastern U.S., Andrew Jackson formulated the U.S. version of the “final solution” — ethnically cleansing that part of the U.S. He sent the “civilized” tribes — who had adopted White ways, dress, customs, who even had deeds to their lands — on the “trail of tears” to Oklahoma.

    Expert estimates say 90% of the New World populations were wiped out by a combination of Old World diseases, and warfare (more by the former than the latter, in fairness)

    And we still have a picture of Jackson on the $20 bill — a fact roughly equivalent to having a picture of Himmler on the German Mark, IMHO.

    So I’ll agree that Cameron’s movie makes drama of violence, touting it as the panacea for any problem, but that observation is simply not pervasive enough. Turn on television, and with very few exceptions, you’ll see a constant stream of images promoting “violence solves everything, and what it doesn’t solve is at least of dramatic interest.”

    The worst of this is not that violence doesn’t solve every problem — it doesn’t — it’s that we’re educating ourselves, and the rest of the world where American culture is dominant, to believe that it does.

    Apparently, the Bushies got their inspiration to use torture from “24”! We knew they were delusional, but there’s an awful lot of that going around.


  1. […] Tom Hall: Cameron est un cabinet républicain. Alors qu'un anti-bouche platitudes d'entreprise, il embrasse le "Parti de la position n °" que tous les conflits sociaux peuvent être résolus avec plus de force, moins de pensée, de slogans simples et appels à la peur et la colère. Et, comme ses compatriotes républicain, il râteaux dans la pâte avec un fil d'agitation qui échappe, plutôt que de traite, de réels problèmes sociaux. URL article original: http://www.laprogressive.com/the-media/avatar-beauty-beastly-ideas/ […]

  2. […] Avatar: Beauty & the Beastly Ideas I liked the picture … so Other than to ensure that I acknowledge the source of the pic, I wouldn't bother reading the article at the end of the link .. its just another Avatar or more so Cameron Politic's Bashing article… Avatar: Beauty & the Beastly Ideas | The LA Progressive […]

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