Behind the spectacular special effects in James Cameron's highly
entertaining Avatar--his record-breaking masterpiece that's now grossed over a billion dollars worldwide--hides
a tired storyline that's now standard-issue from Hollywood. It goes something
like this: evil white, male capitalists rape the natural world and abuse the natives
that harmoniously inhabit it. In driving this point home, Cameron misses an
opportunity to examine important philosophic implications generated by the
imaginative world he created, and bores viewers who are weary of directors
shoving green themes down their throats--no matter how much they sugarcoat them with unbelievable visuals and thrills.
On Cameron's planet of Pandora, a primitive tribe of very tall
blue humanoids exist in perfect symbiosis with the iridescent plants and exotic
animals that share with them an ecosystem. The aliens (oh right, humans are the
aliens on this planet) live in a giant tree and speak to all organisms, and everything exists in
peace in bliss.
A faceless corporation--headed by the versatile Giovanni
Ribisi in a dumbed-down role--runs an outpost on the planet that mines for a
valuable mineral (analogous to either gold or oil), and soon finds a large vein
directly underneath the natives' giant tree. The evil white Ribisi enlists the
aid of the evil white Colonel Quaritch who commands the well-armed security
detail that protects the compound to remove the natives, because his
shareholders hate it when he turns in a bad quarter. The colonel eagerly
complies out of a hatred for the giant blue people.
Fortunately, a team of environmentalists--led by Sigourney
Weaver, fresh off of her narration of the documentary Planet Earth--are also on
the planet studying the flora and fauna, and they brought with them genetically
engineered blue people whose bodies can be remotely controlled from the lab. By
jacking into a virtual reality pod, the researchers can transfer their consciousnesses
to the blue person and study the hostile--yet beautiful--ecosystem.
Here, Cameron misses a golden opportunity to explore philosophic
themes on existence and reality that were central to The Matrix. Instead, he chooses
to beat the audience over the head with liberal clichés.
The military-industrial machine possesses advanced weapons and runs roughshod all over the natural world, indiscriminately cutting down forests until they are challenged by the natives, who harness nature as a weapon of their own--almost as if the planet itself is fighting back against man-made machines.
Cameron's aversion to machines and industry can also be seen in The Terminator (where rebel humans fight against robots in a post-nuclear-holocaust), The Abyss (where oil rig workers meet aliens under water), and Titanic, where man's ultimate construction gets taken out by Mother Nature in the form of an iceberg.
Race and Avatar
One of the researchers that plugs into a blue person's
body is the protagonist Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-soldier that is soon
recruited by the colonel to infiltrate the blue people's tribe
so that he might learn how to more easily exterminate them.
The natives accept Sully's blue alter-ego into their tribe, and
he is soon torn between his kinship with the innocent blue people and his apparent
duty as a member of the white power structure is to pillage, exploit, and
destroy nature, which the natives worship as a god.
How can we be sure of the racial overtones present in
Cameron's film? The noble blue people tribe possesses characteristics
reminiscent of Indian or African indigenous peoples on Earth. Sure enough, the chieftain
is portrayed by an Indian actor, and Cameron cast black actors in the roles of other key
members of the clan, including the heroine and Sully's love interest. The evil
corporation's CEO is white, the evil colonel is white, and just about every
foot soldier in his command is white, except for a Hispanic pilot who defects
to the "good side." The white
researchers are good guys, but only because they are "tree huggers", as the
soldiers repeatedly call them.
The main hero is white--but he only finds redemption when he begins
to shun the "white world" to become more "blue". The importance of the rejection of his American/European identity is
apparent when the colonel tells Sully he betrayed his "race". Ahem--doesn't he mean
he betrayed his species, considering these are aliens and not humans? Nope,
because Cameron's talking about brutal European subjugation of native
peoples in Avatar.
Interestingly, Wes Studi, who plays the chieftain, was also
in Last of the Mohicans and Dances With Wolves, two films that, like Avatar, dealt with European men who rebel against their countries and adopt the ways
of the natives. Unlike Avatar, however, neither movie is so myopic--and racist, if we apply the co-opted meaning of the word that is unfortunately so common today--as to
suggest that one culture is always good and one culture is always bad.
Symbolism and Avatar
No artist worth his salt can resist ascribing symbolism to
the characters he creates and then naming them as such (e.g. Willy Loman's "low"
quality in Death of a Salesman). Cameron does not disappoint.
Does Jake Sully get his name because he's sullied by his
association with the military-industrial complex? The corporation's greedy CEO
is named Selfridge--is he a selfish capitalist?
The Hispanic pilot who aids the indigenous population is
named Chacon, which is Spanish for "gecko".
Geckos are power animals in Polynesian mythology--don't forget, the natives are
always the good guys in Hollywood--that are
thought to be guardian spirits.
The muscled skinhead-looking soldier that Cameron uses to
personify all the troops in Avatar is Lyle Wainfleet, which roughly translates to "receding
river", a possible reference to industry's destructive impact on Earth, which
is said in the movie to have no green left on it.
The theologically named Grace Augustine, a researcher played
by Sigourney Weaver, is a nod to St. Augustine of Hippo who posited
that man can't help but to sin and it's only through God's grace that
salvation can be realized. Obviously, it's in human nature to destroy our environment.
Pandora, the name of the planet that coincidentally looks
exactly like Earth, is the name of a Greek goddess and the "giver of all things"
and the first woman. The blue natives
worship their planet as a god in a way that environmentalists seem to worship nature as a deity.
Colonel Quaritch's name is derived from Colonel
Quaritch V.S., a Victorian-era novel by the author of King Solomon's Mines,
in which he disapproves of the emasculated state of modern males. Traditional gender roles are often turned upside down in Cameron's movies.
Feminism and Avatar
Strong female characters dominate in Cameron's films. In
Aliens, Sigourney Weaver played the tougher-than-tough Ellen Ripley that teamed
up with some futuristic marines to take down the queen bee of the alien hive. (One
of her cohorts was the female Private Vasquez who, while doing pull ups is
asked by a male soldier, "Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?"
She memorably replies, "No, have you?")
A beefed up Linda Hamilton took on the T1000 in Cameron's Terminator
2 and set the standard for the fighting heroine.
In Avatar, Sully's love interest is extremely proficient
with a bow, saves his life, and shows him how to become a warrior on Pandora.
Chacon bucks female stereotypes as a rough-and-tumble pilot, a character almost
identical to Aliens' Private Vasquez.
Cameron's emphasis on women's
equality with men in his movies avoids the same repetitiveness as other clichés that Hollywood
churns out over and over again, like environmentalism and race
As far as the craft of filmmaking is concerned, Avatar deserves
all the money it's grossed. It's powerful, pleases they eye with
revolutionary special effects, is highly entertaining, and extremely
But it's also a hackneyed metaphor for a litany of liberal
causes, which would be fine if it wasn't the 300th movie this year
to feature the exact same themes. Cameron should have ditched the one-dimensional racial and environmental treatment, or at
least not beaten us to death with it, and instead focused on the really cool
concept of transporting your consciousness into another's body, an idea that is
a philosophic and intellectual gold mine that would survive in our memories
long after the special effects in Avatar are surpassed.