...written with the help of my avatar, Alesan Hillside
...pic borrowed from Official Avatar website
Oel ngati kameie. Today is Day 6 since my screening of James Cameron’s Avatar. Part action film, part sci-fi, part horror, part fantasy and part cautionary tale, Avatar has shaped up to be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time. Figures don’t lie. Avatar passed the $1 billion mark worldwide this weekend, “only the fifth movie in history ever to do so,” according to FirstShowing.net. But did it offer “a sense of delight that quickly gives way to a sense of astonishment,” as promised by The Wall Street Journal? After some reflection my answer is both yes and no.
I have to admit that Avatar was a quality experience, at least on its surface, because of its stunning visual palate and special effects. These visuals, in addition to arguing for a new kind of film making, mimic tensions over changing social conceptions of racial and generic forms and categories. That’s why Cameron’s film had to provide true moments of sublimity. For instance, when Jake and Neytiri share precious moments of romance under the Na’vi’s sacred tree or when we watch Jake’s rite of passage and first flight aboard his Taruk. Audiences need these moments to process both the film’s form and its counter-hegemonic narrative of colonialism, genocide, war, diplomacy, terrorism, natural resource mining and profiteering. Once we leave the theater we need not look far for implications. With companies like Google reportedly forming energy subsidiaries and applying for government permission to buy and sell power directly, life is imitating art and corporate giants are taking things to the next technological level with ever increasing speed.
What I appreciated most about Avatar were the connections forged between opposing categories (i.e., English-Na'vi; human-Na’vi; warrior-scientist; reason-faith). This was a clever way to send messages of mixedness and instability as well as provide possibilities of paradigm shifting for audiences and characters alike. Reborn as avatar, Corporal Jake Sully’s experience on planet Pandora suggests that our collective fascination with online life in video games and new media may reflect our individual feelings of inadequacy and inability in the “real” world. Notwithstanding the risk of hyperbole, there is only one word to describe Sully’s experience: profound. This profundity fostered my own paradigm shift. It seems to me that Sully’s adventure is universal. It’s all about trying to bridge social categories—war and diplomacy, secularism and religion, technology and nature, human and Na’vi, abled and disabled. Sully helped me understand that the reason we create and animate avatars is because we’re looking to act in a world without limitations, long-term consequences and guilt. Because in the faces of our own worldwide political and economic crises we’re searching for purpose and power like never before.
Now for why Avatar wasn’t a quality experience. I have to say that the happy ending is simply too fantastic and predictable for my taste. Also, the Na’vi’s electronic connection to nature via their tails reminded me of a flash drive…cheesy. More seriously though, and in relation to my prior point about why we’re so fascinated by avatars, I think that the freedom and fluidity achieved through human scientific interface and Na’vi environmental prowess allow Avatar to imagine racial and ethnic, not to mention species, merging that isn’t anything new. Once again we’re seeing a doomed narrative about interracial romance. The protagonists can’t make a life together until they’re both truly blue. Chromatically speaking, this is because blue is a primary color and can’t be formed by mixing any other colors together. Biologically speaking, this is because humans and Na’vi can’t breathe the same air. Ideologically speaking, this is because the film’s happy ending requires a harmonious physical merger of human and Na’vi in order to dramatize romantic closure.
Like many other mainstream genre-crossing films there is clearly a broader allegory at work involving issues of racial hatred and racial mixing. Echoing U.S. history, the film also suggests historically based class dimensions to armed racial conflict: the humans clearly look down upon the Na’vi, whom they refer to as savages and whom they assume are incapable of higher kinds of intellectual activity. On some levels then, we can argue that Avatar panders to some regressive stereotypes about race and racial difference. By having the Na’vi stand in as one of the races in this conflict, the film is able to literalize notions of the technologically disempowered race as being animal-like; and it plays at the edges of stereotypes about African, Arab and Native Americans. The film does attempt to set aside these racial allusions, however unsuccessfully, by showing humans and Na’vi as at least phenotypically multiracial—evidently a mix of white, black, Indian, Asian and Latino. It also attempts unsuccessfully, through Sully’s increasing competence and embodiment of Na’vi (read non-white) culture, to make interracial love and multiracial identity tolerable as palliatives for various kinds of conflict.
I felt the same way after watching Avatar that I felt after watching District Nine, Taken, The Last Samurai and The Princess and The Frog…like something was missing. What was it? Oh yes, something truly original said about changing definitions of race, globalization and identity in the U.S. and abroad.
But that shouldn’t necessarily keep anyone out of the theater. Overall, and in spite of my ambivalence, I think the film is worth seeing. That is so long as it prompts some real world, real time, real talk.
Zene fko n‹iv›ume nì-txan...There is much to learn.