On "Avatar"

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...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.

Avatar as Dances with Aliens...


Many have noticed the similar narrative evident in "Avatar" and "Pocahontas."

-Steph B.

You have the knack for getting me to challenge cultural claims!

That was a fabulous analysis, Marcia! Though my analysis of the film is a little different, your reading truly got me thinking about and challenging concepts that I hadn't even thought of. It's funny because normally when movies end, I automatically have a "verdict" in my head. However, with this film, my verdict changes day by day. I honestly can't stop thinking about the deeper implications within this film that I have yet to discover!

Also, I recently went on this website to check prayer timings and while I was searching, came across this article and found it quite intriguing. You might find it interesting, as well!



An Incredible imagination with a little agenda

I, for one, have seen "Avatar" twice in both 2D and 3D. My background of Multimedia allowed me to appreciate the hard work and creativity that made this movie come to life. It is an awesome movie no doubt. The story was very predictable though. It was easy to see what the next scenario would be after every scene. While "Dictrict Nine" presented how humans are capable of great evil as well as great compassion, "Avatar" offered a world of great imagination. There was one connnection between the two movies that depicts how humans are always afraid of what they do not understand. We have seen examples of violence throughout history because of greed and fear of what we do not accept as normal. Just remember Hitler, Stalin, General Mao, Rwanda, Darfur, and even with accepting color in the US, and marriage of Gays. It is sad, but we still live it every day.

I loved the deep connection and bond that the Navi form with the creatures whom they share their lives with. Behind this amazing creativity was a little political agenda from Cameron. He was talking about Bush's actions after September 11. Examples of words were heard by Colonel Miles Quaritch in the movie who said that "we will fight terror with terror." He justified the killing of the Navi by describing them as animals who are set on killing everyone in his speech of "you are not in Kansas anymore...." I was bothered that the American military was shown as heartless and killers with no concious. It hurt me because my husband served 21 years in the Marine Corps and heartless is rarely ever heard off.
Everyone who has seen this movie will have a different perspective about the messages that it carries as they walk of the theaters. Regardless of anything, it was an incredible love story, of good and evil, humans and aliens, love and greed, compassion and hatred, of what could be if we give it a chance.

I will see it again.

Same old story in a beautiful new package

While I did find the film enjoyable overall, I agree that it felt like I'd heard/seen this story many times before. Though visually stunning, the story was too simplistic and not worthy of being awarded best picture in my opinion.

Film compared to Native American mixing


The authors of this short article talk about how Avatar makes a complex statement on multiracial Native American identity. Interesting...

~Jenny A.


It’s always interesting to see what other people take away from a movie whether it is superficial appreciation for the story and production or the pervasive messages meant to highlight certain inconsistencies in our own reality. While I also observed some of the same points you so eloquently mentioned in your reflection to The Wall Street Journal’s statement, I found other areas of interest in the movie.

For example, I found intriguing that Avatar supports new contemporary schools of thought on human behavior and communication such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). We constantly try to make sense of the world through our own sensory based experiences which form our values and beliefs. Once formed, we filter the universe and/or information through a narrow-minded view which some use to validate unscrupulous actions exerted on non-conformist. Only when we approach something with a different state of mind and challenge pre-existing notions do we experience personal growth. This was truly evident as Jake experienced Pandora, new world/reality, through an altered perspective via the Avatar. It was not until he learned the way of the Na’vi did he truly “See.”

I’m also interested in your insight regarding evolution vs. intelligent design within the context of Avatar. I’m leaning towards Avatar supporting intelligent design given the “Pandora” reference and the fact that the movie answered the question of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe. Although at the surface there’s evidence of adaptability and survival of the fittest given the depiction of the creatures, at an intrinsic level there’s this unifying force in Pandora that governs life.

I see you.

Kind regards, Jorge.

A telling comparison I saw

A telling comparison I saw while browsing the web in an attempt to find the end of the internet.


The movie was visually stunning though!



I was gonna post that.

The visual effects and animation were fantastic. The story was an old one - Dances With Wolves, anyone? People did the same thing when it came out, saw it over and over again, said it created a paradigm shift in their conscience.

Guess they never heard of Agent Orange (the chemical weapon we dropped on civilians in Viet Nam, not the band) because when they firebombed the tree, the visuals took me right back to seeing it on the news as a child.

People do horrible things to each other and it generates a lot of news. Much more often, people do wonderful things for each other, but that doesn't make for good media coverage.

Insightful essay.

Marcia, it seems that you're

Marcia, it seems that you're not the only one raising these important issues about "Avatar." I found these blog posts and though you and your readers might also be interested.



Thanks for the info Jay.

It seems that the Vatican isn't too impressed by Avatar either...


Profound Commentary

You have definitely brought to the table a level of analysis I have not seen in regards to this film. I actually did watch (or should I say try to watch) this film. Unlike the effusive comments I have heard, yours is not centered around the aesthetic qualities it brings but instead looks at deeper meanings. I didn't experience the audiovisual sensorium you were privy to, instead I watched a bootleg copy (albeit a very good one) on television and I was very unimpressed. Maybe faitigue had set in, because I found the film not very appealing at all. Maybe I need to watch it again, or better yet, not be such a cheapskates and give Cameron a few dollars.

RJL (a.k.a., The Scooting Scholar)

Avatar blues: can you believe it?

I agree. Did you know that there's now such a thing as "Avatar Blues?" People are upset because the story of Pandora is impossible. Fascinating... Perhaps if we looked at these images more critically we might be able to make some change in our own world.


Nice and fun post!!!

I really enjoyed reading your post! I agree with you in too many ways. The movie was pretty interesting to see (it's worth it to pay) even when I didn't like the movie too much. As a software engineer I can appreciate the amount of work to create this piece of art.

Another thing I discovered was about the Na'vi language. I thought this language was a collection of beautiful sounds but it is actually a real language. I think the creators are some linguists from USC. I'm just overwhelmed by the amount of details in this movie.


Cheesy plug in.

In my opinion, while I agree with most of your blog, the idea behind connecting to their world, via their tails, is more of a “hidden” message to our society. I’m not sure if this was Cameron’s intention, or if someone else feels the same way I do, but there is more to the “cheesy” cliché of connecting to another world.

While movies such as “The Matrix” show how people are connected to a grid in order to live a fictitious life, and or try to get away from the realities of their world; Avatar has a deeper connection, and a different meaning to me.

We, as humans, don’t really care much for our own environment, and are doing very little if any to keep us from damaging our planet. We can just walk up to almost any part of the world and chopped down a tree without a care in the world, we go hunting for sport, we kill animals without hesitation. As we make progress we also destroy not only our habitat, but make irreversible damage for generations to come.

I can cite one example of how we managed to do so. Take Chernobyl. Due to negligence that lead to an accident, in which many people died of radiation, the whole place will be contaminated for many, many years to come.

In the film “Avatar” I feel that connecting to the world, is a more of a message for all of us, a way of telling us that we should stop for a minute and see the damage that we are causing to our planet. I feel that in a way the film is trying to tell us that everything in our planet, in our surroundings, everything within our reach, has a meaning. We should stop and see how we can stop the irreversible damage that we are causing and try to understand our world in a much deeper sense.

We don’t feel the pain we induce in others, nor do we feel the damage that we are all inflicting to mother nature, and although the movie does not ask you to feel the pain, it does give you an idea of what it would be like, if we could all get in touch with nature the way the Na'vi people do.

I agree.

There is no way to explain this movie to someone. You will just have to experience it for yourself. I believe when a movie is done well, from the writing of the script to what ends up on the cutting room floor, it causes us to focus all our attention on what's going on onscreen. There is no endless waiting for the action to begin or waiting for the plot to thicken. We are already swept into the story the minute it appears on the movie screen.

I became so swept up in the story that at times the world of Avatar where Jack Sully, the main character, has been transported was more real to me than the so-called "real" world of the military base. At different points in the movie, it seemed like our reality was an intrusion into what the world really should be - a place where man is not at war with nature, but is trying to be synchronized with it.

I was very touched by the relationship that the Na'vi people seemed to have with their environment, their surroundings and the wild animals. It spoke to issues that are close to my heart. I would like to think I would be at home in Pandora, home of the Na’vi, because I liked the idea of not trying to seek and destroy but rather seek to understand. It did seem as if the Na'vi were similar to futuristic Native Americans or the First Nation people for they possessed a spiritual connection to the land and were devastated when the land and its inhabitants were destroyed for no apparent reason.

The scientist, played by Sigourney Weaver, warned the administrators that they should not cut down any of the plants and especially the trees in a particular area (Tree of Souls) because there was a spiritual connection between the trees and the life of the Na'vi people. A life energy force was connected between these two life forms and to destroy all the trees was going to have a negative effect on the entire world of the Na'vi.

This movie reiterates the idea of how man is not in tune with his environment and tends to "dominate" it rather than understand. Historically, I feel this idea of domination is also proven true in America. The United States was "settled," primarily at the expense of the original inhabitants and this wreaked havoc on the environment as seen in the almost extinction of the buffalo to the overuse of the land resulting in "dust bowls."

It was difficult for me to watch the scenes where the trees and land were being utterly destroyed by the military. I felt something in my spirit ached and there was such a mournful cry inside of me. I actually heard these words in my spirit, "the rocks and trees will cry out." I took this to mean that some part of the land cries out when there is terrible injustice being done and innocent blood is spilled.

I highly recommend that you see this movie and experience it for yourself. Each person will come away with something unique but I felt this movie in a deep and personal way.

--Carol Wong

That was cool Carol!

I liked that part in your comment: "This movie reiterates the idea of how man is not in tune with his environment and tends to "dominate" it rather than understand."

That is absolutely true and sad.....like the Architect said in the Matrix: "Humans are like a virus." The same pattern....take a place and destroy it.