The Broad, Disappointing Strokes of “Avatar”

Reposted from December 31st, 2009

There’s something about shooting fish in a barrel, and if any modern equivalent of a movie which lent itself to post-modern bashing more than Avatar does, you might only have truly smug equivalents of Stepin Fetchit, and those examples are self-aware.

Example: The gold toothed robots in Transformers 2. Clearly, they either knew what they were doing and did it anyway, or they simple didn’t know and it was perceived that way, but there’s no way a rational and cognizant person can not watch those robots and think, ghetto stereotype. But then, that opens me to my own criticism from the straw man who says, “I didn’t see that, you did, you f___ing racist!” Well, I asked my friends, so bite me. I hadn’t actually seen the flick until recently, where my thoughts were confirmed. Too busy watching shit that matters, I suppose.

Then there are the movies that have overlap, that maybe are being sent to their target audience, while at the same time producing black face for white people to safely laugh at. Dance Movie, Disaster Movie, Scary Movie.

Sometimes this works as a form of self-satire, however, and while the “X” movie quality is in debate with most critics, the point doesn’t seem to be making a social statement, it appears to be throwing all the shit they can find up against the wall and seeing what makes people laugh. Gross humor, referential humor, ghetto stereotype humor, and my personal favorite, “This is SPARTA!” humor, which I wholly condone, being a veteran of the Thermopylae of college.

But Avatar presents a special case, something that makes you grimace. It’s the story, pared down, of a white guy going to save the natives from themselves, and that’s a level of racism we haven’t really seen so much on the screen in the last decade that I can think of, and I’ve racked my brains for a few weeks trying. There’s Dances with Wolves, which many would argue has shades of gray, or Dangerous Minds, maybe, or perhaps Pocahontas, from Disney. I think all three managed to put a lot of thought (if not success) into trying not to be focused on the white guy being the savior. Point of fact, there’s a lot of effort thrown into abusing the white guy in those films.

While not something I would tacitly endorse as a plot (point of fact, I would never write a story that resolved around one white guy saving a group of any minority people as a general rule, given the connotations of history), there is at least attempt made to reconcile the fact that the movies are about one white person bettering a fuckton of non-whites, and they put the stick to the characters thereby.

Avatar, however, is unashamed, mostly because the people are blue, which baffles me. It’s like looking into a social lens for our society and the way we seem to be going. It’s like, oh, it’s okay now, because that isn’t a black ghetto, it’s the NAVI, from a planet filled with UNOBTAINIUM! It isn’t the white people pushing the natives off the land! It’s the, uh, racially diverse and physically disabled people of Earth pushing the non-humans off the land.

Lots of wonderful racial commentary there. Difference is equated to non-human, and racism is justified because it is splashed on with a multi-colored brush. I suppose the equivalent would be if a bunch of white, black, yellow and red guys decided to go and knock the Iraqis out of Iraq because they looked at us fun – hey, wait a minute! GAIS! (as the kids say)
So to say modern racism exists, and she is James Cameron, that might be a fair statement in my eyes.

But that’s one person, one director in a city of crazies who gave us the Killer Tomatoes and Blackula, so who gives a crap, ultimately, right? That’s generally my feeling about any given thing. As I am chastised often in my role of the critic, “IF U DON’ LIKE IT, DON’T WATCH IT!!1111!!!!” And I generally adhere to that in those things that I don’t feel called to analyze, for whatever reason.

In this case, however, there’s a more broad and sinister insinuation, because not only was Avatar a thinly veiled parallel of how only white people could have saved the Indians from their own destruction, not only is it an abuse of our society’s broad and infectious “white guilt” inclination to let everyone get along while still chastising the “other” in exile (they use physical disability and multi-colored and sexed soldiers to make it seem all right), it’s also now the top grossing film of all time.

This means that, like it or not, unlike Disaster Movie, unlike Dances with Wolves, it has the added distinction and burden of being the most popular, and in American terms that means MOST IMPORTANT movie of all time. It’s a money-maker, the king daddy of money makers. It pulled out grannies who shit themselves, that kid smoking dope in the alley, the fathers who have never been to a movie since they had their kids, black mothers, hell, if I may be permitted to make a bad joke, Indian chiefs.
There are arguments here. It might be the special effects. It might be the vividness of the Navi land, and people don’t care for the story. It might be that everyone went to Star Wars to see the Death Star, but my guess is that a passing enjoyment must have been lightsabers and the force.

The most insidious part of the flick is that the message on the surface appears to be a good one, and a good message CAN be earned thereby, if you watch the flick for what it is. If you see a large corporation picking on the little guy, stop it. If you see an army invading good people for no reason, stop them. If you see a culture that has worth, explore it.

The problem is, it couples this with the little guy being a member of the invading army, they label this diverse culture as inept despite their genetic diversity, and the exploration involves fully understanding an entire culture and history in a matter of weeks by pretending to be a member of said culture.

In broader terms, it’s like putting on blackface and saying you understand black people, or calling Bill Clinton the first black president.

The film gets away with it because it ingeniously marries something someone from both sides of the political division that pilfers America’s unity would enjoy, arguments the opponents would accept. It’s a shell game, and it’s done with exquisite, sinister skill.

The leftie sees gunships raining hell down on the oppressed minority, and gets to root for a white guy who looks like them stopping oppression and alleviating white guilt, all the while being the best member of this minority race they don’t understand but want to sympathize with.

The rightie gets to enjoy a member of the military with good intentions not wanting to be sympathetic to tree huggers, but ultimately having to be because there is a giant wave of fascists coming to be killed with big guns and violence.

And that’s just the surface level stuff. This movie plays off almost every major emotion in the American consciousness:

Sensitivity to racial plight
Jungle fever/interracial endeavors
Stopping war
Disabled people doing the things “normal” people do
Women/minorities in the military in equally strong roles
A mean evil white guy to point at as the villain

Destroying tree huggers
Military violence
White guy saving the day
Engaging in moral war
White gal relegated to science/non-combat role
Woman killed for attempting to speak up
Conflict ends in successful religious heterosexual marriage, despite cultural differences
Military is not corrupt, just one man
Now, of course, all of these things are subject to debate, and many are shaky at best. I doubt right-leaning people cheer at the idea of destroying the big tree, although in the theater I was in I heard a few cheers, not unlike when the Sith won in Revenge of the Sith. You wonder how serious they are, but they’re still a part of the public consciousness, because no one stands up to shush them, but then again, the cheers don’t erupt.

But bottom line, these issues are not addressed in the film, I don’t see them addressed in most of the reviews I read, and there’s no way in hell anyone I know who saw the flick and discussed it with me seems to be aware of the broader subtext, and how that shows our moral consciousness as a country to schew not toward seeking moral superiority or any kind of feasible continuing, Star Trek style utopia, but rather making everyone feel subtly okay with what a shitty way we treat each other.

You don’t walk away from Avatar thinking, “God, people are dicks. They kill each other over unobtainium and rape other cultures and take their distinctiveness. Instead they seem to say “only white guys can save the world unless it’s Will Smith, and that’s because Will Smith toes the line and doesn’t get too uppity, except that Ali movie, and I didn’t even watch that.”

It’s why we can’t get our health care together in a bipartisan way, it’s why we had the Iraq War, and it’s why our country will continue to limp along like a bunch of retards. At least until a white guy with unretardium appears and makes the tards wise, natch.