Director James Cameron’s billion-dollar, award-winning blockbuster, Avatar, bears a striking resemblance to Dances with Wolves in its basic plot. White guy from a military background encounters an indigenous population, falls in love, decides their values and way of life are superior to his, and casts his culture aside.
Of course, there are some refinements to Avatar, mostly the over-the-top technical effects that make this film possible and that are woven into the storyline. The white guy, a crippled former Marine named Jake Sully, uses an avatar, a biomechanical fictional being that is genetically engineered to be half human and half Na’vi, the inhabitants of the planet Pandora. With it he is able to walk again, breath air that is poisonous to human beings, and mingle with the natives to learn their ways.
Avatar is paradoxically plentiful and yet insufficient. The bounty consists of the powerful visual punch that this movie packs. There is so much to see in Pandora that the eyes boggle long before even half of the activity registers in the mind. Watching it non-stop on the big screen is downright exhausting. It’s as though the director does not trust his audience to be able to imagine anything for themselves. In that sense, Avatar unintentionally insults viewers even while offering them the most spectacular blend of animation and live action to come out of Hollywood yet.
As to its lack, the film provides frustratingly superficial glimpses of the natives’ beliefs and spiritual practices, squeezed in between all of the action sequences. Even so, that’s a deal too much for certain critics, who slam it as “anti-human” and “anti-American.” The Vatican doesn’t care for the film’s earth-based faith, and still others bash the portrayal of a white man as yet another savior of an indigenous population.
What do they expect? Cameron, who wrote the script as well as directed, is a white male, so he’s stuck with that viewpoint. No doubt those who find fault would be equally censorious had the director tried to make the film from the native viewpoint.
Critics may gnash their teeth all they want over the movie’s politics, but it is wildly popular precisely because of its advocacy, not despite it. As polls continue to show, more and more Americans have abandoned traditional religions to call themselves independent seekers or simply spiritual. There has also been a huge rise in interest in the goddess, or the feminine divine. On top of that, the public is incensed over unpunished Iraq war profiteering, massive corporate fraud that led to the 2008 economic meltdown yet was rewarded with equally gigantic bailouts, and Wall Street’s baleful influence over Congress and the White House.
Avatar reflects and builds on these trends. The Na’vi tribe’s home is on top of a huge deposit of highly valuable ore that a human corporation wants to mine. Sully’s mission is to persuade the tribe to move peacefully, or his corporate masters will have no qualms about using deadly force to clear the members off their land.
Sully soon realizes and tells his superiors that the natives have no interest in anything the human interlopers could offer them. The Na’vi do not live to amass wealth or power. They love the world that sustains them and try to live in harmony with it and with neighboring tribes.
What a tragedy that the preceding is so threatening to so many Americans. If might-makes-right, profits-uber-alles is now the creed of our culture and country, then we are indeed as lost as Sully is when his avatar inadvertently spends its first night alone outside in Pandora.
This film is also a hit worldwide. In the greedy ore-grubbers, who don’t care who they kill or what they destroy in their profits quest, others clearly recognize the proverbial ugly American. If we also see it and don’t like it, then there’s little point in blaming the mirror, which in this case is a movie called Avatar.
Maybe it’s time to address what causes such a revolting reflection in the first place.