By Willie Krischke — January 13, 2010
Here is the main thing you need to know about “Avatar:” visually, it is everything James Cameron says it is. It is gorgeous, and detailed, an immersive experience like none other. This is one case where it’s really worthwhile to see it on a big screen, in 3D, and if you can, on IMAX. At this point in moviemaking, there’s nothing like it. I recommend that you see it. And that’s all you really need to know.
Because as soon as I put my critic’s hat on, my tone is going to change significantly. I enjoyed the experience of watching “Avatar” much more than I’ve enjoyed the experience of thinking about it, or writing about it. This is a movie to get lost in, to get wowed by; to giggle with glee over. It’s not a movie to analyze. Alas, that’s the critic’s job. It’s a cruel world.
The plot is tried and…well, maybe not so true, but lucrative. “Avatar” is “Dances With Wolves” meets “The Matrix”; it’s “The Last Samurai” in space. Heck, it’s “Phantom Menace” minus all that stuff about the Skywalker kid. It goes like this: White guy infiltrates Native culture. White guy falls in love with Native culture and ways (and hot Native girl.) White guy realizes other white guys don’t love Native culture, and are going to destroy it. White guy tries to convince other white guys not to destroy Native culture, but fails. White guy goes Native, and becomes Saviour of the Native People, marries hot Native girl, and lives happily ever after. The end.
This is a myth we White people like to tell ourselves, and as a White guy with a good deal of exposure to Native culture, I’ve got to say, it’s pretty messed up. It commits (at least) two terrible crimes against reality: 1) it fans to flame the shame we feel about our own cultural history and encourages us to dump our own culture in favor of another and 2) it propagates the myth that not only can we “go Native” we can be more Native than the Natives: the protagonist isn’t just Native in these stories, he’s the best Native, the savior they’ve been waiting for, the one mystically able to do what no one’s been able to do for 500 years. Let me quickly address these damaging myths with a dose of truth (and then we’ll get back to talking about the movie, I swear):
1) White people don’t need to dump their culture. They need to deal with it. Like everyone else, we need to identify the things we can be proud of in our heritage and culture. There are many. And we need to own the things we’ve done wrong, and, if those wrongs continue, seek to make them right. Running away doesn’t do anyone any good. Not us and not the Natives.
and 2) well, this one’s kind of obvious. White people aren’t going to be better Natives than the Natives. That’s just subverted cultural pride, really; “I hate what my people have done to your people, but deep down, I still think I’m better than you.”
Anyway: the movie. OK, not the movie exactly, but another thought about the movie. It’s awfully weird to watch an violent action flick about a peace-loving people. There’s an inherent contradiction in it. Would we, the audience, really feel satisfied if the Na’vi had their way, and things were resolved peacefully? If the climactic scene took place at a Peace Council, instead of a battlefield? No way! We want explosions! That’s what we paid to see–explosions and crashes and guns and ACTION! Consider: the villain in “Avatar” is a military colonel who isn’t very interested in negotations or talking or listening. He’s not even very interested in the terms of the conflict. He has some neat toys in the garage, and he’s dying to try them out. And you know what, so are we, the audience. Even though we’re told all through the movie to hate this guy (and we do, at least on a shallow level) he’s the guy we most identify with, the character in the movie most like the characters in the audience. He wants to blow shit up; we want to see it blown up. Of course he has to lose, but man, wouldn’t it be terribly disappointing if he lost in a conference room?
Sigh. I told you thinking about “Avatar” wouldn’t be pretty. Go see it anyway. It’s like the big ride at the carnival: it’s fun while you’re riding it, but you might puke afterwards.