February issue 2010
Another White Messiah?
At one point in Avatar, the hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is tied up by the three-metre tall Na’vi people who he has betrayed. But as the Na’vi are being brutally attacked and their planet savagely raped, the spiritual leader of the blue-skinned Na’vi returns to Sully in desperation, saying, “If you are one of us, then help us.”
It is this one line, more than anything else, that damns writer and director James Cameron as being a creator of a racist blockbuster. Until that point, it is easy to forgive Cameron for writing an unoriginal, formulaic script grounded in the-white-man-goes-native plotline that has been used so many times before (Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai and, as some have noted, Pocahontas). Because instead of being a story of a white messiah — even though Sully’s “chosen one” mystique is telegraphed early when strange jelly-fish-like floating insects single Sully out as having a pure heart (even though he wanted to violently swipe them out of the air) — it could have become a story of an outsider who helps yet cannot save. But Cameron chooses to show the Na’vi as helpless and in disarray. Sully becomes the leader they need and masters things that no Na’vi had been able to in a generation.
As a result, despite its near-record ticket sales and its good critical reviews, Avatar is being openly blasted for having racist themes. Articles, chat forums, Twitter trends are all filled with debate on the issue.
In Avatar, humans have finally screwed Earth. Lacking energy sources, humans have found the perfect replacement fossil fuel, unobtainium (yes, that is the actual name), on the planet Pandora (it’s actually a moon of the planet Polyphemus, but that is just too complicated) and begin mining it. The evil mining corporation employs military men as private security and have nefarious plans to gain access to the largest deposits located under the local Na’vi people’s sacred ground. Scientists have developed avatars made from both Na’vi and human DNA that humans can temporarily embody to roam Pandora, making them look almost identical to the real Na’vi. Sully is a marine who is used by the firm to operate an avatar, win the trust of the Na’vi and gain vital intelligence. But after three months among the nature-worshipping people, Sully falls in love with a Na’vi woman (Zoe Saldana) and realises that her civilisation is more respectable and enlightened than the one presided over by Homo sapiens.
It’s Sully’s growth that director Cameron has focused on to answer his detractors who call his big-budget film racist. The film “asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different,” said Cameron. “I hardly think that is a racist message.” In fact, he infuses the film with plenty of other noble messages too, such as messages of environmentalism, anti-imperialism and anti-corporate greed.
So Avatar is hard to hate and label as being insidiously evil. The unintentional offence that it may cause comes from the script’s simplicity, not hateful ideology.
Comments on Avatar have been wide-ranging: The Vatican has decried it as promoting pantheism; Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, has praised it; and there is worry that the film may be inducing depression. Hundreds of fans admit to swells of emotion and bouts of crying when thinking about the film and the beauty of Pandora, or when listening to the soundtrack: the film is so visually stunning that people yearn for it.
Pandora is beautiful, as are the tall, gentle Na’vi and their connection to their universe. The decade Cameron spent making this film was worth it. With skilled direction, a colourful imagination and groundbreaking special effects, he has created a world that is a glorious feast for the eyes. Avatar should be taken for what it is: beautiful and powerful escapism. Watch it on the big screen. And for those who can, watch it in 3D, because then Pandora becomes truly enrapturing.