I first saw Avatar at the Metreon theater in San Francisco. In one of the most unique cities in the world, in front of the largest 3-d IMAX screen in the world (I think), I watched a film that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, required the services of tens of thousands of talented professionals, led to the invention of revolutionary filmmaking technology, and took a decade and a half to create.
And all I remember is sitting there helplessly while Sam Worthington’s 3-d nostrils hovered 80 feet above me, like a fleshy bird of prey. That and the smudge on my “new” 3-d glasses that kept reminding me of Tokka from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze.
I saw Avatar for the second time last night, in slightly less stellar surroundings: I got it from Rite Aid, out of a Blockbuster Express that was jammed between a grimy Coinstar! machine and the tampon isle. Apparently I own it now, since instead of RENT, I must have pushed BUY THIS SHITTY, SCRATCHED USED DISC FOR A DOLLAR LESS THAN THE COLLECTOR’S EDITION AT BEST BUY. It’ll look great on the shelf, right next to season one of Game of Thrones with the Targaryen-sigil cover. Game of Thrones’ cover doesn’t have the collector’s edition cigarette burns.
At the theater, I thought Avatar was a corny but harmless fantasy. Everyone wants to soar through the sky on giant birds and live in a psychedelic forest and only wear loinclothes. Nobody picks Flint, Michigan over Pandora. Seemed like an innocent enough way for Cameron to make a billion dollars.
On the second viewing though, I thought the Na’vi were complete dicks. Especially now, considering that Cameron views them as the eco-champions of the universe, living in complete, leafy-green harmony with all of creation. Here’s why.
The Na’vi enslave animals for transportation
Apparently it’s a rite of passage for a Na’vi to capture one of these little beauties and make it take your ass wherever you want to go. This process involves climbing high into those floating-island thingies and interrupting the Ikran in its native environment, goading it into attacking you, then pummeling it within an inch of its life and jamming a creepy tail-penis deep into its body until it agrees to leave its family forever and be your very own Pegasus. All with a Disney-like orchestra that makes it sound like it’s nothing more than Aladdin finding his flying carpet.
I don’t remember carpet-rape taking place in Aladdin.
That’s like going down to the dealership and sodomizing a Chevy Volt up the tailpipe until it agrees to drive you around forever and LOVE YOU FOR THE PRIVILEGE. Probably why they all catch on fire.
I realize that this is just an E.T. version of the cowboy-breaking-that-untamable-stallion scene. But is that really an image that ultra-environmentalist Cameron wants attached to Avatar? It never really works out good for the horse in those movies. They lose a life of natural freedom and have it replaced with one of constant servitude. If their master needs to get somewhere in a hurry, they’ll kindly be forced to run themselves to exhaustion, then get shot in the head and be replaced. And if they never break in the first place, shucking that saddle off with a powerful, indomitable spirit? They don’t get released back into the wild with a cheerful wave and a respectful grin from their owners. They get turned into delicious steaks and fashionable belts.
The historical use of animals as transportation was one of brutal necessity, as part of our long climb out of mother nature’s pit of hell. The first time we rumbled down the road in a motorized carriage, every horse in the world probably gave a sigh of relief.
Yet in Avatar, the Na’vi with their bondage Ikrans are presented as the virtuous and sustainable race, while the humans with their silly flying machines–which don’t require sexual domination to get their engines started–are seen as backwards and out of touch with nature.
The Na’vi are xenophobic
As I understand it, the whole reason for the Avatar program was to get the Na’vi to chat with humans. The scientists wanted to study them and their planet, learn their languages, build them schools, and other hippie nonsense. The businessmen and the soldiers wanted to steal their magic-fuel rocks and blow up their trees and burn down their orphanages. But either way, if you wanted to talk to a Na’vi, you apparently had to do it as a vat-grown replica of their race, with every feature of a human body completely removed. Otherwise the Na’vi showed you the fucking door.
This seems like an incredibly racist attitude for a culture that’s supposedly in blissful harmony with the universe. If the Avatar program was the result of humans pandering to the Na’vi, thinking this was the only way to have a chat with them, you’d think the Na’vi would be a little offended. It’d be like some WASPY optometrist who volunteers to tutor inner-city black kids, but dresses “gangsta” so they won’t be confused.
It’s shown many times that humans have no trouble adapting to the lethal atmosphere of Pandora. They have secure compounds, they wear masks, they have versatile transport vehicles and weapons. And even if their current level of technology wasn’t sufficient to keep them alive in that colorful Hades, it would be a smidge easier for them to build a better hazmat suit than it is to clone an alien lifeform and develop the technology to fuse it with a human consciousness.
And the Na’vi avatars don’t seem necessary for auditory communication between the two races. Sigourney Weaver and that guy from Bones have a grand old time speaking the Na’vi language to one another in their human bodies, so apparently it doesn’t require a particular vocal range or a radically different larynx to use. And even then, it’s still gotta be easier to make a babblefish 10.0 that effortlessly translates Na’vi then it is to BECOME A FUCKING ALIEN.
And aside from being a great deal smaller than the Na’vi, humans aren’t so radically different. Both races are bipedal, sentient, tool-making creatures that form tribal communities and have various hierarchies of responsibility and authority. And, again, the Na’vi are presented as a simple but enlightened race, creatures who have an extremely developed connection to their environment. Such a noble people should be able to meet an alien race without going Apocalypse Now on their asses.
The Na’vi don’t understand their role as a keystone species
When Jake-Sully-From-The-Jarhead-Clan loses his shit and gets stranded overnight on Pandora, he’s in the midst of fighting off a pack of wolf-thingies when Neytiri charges in and starts handing out death. But when Jake goes to thank her, she suddenly transforms into a blue-skinned parody of The Grizzly Man, screaming about how those beautiful creatures didn’t need to die, and it was all Jake’s fault for stomping around and attracting them to his presence. You get the sense that she’d be right at home on Earth, throwing red paint on some woman’s fur coat before she climbs into the leather interior of her dad’s Audi, congratulating herself on a job well done.
Keep in mind that Jake was in his avatar body, which is a perfect replica of the indigenous Na’vi. The wolf-creatures have certainly come in contact with the Na’vi before, and Neytiri seems to have quite a bit of experience with them. So the wolf-creatures, who have recognized the familiar scent of a Na’vi, immediately attempt to make it their dinner. That means they don’t fear the Na’vi, and consider them a prey source. Kittens, they are not.
Realistically, the Na’vi must have killed thousands of these things, both during the natural competition for other prey, and to avoid being prey themselves. I realize that the scene of Neytiri respectfully putting a wolf-creature out of its misery is again borrowing a motif from the western, this time the noble Native American who only kills animals for food. Which, of course, is the completely correct and moral action.
But Pandora has a vastly more dangerous ecosystem than pre-colonial North America. Native Americans habitually hunted other apex predators like bears and wolves, but that was solely for food and resources, not to protect themselves. Except in rare cases, predators have mostly stayed clear of Homo sapiens ever since we perfected our rock-throwing arm. And the shotgun. Pandora, however, is teeming with dozens of critters that attempt to pass the Na’vi through their intestinal tracts. It’s a safe bet that if Native Americans had to constantly worry about wolves and bears stalking them in the woods and carrying their toddlers off at night, they would have gone on a rampage and left heads-on-spikes wherever they went.
And Pandora is danger to the tenth power. How many Na’vi youths have been snacked on because they accidentally snapped a twig under their foot and rang the dinner bell for a hundred fucking predators? In such an overly competitive world, the Na’vi would have had no choice but to make with the slaying.
That kind of brings up a problem I had with Avatar in general. Pandora is seen as this untainted paradise realm where resource-stripping technology has never taken hold. The forests are always presented reverently, with a peaceful, ambient soundtrack and tons of sharp colors. James Cameron has said that it’s supposed to be like the Garden of Eden.
And every–single–thing wants to kill you.
It seems horrible to me. For all the love Pandora gets from its fans, the only way I’d ever want to experience it is from a Jurassic Park-like set up, one where the power generators run on more than contrived plot devices.
Star Wars has tons of cool planets to visit where the risk of being eaten is at an acceptable level. Lord of the Rings has those sweet Elven realms with permanent sunsets, good music, and a fence of some kind to keep the Orcs out. Even The Walking Dead had a farm, with a deer nearby. Which was so beautiful. You should have seen it. The deer.
Walk on the ground on Pandora, risk getting eaten. Soar through the skies on Pandora, risk getting eaten. If you’re a human visiting Pandora without a billion-dollar alien clone body, you can die by knocking your mask off. Even the beds can kill you on Pandora. They sleep in glorified hammocks that are hundreds of feet off the ground. Again, how many times have the Na’vi lost children, this time because a faint breeze murders them in their sleep?
The Na’vi are violent and temperamental
Now, obviously most of the humans in Avatar are the worst around. It’s like every single villain from Walker, Texas Ranger got rounded up and told that the eyes of the ranger couldn’t find them across interstellar space. But the Na’vi don’t come off especially well either.
During one of the establishing shots on Pandora, Jake watches some kind of terrain vehicle roll by, and it’s riddled with Na’vi arrows. Which, we’re soon told, are frequently dipped in a toxin that can drop a person in seconds. Who knows what the vehicle was up to; the humans really were assholes there. But still, the Na’vi and the humans weren’t at war at this point. And it’s also established that, before Colonel Bad Guy orders the genocide, the humans were trying to bribe and cajole the Na’vi into re-locating somewhere else so they could get those magic rocks.
Maybe the Na’vi saw through the bullshit and were trying to send them packing. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, since none of the Na’vi ever mention this to Jake once he’s part of their crew. So, it’s possible that the vehicle pumped full of arrows was manned by people just out doing their jobs, cheerfully bringing trinkets to the Na’vi or taking pictures or transporting supplies between human bases or whatever. And the Na’vi attempt to murder them.
When Neytiri sees Jake for the first time, he’s in the form of her own people. Maybe she senses that he’s one of the white devils in Na’vi drag, and that’s why she immediately plans to jam him with an arrow. But what if he was just another Na’vi from a different tribe? Or just walking strangely because he was drunk out of his mind? Or maybe he was just a standard, handi-capable Na’vi? Death seems a tad extreme, especially if you haven’t tried “excuse me, who are you?” yet.
And even if it’s true that Neytiri knew Jake was a human, we’re back to the peaceful, harmonious creatures murdering at will. It literally takes the spirit of Pandora itself to stop her from planting an arrow in his spine.
And Jake is almost murdered several times by Tsu’tey, the Na’vi Iceman to his Maverick. And that was before they all knew that Jake was originally there to spy on them and gather tactical military information. It was just because.
In fact, the way most Na’vi respond to humans seems to be just dull, animalistic aggression. They bare their teeth, they fling rocks and arrows at windshields, they attack anything that’s new to them. In the written Na’vi language, they probably use “your” instead of “you’re” all the time. And when a human-in-avatar-form helpfully points this out, they murder him.
These are all traits that human beings went through, and still possess. It’s probably impossible for a sentient race to develop any other way. We rise up from the animal level and slowly build civilization, one fuck up at a time.
The problem with Avatar’s portrayal of the Na’vi is that it doesn’t seem to understand this. The Na’vi are presented as enlightened, not because they found a way to successfully blend nature and technology, but because they’ve never developed technology, or moved beyond the aboriginal level. In reality, there’s nothing especially noble about never moving past the third-world. Ask the kids in Africa. Ask all the people throughout history. Do you know what the treatment for appendicitis was, up until the 20th century?
Avatar stops being fun and only begins to actually annoy me when the whole noble-savage thing gets really prevalent. It’s a fantasy that’s only held by people like James Cameron, people who live in multi-million dollar mansions and tour the world with fifty-thousand-dollar-a ticket packages on a private jet, complete with a chef who fixes you a taste of local cuisine from every nation you pass over at 30,000 feet.
But still, Cameron’s only goal was to make a piece of entertainment that amused, that pushed the envelope of special effects, and came with a little bit of a green message. Nobody can be faulted for that.