The beautiful losers of Avatar

(Updated below.)

I wouldn’t have seen Avatar were it not for the reviews. I’m a sucker for a good story, not so much for special effects, and would normally have little interest in a film where the computer-generated 3D visual effects are supposed to be the main attraction. But then several reviewers disclosed a major plot device that made me want to see the movie just so that I could slam it here. Which is what I’ll be doing in this post.

Many others have already beat me to it: Aaron Bady, Annalee Newitz, Eric Repphun, Lisa Wade, to name just a few. The White Saviour angle in particular has been discussed extensively and so I won’t say much about that here. Still, there are a few things I want to add to the discussion. Note that this post is full of detailed spoilers, as are the linked articles above. Then again, if you want to be surprised by plot twists, you should see a different movie.

The Na’vi are an alien race that looks remarkably like the Plains Indians. Not any particular tribe, that is, but a compound of generic Noble Savage clichés: they ride horses, braid their hair and wear feathers in it, hunt with knives, bows and arrows, thank the animals they’ve killed, paint their faces when they go to war. They’re soulful and spiritual, have a deep connection to nature and live in harmony with it. Beyond that, they’re almost indistinguishable from one another and devoid of any specific characterization. And that’s the first problem right there – the nagging, persistent stereotyping.

But that’s fine, you’ll say, because these are good and uplifting stereotypes. The Na’vi are shown in a positive light, as a perfect race living an idyllic life that we can only dream of.

I’m about as white as anyone can be, but I have often been on the receiving end of various other sorts of stereotyping, as a mathematician, a woman in mathematics, and as an immigrant. Now, let’s not even bring up sexism or Polish jokes here. Let’s talk instead about the kind of stereotyping that happens when you believe that hip-hop is the only music genre that urban black males like, so when an actual urban black male you’ve met at a party mentions that he likes Arcade Fire, you interrupt him and insist that he should tell you about Jay-Z instead. It’s disrespectful. It’s trying to have a conversation with an imaginary cardboard cliché while ignoring the real live person in front of you. That’s what stereotyping does, even in its “good” variety. None of us – urban black males, Polish immigrants, Irish immigrants, Aboriginal people – are 100% determined by our ethnicity or heritage. To think otherwise is to deny a part of our humanity. That should apply to the Na’vi, too, if they’re going to be as anthropomorphic as the movie wants them to be.

Cameron’s answer? He invents a physical mechanism to ensure that the Na’vi are indeed as homogeneous as possible, 100% determined by their heritage. That would be the USB-like plugs that the Na’vi use to connect to Eywa, the central brain of the planet, and to an assortment of other living organisms. The Na’vi can never really be distinct individuals because they’re all part of one network. Grown-up men and women walk around with barely concealed umbilical cords, always ready to reconnect them. That’s the Big Idea that had me grinding my teeth when I first heard about it. It’s ham-fisted and it’s the exact opposite of what I would want from any movie with a minimum of racial consciousness.

It also cripples the story. Good storytelling calls for diverse and interesting characters and complex dynamics between them. Thanks to the main plot device, none of the Na’vi have any chance of fitting the bill. They have no room for personal growth, character development or differentiation. The only Na’vi character that stands apart somewhat is the future chief and Neytiri’s fiancé who mistrusts Jake – he’s perfectly right about that, too – and is obviously nonplussed when Jake gets his girl. The complexity of that conflict as shown in the movie is approximately equal to two dogs barking at each other on their Eywa leashes; then the guy gets killed. Once the visual thrill wears off, the Na’vi are utterly and profoundly boring.

Just consider this passage from “America, Found and Lost”, an excellent article by Charles C. Mann in the May 2007 issue of the National Geographic:

Evidence suggests Pocahontas was a bright, curious, mischievous girl, one who, like all girls in Tsenacomoco, went without clothing until puberty. Her real name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was a teasing nickname that meant something like “little hellion”. When Pocahontas visited Jamestown after Smith’s return, Strachey remembered, she got the boys to turn cartwheels with her, “falling on their hands turning their heels upwards, whom she would follow, and wheel so her self naked as she was all the fort over”.

The English appeared to have liked the girl – but not enough to prevent them from abducting her in 1613. They demanded that Powhatan return the English guns he had acquired, but the leader refused to negotiate with people he must have regarded as criminals. Perhaps Pocahontas was angered by her father’s refusal to ransom her. Perhaps she liked being treated royally by the English, who viewed her as a princess. Perhaps Pocahontas, by then a teenager, simply fell in love with one of her captors – decorous, pious, politically adept John Rolfe, who for his part seems to have truly fallen for her. In any case, she agreed to stay in Jamestown as Rolfe’s bride.

I like this Pocahontas, rebellious and independent. And that was not a typo at the end of the quote: Pocahontas may or may not have saved John Smith’s life (according to the same article), but it was John Rolfe that she married. What a story. Meanwhile, we have to make do with Neytiri showing Jake the colours of the wind.

The Na’vi are remarkably simple-minded. They react immediately and impulsively to whatever is happening at the moment: run when they’re threatened, get angry when they learn of Jake’s betrayal, bow to him without question when he returns on a bigger dragon. They’re guided entirely by their feelings and by “signs” from the Tree of Life and other higher powers. For all the talk about the planet-sized brain, we don’t ever see a Na’vi stop and think about anything.

They don’t have much of a social structure, except that there’s a Chief and his wife is the Shaman, a position that Neytiri will inherit. They don’t seem to have science, art or literature – any need they might have for such things is voided by their direct connection to Eywa. We never see Neytiri quote Na’vi poetry to Jake. Their culture appears to consist of holding hands and humming together. By any normal standards, including comparison to actual existing Aboriginal tribes, they’re infantile as individuals and underdeveloped as a society.

Crucially for the plot, they don’t seem to be capable of planning or strategizing. That’s where the White Saviour comes in. He develops a strategy for the Na’vi, such as it is – it basically amounts to several tribes getting together and having a go at it – and his fellow rebels contribute a chopper and assorted technical gadgets.

Consider that, were it not for Jake, the Na’vi might actually have had to sit down and come up with a plan of their own. Not having enough time to develop their own competing technology, they might have had to find a way to steal weapons and gadgets from the enemy and learn to use them. Infiltrate the enemy camp, perhaps, by transferring the mind of a Na’vi into a human body – something that they apparently have the capacity to do? Start actually using that planet-sized brain? Empower themselves in some way or another? Wouldn’t that have made a better story?

But it would have spoiled the pretty picture. The Na’vi must remain pure, untainted by military strategy and technology, unencumbered by any thoughts of cunning or duplicity. Never mind that bows and arrows don’t work well against armoured vehicles – they’re so beautiful and stylish. Never mind that having some intelligence of the enemy plans could have prevented the Na’vi slaughter – we like our Na’vi better when they’re trusting and naive. The things about the Na’vi that we so adore are exactly the same things that make them so ineffective against an aggressor, get them killed en masse, and would have guaranteed their defeat and subjugation if the White Saviour had not stepped in. They’re a perfect people indeed – perfect to conquer and rule. We love you as the losers and we don’t want to have to worry that you just might win. How could anyone possibly have a problem with that?

Edited to add: The first visual reference that came to me after the Avatar screening was The Dark Crystal, the Jim Henson puppet movie from 1982. I have now had a chance to see it again and, well, yes, if there were any justice in the world then Cameron would be sending a nice chunk of his royalties to Brian Froud and Jim Henson’s family. Here’s a relevant clip – make sure to watch past the 1:40 mark.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “The beautiful losers of Avatar

  1. VF7_001_011

    If you like the story of Pocahontas you should watch The New World, which came out in 2005. It is the best movie on the topic. It covers her marriage to John Rolfe in some detail. It’s also visually amazing, far more so than avatar.

  2. You mean this movie, right? I’m not sure that I “like the story of Pocahontas” as it is usually told – that is, overromanticized and full of cliches – but this looks reasonably good.

  3. Hello Isabella,

    I started from a link in roger ebert’s blog, read through your interesting text on Poland and Socialism and then went on to this one.

    A well thought out argument; however, my reading of the story is different. The great white savior was leading the Navi to destruction. The only reason the Navi won the final battle is that the planetary conscience, the local Gaia, decided to intervene, both on the ground and in the air. If our brave hero hadn’t send the grenades into the motors, the local fauna could have used the ‘Canada goose technique‘ to destroy the human ships.
    My idea is that the movie shows how a well organized grassroots organization ‘literally grassroots, in this case’ can triumph over a powerful civilization. Which is why the movie is popular the world over, not only with white America and Europe…
    I also wonder what was the influence of absorbing the Seagourny Weaver character into the planetary consciousness; talk about inside information on the enemy!

    I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel to see which vision of the tale is right your rather dark one or my rather rosy one… or, did I miss something?

    Thank you for a thought provoking essay,

    Regards

    Michel Lamontagne
    Otterburn Park, QC

  4. Michel – I’m always happy to see someone new here!

    It’s an interesting interpretation and yes, the best scenario would be for the sequel to improve on the present movie in a way that The Empire Strikes Back did on Star Wars: A New Hope. We’ll just have to wait and see.

    My main objections were that (a) the Na’vi are depicted as noble but defenseless and devoid of all agency, (b) this is somehow supposed to be a good thing, (c) they also happen to embody the stereotypical image of an actual human race that has a history of being colonized. I’m not sure that I would have bought (a) and (b) even if they were not accompanied by (c), but it’s the addition of (c) that I think pushes it over the line.

    If the point was to have a Gaia-style grassroot movement of things animate and inanimate, then there were many less offensive ways to accomplish that. The insect colonies of Lem’s The Invincible come to mind. Of course, an insect wouldn’t have been a viable love interest for the male lead.

    On a very closely related point, you may be interested to see Ebert’s review of To Kill a Mockingbird. This is one instance where I agree with him 100%.

  5. Galane

    I’d like to see a review of the (IMHO rather poor) military tactics depicted in the movie, from some people with actual military experience.

    With all the tough vines hanging all over the place, the most obvious method to take out the rotorcraft would be to drop long pieces of vine through the rotors. Same with big hunks of wood and rocks. Enough junk dropped through would take them down.

    What’s her name who defects with her aircraft displays an especially poor tactical aptitude when she attacks the large aircraft. Instead of standing off at range and concentrating fire on one rotor to take it down, she fires a few potshots then flies around *in front of all its guns and missiles* to do some taunting, and get shot at.

    After shooting that one down she would’ve then still been alive to shoot the engines on the shuttle.

    (But like most movies the plot dictates all but The Hero must do stupid things to advance the story.)

    How did she not get washed out of being a combat pilot when she doesn’t have the sense to know what NOT to do in such a situation? From the war paint on her aircraft they must’ve done *some* amount of planning for what to do with their most valuable air asset. She should’ve had a group of fliers assigned to provide a screening force, much like a WW2 battleship had smaller escorts to guard its flanks against torpedoes and to provide point defense. But instead she ‘goes cowboy’ and gets wiped out without doing any significant damage just so Sully can play hero.

    She’s the only character that really displays any conscience about the wrongness of attacking the natives when she flies away. All the other major human characters are there for some ulterior motive. The company man wants the minerals, the military man just want to blow things up and kill a lot, the scientists are after knowledge, even Sully, first he wants to prove he’s as good as his dead brother, then he wants his back fixed, then he wants to win the girl. In the end he gets all he wants, albeit in a native body.

    Nobody but that one pilot really *cares* about anything happening outside their own wants.

    I just watched this show but an hour ago and Jake Sully is the only character’s name I can remember.

  6. Ivo D.

    “Consider that, were it not for Jake, the Na’vi might actually have had to sit down and come up with a plan of their own. (….) Empower themselves in some way or another? Wouldn’t that have made a better story?”

    I think the answer is yes: you might want to check out Ursula LeGuin’s The word for world is forest. It is a very similar story of a forest planet commercially exploited, whose (now green) forest-dwelling natives, after much suffering, successfully overrun the military base of the few technologically superior earthlings.

    LeGuin’s story kept coming back to me as I was watching Avatar. I’m surprised that nobody else seems to have noticed the resemblance, which goes well beyond the generic Pocahontas archetype. Even the passive, impulsive, collective behaviour of the Na’vi you complain about are shared with LeGuin’s (1976!) version of the forest-dwedding locals, but these traits make much more sense on her planet and in her story. Although the character of the sympathetic scientist (an anthropologist) is also present, there is no Sully-equivalent white-ex-machina: the grassroot uprising is organized by the aboriginees themselves, by way of their “dreaming” — their Eywa-equivalent collective communication / sharing device. Although the revolt is successful and “just”, the moral in LeGuin’s tale is thankfully more subtle. A much better tale — not surprisingly –, the novelette version of which has won a Hugo.

    I was positively blown away by the 3D visuals in the movie, though, and went back to watch it again a few days later :-)


    Oh! I’ve just read on the wikipedia article I’ve linked to that a “prominent science fiction critic” said that “the science fiction story that most closely resembles Avatar has to be Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella The Word for World Is Forest”. So it’s official now. And Yey, I feel like a connoisseur!

  7. Thanks for the tip! LeGuin is one of my favourite writers, but I did not know that story. I’ll have to look it up.

    I wasn’t *that* blown away by the Avatar visuals. Of course I live in Vancouver, a short drive from forests and landscapes every bit as impressive as the Pandora stuff ;-) As for sheer visual imagination, I still think that any 10-minute segment of The Dark Crystal has more of it than the 3 hours of Avatar, but perhaps that’s just me.

    Edited to add: I could also imagine, for instance, a story where the planet does not think all that highly of the Na’vi and basically takes this opportunity to sacrifice them as cannon fodder before rebuilding the biosphere so that other species are given more of an advantage. But again, that would be a bit above the philosophical level of the movie we got.

  8. Ivo D.

    Well, I’ll just finally have to go and find The Dark Crystal then. I’ve wanted to watch it for some time now, because I loved Labyrinth and I’m a fan of Brian Froud (e.g. the amazing work in the Faeries book with Alan Lee).

    PS: Who doesn’t like ULeG? :-)

  9. Hello Izabella and Galane,

    Since no true expert has risen to the challenge, here is my amateur historian view of the human tactics in Avatar: They are idiotic.
    Their only justification is from a narative point of view: They put the main characters in danger and add interest to the movie.

    first, the bad humans:
    A real commander does not risk personnel for nothing. The way to smash the Navi is to send the shuttle into space (the nice white ship), calculate the orbits, and sent a few tons of non magnetic rock onto the Navi campsite. The rocks will hit at many times the speed of sound, are not affected by unobtanium, and will kill all the natives.
    This is about what the US did with Irak, destroying all military capacity in one day with zero loss of life o the US side. The US used smart bombs, that would not work in the context of the story. However, rock is not smart.
    Sad to say, (in a narative way) war in space will be very boring.

    Alternatively, the spaceship can go to low orbit, turn on it’s engines for a few seconds, with the exhaust aimed towards the Navi regroupment area. This should also kill all the Navi, since the spaceship described in Avatar uses a drive that produces more energy than all the present Earth power stations, in the form of gamma radiation and alpha particles (think of a gigantic cancer radiation treatment machine). However, this scenario requires collaboration between the spacers and the ground personnel, which may not be possible in the story setting.

    PS. It was really stupid of the bad humans to risk their space shuttle on this mission.

    And now for the Navi tactics:
    It all depends on the info they have and the geography of the battle site. Sadly, the film does not give much information.
    ( I must enphasize that the idea that a planetwide entity and a civilisation occupying large sacred trees should have a single sacred shrine is ludicrous.)

    First, the battle is a pre-emptive strike by the humans (think Irak again, and Pearl Harbor). In both cases, the defenders were taken by suprise and destroyed. Unfortunately for the Navi, that is the most likely outcome.
    Now, to the actual Avatar story: spies in the human camp have informed the Navi that a low level areal strike is on the way, what should they do?

    Getting the superduper powerful planetwide entity onto their side is good. Eventually, that is what saves the Navi and the rest is window dressing. OK

    Puting their air force into the air is good. OK

    Sending horses agains tanks is bad and fails in the movie. OK

    Using the human copter as an asset. Well, the bad guys know it is there. That compromises it’s possible effectiveness. It is, in fact, very bad tactics (and rather unlikely) for the baddies not to have sent in a advance force to destroy it.
    The giant red dragon is probably lust as effective and less predictable.

    The Canada goose technique (sending large birds into air breathing engines) would be, in my opinion, the most effective method of beating the baddies. However, from a movie point of view, this is very ugly and gory. It also prevents the heroes from doing anything exciting.

    So, as Galene guesses, the Avatar tactics are not real; they are narrative techniques for a fun story.

    Hope this enlightens you or amuses you. It certainly was a lot of fun to write for me!!

    Regards,

    Michel Lamontagne
    Otterburn Park, Quebec

  10. Rich M.

    Though it would make for a very short movie, I think the Navi problem would have easily been solved by using an enhanced radiation warhead (old school neutron bomb) delivered from orbit.