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.