I just recently (and finally) watched Avatar, and I've been trying to craft this commentary for weeks now. Rather than dilly-dally any longer, I've incorporated some final thoughts and present it in all it's imperfections:
There are many fascinating threads of analysis that course through the movie. I've read a small portion of reviews and analyses found in my not-at-all-systematic Internet meanderings. A conclusion I've drawn from this research is that I haven't been able to find much written about what seems to me two very important points that connect Avatar with its other relatives in the blockbuster fantasy and sci-fi categories: 1) Why is it (nearly) always the white guy who saves the day? 2) Why is violence so often the solution to violence?
One fruitful starting point for analysis is with Joseph Campbell’s articulation of the narrative of the hero. The journey of the hero, in summary, plays out in three parts. First, the hero leaves his/her community with the goal of resolving something amiss; second, the hero faces a set of challenges, and overcomes them; third, the hero returns to her/his community with a solution, and the community is thereby strengthened.
The hero's journey is an archetypal pattern that Joseph Campbell and others have found repeated across cultures, time periods, and locations. The Epic of Gilgamesh fits this basic pattern, as do the myths of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and countless other grand and not-so-grand narratives. George Lucas famously cribbed extensively from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces when he created the Star Wars franchise.
The film Avatar also fits this basic pattern: First, the protagonist takes the place of his twin brother to participate in a scientific/diplomatic/secretive military mission finally to get the Na'vi to surrender their resources; second, the protagonist faces a deep challenge to his very understanding of reality and his place in the universe, and learns a Big Life Lesson; third, the protagonist sides with the Na'vi to repel the human military-corporate invaders, and in doing so literally personifies an old Na'vi story about a savior coming from the sky.
I watched Avatar in IMAX 3D, and was absolutely enthralled by the visual effects. This amazing spectacle reminded me a bit of scuba diving. However, I found the storyline to be derivative to a distracting degree. Many other reviewers have characterized the storyline as Pocahontas in Space, or Dances with the Na'vi. This interpretation is generally accurate, but doesn't get beyond the surface. Going a step or two deeper into this analysis suggests some questions and concerns worth considering.
Dark Side of the Myth
David Brin wrote a thought-provoking article in Salon.com in 1999 in reaction to the latest batch of Star Wars movies, "'Star Wars' despots vs. 'Star Trek' populists: Why is George Lucas peddling an elitist, anti-democratic agenda under the guise of escapist fun?." Brin's piece is worth reading in its entirety, but apropos to the current conversation is his observation that the archetypal hero journey narrative can have both a positive and a negative coloration:
Alas, Campbell only highlighted positive traits, completely ignoring a much darker side -- such as how easily this standard fable-template was co-opted by kings, priests and tyrants, extolling the all-importance of elites who tower over common women and men. Or the implication that we must always adhere to variations on a single story, a single theme, repeating the same prescribed plot outline over and over again. Those who praise Joseph Campbell seem to perceive this uniformity as cause for rejoicing -- but it isn't. Playing a large part in the tragic miring of our spirit, demigod myths helped reinforce sameness and changelessness for millennia, transfixing people in nearly every culture, from Gilgamesh all the way to comic book super heroes.
Two Important Questions to Consider
As referenced above, I have lumped Avatar into a category that includes many blockbuster fantasy and science fiction films of the past 30 years or so, such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Matrix, etc. These movies all exhibit the basic pattern of the hero's journey. They also have in common at least one epic, large-scale, effects-driven battle scene; pioneer (or at least make use of) the absolute latest visual effects technologies; and are coupled with marketing campaigns that saturate print, broadcast, and Internet media. With this in mind and following Brin's lead, two important questions came to my mind after viewing Avatar:
1) Why is it that the American, epic, Hollywoodized iterations of this story always center on a white male?
2) Why is it that the American, epic, Hollywoodized iterations of this story pivot on a grand battle scene, suggesting that violence in the face of violence is justified?
On the Question of the Recurring-White-Male-Hero Motif
Comments following this review provide one way to think about the white-male-as-hero motif:
How to get the white man to save to day[?] . . . because this movie is an allegory meant for largely “white” or at least “western” conscience, the hero storyline is that of the obligation to action of conscience, that YOU can make a difference, or even THE difference. It is a fantasy for that reason, but one that is meant to place upon the viewer the specialness of agency. To be sure there are great distortions, but this is what happens with hero tales, and not documentaries.
The quote above identifies one reason why this motif is used in Avatar--and, by my extension, other movies of this genre: The movie is intended for a largely white, male audience. However, this comment then dismisses the importance of this realization by indicating that this was not a documentary, after all, but simply a hero tale; since it's only a story, then, the question about why the protagonist is a white male is not otherwise important.
My response to this is to ask: In a modern, globalized world, and within contemporary multicultural societies such as the U.S., is it not ignorant and demeaning -- if not, alas, racist -- to continue to make movies where the same white male saves the day? Not just any ol' movies, either, but specifically the kind I'm discussing here -- the mega-media blockbusters that spawn ubiquitous marketing and product campaigns that are often industries in-and-of-themselves?
What does it say about our contemporary culture when the biggest blockbuster films are, at their core, based on cross-cultural myths & archetypes that don't necessarily have to be tied to any particular gender or ethnicity, and yet they are consistently correlated in this way?
On the Question of the Violence-Solves-Violence Motif
This review provides one response to my question about the violence of Avatar and other such epic Hollywood movies by placing full responsibility on the director. James Cameron claims that his films are anti-war, but he consistently creates simplified narratives and simplistic characters to preach non-violence through the use of violence:
Given the obvious references to Native American culture, it's not a big shock that Avatar is chiefly a celebration of nature and call to protect it. Similarly, any Cameron fan expects certain modus operandi: using violence to preach anti-violence (Terminator 2 and to a degree, The Abyss) and spending millions of dollars to warn of corporate greed (Aliens).
This analysis doesn't go the step further to ask why our culture revels in such narratives. This review provides one perspective:
there's no mistaking what Avatar is taking aim at: the founding myth of America, and the incursions of European colonists into indigenous civilisations. The Na'vi, the tribe with whom Sully fetches up, are a sort of grab-bag of generic tribal characteristics
. . .
For a while, it looked like he was giving us a reasonably sweet-natured blockbuster, suggesting that the natural world has, like, the power to heal us all, or something. Then Cameron sends in the helicopter gunships and starts blowing shit up, big time. Way to undermine your own message.
I agree with this, though it does miss seeing the entire forest by focusing on just one tree. James Cameron is one director within a large group of directors, producers, screenwriters, industry executives, etc., who themselves are a relatively small group within the larger society. That certain directors make films that use violence ostensibly to preach non-violence doesn't get to the core issue, which is an understanding about why our culture values such films (where "value" is measured in terms of box office attendance).
Particularly when there are so many examples of conflict being solved without resort to violence (here and here and here, to start), why do we invest so much time and money ignoring and undermining these examples? What purposes does it serve to engage moviegoers through imagery and storytelling and provide them a take-away message that violence is the only adequate response, when it isn't? What systems of inequality and disempowerment are perpetuated when narratives of non-violence are ignored?
In conclusion, it is important to ask questions about Avatar and similarly-structured movies so that we can be more aware of how individual and societal values relate. What does it mean in a society with a deep history of ethnic inequality & conflict that the dominant popular narrative medium -- cinema -- so often casts a white male as the hero? What does it mean in a world so often wracked by violence that cinematic portrayals of disagreement are so often settled only through violence? Why is it that even though there are numerous alternate, more inclusive, narrative structures that could convey culturally resonant stories, that so often these alternatives are blatantly ignored?
I'm just askin'.
Some additional Avatar-related points:
** Red Letter Media has a great two-part video review of Avatar that is worth viewing in entirety.
** This post highlights the film industry's selective and deceptive use of statistics and financial returns to tout the popularity of a given movie--in this case, comparing Avatar with Gone with the Wind.
** Some commentaries (such as this and this) try to relate Avatar explicitly to Christian myths. I’m not convinced that framing analysis in terms of Christianity/Christology is necessarily very productive. Why? Because Christianity itself is an amalgam of symbols that have their roots and periods of efflorescence centuries and millennia prior to ca. 32 A.D. Therefore, it seems to me that rooting one’s analysis in Christianity unnecessarily truncates paths of potential resonance (and relevance).