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Two Takes on Avatar

(In a break from our usual programming, On Violence is talking Academy Awards all week. Today Eric c and Matty P discuss the highest grossing film of all time, "Avatar." Tomorrow we'll have a "The Hurt Locker" review and link drop, and Friday we'll tear "Inglorious Basterds" a new one.)

Eric C's Take:

So here's the thing. A number of conservatives have blasted Avatar for being too liberal. If I had to choose one synecdoche  (sorry, Will) for this backlash, it would be this lazy right-wing hit-job by Orange County Register columnist Brian Calle.  More conservative name calling than actual critique, Calle calls Avatar "progressive indoctrination," "phrenic leftist sustenance," and "preachy, psychedelic satiation of leftist worldviews."

More substantive commentators have complained that the film is too pro-environment, too anti-military, and too filled with white guilt. This blows my mind. I don't think Avatar could more accurately describe what humans are going to do when we have the technoglogy that enables to us colonize other planets. In the same way that District 9  accurately depicts what would happen if alien refugees came to Earth, I'm pretty sure we will dismiss aliens as expendable animals. It will be way easier than when white people dismissed blacks, Indians or Muslims as such.

This is one of those times when conservatives--who are fond of calling liberals idealistic and niaive--are being idealistic and naive. Slavery was legal in America less than 150 years ago. The last grizzly bear was shot in California less than 90 years ago. England left India 60 years ago. Hopefully we've evolved past some elements of our ugly nature, but we probably haven't.

So don't be naive. We have an ugly past, and it is exactly why we need films like Avatar.

Matty P's Take:

Recently, Avatar brought to light a new scenario. Perhaps not new, but definitely something I hadn't previously considered: humans as the antagonists for a sci-fi film. Not just humans as individuals since most movies have a "bad guy" who is human, but humans as a species. In Avatar, the human race is portrayed as the bully and evil entity while an alien race acts as righteous defender.

What is typical of the science fiction genre is that a malevolent species tries to conquer or destroy humanity. Consider the plethora of movies: Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe FacultyIndependence Day, Mars Attacks!, War of the Worlds, Predator, Aliens, The Thing, Species, Signs, Killer Clowns From Space, V, Space Jam, It Came From Outerspace and Monsters vs Aliens to name a few. Even Andromeda Strain is about an extraterrestrial virus that threatens humanity. Fewer are the movies like ET: The Extraterrestrial or Close Encounters of the Third Kind that portray benevolent otherworldly creatures.

Rarer still is humanity the conqueror.

As one watches Avatar, we are encouraged to side with a blue alien species while human beings are vilified for their various lusts. When they clash, the viewer is forced to take sides. Do we defend our own kind and our own needs at the expense of an alien world and its inhabitants or do we side with strangers who wish nothing more than to protect their homes? The clash does come at a point where the human’s seem to lack moral grounds and the Navi are justified in their protests. The viewer naturally sides with the aliens.

There’s something strange in this: to side against one’s own species; to desire human beings to be defeated or to be strangely indifferent or even glad when one human character is slain. It is fiction, but fiction mirrors reality. Perhaps it's simply an example of following our moral compass regardless of race or species. Or perhaps what we should take from it is that our enemies are never truly as evil as we make them appear to be, nor are we as good. 

The question remains: is there anything wrong with siding against humanity or in hoping that we lose?

eight comments

Why would there be anything wrong with siding against humanity? I don’t feel the question remains, because clearly humans were in the wrong.

I think the key line is that we follow our moral compass. If mankind is acting poorly, why would you follow them? This is how some people would feel about siding with whites, or christians. Or democrats or republicans. If someone is doing wrong, that’s what matters.

I’ll admit it is a curiosity, but the right answer is clear.

We’ll get into tactics later in the week, but I want to say that Avatar general has ok tactics. A couple of times everyone in the ground force lines up in a line to charge another group. But overall not absolutely atrocious.

As for the overall themes, like Eric touches above, having the emotional IQ to talk to other groups to understand their position and feelings is an important skill all of us could us.

On the one hand yes, I do believe that there is a slight anti-American, anti-military, anti-technology message in this movie, but at the same time I thought the presentation of the political message was so simplistic that it was laughable. Overall, I thought the movie was quite entertaining, and left the theater with a smile on my face; however, I wish James Cameron would have come up with a more original story, as the “noble savage” plot has already been played out a bit too much. Yes, I realize that before white men and their evil technology existed, the world lived in perfect harmony for thousands upon thousands of years, but…

p.s. Eric, I’m disappointed. You should be more loyal to your hometown paper!

Just a side note, but I thought it was interesting how Sigourney Weaver’s character was leading a psuedo-Human Terrain Team.

Most interesting post!
I enjoyed both Matty’s and Eric’s point of views!
Haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m sure the guys got it, so we’ll watch it soon i suppose…

It is fine, Eric, that the viewer sides with whoever they want to side with, as long as they’re watching the movie.
However in real life it’s a different story.
People are doing the wrong things – all the time, most of the time and everywhere you look! But that doesn’t mean that this is outside of our area of responsibility! We can not afford to side with anyone against our own, just because our own are completely unethical. We’ve got the responsibility not to turn our backs and have no choice but to tidy up that mess and get ethical conduct re-established. Anything else would be treason and wouldn’t work in the long run either.

@ Kelly – I think the reason the villains of Avatar were human/American had more to do with audience identification than with making a political point. And yeah, using the phrases pre-emptive strike and “shock and awe” was clumsy. As far as the noble savage thing, I thought a lot of the Navi were dicks…

Anyways, the movie, action visuals, what not, was spectacular. That’s what people need to take away from the movie. Politics is secondary, or even farther down the line.

@ Sophia – I think I agree with your moral POV.

The representatives of humanity, at least most of them, were obviously portrayed as doing wrong. Their modivation was profit. What if the situation were more dire and humanity’s need for what another species had far greater. If it were not unobtainium and water instead, would that make it harder to choose a side? If human live would be lost without that water, could we maintain our righteous indignation?

I think being upset about something (righteous indignation) is a private matter which anyone really has to keep to himself.
Even though you have a good point with “righteous indignation” and “doing wrong for profit” – but whether or not we’re pissed about that does absolutely not matter one bit! All those feelings are a private luxury and will end up being very destructive if acted upon. So all one really can do is to stay calm and emotionally completely unaffected and act in such a way where it’s most constructive. Negotiate your way out and see to that clean hands become fashionable again. But of course certain standards will have to be enforced, otherwise you will just have anarchy and chaos (if people don’t have any guide lines at all).
It’s really just a matter of survival.
And that doesn’t depend on being right or wrong, but on what actually works. (Self-) discipline works, doing what’s for the greatest good works, but having any feelings about what seems to be fair or righteous does never work. That just ends up in (mass) hysteria and insane, destructive actions.