January 20, 2010

"Bad guys aren't us" in Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar:  Missed Opportunities

By Daniel Heath Justice[F]or all its good intentions, for all its visual spectacle and effecting sentiment (yes, I got teary-eyed a couple of times), it’s still ultimately a story about “those bad guys who aren’t us.” Sadly, as we know from example after example in the past, distant and immediate, the bad guys, all too often, are us. It’s a comforting lie to believe that only those big bad guys with the superweapons or the white hoods and burning crosses are the only ones who do nasty racist things, but it’s a lie nonetheless.

In distancing the audience from any complicity with these evils on our world, the film actually fails to take seriously what would really be required of the audience to effect real and lasting change. The genocide perpetrated against the Na’vi is undeniably evil and despicable, yet genocide isn’t enacted only by wicked, bloodthirsty soldiers–mundane, ordinary people participate in all kinds of atrocities at home and abroad, knowingly and unknowingly, every day. Indeed, as Hannah Arendt might remind us, it’s usually the ordinary people whose actions are most responsible for such horrors, made all the worse because of its seeming banality.

Yet because no audience member is expected to take the side of Colonel Quaritch or of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the insipid and cowardly corporate sycophant, audiences can only claim the righteousness of the Na’vi for themselves. In so doing, we’re exempted from the hard work that actually accompanies the struggles for decolonization, social and environmental justice, and peace. There’s no real sense that good intentions can actually be far more destructive to a people (and have much more lasting impacts) than shooting napalm into the Hometree; there’s no acknowledgment that people can do terrible things out of a sense of misplaced obligation rather than simply because they’re sociopaths.
Comment:  Teary-eyed from watching Avatar? I was closer to yawning than to crying, though I didn't do either.

Justice has identified the key reason Avatar is no better than FernGully, message-wise. You can't feel anything for one-dimensional good or bad guys. Since the characters are as flat as cartoons, you can watch them from a safe distance. "Those villains did terrible things to those heroes," you think, "but it has nothing to do with me. If I were in Avatar, I'd save the Na'vi just like Jake and Neytiri."

Cameron wasn't astute enough to realize it, but more complex themes and characters would've made his message more effective. Moreover, an honest version of Avatar might've done just as well at the box office, if not better. Frodo, Spider-Man, and Captain Jack Sparrow were reasonably complex characters, and that didn't harm their movies.

What I don't think is debatable is Avatar's probable place in film history. Like Cameron's Titanic, people will regard Avatar as a masterful piece of filmmaking without a story worth remembering. A missed opportunity, indeed.

For more on the subject, see No Enlightenment in Avatar and Does Avatar's Agenda Matter?

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