Top 5 Reasons I’m over James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’

Films like the first Avatar movie, films that have found their way into a broader pop-culture consciousness, tend to dodge and weave their way past rebuke all the time. Even if there are critical articles out there (like this one!) the popularity and the money generated by that popularity is enough to allow the franchise to continue. While the visual spectacle of James Cameron’s Avatar is hard to deny, after seeing Avatar: The way of water I feel quite strongly that the visual is the only thing this franchise has to offer. More than that, though, the liberties Cameron and his staff took to incorporate elements of indigenous Earth cultures and practices throw this film franchise into a different category. Not only are these films fluffy puff pieces that rely on visually distracting you to a point where critical thinking is near impossible, but they are also potentially damaging to the cultures and people whose lived experiences were taken apart and pieced back together for this film.

I want to be clear that I was aware of the questionable choice to even see this film, to begin with, and that after viewing it I was compelled to share these thoughts. I have seen the calls to boycott from Indigenous people and I would absolutely avoid paying to see it if you decide to watch it at all. I do not seek to make assumptions about how indigenous people might respond to this film because I am a nonbinary white femme person who lacks the experiences and knowledge that would allow me to speak more eloquently on those matters. I would encourage anyone who’s interested to read some of the opinions of People of the Global Majority, especially of the Maori people who have already provided some thoughts on the potential damage caused by this film.

Here is a link to a call to boycott Way of water: https://twitter.com/asdza_tlehonaei/status/1604571538409525249?s=20&t=JQBi9IMCi31FkqnEv7GY4g

Read more: Top 5 Reasons I’m over James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’

1. The Story is Plot-driven

Some really well-loved films are plot-driven, and if that’s your jam I am all for you enjoying that style of storytelling. However, in this franchise, the lack of character-driven choices means we never really get to know anyone. They’re constantly in a state of reactivity to a crisis, and as soon as one is resolved, a new one randomly swims by to take its place. My main complaint on this point is that the story felt lazy, maybe like an early draft. The antagonist was pretty much the same (I’ll address this again soon), and there’s so much time glossed over between films it’s hard to feel connected even to the main characters from the first movie. As a result of the non-stop random events going on in the plot, we never get to know anyone better. There’s very little character development, and everyone falls into a character archetype (like the “typically older brother”, or “brave strong father”) that makes it easy for the audience to just guess about what they’re thinking or feeling and fill in the gaps the story leaves behind. The lack of originality and depth in the characters is a major turn-off for me as a moviegoer.

This is the only item on this list that doesn’t delve into issues that have real-life, Earth-bound societal impact. Content warning moving forward for discussions of cultural appropriation, micro-aggressions, patriarchy, and colonialism that may be disturbing to some readers. There will also be more in-depth spoilers for some of the characters and events of the movie.

2. Misogyny is alive and well on Pandora

Now to be fair, a lot of the misogyny in the film has the same source, namely Stephen Lang’s character Colonel Miles Quaritch. Early on, Qaritch wakes up as an Avatar; a bunch of human memories, inserted into a Na’vi body.

On the left, Quaritch in a human body, on the right Quaritch in a Na’vi body.

We know he’s the bad guy already, but maybe being inserted into the body of an entirely different species would have an effect on his relationship with others? No such luck. He is as salty and unreasonable as ever, taking it upon himself to hunt down Jake Sully whatever the cost. Is this actually helping anyone? That’s up for debate, but Quaritch makes sure to throw around as much wanton discrimination and misogyny as he can against the people whose flesh and blood he is using to seek his revenge. He frequently insults and slanders Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldaña. His main reason for hating her is her prowess in battle, it seems, while he praises men for theirs. Quaritch displays a lack of care for femme characters several times, though to be fair he also demonstrates a deep well of self-hatred as well, going so far as to crush the skull of his human corpse in his Na’vi hand.

The colonel isn’t the only guilty party though, and there are several moments when women are treated differently. The boys are quickly taught to hunt, while their mother never learns. There is no reason presented for excluding her from the training her partner and kids are all taking part in. There is a powerful matriarch in the sea-faring village most of the film is set in, and her role as a powerful leader, and warrior was somewhat refreshing. Overall though, there is still a sense of boundaries and expectations around gender. Surely, on this fantasy planet where supposedly all living creatures are connected, society could grow beyond the need for societal gender roles. These instances of gendered thinking and even discrimination are an obvious and misplaced carry-over from the writers themselves.

3. Human-kind is “bad” and will always be bad

At several points throughout The way of water, humans do horrible things to the Na’vi and the environment of Pandora. The main goal of these sequences seems to be a reiteration of some incontrovertible truth that in this reality humans are bad, they do bad things, and they will always be bad. Despite this, the audience also knows that Jake Sully found a way to shuck his evil human-ness and embrace the ways of the Na’vi. The sense that humans are a hopeless worthless group, and also that Sully is a good one who found a way to stop being worthless don’t really coincide. The fact that so little has been done in the interim between films to build a bridge between more humans and the many peoples of Pandora struck me as odd. Once again, these horrific acts by humans seem to be a quick fix in the story to demonstrate who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are.

To further drive home the fact that humans will stop at nothing to make money and take things that don’t belong to them, the movie features an extended sequence essentially dedicated to whale hunting. Not only do you see a pod of Pandoran whale-like creatures (called tolkun) hunted but the hunters also describe the technology used in minute detail. Depth charges are used to force the tolkun to the surface to protect their echolocation sensors, then they’re deafened with more sound, shot with harpoons that attach large inflated air-bags to their fins to keep them from diving, and finally, they use another harpoon that’s been carefully designed to go between the hard armor plates of the animal and kill it. Did all of this knowledge of how a fantasy creature is hunted and exploited for capital gains help the fabric of the movie? No, I would argue it did not. I would argue that this entire sequence was unnecessary and borderline gratuitous. It is a reminder that horrors do not have to be witnessed to be horrific. That we do not need to wait to see a person, or an animal being harmed before we can act in their defense. That we do not need to watch videos of Black men and other People of the Global Majority being murdered on social media before we are capable of taking action to stop it. If this sequence was meant as a call to action for viewers to stand up for the environment, it was a misguided one. Maybe it will encourage action from some viewers, and that’s great, but activism reliant on violent imagery is unsustainable. It will always require more violence.

“All that’s left anymore with those films is the non-Indigenous desire to be Indigenous or to have some sort of connection to Indigenous people” -Adam Piron Director of the Indigenous program at Sundance Institute

https://www.cnn.com/2022/12/22/entertainment/avatar-2-way-of-water-indigenous-boycott-cec/index.html

4. No attention to the BIG question

In both Avatar films, the BIG question (in my mind) is what it really means for a bunch of human memories to find themselves inside the body of a Na’vi. To further pin it down, what does it mean for the identity of the person in that human/Na’vi body. The first film explored this a little, but the second one mostly shies away from the discussion EXCEPT when it’s required to justify the action of a character. One good example is Colonel Miles Quaritch again. At several points in the movie, he states he is not human, that he is in the body of “the enemy”, and that he is no longer the human known as Miles Quaritch. However, he ultimately does behave as though Quaritch’s human son, Spider, is his own son, and shows the ongoing emotional connection to the memories inserted into his Na’vi body. What is not seen is a further discussion of what being in a Na’vi body means to Quaritch. What thoughts does he have around not really being a human? How does his new biology affect his psyche? How does his new ability to tap into the ecosystem of Pandora impact his psyche? None of these aspects of the bodily influence on identity are addressed.

Spider is another interesting character to consider because he is a human who does everything he can to appear and behave like a Na’vi. He paints his skin blue, locks his blonde hair, doesn’t wear shoes or other human clothing, and spends much of his time in the forest with Jake Sully’s kids. How much of this demonstrates an acceptance of assimilation and appropriation? This human child is associated with the leader of the forest village, so it seems as though the majority of the village accepts these behaviors. Any deeper discussion of why Spider is allowed to present himself this way is never provided, and there are no further conversations about Spider ignoring his own identity as a human. Time and time again, the Na’vi identity is portrayed as something a human can just put on when they want to, and take off when they want to. This is a danger of appropriation, and it’s playing out on social media all the time. When makeup artists take steps to artificially darken their skin for follows and likes one day, and then ignore issues of anti-Blackness the next, the danger makes itself known. When artificial intelligence programs create dark-skinned models, and that likeness is used for promotional imagery for white business owners, the danger makes itself known.

Yes, Avatar is on a planet far away in a fantasy universe, but these issues of identity politics and discrimination based on body types are prevalent in The way of water. When the forest dwellers and the seafarers meet for the first time, the children spend a while poking fun at the strange features of Sully’s kids. The idea that these kids would carry ideas relating to a body hierarchy doesn’t make sense on Pandora. The adults don’t discriminate against each other based on the size of their tails, so why are the children doing it? Where does that notion that different = bad come from on a planet where all life is interconnected and you can literally talk to whales? Why continue to use the lazy method of using oppression to create drama, even on a planet far far away?

5. The movie itself takes from indigenous people

One of the largest themes in the film is the horror and violence inherent in colonization. The humans, or “sky-people” land on Pandora, burn up vast swathes of the forest and don’t care to understand the native cultures and traditions of the planet. It’s an all too familiar story with almost every country on Earth carrying its own story of colonial greed, theft, and mistreatment. Unfortunately, the themes also speak to the creation of the film itself. There are numerous questionable choices made in the design of Pandora’s indigenous people. Because all actors, no matter what color their human skin are made blue/green for the film, the question of representation goes out the window. Your film is not representative of Māori people if you cast them, but then make them blue and mask their natural features. It is still good that they were cast, but representation is not happening. The casting is surely an acknowledgment that the design, rituals, and customs of the seafaring village were taken from the Māori traditions. Personally, I am distracted by the fact that some non-indigenous people were behind the paint and prosthetics.

Things get muddled at best, and oppressive at worst in this franchise where many non-indigenous actors & writers present their limited understanding of indigenous customs through a lens of whiteness. James Cameron benefits from whiteness and has the privilege to take whatever he wants from indigenous cultures around the real world and repackage it all for his fantasy one. Instead of allowing a story from an actual indigenous writer to come to the fore, Cameron asserts the validity of his made-up combo of indigenous cultures and calls it representation. This is one powerful way harmful stereotypes are perpetuated in pop culture and in media. A people group (in this case the Māori) is associated with the fantasy invention of a white person who will never feel the effects of racist microaggressions for being born Māori. After that, viewers may easily associate the traits and behaviors of the fantasy people with the real living people they were based on. Those same viewers may even make assumptions about Māori people as a whole based on this single portrayal and never seek clarification. We are all put in a position to do this exact thing any time we watch a piece of media. This is why actual representation matters. Indigenous culture seen through a lens of whiteness will always be lacking in authenticity.

BONUS: It could maybe be better?

I fully understand Cameron’s decision to continue this franchise, and try to do something with the attention garnered from the first film. I think there are several key things that were overlooked that would really strengthen the narrative and actually allow people to emotionally invest in the characters and the story much more. Most importantly, if Cameron intends to continue using different indigenous groups as “inspiration” for his Pandoran species, he needs to hire more indigenous actors, writers, costume designers, etc. Ultimately, I think he should step aside, and let this franchise die. There are bigger better stories to be told, and the last thing the world needs is another big-budget flop of a film that says nothing meaningful with a 3-hour runtime. Indigenous creators are out there and eager to tell their stories for themselves. Hollywood needs to start investing in new voices, and as a society, we can demand that native stories are produced and presented by native people with our dollars. The idea that a white man’s vision will be just as good as a native person is encouraged all the time. Artists should be allowed to create whatever they want, right? At some point though, a story I have heard is not mine to tell. To take that story, paint it a new color, present it as my own, and profit from it, is wrong.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.