Avatar: A Pop Culture Band-Aid in 3D

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}

Avatar: A Pop Culture Band-Aid in 3D
review by Angus McLinn, Liberator Mag Intern

[Editor's note: Contains some mild spoilers]

"Avatar," James Cameron’s special effects-laden box office hit, has garnered quite a bit of attention worldwide. It is now the highest grossing movie of all time and is already being compared with "Star Wars" as a milestone in special effects technology. Aside from the awe-inspiring visuals, "Avatar’s" popularity is at least partially due to the myriad of contemporary social issues it addresses. The audience sees criticism of privatized health care when wounded veteran and protagonist Jake Sully mentions that, due to a recession, he can’t afford surgery to restore the use of his legs, despite the existence of available technology. The conflict in contemporary society between spirituality, faith, and the secular desire to dismiss these two forces is reflected in the movie as well; the corporate bandits looting Pandora of its 'Unobtanium' reject these values as primitive and backwards, yet Jake discovers that the 'mysticism' of the Na'vi is based on some quite real scientific phenomena.

As many others have already brought up, the film is also implicitly critical of the Iraq War, and even includes a bit of “fighting terror with terror” by the imperialist military forces attempting to seize the valuable minerals found under foreign soil. This, of course, brings up issues of imperialism and globalization, albeit on an intergalactic scale. And, it’s a special effects-driven epic to boot. It includes a climactic "Independence Day"-style dog fight between the rag tag locals and the imposing, technologically superior alien invaders; all while a monolithic mother ship type carrying a deadly payload that bears a strong resemblance to a star destroyer grows ever closer to symbolically and metaphysically bombing the Na’vi to oblivion.

Simultaneously, a heroic and ultimately futile "Last Samurai"-esque cavalry charge into heavy machine gun fire is occurring on the ground, reminding us not to forget the film's omnipresent battle between tradition and technology. Add space marines in automated combat armor they must have borrowed from Ellen Ripley of "Aliens" fame, nine-foot tall blue feline/humanoid aliens, giant reptilian birds that look like dragons, floating mountain ranges, and even a cigarette-smoking-yet-still-a-good guy character and there can be no doubt that "Avatar" is indeed a sight to see.

Of course, as the film contains so much social commentary, it has drawn the attention of many cultural critics, some of whom have wasted no time in pointing out the ‘white savior myth’ plot arc, as seen in its spiritual predecessor "Dances with Wolves." The film does fit quite handily into this category. The 'hero' Sully manages, in just six months, to not only successfully assimilate into the Na’vi culture and officially become a member of the tribe, but also capture a legendary avian monster that only five others ever had in the history of the Na’vi, unite the tribes, successfully repel the imperialist forces the tribe themselves could only lose ground to, and marry the tribe’s gorgeous and capable princess, Omaticaya. This is indeed problematic, but "Avatar" ends up being counterintuitive to its own underlying commentary on contemporary social issues in other ways as well.

While the film does highlight the existence of several important social issues we face today, in the end its oversimplified solutions to complex problems provide an ersatz form of resistance to audiences. Sully’s big idea to resist the militarized forces of intergalactic capitalism and planetary imperialism turn out to be very similar to the Na’vi’s previous modus operandi: violent opposition, but this time with feeling. Sully was cast to be an easily relatable "everyman," and audiences can identify with his increasing cultural awareness and eventual disgust with the profit-driven rape of the newfound beings with little effort. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the ultimate expression of this dissatisfaction is accompanied by explosions. The result is a film that advocates opposition to a grim picture of the status quo, yet offers very little in the way of new modes of thinking about these issues. Having already paid $15 to see the feel-good hit of the winter in Imax 3D, audience members feel both reaffirmed in their right-minded opinions (senseless destruction of the environment is probably immoral; the rights of indigenous people should be respected at least enough to avoid genocide, etc.) and vindicated of the responsibility to approach complex issues with complex thought rather than simple statements of ‘no’ and ‘action’. You can’t physically fight corporate greed, and making a giant scaly bird rip a helicopter out of the sky is a dubious way to improve respect for cultural diversity -- at best.

Granted, "Avatar" is a major motion picture and was created to entertain and make money, both of which it does admirably. It is also not the responsibility of a film to do the thinking for the audience, but in the case of "Avatar" as it stands now, it amounts to more of a pop culture band-aid for the bruised consciences of American audiences than a rallying cry for social justice, as some have chosen to view it. Cameron simplifies issues America finds itself on the wrong side of all too often. This, combined with visceral escapism achieved both through the film's spectacular special effects and the plot itself (when Sully leaves his human shell behind for his alien avatar), warrants discussion. After all, record-breaking audiences bought in to get the social capital necessary, and it’s far from too late for "Avatar" to mean everything it always wanted to.