While Avatar has been greeted with a bevy positive feedback, (The New York Times hailed it “glorious”), there are those who look past the beautiful imagery to find controversy in James Cameron’s long-awaited movie, finally released in theatres December 18, 2009.
In case you are one of the minority of people who still haven’t seen it, Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-marine in the year 2154 who inherits his late brother’s scientific project.
On a planet named Pandora, a people called the Na’vi live in harmony with each other and the world around them. However, they have built their village on the site of a huge deposit of a rare mineral that the Americans are desperate to lay their hands on.
Jake must inhabit a false body, called an avatar, made to look like a Na’vi, in order to gain their trust and convince them to leave their land. However, as he spends time with the people, he learns to see as they do. Jake then must turn upon his own race to save the people whom he has come to understand and love.
While the movie may seem inoffensive, there are those quick to point out any instances of a perceived political agenda on the part of director James Cameron. Avatar has been widely criticized for being “un-American.”
A major plot point in the story is the determination of the Americans to get what they want: a mineral known as unobtainium, which sells for $20 million a kilo. Many believe that the Americans have been depicted as greedy and ruthless. Parallels have been drawn between the Americans’ behavior towards the Na’vi and the treatments of Native Americans in early American history. Similar to the Trail of Tears, the American soldiers in Avatar move in quickly, attack the Na’vi’s home, and force the survivors to leave their land. Others believe that this is Cameron’s depiction of the Iraq war and American dependence on oil. The American soldiers are sent in to harvest what they need with little consideration for the indigenous peoples.
Another issue to some is the perceived pro-smoking stance of the movie. We are introduced to Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Signourney Weaver) as she wakes from a cryogenic sleep, leaves her avatar form, and is already hungrily searching for a cigarette. However, the Titanic director was quick to defend his artistry in a statement given to the New York Times: “I wanted Grace to be a character who is initially off-putting and even unpleasant. She’s rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. She is not meant to be an inspirational role model to teenagers. Also, from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning on-line and in video games.”
The Issue of racism is another Avatar controversy. Similar to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (and indeed, many other formulaic Hollywood classics), a point of contention is the need for a white man to intervene and save the tribal people who are unable to defend themselves. Will Heaven from The Daily Telegraph sums up the argument: “The ethnic Na’vi need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves. The poor, helpless natives, in other words, must rely on the principled white man to lead them out of danger.”
While Cameron’s Avatar has been catching quite a bit of heat from the media for promoting a political agenda, its magic should not be overlooked, magic made possible through the use of extraordinary new technology. If you haven’t seen it yet, get to a theatre, don your 3-D glasses, put reality on hold and enjoy an extraordinary movie.