Avatar: an allegory of the West?


For better or worse, one of the most significant environmental events of the holiday season may have been James Cameron’s Avatar. The blockbuster, which tells the story of an alien tribe beset by big business and their mercenaries on the intergalactic frontier, has captured this planet’s imagination. 

Avatar has been praised by some as a progressive flick. Visually out-of-this-world, the movie champions the environment (though, one seven years away, on a moon named Pandora) and is indeed "Emersonian." The tale is a crystalline rebuke of slash-and-burn extractive industries (and less obviously, according to some, the Bush era). James Cameron himself calls it "an environmental parable."

Yet others claim Avatar is wildly unsophisticated. Across the blogosphere, Cameron’s long-awaited feature has been described as "Dances with Wolves" meets outer space. That’s not flattery. Critics have noted that Avatar promulgates more than its share of stereotypes, which, not coincidentally, are also myths of the West and key to environmental justice discussions. (You know a movie has a narrative worth discussing when political analyst James Pinkerton admits on Fox News that "(its) meta-politics lean right, not left.") 

Here are just a few examples of what might trouble: 

  • Pandora’s indigenous society, the Na'vi, is clearly modeled in part on North American natives. But the Na'vi are too-simply cast as "noble savages." They may be spiritually connected to their natural world, but, overall, their portrayal lacks nuance. For instance, though the Na'vi's environmental impact may be less than that of Pandora's greed-driven colonialists (stay tuned for tomorrow's post), surely it's significant and deserves a greater share of screen time.
  • Much like the Na'vi are ever-noble, almost all of the ex-military guns-for-hire are depicted as wholly evil. Does the good-bad dichotomy need to be so black-and-white?
  • Our protagonist, Jake Sully, a white, human deus ex machina, arrives to take the reins for the Na’vi and lead the way, a la Kevin Costner. Before his arrival, however, the Na'vi are depicted as relatively weak and without the means to self-determination.

Feel free to add your own items or analysis. Of course, there’s much to laud in Avatar, too.  But I’m curious—who else saw Avatar as an allegory of the West? And perhaps not a parable of the authentic West (insofar as it exists), but of a storybook version that leaves little space for new conclusions?



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