Friday, 8 January 2010

Avatar, and why I found it a very disturbing film

We went to see Avatar yesterday. It played on the big IMAX screen in 3D and it seemed like just my kind of film. It wasn’t. I wanted to leave the theatre half way through and felt so relieved when I finally stepped out into the chilly air of the Amsterdam winter 2010. To me the film was very disturbing in many ways, some of which I am able to express more or less, and some are less manageable by words. And even with those I can address verbally, I struggle to get it right.

The thought that went through my head mostly during the film was what a friend of mine had posted on her Facebook when she went to see it. She said she had read a review that said: “Why do white people keep making these films?” I can see where the reviewer got it from.

Now despite the fact that Avatar is sci-fi/fantasy, I still felt the director wanted to make some real parallels to actual humanity. And that is where I start to itch. We had humans in their starring role was Greedy Westerners (because they represent humanity in most films), and we had Na’vi in a rendition of Exotica with sure signs of African features and cultural aspects, a Balinese kecak (a.k.a. ‘monkey dance’) set-up (but with harmonic singing), and some Asian influences as well.
The whole storyline, such as it was, was immensely black and white, with the blue people as the good guys who are so close to nature and in touch with their spiritual selves, while the human people were greedy aggressive bastards. Except for a few of course but they wanted to be like the blue people.

Ah! The blue people! Or Na’vi as they were called. With idealized physiques (so strong! so flexible! slim waists! big eyes!) and distinctly African facial features, they represent the perfect being. They also have a perfect community. And they connect, as a community, with the natural and spiritual world.

Somehow I cannot help thinking of that late nineteenth century notion of the ‘noble savage’. I remember an exhibition with pictures of native Americans from that age: all proud indians on proud stallions, both of them gazing off into the distance, so wholly in touch with… well, everything! How the photographer at the time had portrayed them was as icons. As images. Things. And as such, they were not acknowledged really as people. They were different, see?

This is probably what irked me most about this film: the notion of the noble savage coupled with the obvious parallels to the situation on earth. Other than that I really don’t like watching war films and I had not expected this to be one but violence was definitely presented as something wonderful. I also felt a deep annoyance about how the main character naturally became the leader of the Na’vi people, despite him having been with them for only three months, because hey! he was trained as a marine! Marines are widely known for their cultural sensitivity, right? Right. And researchers are geeks with little to no knowledge of the real world.

Top that off with that “but it is only a film!” can be countered with the notion that something similar to what happened on Pandora is actually a regular occurence in earth’s Amazonia, but without the flying dragons… Bad taste in mouth.

The 3D was stunning.


  1. Wow.
    You're the first person I know who really disliked the movie, although my girlfriend mentioned the fact that the Na'vi apparently needed an earthling to become their amazing Chosen One and save them as being the one flaw of the film. It's not unlike Hollywood movies about Africa, in which the main character is always a white person who has to help the poor Africans with their struggles.
    I don't often say this about movies, but I found this one so visually stunning and beautiful to look at that I couldn't care 2 cents about whether or not its story was questionable (or predictable, as many have pointed out). I found the news that conservative Christians condemned the movie for being pro-environmentalist and anti-military (cause, you know, the environment is evil and war is great) silly, not because I disagreed with them but because they sort of missed the point of the movie being an awesome, bad-ass thrill ride for all ages.
    But your post makes me think. I think it's too much to ask a blockbuster Hollywood movie to be anything but black and white (after all, you need good guys and bad guys), but now that you mention it, the 'noble savage' part is a bit much in 2010. Is Cameron saying we should all try to be more like the Na'vi, living in the wilderness, running on tree branches and apologizing to wild boars before we turn them into hamburgers?
    I'm not with you on the 'presenting violence as wonderful', though. I saw it with a 10-year-old who before had expressed concerns about it being too bloody and scary, so I paid extra attention to this while watching. I felt that by today's standards, it's a perfectly watchable movie, and I'd say it goes too far to say that it glorifies violence.
    And yes, the 3D was stunning, even though I saw it in "2D".

  2. Thanks Zeptimius for leaving a comment. The no-nuance approach was indeed to be expected in any blockbuster movie. Sadly. As for the violence bit - well, it may be because I have gotten fed up with violent solutions in many of the films these days. They say that popular culture is a direct reflection of what is foremost in the communal mind at the time and in this light one can hardly be surprised at it. Maybe I'm just a soppy then. ;)

    The visuals did make up for a lot in this film. I was amazed by the progress of 3D. For one thing, I didn't even have the slightest head ache. To think that that 10-year-old will in time be able to say that he remembers going to see 2D movies when he was nine: they were all flat!

  3. Oh yay! I am happy that I wasn't the only one who was really disturbed by this movie. I wanted to walk away in the middle of it as well.