Cinematic Chat: “Avatar” (2009) and social context

by Elsa Ying (’23) | October 7, 2022

Art by Sharbani Patnaik (’24)

James Cameron’s iconic science fiction film Avatar (2009) returned to theaters on September 23 to generate excitement for its long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of the Water (set to release in December 2022). Avatar’s re-release offers yet another opportunity to appreciate the gorgeous special effects and production of the film; however, it also allows a re-examination of the story itself within a 2022 context.

Avatar is set in the far future, when Earth has been depleted of natural resources and humanity is forced to mine the mineral unobtanium (a valuable resource) on Pandora, a moon inhabited by the Na’vi—tall blue aliens. The Resources Development Administration (RDA) sends disabled ex-Marine Jake Sully on an undercover mission to Pandora as an operator for avatars, Na’vi bodies that humans inhabit and control to explore Pandora despite the moon’s deadly atmosphere. Upon an encounter with a female Na’vi named Neytiri, Jake’s avatar is welcomed into her clan, and the human military contractors offer to restore Jake’s legs in return for information about the Na’vi. After Jake confesses to the Na’vi about being a spy and tries in vain to stop the RDA from destroying their gathering place, he is cast out by the clan and imprisoned by the RDA. Eventually, Jake is freed and able to join the final battle, where he regains the trust of the Na’vi and helps them defeat the humans along with the help of the native Pandoran wildlife.

Avatar’s deeper meaning has largely been interpreted as a metaphor for imperialism—humanity (white colonists) invade another civilization for unobtanium, harming the local ecosystem and killing much of the local population in the process. The metaphor isn’t subtle, either, with names like unobtanium—an unobtainable mineral—and an ending that portrays a Na’vi-occupied Pandora ultimately banning most humans.

Although Avatar’s plot makes sense and does serve as a basic logical warning against imperialism, it’s clear that James Cameron, a white man, fell into many common pitfalls of similar metaphorical stories. The film seems to fit all the stereotypes involved with typical Hollywood depictions of imperialism, with a white man protagonist to save the native populations (Jake), a vaguely militaristic force at fault, and a native population that is uniquely spiritual and in tune with nature. In 2022, it’s easy to look back upon Avatar and recognize all the faults with the plot, with the cultural context to know that perhaps a director of color could have executed a story about imperialism with far more sensitivity and success plot-wise.

Some may argue that Cameron should be given some slack, considering the original film was released over a decade ago. However, time does not excuse his use and perpetuation of decades-old rhetoric, like “the white man’s burden” (the idea that white people have to save native populations) or “the noble savage” (indigenous characters who serve as moral compasses for white heroes as the epitome of goodness, often in association with nature). Even in 2009, these ideas were already outdated.

While it is important to acknowledge the context of the film’s release, it doesn’t mean that modern audiences are required to excuse past wrongs for the sake of it being “a different time.” It is important to acknowledge racism and advocate for accountability in Hollywood, both present and past, in order to truly move forward towards a more diverse and inclusive industry. Cameron has plans for four more movies, two of which have already been filmed. Perhaps having new context and response from audiences will influence his future two films for the better.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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