As with Star Trek, the conversation about Avatar is loud but not particularly broad. It seems to center around the divide between those who like the film unreservedly and those (like myself) who appreciate its visuals but roll their eyes at its script and underlying message (and, on the one site where I've followed such a discussion, devolved so quickly into the former accusing the latter of cynicism and snobbery that I'm not sure it's an avenue of conversation worth pursuing). These, however, are some of the more interesting comments I've seen on the film, which try to extend the conversation beyond this debate.
- More on the film's racism: Scott Eric Kaufman considers the film's presentation of humans and Na'vi, and concludes that its message is a variant on the "black quarterback problem":
This is not a vision of a racially harmonious social politic: it is an inversion of the logic of passing that seems acceptable only because it imagines the experience of becoming a person of color as necessarily ennobling. The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible ... and those assumptions are racist.He has some more comments here on the film's casting. I'm not entirely in agreement with Kaufman, who I think is too quick to dismiss both the effects of the humans' presence on Pandora and the complexity of the Na'vi's society, but his conclusions are, I think, undeniable.
- At The Valve, Aaron Bady talks about Avatar as a fantasy of a return to childhood, but notes that that childhood is not the innocent idyll that crops up in rose-tinted fantasies of childhood (usually written by adults who have forgotten their own) but "a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood: pure id."
Where the movie goes wrong, then, is in making the sociopathic immaturity of a spoiled Western brat into the ideal form for the child-human that it wants anti-modernity to be. After all, while even your Rousseauvians understand the noble savage as a contradiction of modernity, as a cleansing bath washing away its discontents, the Na’vi only confirm Sully’s most childish presumptions of privilege: their world turns out to be nothing but toys to play with, nothing but one long summer camp fantasy of being the fastest, bestest, most awesomest ninja-Indian ever, and then a big giant womb to hide in when it all gets to be a bit much. There are no consequences there, nothing you can do to make mommy stop loving you (though Lord how he tries!). Like toys and parents to a three-year old, it is unthinkable that they say no or exist without you, and all they can ever ask is that you play with them.
- David Hines has a memo to the corporation that serves as the film's villain.
That's right; you are on this planet to collect an extremely valuable element that levitates when exposed to a presumably magnetic field, and your planet has great big levitating rocks in an area characterized by strong presumably magnetic fields.
Might I suggest that if you're having so many problems with the natives, you might want to ignore their goddamn village and check out THE GIANT FUCKING FLOATING MOUNTAINS, because you can bet your ass they are chock full of unobtanium.
- At CHUD, the website that brought us a blow-by-blow description of how Christian Bale's ego made Terminator: Salvation a much, much worse film than it needed to be, Devin Faraci has a side by side comparison of Avatar and Project 880, the script treatment James Cameron wrote not long after completing Titanic. It not only addresses Hines's point above, but does all the things I was so dismayed to discover a James Cameron film neglecting. Project 880 takes place in a fully conceived future world, it features development of both the main and secondary characters, and it has several kickass set-pieces. As Faraci notes, there is no way this treatment in its entirety could have made it onto the screen, and its underlying assumptions are no less problematic than the finished product's (not to mention that Neytiri--here called Zuleika--is less prominent and less interesting in Faraci's description of the treatment than she was in Avatar), but Project 880 sounds like a film I would have enjoyed for more than its visuals.
- Sady Doyle has the definitive response to those who argue that Avatar is a politically brave film for having an environmental, anti-corporate message.
So, you mean to say that this particular movie – called “Dances with Wolves in Space,” subject to more Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest comparisons than any cultural artifact in recent memory save Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest itself, already noted for belonging to the benevolent racist “white guy saves and/or bangs the natives” (going Nativ’ei! GET IT) tradition of cinematic craftsmanship – actually attempts, much like many a terrible Star Wars prequel of years past, to wedge in an unnecessary, blatant, and manipulative set of parallels to the Iraq War, the American genocide of Native peoples, and some rainforest shit possibly also? Goodness! Such a feat has never been attempted until now! Or, to be more precise, such a feat has never been attempted by James Cameron, within the last month! Until now!
- At the New York Times, Ross Douthat has a very interesting article about the Na'vi's pantheism, and more generally about the way that pantheism has become the go-to religion or religion-like-object in Hollywood films.
At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.