This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
“They’re not gonna give up their home. They’re not gonna make a deal. For light beer? And blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never gonna leave Hometree.”
How far have we come since Avatar? In 2009 I marked it as one of my Top 10 of the year (in the coveted #11 spot), largely for its expansive and imaginative sci-fi world (and allegory bordering on contrivance of Native American conquest, betrayal, land usurpation, and violence), even as I wondered then whether the film deserved to rest in the “ineffectual self-hating bin of white guilt”. I find this framing a bit embarrassing in retrospect. I think at the time I sought to diminish white filmmakers for trying to tell these stories (an opinion I’ve occasionally persisted in, criticizing Baz Luhrmann’s take on Australia’s mistreatment and state-sponsored kidnapping of Aboriginal children), but my prescribed remedy at this point is generally, “Let those people tell their own stories.” In other words, white filmmakers don’t necessarily have to stay in their lane, but we should really try to expand the pool of voices, and let marginalized peoples speak for themselves. If I’m being honest about who I was in 2009, I wasn’t chiding James Cameron for telling this story instead of someone else. I was chiding him for telling this story – of injustices that I believed to be abstract relics of a distant frontier past – at all. I was wrong. I also falsely implied that I’d seen Fern Gully. I still haven’t. Sorry not sorry.
There has been a rather instructive event in the intervening years: The Dakota Access Pipeline protests. This oil pipeline was originally set to cross the Missouri River in a location near to the North Dakota capital city of Bismarck, a city that is 92.5% white. For a variety of reasons, including that it threatened the city’s water supply, the US Army Corps of Engineers decided that this location was not ideal. Imagine the surprise of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe when another river crossing was selected, at a location just outside their reservation, and potentially threatening their water supply, Lake Oahe, instead. Protestors moved in, and private security (working for the pipeline company and colluding with local authorities) used brutal and inhumane tactics to force them out of the way, including hosing them down with water amid freezing overnight temperatures (which is, just to be clear, attempted murder). There were 300+ injuries and nearly 500 arrests, and some of their cases (for peaceful protest that was met with a brutal response) have resulted in multiple state and federal prison sentences, some of which are still being served.
Were the protestors right to oppose this pipeline? I have a few political responses, none of them simple or easy, some relating to the tension between fighting climate change and the entirely fossil-fuel-infused status quo. But my most honest answer is that I don’t know. The Standing Rock Sioux were certainly correct to assert a moral and economic interest in protecting their land and water, and assert they did, with resistance ranging from planned arrests and civil disobedience to lawsuits in federal court. What’s more, being the economic and political underdogs in that fight does not make them wrong by default, even if that’s often how they were treated in the national press (when it deigned to cover these events at all). It is instructive to note that Lake Oahe itself was also the site of a forced relocation a half-century earlier, with 200,000 acres of two separate reservations – including most of the arable land that they used for agriculture – submerged under water. You can jump around to other parts of the United States and find similar examples, in which Indian rights are considered to be subordinate by default to those of the United States, and this is reflected at every level of the planning, permitting, and decision-making process. At worst, the poverty and related social problems that followed these acts of economic suppression were treated as a geographic or racial deficiency, which was then used as a post-hoc justification for continued mistreatment (see: “shithole countries”). Like Jim Crow before (and concurrent with) it, it’s a longstanding example of institutionalized white supremacy. So it’s fair to say that my attitude going into this film now is a baseline assumption that the rights and land use claims of Indigenous peoples have not been historically respected since the founding of this country, and for them to exercise their moral right to say, “This far, no farther,” is an act that inspires presumptive sympathy from me even before evaluating the individual merits of the case.
I didn’t know much of this in 2009, and Avatar deliberately presents a case with maximum moral simplicity, in which humans are alien invaders strip-mining a forest moon for Unobtanium, a floating mineral of high, unspecified economic value that feels like a stand-in term that Cameron never bothered to Find/Replace. The richest deposit of the mineral sits directly under Hometree, where the Omaticaya tribe of the Na’vi lives. Rather than pondering for 30 seconds that there might perhaps be a causal link between the mineral and the impossibly tall trees that might be worth exploring, Administrator Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) says with almost comical callousness that while killing the indigenous “looks bad”, what shareholders hate more than bad press is a bad quarterly statement, and notes, like anyone performing the banality of evil, that he “doesn’t make the rules”. By design, this film presents zero ambiguity about the merits of this case. We’re wrong, and the Na’vi are correct to oppose us, and they don’t even need a reason beyond, “Fuck you, it’s ours,” which is self-evidently the same justification we would use. This film is a reverse-Independence Day. And it’s tempting to evaluate it on this basis, because both films end with a big-ass battle that is an entertaining spectacle to behold, even if it extracts a heavy butcher’s bill.
By the film’s end, we hear former Marine grunt Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Na’vi avatar telling the planetary network/deity, Eywa, that the Sky People (humans) come from a planet that has no green left – that they “killed their mother”. Eywa is a conceptual stand-in for Gaia, creating both a god and afterlife whose existence on Pandora is an unassailable fact, as well as a literal planetary organism, with everything from the plants to the Na’vi to their various land-based and flying mounts acting as a planetary immune system to purge the human infection that has moved in. I called this concept “a savage and gorgeous Eden” in my original review, and yet I still somewhat castigated Jake for choosing to betray humanity in the end, even if they’d done plenty to deserve it. I’d say I’m far less sentimental about my rapacious species now (even though I’ve had kids in the meantime – go figure). This version of humanity, a hundred years hence, has destroyed its lush home planet and is now fixing to do the same thing to Pandora? To hell with us. Jake – whose brother was murdered in a robbery of petty cash, and whose spine was ripped apart in a war with Venezuela by a government that had the technology but not the economic will to allow him to ever walk again – owes us nothing. Betrayal may be the correct word for it, but Jake is well rid of us and quite fortunate to be getting a pristine ten-foot-tall space cat body to galavant around in. This isn’t Eden for Jake. It’s Heaven: a new and better life than the one that he has known.
When Omaticaya crown priestess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Avatar-Jake blundering around the forest and killing animals to survive, she minces no words in calling him an ignorant baby who doesn’t know how to do anything. Much of his later proficiency in all things Na’vi is explained in a series of bog-standard (albeit gorgeous) training montages. But it’s fair to say this film rightfully attracts some criticism (both racialized and not) about its white everyman protagonist showing up on this planet and this tribe and immediately becoming their Chosen One who’s better at everything than they are. Toruk Makto – a mantle Jake assumes by sky-raping a Leonopteryx – might be the best flyer, but his most absurd acquired skill is performing oratory, a skill whose execution the film wisely presents in montage form, with Jake and Neytiri bounding around Pandora to recruit every tribe to the cause, with only the odd snippeted cliché (“AND YOUR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN”) making it onto the audio track. How silly is this? We’ve spent the entire film learning that the Na’vi generally and the Omaticaya specifically value different things than the Sky People. There is no carrot that would convince them to leave Hometree, which is why the humans decide to use the military stick. The idea that Jake could give an inspiring speech to the Na’vi on no greater basis than abandoning the human hand he was dealt is absurd on its face. As the axiom goes – if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand it. The idea that Jake, even through a translator, could somehow appeal to the values of the Na’vi – wholly inhuman values that he barely understands himself – is the most condescending component of this character. It’s entirely possible that the tribes might band together to defend their planet. But I’d rather the convincing had been left to Neytiri herself, or perhaps the new Omaticaya chief Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) could take a crack at it during his doomed tenure.
Avatar remains a visual feast, presenting a look, feel, and blockbuster spectacle that looks like it could easily have come out in 2019. If I imagine that it would have less of an impact today, that’s only because I recognize both the monopolistic consolidation of the cinema box office, as well as the influence that Avatar had on other blockbusters, including those of the new franchise owner, the Walt Disney Company. Even before they made the purchase, the lush jungle moon of Pandora became a land you can visit at the House of Mouse. And after a slow burn decade of production at 21st Century Fox (just like the first film), Disney immediately announced a 2021 release date for Avatar 2, and for the first time, I’m starting to think it may actually happen (Update: LOL nope). Who knows, perhaps between the decade Cameron has had to advance his craft, and a new marketing juggernaut behind him, he can pull off a hat trick of multi-billion-dollar all-time box office winners. But it hardly matters to me whether the next film succeeds as long as I get to see it. If nothing else, watching this film again reminded me that James Cameron, a slightly problematic and old-school futurist – has yet to have a miss with me. And perhaps in a post-Cats world, all we need is a bit less fur, a bit more blue, and whatever else he comes up with.
FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10