Two hugely popular “mashups”—homemade videos that humorously juxtapose material from different sources—that are currently making the rounds on the Internet seek to ridicule James Cameron’s visually ravishing and ideologically awkward new blockbuster, Avatar. In one, the portentous voice-over from the trailer for Disney’s Oscar-winning animated feature Pocahontas (1995) has been seamlessly laid over footage from Avatar, in which, as in Pocahontas, a confrontation between dark-skinned native peoples and white-skinned invaders intent on commercial exploitation is leavened by an intercultural love story. “But though their worlds were very different…their destinies were one,” the plummy voice of the narrator intones, interrupted by the sound of a Powhatan saying, “These pale visitors are strange to us!”
The other mashup reverses the joke. Here, dialogue from Avatar—a futuristic fantasy in which a crippled ex-Marine is given a second chance at life on a strange new world called Pandora, and there falls in love with a native girl, a complication that confuses his allegiances—has been just as seamlessly laid over bits of Pocahontas. In one, we see an animated image of Captain John Smith’s ship after it makes its fateful landing at Jamestown, while we hear the voice of a character in Avatar—a tough Marine colonel as he welcomes some new recruits to Pandora—sardonically quoting a bit of movie dialogue that has become an iconic expression of all kinds of cultural displacement. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he bellows, “you are not in Kansas anymore!”
The satirical bite of the mashups is directed at what has been seen as the highly derivative, if not outright plagiaristic, nature of Avatar ‘s plot, characters, themes; themes that do, in many ways, seem like sci-fi updatings of the ones you find in Pocahontas. In the film, the Marine, Jake Sully—a paraplegic wounded in a war in Venezuela—begins as the confused servant of two masters. On the one hand, he is ostensibly assisting in a high-tech experiment in which human subjects, laid out in sarcophagus-like pods loaded with wires that monitor their brain waves, remotely operate laboratory-grown “avatars” of the indigenous anthropoids, nine-foot-tall, cyan-colored, nature-loving forest-dwellers called Na’vi. All this technology is meant to help the well-intentioned scientists to integrate and, ultimately, negotiate with the Na’vi in order to achieve a diplomatic solution to a pesky colonial problem: their local habitation, which takes the form of an enormous tree-hive, happens to sit on top of a rich deposit of a valuable mineral that the humans have come to Pandora to mine.
The problem is that Jake’s other master—for whom he is, at first, secretly working, infiltrating the Na’vi with an eye to gathering strategic reconnaissance—is the mercenary army of Marines employed by the mysterious “Company” that’s mining the precious mineral. (Anonymous, exploitive corporations are a leitmotif in the movies of this director.) It’s clear from the start that both the Company and the Marines are itching to eschew diplomacy for a more violent and permanent solution to the Na’vi problem. The “dramatic arc” of the movie traces Jake’s shift in consciousness as he gradually comes to appreciate Na’vi culture, with its deep, organic connection to nature (and—the inevitable romantic subplot—comes to adore a lovely Na’vi princess bearing the Egyptian-sounding name of Neytiri). Eventually, Jake goes over to their side, leading the native people in a climactic, extremely violent uprising against their thuggish oppressors.
So far, it would seem, so politically correct. And yet most of the criticisms that have been leveled at the film since its December premiere have to do with the nature of its politics rather than the originality of its vision. Many critics have lambasted Cameron’s film for what they see as the patronizing, if not racist, overtones of its representation of the “primitive” Na’vi; the underlying hypocrisy of an apparent celebration, on the part of a special-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster, of nature and of an accompanying polemic against technology and corporate greed; and the way it betrays what David Brooks, in a New York Times Op-Ed column, derides as the movie’s “White Messiah” complex:
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.1
Criticisms such as Brooks’s are not to be dismissed—not least because the ugly complex he identifies is one that has consistently marred Hollywood representations of cultural confrontation from the earliest westerns to the more recent products of a supposedly more enlightened age. (One of the many earnest movies to which Avatar has been derisively compared by its detractors is the 1990 Kevin Costner epic Dances with Wolves, in which a Civil War hero similarly goes native, leading the Indian tribes against his former compatriots.) What’s striking is that so many critiques of Avatar ‘s political shortcomings often go out of their way to elide or belittle the movie’s overwhelming successes as a work of cinema—its enormous visual power, the thrilling imaginative originality, the excitingly effective use of the 3-D technology that seems bound to change permanently the nature of cinematic experience henceforth—as if to acknowledge how dazzling it is would be an admission of critical weakness.2
An extreme example of this is to be found in a searching critique posted by the critic Caleb Crain on his blog:
Of course you don’t really believe it. You know objectively that you’re watching a series of highly skilled, highly labor-intensive computer simulations. But if you agree to suspend disbelief, then you agree to try to feel that Pandora is a second, improved nature, and that the Na’vi are “digital natives,” to repurpose in a literal way a phrase that depends on the same piece of ideological deception.3
But our “objective knowledge” about the mechanisms that produce theatrical illusion is beside the point. To witness a critic working so hard not to surrender disbelief—the aim, after all, of drama since its inception—is, in a way, to realize how powerful the mechanisms that seek to produce that surrender really are.
As it happens, the movie that haunts Avatar—one that Cameron has often acknowledged as his favorite film—is one that takes the form of a fable about the difference (and sometimes traffic) between fantasy and reality; a movie whose dramatic climax centers on the moment when the protagonist understands that visually overwhelming and indeed politically manipulative illusions can be the product of “highly skilled, highly labor-intensive simulations” (a fact that does not, however, detract from the characters’, and our, appreciation of the aesthetic and moral uses and benefits of fantasy, of illusion). That movie is, in fact, the one the Marine colonel quotes: The Wizard of Oz. Consideration of it is, to my mind, crucial to an understanding not only of the aesthetic aims and dramatic structure of Avatar but of a great and disturbing failure that has not been discussed as fervently or as often as its overtly political blind spots have been. This failure is, in certain ways, the culimination of a process that began with the first of Cameron’s films, all of which can be seen as avatars of his beloved model, whose themes they continually rework: the scary and often violent confrontation between human and alien civilizations, the dreadful allure of the monstrous, the yearning, by us humans, for transcendence—of the places, the cultures, the very bodies that define us.
Humanity and human life have never held much attraction for Cameron; if anything, you can say that in all his movies there is a yearning to leave the flesh of Homo sapiens behind for something stronger and tougher. The movie that made his name and established him as a major writer-director of blockbuster successes, The Terminator (1984), is ostensibly about the poignant conflict between the human race and a race of sentient, human-hating cyborgs—“part man, part machine…fully armored, very tough. But outside it’s living human tissue. Flesh, hair, blood….” Its plot, which essentially consists of a number of elaborately staged chase sequences, concerns the attempts by one of these, famously played by Arnold Schwarzenegger—an actor notorious for his fleshly armor as well as for his rather mechanical acting—who returns to the present from a post-apocalyptic future in order to assassinate a woman called Sarah Connor who will, we are told, one day give birth to the man destined to lead a successful human uprising against the cyborgs.
But whatever lip service it pays to the resilience of the human spirit, etc., the film cannot hide its more profound admiration for the resilience of the apparently indestructible cyborg. As the story evolves, this creature loses ever-increasing amounts of its human envelope in various encounters with the woman and her protectors—an eye here, a limb there—and is stripped, eventually, of all human characteristics. By the end, it emerges out of an explosion as a titanium skeleton, hell-bent on pure destruction. (In an interview with The New Yorker that appeared last fall, just before the release of Avatar, Cameron recalled that the inspiration for the movie, which he says came to him in a dream, was this sole image: “a chrome skeleton emerging out of a fire.” Everything else came later.4)
It would be hard to claim that Cameron—who has managed to wring clanking and false performances from fine actors like Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane (Titanic), and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (The Abyss)—is an actor’s director; his films’ emotional energy, and certainly their visual interest, lies in their awed appreciation of what machines (and inhuman creatures) can do, from the seemingly unkillable cyborgs of the Terminator movies to the unstop- pable alien monster queen of Aliens to the deep-sea diving capsules and remote-controlled robots featured in Titanic. The performances that work in his films, significantly, are either those of mediocre actors like Schwarzenegger who actually play machines or good actors playing tight-lipped, emotionally shut-down characters, like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986), which Cameron wrote and directed.
The Terminator had a dark sense of humor about our relationship to technology, an issue that is at the core, in its way, of Avatar. In one memorably disturbing scene, a woman can’t hear her boyfriend being beaten to death by the Terminator because she’s listening to loud pop music with her headphones on; in another, we—and the Terminator—overhear a crucial message on Sarah Connor’s answering machine, which greets callers with the sly announcement: “Ha ha, I fooled you, you’re talking to a machine. But that’s OK, machines need love too.” The joke is that they don’t—and that’s their advantage. It’s no accident that, by the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron’s hit 1991 sequel to the original, Sarah Connor has become rather machine-like herself—pointedly, even cruelly suppressing maternal feelings for the child she has borne, strenuously working out, hardening her body, arming herself to the teeth with an eye-popping arsenal of hand- and machine guns.
David Brooks, "The Messiah Complex," The New York Times, January 7, 2010.↩
A notable exception was the New Yorker review by David Denby, which begins, "Avatar is the most beautiful film I've seen in years." See "Going Native," The New Yorker, January 4, 2010.↩
Caleb Crain, "Don't Play with That, or You'll Go Blind," his blog post at www.steamthing.com. Crain is more resistant to the film's beauties than I would be, and sees the director as "cynical" instead of unresolved in his treatment of technology and "primitive" cultures, as I see him.↩
Dana Goodyear, "Man of Extremes: The Return of James Cameron," The New Yorker, October 26, 2009.↩
David Brooks, “The Messiah Complex,” The New York Times, January 7, 2010.↩
A notable exception was the New Yorker review by David Denby, which begins, “Avatar is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years.” See “Going Native,” The New Yorker, January 4, 2010.↩
Caleb Crain, “Don’t Play with That, or You’ll Go Blind,” his blog post at www.steamthing.com. Crain is more resistant to the film’s beauties than I would be, and sees the director as “cynical” instead of unresolved in his treatment of technology and “primitive” cultures, as I see him.↩
Dana Goodyear, “Man of Extremes: The Return of James Cameron,” The New Yorker, October 26, 2009.↩