Sunday, January 24, 2010

Avatar story line is cliched but accurate (mostly)

The basic story in Avatar is that a technologically-advanced civilization intrudes upon another with less technology, and bad things happen to the latter group. Rightwingers see the obvious parallels to Native Americans, and this makes them oh so angry.

One can critique the film's plot as not being especially deep, but that doesn't make it wrong. If it's at all helpful to the wingers, this kind of thing happened and is happening all the time. Instead of white Europeans and Native Americans, I saw a similar process in Burma between the ethnic Burmese military junta and the minority/hill tribe Karen people where the junta wanted to run a natural gas pipeline to Thailand, (with French and American oil company help). Jared Diamond's book Collapse discussed how gun-wielding Maori decimated the hunters of Chatham Island.*

I'll make these critiques of the Avatar story line in terms of accurately depicting our world:

  • The natives remained completely united. That never happens. The colonizer always finds allies among the natives, exploiting existing rivalries and tensions.

  • The natives don't want anything the moderns have. That's not true, although they might be better off without much of it - alcohol, opium, shiny beads, guns, and saggy pants.

  • The natives are completely good. Also untrue - instead of bad guys versus good guys, the real world is more like bad guys versus less-bad guys. The distant or maybe not-so-distant ancestors of the natives almost always did what's being done to them, taking the land from someone who was there first. I doubt there's any human society that didn't do bad things on a regular basis to themselves or their neighbors.

None of the above excuses the worse sins of the invaders, of course.

We could say these aren't flaws in Avatar because the natives aren't human, but then it's also not much of an allegory for this world.

*Wiki does claim the Chatham Islanders were nonviolent, which strikes me as complete bull.


  1. My main plot complaint can be summarized in two words: "slant drilling". They never made it clear why the invaders couldn't just tunnel *under* the tree to get the unobtanium. Real-world miner-versus-local-activist conflicts usually have solutions along those lines. It's only in the naive version of environmentalism we teach kids in grade school as a sort of folk religion that conflicts are between sides that are all good or all bad and no compromise is possible.

    Manhattan's new 2nd-avenue subway doesn't seem to require blowing up all the buildings it passes under,..

    When I first saw Avatar I thought it was kind of dumb and wrote this Weird Al-style parody: In the Na'vi

    However, Brad Templeton and a few others have suggested an interesting alternate take on the film: Pandora is a post-Singularity world constructed for the benefit of the natives who wanted to live there. That seems to explain all the animals having USB cables dangling off them, the planet-god watching over everything, and various other phenomenon that seemed artistically rather than evolutionarily designed.

  2. I had the same thought about mining from the side. Decide for yourself whether you can suspend disbelief enough to deal, or come up with a MacGuffin for why removing the unobtainium from the side would still result in HomeTree's collapse.

  3. On the Singularity idea: I doubt that's what Cameron had in mind, but interpretation of a piece of art belongs to the viewer as much as it does to the creator.


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