image

Never mind the fact that, despite the obvious allegory and message-mongering at work in Avatar, its overriding ideology isn't anywhere near as clear cut as its politically-oriented fans or detractors would have you believe. The anti-military angle, for example, is skewed more than just a little by the fact that the soldiers in question aren't the volunteer army of the U.S. or any other specific nation, but rather private contractors under the employ of a corporation. Meanwhile, Jake Sully, the hero, is a Marine - albeit it a disabled one. There's also, of course, one member of the corporate army that turns "good" as well: A butched-out female hardcase (this is a James Cameron movie, after all) played by Michelle Rodriguez.

Then there's the matter of the Na'vi themselves, who aren't precisely the utopian peaceniks they'd need to be for the "Avatar as left-wing wish-dream" reading. In the broad strokes, their toe-to-toe-with-your-dinner bow-hunting shtick is closer to the ramblings of ostensibly right-wing "survivalist" cranks like Ted Nugent than to PETA; a fairly major theme of the story is their acceptance of Sully due to his stature as a Marine, ("warrior of the Jarhead Clan," as he explains it) which earns him more respect from their intensely martial society than has been afforded the previous Avatars - who've all been scientists and/or "intellectuals." In the second act, Sully makes this conflation of Marine Corps ethos with Na'vi honor-culture explicit when he punctuates a rundown of a grueling test-of-manhood rite with an enthusiastic "Ooh-rah!"

And then there's the biggest "makes sense until you think about it" canard, the notion that Avatar's various political undercurrents - real or imagined - are sufficient to label it as anti-American; a nifty trick considering the film affords no specific national origin to any of its humans, good or bad. Granted, this is little more than an old rhetorical trick of politics - pretending as though a single element of an entity (in this case, a country) is synonymous with the whole in order to mischaracterize an opponent's arguments: Military = America, Avatar = anti-military, therefore Avatar = anti-American, see how easy that is? You see it all the time, on all sides - Anti-Iraq protesters were called anti-American by the right under Bush, anti-healthcare protesters are now called anti-American by the left under Obama - but even still, it's almost otherworldly to see it lobbed in the direction of an action movie about blue alien kitty-people.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with analyzing pop culture from a political perspective. After all, if James Cameron didn't want Avatar to be part of such conversations, the various allegorical undercurrents wouldn't be in the movie in the first place. Yet, at some point, I think one has to pull their focus back and remember that the reason allegory works in this kind of film is that you don't have to agree with it or even notice it for the film to be entertaining.

At the end of the day, the majority of Avatar audiences erupting into applause watching Colonel Quaritch take Neytiri's arrows to the chest probably aren't doing so in appreciation of the symbolic triumph of the Indigenous Feminine over White Male Western Imperialism, they're applauding because he's an evil bastard and he had it coming.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

RELATED CONTENT
Comments on