I saw Avatar yesterday.
It is visually stunning.
I think Cameron's visual imagination is sublime.
The narrative, however, is beyond cliché—the boy colonialist who goes native, loves the native princess, and in the end is more native than the natives! And along the way, boy colonialist saves the day (or the world) in the epic fantasy/ blockbuster SF tried and true way! Dude gets them to blow shit up!
AVATAR is One Billion Dollars good and counting.
Some people take issue with critiques of the film’s colonialist racism—pointing to the benign intentions of the filmmaker. (MAKE BIG BUCKS!) The lead character, some insist just happens to be a white man. There is no racist conspiracy to malign people of color. This film (like DISTRICT 9) is about our common humanity! The lead character just happens to be a white boy colonialist.
Hollywood has been making variations on the colonialist/Indian Princess story since its inception with SQUAW MAN by Cecil B. DeMille. SQUAW MAN, a western play by Edwin Milton Royle, debuted on Broadway in 1905, spawned a novel, and in 1914 was the first film shot in Hollywood. Cecile B. De Mille’s SQUAW MAN was also a big box office hit! It started the Hollywood Film Industry. SQUAWMAN featured a squaw princess who commits suicide so that the white man she loves and their mixed race son can go off to Europe and claim all the benefits of upper class white privilege. Cecil B. DeMille made this movie again in 1918 and again in 1931.
This was part of a long tradition. Go further back to:
THE INDIAN PRINCESS or, LA BELLE SAUVAGE, an 1808 operatic melodrama by James Nelson Barker and the first stage version of the Pocahontas/John Smith romp.
In the 1990’s we get the New Western. Audiences and filmmaker reconsider the mythic tales we’ve been telling on our American nation. Maybe those old cowboy and Indian stories didn’t do justice to the Native POV. The Blockbuster film with integrity of that age: DANCES WITH WOLVES—Kevin goes native, marries the white girl whose gone native, and has to get rescued from nasty colonialist soldiers by his Lakota warrior buddies. At least they're just as good at being Indian as he is. Can't say the same for AVATAR. Kevin and his wife leave his Lakota buddies and ride off into the snow. A caption on screen tells us the Lakota way of life will be destroyed—but wasn’t it beautiful and wonderful while it lasted.
In all these narratives, the focus is the suffering, growth, perspective of the colonialists.
AVATAR is from the colonialists’ point of view and we don’t really get to know the natives. They are sights. With the exception of the Princess, they are not full characters.
Ideology doesn't need a conspiracy to continue operations as usual. Nobody has to sit around and plan. It's how we already think. It's in the water unless we work it out!
Cameron’s New Wrinkle on this tradition is that the colonialists are defeated by the natural world they are trying to rape and then sent packing by the Blue People. The natural world is called to war by the colonialist gone native who just happens to be a white boy. The colonialist learns Blue People culture in three months. That’s really fast. Either, he is a genius, or the culture is so basic…Well, the natives didn’t seem to know how to solve their problems with nasty human colonialists themselves. Diplomacy fails—war is the answer.
Great action sequences ensue.
Filming diplomacy might require a more subtle script and more acting.
Unfortunately, Cameron has not figured out how to make narrative complexity as much fun as his complex eco-system with its dazzling flora and fauna—the flying dragons(?) were breath taking.
AVATAR is the blockbuster mix of liberal/conservative that is the hallmark of successful mass media since well...THE OCTOROON capitalized on hot button topic without challenging underlying ideology. The Natives are blue but—the chief native just happens to be played by Wes Studi—a Cherokee actor. The Native Princess just happens to be played by Zoe Saldana- an African American actor, etc.
So Cameron can do a feel good movie (hug the trees and blow up the baddies, liberal eco-culture meets militaristic conservative culture) about one of the most difficult, complicated, bloody, dangerous, guilt-inducing issues that face us as human beings—how do we live with and through our differences? Blowing shit up and sending the bad colonists packing is the “melodrama fantasy” solution.
There's got to be something else we can think of!
Can I get a witness?