The World According to “Avatar”

Binocular | March 27th, 2010 - 9:20 pm

So I hope I am not too late for the train. I just saw the movie “Avatar” yesterday. I swear I tried to keep an open-mind. During the Oscars night, there was a flurry of commentaries and posts on Facebook about the Hollywood formula and the continuing saga of “othering” in these narratives. Nonetheless, I pinched myself several times to make sure I didn’t mask with bias my attempt at openness and willingness to watch this movie. Even that didn’t work.

For Starters, Calling Hollywood Savages

Hollywood has a long history of what I would call the “savage genre.” Of this, King Kong is most famous. For decades, natives of other countries (and planets) were angry, grass-skirted, bone-ornamented, barefooted tribes who just had to be whipped into modern consciousness. Goodbye, tree worshippers. Hello, western capitalism.  And then, they were put on public display, in cages. 

Gone are the days of Hollywood’s manifest destiny. What we see in movies now is Hollywood with guilt.   From Pocahontas to Dances With Wolves to Avatar, the “savages” seem to be winning over the colonizers.   After decades of being portrayed as brainless, chaotic cannibals deserving of a tent at the World Fair, we slowly find out that these savages actually have some form of organization and an unfathomable connection to nature.  We also find out that they’re welcoming and nonviolent, that they’d be happy to break bread with a lost colonist and call him “Dances with Wolves.”   They’re also more than willing to share all their secrets to a “dream walker” named, ah, Jake, who goes unconscious once unplugged.   Nary a sense of suspicion of these infiltrators-turned- indigenous, the natives were more than happy to share their secrets (after all, being secret-friendly is the savage way), all their secrets at that, I mean, all. Their God Eywa even communicates with the impostor, in the tradition of Eywa-knows-best (Was she sharing her secrets too?).   Then one day, the natives get attacked.  Suddenly, everything is Hollywood-familiar: we see the same old savages of the King Kong days, a bunch of tribes fleeing from a burning tree with asses on fire.

They Can’t Save Their Gluteus Maxes

And so the story continues.  We find out that our dear savages can’t save their asses.   Infiltrator-turned-indigenous had to find a way to save them, because he had fallen in love with the leader’s daughter, our extraterrestrial Pocahontas who couldn’t find a good mate in her tribe, she had to go for someone that had to be plugged into an electric outlet. 

What are we learning from the highest grossing movie of all time?  

I am not sure what Writer and Director Cameron was thinking.  I can only assume that he was exonerating himself from the sins of his fathers.   He might have wanted a “more accurate” portrayal of native peoples.   He might want to show a planet with subconscious connections between land and people.   Also, he might have wanted to exagerrate the invading Americans by painting their characters with Blackwater ideologues of recent Iraq War memory.  However, his hero complex just couldn’t imagine the possibility of Pandora natives defending themselves.  Cameron’s message is clear, given all the exotic touches and beauty of native life and their complex ecology, they are too dumb to know that they are about to be invaded and have their asses set on fire.  

They need a hero.  Let’s see: Christopher Columbus, John Smith, Ferdinand Magellan, Fernando Cortes, um, ah, Jake.

Learn from Lapu-Lapu

In the Philippines, we have Lapu-Lapu.   He’s a warrior, after whom a fish was named.   He should have been the national hero of the country, because he would have given Filipinos a value to behold.  Every native country or planet needs a Lapu-Lapu.   If you don’t know who that is, well, he beheaded Ferdinand Magellan.  He belongs to a select group of warriors who stood up for themselves and their people.    Yet, his narrative is not known to many.  In his place, Magellan rises as the heroic figure.   Nobody ever mentions Magellan was beheaded; his true heroism was circumnavigating the world, as evidenced by the endeless references to his name.  True to point, while Magellan is the name of a strait, of countless avenues, and of proud Spanish last names, Lapu-Lapu’s claim to fame is a tasty fish in local Philippine markets (see picture). Is this what happens when you defend your turf? And oh, I don’t know of one Filipino named Lapu-Lapu. Guess who the late dictator Marcos was named after?

The World According to Avatar James Cameron

In his world of profiteering and invasions, there is always a price to pay.   The price is the betrayal by one’s own.   In Avatar, Jake had an epiphany and had to choose between a life on a wheelchair and a joyride on a pterodactyl.    He turned on his own people and saved the world of the natives. 

According to Cameron, natives can’t save themselves.   They are peace loving blue people whose heads are so deep in the roots of the land, they couldn’t process why there were foreign creatures on their planet.   They have a god named Eywa who had to call on animals to save Pandora, because it’s own humanoid inhabitants were too high on peace and kumbaya.  

According to Cameron, if there was no such a thing as betrayal, the blue people of Pandora would all have been deep-fried brown Lapu Lapu fish.  For people like myself, who have come from countries that have yet to recover from the deep roots of colonization,  it is message worth reinvestigating.   Beyond the glamor of new technology, the narrative content demonstrates the need of dominating cultures to regurgitate their power through this global Hollywood medium.  The movie itself, just like a BigMac, is mesmerizingly satiating, until one day we are all too fat with propaganda, we can no longer get up.

Related ReadingDances With Aliens: James Cameron’s Avatar Movie and White “Saviors” (Updated), Avatar and Whiteness, A whole lot of Avatar and whiteness,

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