Decoding the Racial, Religious Messages in Avatar

Political pundits dissect the subtle and overt social undertones of James Cameron's 3D opus

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James Cameron's $500 million 3D opus Avatar looked like a megaflop until it debuted and wowed critics. Now that film critics have said their piece, political pundits are digging into the film. They're finding the science fiction epic is about much more than blue aliens and 22nd-century warfare. Racial and religious undertones, they say, permeate the film. What is Avatar really about?

Avatar Is About Religion

  • Cameron's Pagan Message The New York Times's Ross Douthat ponders, "Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It's at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James." He calls the film "Cameron's long apologia for pantheism -- a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world." Douthat laments that "pantheism has been Hollywood's religion of choice for a generation now," citing such films as Dances With Wolves, The Lion King and Star Wars.
  • A 'Crummy Allegory' Politics Daily's Jeffrey Weiss shrugs. "Political, it is. Religious it is not. And the lack of religion actually weakens the political argument that writer and director James Cameron is trying to make," he writes. "But one element is common to every definition I've ever seen: faith. A religion requires its adherents to have faith in some aspect of the transcendent that cannot be proven using the material stuff of the ordinary world. Explaining Eywa is a matter of neurophysics, not theology. So it's not about religion."

Avatar Is About Race

  • 'White Fantasies About Race' IO9's (a Gawker-owned blog about all things sci-fi) Annalee Newitz insists Avatar "is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it's a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?" She calls it a "white guilt" rewriting of "America's foundational act of genocide" in a way that whites get to join the oppressed and "lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside." She concludes, "Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege."
  • 'The Film Is Racist' Lawyers Gun & Money blogger SEK argues, "Its fundamental narrative logic is racist: it transposes the cultural politics of Westerns (in which the Native Americans are animists who belong to a more primitive race) onto an interplanetary conflict and then assuages the white guilt that accompanies acts of racial and cultural genocide by having a white man save the noble savages (who are also racists)." He wonders why "there is no possibility for peaceful coexistence" presented in the film.

Avatar Is About Everything

  • Shamefully Anti-Military Big Hollywood's Carl Kozlowski blasts "this overpriced pile of cliches and anti-Americanism." He writes, "It all adds up to crossing a line that I've never experienced in a major American film: drawing the audience to cheer the brutal deaths of Americans who are clearly symbolizing the military." The Americans in the film "look and act like US Marines, and their assaults play out like a greatest-hits collection of America's worst military atrocities." There's even a character who "looks like" Donald Rumsfeld.
  • Anti-Technology Message? The Washington Post's Ezra Klein tweets, "Re: Avatar: A bit weird to make a movie that's meant to push technology forward but is about the dangers of technology, no?"

Avatar Isn't About Any of This

  • Common 'Foundational Myth' The Agonist's Sean Paul Kelley rolls his eyes. "There is a reason movies like Avatar use this narrative archetype. And it has nothing to do with race, or post-colonial guilt or being white. The archetype is a common foundational myth, pops up in many national literatures and historical writing for a reason. It's been used by the Turks, the Mongols, the Mayans and others. It's not about colonialism, it's about the fluidity of tribes, a much older human grouping and one that is much more primal," he writes. "In the end it is a story about who we choose to be, or in modernist terms, human agency, and the fluidity of personal identity. That is why it is such a powerful and oft used narrative archetype."
  • Um, It's About Awesome Explosions? The American Prospect's Tim Fernholz quips, "Cameron's intentions have more to do with 'helicopters versus pterodactyls' than anything else."
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