Colonialism, Capitalism, Racism: 6 Avatar 'Isms'

Critics have high-falutin' theories for what James Cameron's blockbuster is really about

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Avatar, James Cameron's 3D epic, is breaking all sorts of records these days. The movie has already taken home two Golden Globe awards and has unofficially passed 'Titanic' (another Cameron flick) as the highest-grossing movie worldwide in history. Avatar still trails Titanic in all-time domestic sales, but it should claim the top spot in that category soon.

Equally impressive is the film's ability to be an all-purpose allegory, illustrating nearly any school of thought. (We already covered its racial and religious messages here.) David Boaz is the latest columnist to link Avatar with a creed--but his view is novel. He argues the movie is an elongated treatise on property rights. "People have traveled to Pandora to take something that belongs to the Na'vi: their land and the minerals under it," he writes. "That's a stark violation of property rights, the foundation of the free market and indeed of civilization."

Boaz is hardly the first to tie Cameron's movie to a larger worldview.

Religion  Days after the movie debuted, the New York Times' Ross Douthat called it "a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message." Douthat was just warming up--his real gripe was with Avatar's "apologia for pantheism," a religion he argues "opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions--with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies." That doesn't sit well with Douthat:

Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago. But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

Racism Also in the Times, heavy hitter David Brooks offers this blue-and-white synopsis of Avatar:

The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he's the most awesome member of their tribe.

Brooks waits until the end of his piece to call the storyline racist. "Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?" he asks. "It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades."

Neo-Colonialism In a scholarly essay worthy of Constitutional theorists, Strange Horizon's Roz Kaveney says Avatar's "central plot structure is a standard neo-colonialist one, in which the Pandorans need the help of a superior being, a white American, to survive and the story is about him, not about them." But unlike many pundits, Kaveney's response is positive:

In a post-colonial world, in which we are all dealing with our unconscious assumptions about racism, sexism, imperialism, and capitalism as normative, it is imperative that stories about contacts between cultures be told and inevitable and correct that they will be subject to criticism. These are conversations that need to be had, rather than a set of demands and rules to which creators should sign up. The demand that creators not screw up needs to be the demand that creators try to minimize their screw-ups--and this, I would argue, Cameron has at least endeavoured to do.

Realism "Because there is no real conflict, there's no plot either; no suspense," grumbles the Guardian's Andrew Brown, who contends the movie's biggest drawback is its complete lack of realism. "You know that no one young and sympathetic will ever die; no one old and wise will ever be foolish; that a pterodactyl will always beat a helicopter in a fair fight." Because of this, Brown complains, "Avatar replaces dreams with wish-fulfillment."

Environmentalism Opening with an eloquent description of the visual beauty of Avatar, the New Yorker's David Denby finds that "Avatar gives off more than a whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture, by way of environmentalism and current antiwar sentiment." While he throws a few barbs Cameron's way, Denby points out what most pundits glossed over--at its core, Avatar is just a transcendent visual experience.

The movie's story may be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on!
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