Greg Hunter

Avatar and ‘Going Native’

In Film and Television on September 4, 2009 at 11:27 PM

On August 21, “Avatar Day,” the first trailer and some additional footage for James Cameron’s upcoming film Avatar were released, to mixed reviews. (With the film premiering in December, kinda makes you wonder what’s left for next year’s Avatar Day.) Avatar, for the uninitiated, takes place in a future where humankind has made advances in space exploration. The reach of humanity now extends to the exotic world of Pandora. But since humans are unable to breathe Pandoran air, they explore the harsh landscape by dressing up as characters from the Lion King musical. (Kidding about the last part. It’s characters from Delgo.) Avatar is one of the most anticipated films in memory, almost entirely on the strength of talk about its visual effects innovations. And why not? One of the joys of moviegoing is seeing something for the first time, however rarely it happens. Will it live up to the hype? Do these movies ever? Some expectations will be met, lots probably won’t. It’s true, though, that for Avatar to be a movie people keep coming back to, it needs a story that still resonates once its special effects become commonplace. And after considering, for a second, what its story is, the Avatar phenomenon becomes a curiosity for entirely different reasons–at least for a bored former cultural studies student like myself. *mild spoilers ahead*

The plot of Avatar reportedly follows a soldier, played by Sam Worthington, who mentally inhabits a body (an…avatar, if you will) engineered to replicate the physiology of Pandora’s native people, the Na’vi. Not surprisingly, Worthington’s character comes to sympathize with the Na’vi, and he eventually defies the expansionist military-industrial forces that brought him to Pandora. Director James Cameron recently name-dropped colonial-era scribes Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs while talking about the film. An io9 article where you can read his quote is also titled James Cameron Admits Avatar Is Dancing With Wolves In Space, though it could have just as easily named The Last Samurai instead. The sum of these references implies that Avatar is another ‘going native’ story–a narrative in which circumstances force a (typically white) person to spend time with the people of a less civilized (typically non-white) culture. Habits are adopted, sympathies are exchanged, and more often than not the convert winds up in conflict with his/her own native culture.

The person who’s transformed in these stories isn’t always the hero. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for instance, includes the most famous convert-as-villain, Kurtz. Sometimes captivity narratives would also feature a captive turned toward the ways of the savage–a sort of cautionary effect. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that for as long as movies have shown characters ‘going native,’ it has typically happened on the path toward heroism. These are more persistent stories, the kind that –even as they ostensibly reprimand those characters with racist preconceptions of the native culture– have dubious racial politics themselves. (Again, think The Last Samurai, in which Tom Cruise ends up being a braver, better samurai than the people who have trained him). Even when ‘going native’ narratives are sympathetic to the natives and the native-goer, it’s the predominately white culture for which the story functions as analgesic for expansionist guilt. The story shows that the native people aren’t all bad, but this lesson is taught largely at the service of another one: the people of the expansionist forces aren’t all bad either, especially not you, the viewer.

There’s nothing new about sci-fi films borrowing narrative templates from outside the genre. Some people call Star Wars a Kurosawa rip-off, and Battlestar Galactica has been at different times a exodus story, courtroom drama, comedy of manners and more. But there’s a particularly obvious social utility to ‘going native’ tales. It’s as good a time as any why they continue to be told, or if it makes a differences that the dreadlocked blue Na’vi are –unlike Dance With Wolves‘ native Americans– strictly fictional.

The ‘going native’ story wouldn’t keep reappearing if wasn’t, above all things, exciting. And it’s possible that these stories become decontextualed with time, functioning mostl to just entertain. At the same time, it’s easy to think about Iraq when thinking about the years that produced Avatar, at least for those of us who saw shades of the colonialist in George W. Bush. What do you think, Gutterheads? In making a film like Avatar, in going to see it, to whatever extend we’re a part of the Avatar process, are we looking for catharsis? Is Sam Worthington the audience’s avatar, redeeming us via proxy? (Will we manage to feel any better about empire-building if the movie sucks?)


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