Sunday, December 27, 2009

Going Native

Or the key to saving the savages is to become a savage and show them how to save themselves.

I saw Avatar today. And while I cannot deny how breathtaking the movie was, how seamless the special effects imagery and how mind-blowing the depiction of a fully-realized alien biosphere was, I had a major problem with the story. Not the least of which was the whole white man as saviour thing. That was just plain insulting.

I normally love this kind of thing, with cool special effects and world-building visuals going on, but I found this movie just bugged me. I couldn’t turn off my critical mind and just enjoy it. It made me feel schizoid -- on one hand I thought it was visually breath-taking but mostly it just creeped me out. And that had everything to do with the story line.

I think Cameron was attempting, albeit clumsily and in a heartfelt way, to be anti-colonial, anti-imperalist, but some of the assumptions that the film made were unsettlingly racist. It was Dances With Wolves all over again, Pocohontas in space – any number of post-colonial settler narratives that attempt to assuage white guilt. It was like hit us over the head with your metaphor, James – the natives live in harmony with their planet and regard themselves as part of the biosphere, not separate or given dominion over it, but as just another part of their planet. They wear feathers in their hair and are fond of bows and arrows, ride horse-like creatures and obviously have some kind of tribal structure that includes a chieftain and references to an animistic religion.

I found myself being horrified by the overtly militarized colonization efforts; there was not even any attempt made to defend the human incursion onto a different planet where strip-mining almost instantaneously takes place; there was no real diplomatic efforts made, there was not even an acknowledgement that perhaps six hundred years of colonial oppression on Earth may have taught them something. There was just Manifest Destiny in outer space. It made me feel sick to my stomach. And then the whole idea that they tried to introduce a “school” and conveniently teach the natives “English” – Jesus Christ, how fucked up was that??? They may as well have just had a Christian missionary there as well, since the “savages” obviously required their souls to be saved. What was next, residential schools and the introduction of alcohol?

Don’t even get me started about the sexy female alien and her obvious “importance” in the tribe because it can’t be just an ordinary tribal chick, she has to be a “princess” and be the one who accepts the white boy, thereby signalling his worthiness to the rest of the people. Give me a break! While I do acknowledge that attraction between different peoples is a given – the whole history of the Haudenosaunee being representative of this fact (a Haudenosaunee woman chooses who the father of her children is going to be and that’s nobody’s business but hers), the idea that her status has to be elevated is strictly a settler thing, given as they are so fond of hierarchy. In a tribal world, that shouldn’t matter, but in a settler narrative it damn well does. Her “value” conveys legitimacy to the white dude’s efforts to make everyone think he’s worthy. Gag me.

I wish it had been a better story because certainly a movie like this doesn’t come along very often – there was definitely $300 million worth of CGI and custom-built sets on that screen. But gorgeous eye candy does not a great movie make. And certainly I didn’t enjoy having to sit through nearly three hours of a white dude being a saviour to a “savage” people because they have to be shown how to save themselves. Essentially he gets to go native while retaining his white privilege. Good one. I bet everyone wishes they could do that.