27 December 2009

In Real Life, Pocahontas Died Of Smallpox

It's a rainy day in Orlando, so we went to see Avatar today in IMAX 3D. It is excellent; well worth seeing. In fact, I'll wait while you go see it now.

That was fast.

A lot of the reviews (Roger Ebert's is a good example) claim that the movie is anti-American, or at least anti-war (and who am I to deny that the two amount to the same thing). But of course it's not possible to make an anti-war war movie. At the end of Avatar we're thrilled to see the Na'vi and their tree god demolish the mining company's mercenaries. When the leader of the mercenaries asks Jake (our hero) how it feels to be a traitor to your "race," we know he's the bad guy and cheer to see him shot twice with the giant poisoned arrows of our favorite Na'vi princess. We're not against the war, we're just against the humans.

As for anti-Americanism, there is some of that. It's just hard to tease apart from the anti-capitalism. The National Guard, slyly, answers this concern by running a full-throated ad for soldier/citizens before the movie. They understand that Jake does nothing that we don't wish our ex-Marines to do. Or, as Jake says, once a Marine, always a Marine, even if that requires that you side with the Indians against the Cowboys.

And that's the real transgression of Avatar. Cameron tells a story in which the Indians win, turning our founding myth upside down. That might be disturbing, if it were possible to take seriously. Avatar is a retelling of Disney's Pocahontas in which Pocahontas gets John Smith (excuse me, Jake Sully) and her people keep "their" land. It shares with Disney's Pocahontas the conceit -- perhaps better suited to science fiction -- that the Indians are fundamentally different from you and me -- when they talk to trees, the trees talk back. We have machines; they have a mystic bond with the land.

Cameron spends no time on the question of what else the Na'vi don't have, besides mechanized killing machines of all types and sorts. We don't see many Na'vi older than what, for the humans, amounts to the late 20s. We don't see healthcare or education that isn't exceedingly practical. We don't see the arts or even much in the way of crafts. Na'vi fashions are, to put it mildly, minimalist. The Na'vi have no interest in anything the humans have. Indeed, both the Na'vi and the humans seem weirdly uninterested in what makes their mountains fly, and how much that would be worth on Earth. It seems fair to say that no Na'vi Adam Smith is pushing for free trade. How many Na'vi children die of dysentery or malaria or malnutrition? The Na'vi are at one with nature, but it's made clear that the bond doesn't make nature any nicer.

In Avatar, the Indians were able to use their mystic bond with all life to use nature as a weapon and send the white man (literally and figuratively) packing. In real life, Pocahontas died of smallpox in Gravesend, England.

6 comments:

Bret said...

When I watch fantasy/fiction, I'm able to suspend disbelief, enjoy the show, and not read too much into the "lessons" of story.

I just laugh at all of the commentary about anti-americanism, AGW, anti-capitalism, sexual innuendos, and on and on and on.

It's set pretty far in the future. After all, somehow we've transported lots of people and equipment far across the galaxy. Unless I'm missing something, we're quite a long ways (as in probably centuries) from being able to do that. Will there even be an entity called America at that point? Many of the other complaints will probably be moot that far in the future as well.

It was visually the most fantastic movie I've ever seen and the story (fiction!!!) was pretty decent. That's good enough for me.

Bret said...

Oh, and one more thing that made me laugh.

Leaving the theater my wife said something like, "it shows how we're just too materialistic." My response was, "there's more than a little irony in making that claim after going to see a movie that cost $400 million to make."

If you don't want materialism, fine, but then kiss going to see movies like that good bye!

joe shropshire said...

Saw it last night in 3D. It's Dances With Wolves in space, not so much Pocahontas. You're right, it doesn't matter: She Who Must Be Obeyed, who is politically just a little to the left of Genghis Khan, whooped and hollered like a proper injun when the evil mercenary colonel got skewered. Also it appears that they've figured out what 3D is good for (flying scenes) and that the Uncanny Valley problem could be solved if we painted our robots blue and gave them tails.

Susan's Husband said...

I ended up seeing it. The "TRON" of the decade but with a weaker plot. I have to disagree with Bret on that, it had so many holes that the voices in my head almost drowned out the movie complaining about them.

Jim said...

I see your point, but I saw a different Avatar.
1-they made a point that these soldiers had no government affiliation- they were rogue mercenaries and it turns out by a crazy leader
2-the true soldiers/marines remained true to themselves and did what was right. no war crimes even if it meant his legs. The woman became a martyr her words
3-the scientists never left their viewpoint of being themselves and sharing their culture yet they became heros in the end.
4- the planet was a being/giant super smart brain if you listened to the scientists. The natives interacted with it in their way and the scientists wanted to study the organism. It was not presented as a creator of the universe. ( more on the scale there are future cancer cures in the rain forest that business is destroying without giving science time to study out)
5-I love Brets comment- that says it all for me
6-I do not have my child use movies, other kids, school, preachers, to learn religion, all of history, all of science, or all of nutrition- I teach critical thinking and expose him to lots of myths, half truths and use movies as an oppotunity to look up the truth. Even the "10 Commandments" is factually wrong in places but I love it. Movies like Pocahantas, El Cid, Lion King, Ice Age, Braveheart send me or my kid back to the books intrigued by the storytelling and realizing we need to look up the facts. Stop letting others parent your kid and watch this stuff yourself. Then use it to teach instead of fearing it.

erp said...

Jim, I couldn't agree more with your philosophy of child rearing as long as you leave them some fantasy while they're young enough not to question it.

Just looking at the still pictures of "Avatar" gives me a headache. I can't imagine the pain of watching it in 3D.

I don't mind that space aliens in fiction are always smarter and wiser than us yahoos. After all, they knew enough to come here, we didn't go after them.