In the year 2154, Earth’s natural resources are almost completely depleted, and the planet is facing an energy crisis. (shout-out to present-day climate change deniers, and oil company executives). The Resources Development Administration (RDA) is on a habitable moon called Pandora, mining for unobtanium, to bring back home, like modern-day intergalactic Conquistadors.
Unlike their predecessors, however, (White) humans can’t just come to this foreign land, raid it of everything it has, enslave the people, and pat themselves on the back. Pandora’s atmosphere is poisonous to humans. The people who inhabit it, the Na’vi, are blue-skinned and 10 feet tall, but otherwise remarkably, at times painfully, very similar to other untouched human civilizations: gregarious, family-oriented, respectful of nature, and far, far too trusting of interlopers.
In order to fully explore Pandora, the humans create avatars, Na’vi-human hybrids of spliced DNA. Then they move the consciousness of the human being whose DNA was used for the hybrid into the hybrid body, effectively allowing them to control it. Whenever the person’s consciousness currently resides, the other body remains unconscious elsewhere, leaving the unattended body vulnerable, and causing the humans who fall asleep in their avatars to wake up in their human bodies. Being able to slip in and out of the body of a “primitive” native has been a barely concealed fantasy for years, no? Getting to be a person of colour, without actually having to be a person of colour. Only this time, very literally. All of the reward, and all of the White privilege.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine who’s been trying to drink his life away ever since he became a paraplegic, but his luck shifts when he is informed that his identical twin brother, a scientist who was supposed to operate an avatar, is deceased, and (as they have the exact same DNA) he is the only one who can replace him and save RDA from the time and money spent in creating the hybrid. Just the thought of being able to walk again, in the fully-functional (albeit avatar) body is enough of an incentive, and although he wouldn’t have his brother’s ranking on the team, Jake gladly accepts. Once on Pandora, Jake works as a bodyguard for Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and Dr. Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore).
Once Jake is rescued from an accident with unfamiliar Pandoran wildlife by Na’vi female, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he is welcome into their community and effectively acts as a spy, relaying information about these people and their culture to his superiors. All the while, Neytiri teaches him how to navigate Pandora safely, allows herself to be vulnerable with him, and even defends him against those among the Na’vi suspicious of him and his motives.
Avatar, or rather, the way it was praised as being something so new and interesting, has always been interesting to me. Here you have a movie about (White) people destroying Earth’s natural resources and being lauded as brave heroes for leaving their homelands to get more (see: Europe, the United States). How is this new? In this film, we see a (White) man abusing an indigenous woman’s trust to exploit her and her community. How is this new? Here, we see a (White) man exonerating himself of the terrorism of his people because he’s one of the “good ones” who means them no harm. How is this new? Here, we see (White) people mock a religion and a reverence for Nature that they have never had and cannot possibly understand. How is this new? Here we see (White) people exploit a foreign community to the point of tampering with their very DNA in order to loot their home. Besides these impressive advancements in science, how is this new?
As the movie progresses, so does Jake and Neytiri’s relationship, as well as his people’s long-documented obsession with parasitic wealth-hoarding. Rather than destroy them when he has the chance, he puts thousands of lives at risk, right in the path of destruction, and when he just barely manages to help the Na’vi save themselves, he (a former Marine, for fuck’s sake) allows the humans to return home, where they can surely rest, recover, and come back with more weapons, to finish what they started on a moon which they have done more devastation to in a few months than the Na’vi could have ever managed to in 10 lifetimes. And because Hollywood finds it nearly impossible to not make the White male the hero in any story involving a non-White group of people (see: 27 Ronin, The Great Wall, The Last Samurai, etc.), of course Jake gets to be the hero who saves the Na’vi from the ruin and pain his people brought into their lives.
Avatar is the quintessential colonialist wet dream. It made great use of technology, had an interesting storyline, had engaging action sequences, and Saldana (while a mediocre actress, at best), is slightly less mediocre when portraying non-human beings. But this scenario is far from new. This film could have been shot in French or English, and set in pre-colonialism west Africa, in Spanish and set in the Philippines, etc. It is truly just a fictional depiction of a story that has played out on Earth dozens of times over, of the deeply, proudly violent nature of colonialists, and the irreparable damage they cause.
And for that accuracy alone, I give this one 4.25 stars.