Caught in a Smurf romance

Avatar’s popularity reflects modern psychological hang-ups

By Greg Gabrellas

Bad story, bad characterization, bad dialogue, bad Smurf-CGI, bad score, bad Sigourney Weaver. Judged by any reasonable standard, Avatar (2009) is bad, bad, bad. Yet the world seems to have entered into a bad romance with James Cameron’s Smurf romance. It’s made enough money for Cameron to construct an island of his own and attempt to breed real life Na’vi. But we shouldn’t be too surprised at the tendency for so many people to go see expensive—and bad—movies. Michael Bay has built a career on this lucrative particularity. What is unique in this instance, however, is the enthusiasm and critical reflection that Avatar has generated.

Critics, even critics who should know better, even critics who recognize just how bad it is, seemed compelled—somehow—to like it. There’s just something to it, they think. Already it has garnered nine (!) nominations for Academy Awards. Palestinians, protesting the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, don blue outfits to dress like Na’vi. Why, and how, did Avatar—little more than an old Poverty Row treatment whored up with expensive CGI—manage to mean so much to so many? What desires and hopes does it tap into? Why do we love Avatar so?

A tour company that operates in East Africa offers something called Bush Adventures. For a fee, tourists can live the life of a Maasai Warrior: They can learn to raid cattle, defend themselves from water buffalos, imbibe the ritual significance of the cows’ blood and milk, and really see Maasai life from the inside. Avatar offers up the same experience, in slightly less costly and more convenient form. For one low price, you can escape earth, go to another planet, experience another species from the inside, and watch them kick some human-behind. Stories like Avatar have a double-sided appeal. On the one hand, they tap into a deep, shared urge for self-immolation. Can we pass through a single summer without a movie that doesn’t feature the destruction of earth, or isn’t set in an apocalyptic waste-world? To imagine an apocalypse, as a wise thinker once noted, is to secretly yearn for it. We’re tired with being human, tired with the Earth, and Avatar lets us act out the overcoming of both.

Honest urges. And old ones too: Utopians have been imagining noble savages as an alternative to decayed civilization since the dawn of modernity. But in Avatar, the utopian desire takes a retrogressive bent. Avatar is as much a product of its public relations team as it is a product of director James Cameron. The movie’s hype made people excited before they knew what, exactly, they were waiting to see. Something of Star Wars mixed with Titanic, all we knew was that something was coming. But it took until the film’s actual release to see a flurry of reviews proclaiming the film’s timeliness.

The Na’vi themselves were modeled on a generic Other, African tribal villagers crossed with Ewoks. It’s hard not to see the underlying racism here: the differently-colored peoples being closer to nature, living in unitary harmony. None of this is new: Since the late 19th century, American politics has harbored a deep concern about over-civilization. Are we too fragmented, technological, inauthentic? But this discourse has been picked up by progressives and reformers of all kinds. Women reformers used their alleged place by the hearth to argue for their mainstream acceptance in civil and political life, arguing that women should extend their role as mothers to society as a whole. It’s plausible that the African-American scholar and political activist W.E.B. Du Bois meant something analogous to this with his “double-consciousness” metaphor. A similar way of thinking was enshrined in the Port Huron Statement, the charter document of the American New Left that sent middle-class students to Mississippi and other points south to work on the civil rights movement. A cross between arrogance and guilt, condescension and self-hate, there is no stronger American political tendency than the drive to get behind the veil and see things as they are for the other people/race/species.

What is most interesting is the way in which this old theme is picked up and used for ostensibly progressive ends. The quaint, victimized, noble savages—the Na’vi—have a certain “usable” quality about them. Shortly after the film’s stellar release in the United States, Palestinians donned blue outfits and make-up to make explicit what American activists were thinking but were too shy to say. The movie is about how white people invade other peoples’ land and brutally exploit and plunder their resources. Better to reverse the whole process: pull out and give the land back to the natives, let them rejuvenate the land, the skies, the entire planet. This is kitsch, apocalyptic, predigested, and regurgitated political thinking.

There’s another side to Avatar, too, which is less romantic and more instrumental. The flip side of wanting the world to be destroyed is to master and dominate it. Hence, although there is enough action and gun-fighting to appeal to the general moviegoer, for sure, Avatar perhaps appeals to most for its hyper-futuristic, technological bent. The protagonist, Jake, is recruited to an anthropological research unit to study the Na’vi, the indigenous people where an aggressive corporation is extracting “unobtanium.” This is not just any field assignment, however, as the atmosphere is toxic to humans and the anthropoid creatures are three times the size of an ordinary human. Hence the key technology that makes the story work is the “avatar,” a device that allows trained humans to inhabit the body of a Na’vi in order to engage in fact-finding and humanitarian work.

But on closer inspection, this utopia turns out as specious as the other. In the Na’vi community, everyone knows their place: There are chiefs and clear leaders, a firm hierarchy in which those on top have earned the respect of their cohort. Instead of over-consumption and degradation, this community is integrated into the fabric of the entire ecosystem. Avatar could be read as the triumph of one management style over the other: warrior versus bureaucratic. The problem with the bureaucratic, all-too-human style being that it misused its own resources and personnel; it undervalued the resource it was trying to exploit, and was unable to maintain order and discipline despite the technological superiority of the armed forces.

Thus either way you look at it—romantic nostalgia or corporate tact—this “progressive” tale is like corporate training as it offers a “real” experience to offset a dull reality. For the romantics, it offers what they have been wanting all along: aesthetic gratification at humanity’s defeat by the natural world. I can’t wait for the next installment in the series—if the real world survives long enough, that is.

— Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in the social sciences