the candler blog

Racism in Avatar: The Outer-Body Solution to Cultural Tensions

Essay, Movies, technology

The use of 3D and advanced imaging/animation techniques allows for not just a technological advance, but serves as a racially problematic metaphor for Avatar’s narrative.

While the use of his technology has a tendency to impress simply in skin textures, and facial gestures, James Cameron’s real success has less to do with animation and compositing techniques and more to do with the over looked 3D technique of weight. The most impressive moment is when protagonist Jake Sully dashes through the forest, chased by a large predator at high speeds, only to find himself jumping over a cliff into a waterfall down below. While this is nothing new in any narrative of a similar type, what is new is the technology’s ability to draft the weight of the character through these different physical environments, and the manipulation of time, we are able to get closer to feeling these moments than in any other film for the simple fact that the camera has been placed, panned, and paced in the appropriate positions to allow for the most tactile understanding of air rushing at one’s body, as well as the initial slowing-down of energy once it submerges within water. While neither the scene nor the tools are necessarily anything new, the careful placement of vantage point is what allows for a very effective use beyond the normal 3D tricks.

While the surface imagery remains effective today, in a couple years we will be stunned by some new partial animation experiment. In that way Avatar is almost repetition of The Phantom Menace, and is perhaps a novelty in these areas. Both films share much in the way of technology advancements, animation production schedules and techniques, and excessive use of these abilities in a manner that overwhelms visuals on the screen at the expense of a scene’s narrative clarity. This animation approach, common for any special-effect heavy fantasy, consistently feels in antithesis to the conventional film production approach, which these films attempt to replicate. In normal film execution, the production team attempts to eliminate elements that are uncontrollable and distracting to the audience, so that the story and narrative of a scene are what is the focus. In such fantasy pictures there is a tendency to neglect this fact and add as much as possible to any given frame to replicate the multifaceted movement and imagery of the real world. The result for me are mixed feelings, as I expect to be able to focus on the scene’s emotional and narrative clarity only to find that this information is in constant conflict with busy environment the animation has rendered possible. Half way through the film, I removed my 3D glasses, and actually found the film to be more relaxing. I was able to focus on performance and story with much more focus.

Beyond the immediate response to the technology, Cameron’s attempt to comment on the experience of viewing becomes a narrative subtext. Jake is able to maneuver among creatures alien to his own body via the “avatar” body of the title, which allows him to integrate well into this foreign society so much that they accept him as their own. As the narrative progresses, he falls in love with one of this society which initiates the conflict: even though his emotional connection exists beyond his avatar body, the recognition of it will pull his relationships apart. What Jake learns is that this society is threatened by a human military-corporation (via a complete homage to Cameron’s own Aliens which includes Sigourney Weaver) that wishes to destroy their home to obtain natural resources. Because of his advantage of understanding both sides of the situation, Jake is placed in a position to mediate between sides. The society of which he’s become a part, discovers he is not of their world and they begin to distrust him, which becomes the driving force for the narrative conflicts in the second and third acts. The ability for Jake to view this new world through eyes that are similar to those of the society alien to his own, it suggests a means to comprehend and understand the problems and beliefs of that world. Just as Jake is able to “view” this new world via his avatar body, the audience is also able to “view” this world via their 3D glasses, supporting a strong character-identification.

I have no initial problems with this setup, yet when looking closer to the characterization of this foreign society, I find the metaphoric 3D experience to suddenly imply some racially problematic issues.

At first the narrative seems justified, even when the film serves as a dialog between Cameron and science-fiction cinema past, yet it’s the details that imply a false comprehension of “tribal” societies. Jake first comes into contact with a female inhabitant of this society, Neytiri, who introduces him to her world. While she wears minimal clothing made from natural materials and her dialog and gestures suggest a pre-colonized society, when she returns to her village the concept of a “tribal” society really kicks in with the “whoop and holler” that is reminiscent of “Indians” from American westerns in the 1950s. As Jake learns more of this society, it becomes quite apparent these people are a composite of several minority cultures and pre-colonial societies. As the narrative progresses, we find that Jake is able to learn the ways of these people and eventually serves as a leader to resist against the military-corporation from which he came.

This suggests that those unfamiliar with these cultures can possible understand them if they strap into an “avatar” experience (the “body,” in case of the narrative proper, or the 3D glasses/movie screen, in the case of the audience). The suggestion that this can provide a solution for racial or cultural clashes is overly reductive, and in that way very dangerous. What the film does not take into consideration are the subtleties in a culture that cannot be learned through physical repetition, recall of facts, or the physical replication of body. Speaking only as a Comanche native, there is a mindset and there are cultural nuances of belief that are not translatable via conversation, and cannot be learned by those whohave grown up in a Western thought-process.

To suggest that a dialog can occur if cultures simply put on the other’s shoes and all problems can be resolved, is overlooking real differences in thought process. To really understand the world-view of a non-Western peoples one must be born to those people and learn via ways of believing and understanding that do not quantify, analyze, and deconstruct in the similar ways. For example, traditional American Indian thought often does not place so much emphasis on facts and proof in the way Western thought expects in any day-to-day conversation. Assuming the priorities are the same in a conversation, the Westerner might expect a reason for something while the American Indian would think it unnecessary and irrelevant. Neither point of view is better than the other, but without understanding the difference is a result of a basis of belief that influences complex communication will result in a repetition of a question without a common language or reasoning to respond progressively.

Avatar’s simplistic design does not allow for the rendering of these ideas, and implies that any conflict between cultures is resolvable through discussion, or “induction” into a culture, rather than “birth” into a culture. So a sequence in which Jake Sully proficiently performs tasks of the foreign society is merely an external repetition, and when the society accepts him because he does well, the film makes a fatal error. While Jake can learn about what they believe to be sacred, it does not mean he understands the logic behind why the belief works. The film makes the assumption that all logic works under the same Western thought principles without acknowledging the previously mentioned building blocks of a cultural thought process might be different. In the end Jake is able to prove himself physically able to defend these people against his own military-corporation culture, but that is only as far as he is able to integrate. In reality, Jake Sully would simply be a physical simile in this society, where he would continue to struggle with comprehending what is natural to this culture.

In the end, the fact that the film experience renders 3D a means to understand cultural differences that dominant American culture finds incomprehensible is overly simplistic and damaging to real political negotiations. As the film also suggests, for any colonial oppressed culture, it is a Westerner that will resolve all problems and their pains will be heard. The final sub-textual problem implies that any non-Western culture cannot resolve it’s own problems, and that if it simply waits for a Messiah-like figure from Western culture they will be saved. This insults the integrity of any oppressed culture, as the film clenches its final racist tendencies.

While the nature of voyeurism is well discussed, the result of the film’s conclusion remains quite problematic and should not be taken as a basis for true intercultural analysis. The anticipated response from those of a non- Western culture is “what’s the big deal, it’s a film about aliens,” refuses to acknowledge the nature of the film’s exploration as an influence (conscious or not) on future cultural interactions. Whether we are watching aliens in the theater, we will only interact with other real people beyond it, and whether it’s conscious or not, applying what we have learned from this film is negligent. Further, it is dismissive of the true problems of living through an “avatar” body.