Some readers will remember that I defended District 9 against some of the criticisms levelled against it. I don’t know that I’d do the same for Avatar, at least not its plot. My position on the film otherwise is pretty close to the standard line that the visuals are game-changing to some extent, that this might be the 3D equivalent of The Jazz Singer: a mediocre film that transforms the technology of cinematic representation.
The plot, though, is close to a direct retread of Dances With Wolves, one of my least favorite movies. In certain respects, Avatar‘s version is even more annoying. Not only does the white man show up and get to out-native the natives after he undergoes the requisite rites of passage, he turns into a low-rent Paul Muad’dib and becomes their prophetic leader.
So why do I think this is different from District 9‘s version of the going-native trope? A lot of it comes down to Wikus as a character and to the staging of that plot. Wikus doesn’t want to go native, he is really never particularly noble in the way he lives out that narrative, and his pivotal role in the events of the film is driven by a series of accidents.
The thing of it is, in the early modern world, there were a lot of episodes of cultural contact that were rather like Wikus’ situation. There were in fact Europeans who “went native” after being captured or shipwrecked or lost. What’s interesting about them is many acquired a lot of knowledge about and empathy for the societies they found themselves within–but many of them were also perfectly willing to sell out their new companions when they came back into contact with their European countrymen. I think District 9 makes it clear that this is pretty much how Wikus sees things right up to the end of the story, perhaps even after, it’s just that he’s never given the opportunity to do so because his own body has become a desired resource.
So this is why I think it’d be a mistake to just take the going-native trope off the board entirely, to insist that it’s always racist in some fashion. It may always be about race, but that’s another matter. To be honest, virtually all depictions of aliens in speculative fiction are about race in some manner. Walling that entire terrain off as inevitably offensive is a classic kind of white-liberal politesse, about making sure that nothing is ever racist by never doing imaginative or creative work with race at all.
The version Avatar serves up, though, if it’s not racist in the Simon Legree sense, is pretty noxious: it turns the native into moral cardboard cutouts and the European-gone-native into a demonstration of the paragon virtues of Western universalism: so accomplished that it inhabit any subject position, any history, any culture, and outdo it in every respect, be the Native 2.0. The protagonist of Avatar is never really lonely, never truly confused, and his choice in the end is made simple: he’s giving up nothing that matters, nothing at all. His new people doubt him and hate him for a moment, but it’s nothing like what usually happens to a T.E. Lawrence or an Emma McCune, allowed so far in to a local world on the strength of romantic longing for the Other, but always suspected of ulterior motives and manipulative intent.
If I can be permitted to sneak in a second far more geeky objection to the film, I wish that the film Avatar took the alienness of its setting more seriously, and I honestly think that a bit of thinking through the background story could have made the stock plotline less noxious and more dramatically fraught.
Here’s the issue: why would a planet where all life is symbiotically connected have what looks like evolutionary competition? Why have predators and prey at all? Why should the Na’vi make weapons and hunt? Shouldn’t they just plug in their tentacles at the nearest tree and have some protein on the hoof sent their way for compliant consumption? Why, for that matter, are there different groups of Na’vi who ordinarily do not cooperate (hence the need for Jake Sully to lead them into an alliance)?
The only way I can think to make this all work is that life on Pandora evolved by natural selection but at some point, some kind of symbiotic organism inside the biosphere achieved a networked sentience and then began to infiltrate or colonize all organisms on Pandora. If the film had introduced this as an idea, it might have lent a bit more tension to Jake Sully’s situation. How can he be sure that the Na’vi aren’t really just zombies under the control of a creepy planetary-scale parasite? If he takes the final step and leaves his escape hatch behind, how can he be sure that he’s still himself? It’s kind of like the dilemma that people taking psychoactive drugs have to face before beginning treatment: will I still be me? How will I know if I’m not? This might also have made the situation of the corporate people a bit more sympathetic, if the biology of Pandora had been at times more viscerally invasive rather than invariably beautiful and awe-inspiring. It’s a bit easier to bomb a swarm of parasitic worms infiltrating the bodies of other organisms than it is to gun down night elves and gossamer jellyfish.