Editor’s note: Jeff Yang is research director at the Institute for the Future and head of their Digital Intelligence Lab. A frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, he co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce” and is co-author of the book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.
In the lead up to the release of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” director James Cameron slapped critics and viewers who had expressed doubts about the franchise’s continued relevance: “The trolls want no one to have one. fuck it and they don’t remember the names of the characters or a damn thing that happened in the movie,” he barked at British film magazine ‘Empire’. “Then they see the movie again and say, ‘Oh, okay, excuse me, just let me shut the f**k up right now. So I’m not worried about that.’
Well, count me as one of Cameron’s early corporate Pandora skeptics who, after being dragged into ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ by my 14-year-old son while on vacation, first thought that I should have closed the f**k up. Though I recalled feeling like the 2009 original was more of an oddly off-putting immersive experience than an actual movie, Cameron’s masterful storytelling instincts and intricate world-building overwhelmed my reflexive cynicism…during the first half hour of “Way of Water”. s epic three-hour runtime, anyway.
Then I came to the moment that reminded me why I found the first “Avatar” so uncomfortable. Ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) – now permanently decanted into his cloned cat “avatar” – and his Na’vi wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) realize they are putting their people in danger, because that Sully Quaritch’s (Stephen Lang) resurrected enemy colonel, now uploaded into a Na’vi avatar, intends to hunt him down and is more than willing to assassinate any Na’vi that gets in his way.
As a result, Sully quits his position as warlord of the Jungle Tribe and flees with his family to take refuge with an ocean clan, the Metkayina. These new Na’vi look different, with semi-amphibious limbs and tails, and have different customs – customs that have been copied and pasted from a range of Pacific Island traditions, including those of the Maori , including the tribe’s social structure, beliefs about hospitality and belonging, and even the names of their common home (marui, almost identical to the Maori word, marae).
They sport distinctive Maori face and body tattoos. They use a defiant war grimace when preparing to fight, which the Maori call whatever.
Much like the appearance and traditions of the Cameron Forest Na’vi borrowed largely from Native American and African peoples, its aqua-Na’vi (Naval Na’vi?) are fundamentally Polynesian in nature, with key characters played by Maori and other actors. Of Pacific descent, such as Cliff Curtis, who plays Chief Metkayina Tonowari, and Duane Evans Jr., who plays a young tribesman named Rotxo.
But taken out of their contexts, crushed into chunks, and haphazardly sifted together, these native “homages” end up serving as mere cultural glitter, lending an authentic exotic sheen to Cameron’s synthetic sci-fi milieu. In the process, their original meaning is erased, as is the lived history of the people who imbued them with that meaning.
And it all comes in the service of a story of a white man adopted by a non-white people, who quickly demonstrates that he is superior to the “savages” around him in every way, even in their ways. (In the first movie, Sully proves he’s worthy of Na’vi respect by taming and riding an Ikran in record time, and he does the same in the second movie, quickly bending a vicious flying fish-like steed known as Tsurak for his willpower, earning Chief Metkayina’s reluctant admiration.)
As others have pointed out, tales following this model have appeared on the big screen countless times, in films like “Dune” (twice), “The Last Samurai”, “Dances with Wolves”, ” The Last of the Mohicans,” “A Man Called Horse,” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” More often than not, these films were both commercially successful and critically celebrated — the two “Avatar” films included, obviously.
But where the “Avatar” franchise doubles down on these other films is by making its central narrative conceit about white people literally transplanting themselves into non-white bodies, leaving behind their pale shells. In Sully’s case, it allows him to escape his wheelchair-bound human reality to live free and capable as a burly sapphire feline.
Jordan Peele tapped into the trope of white people dropping their brains into bodies of color in order to look young and get back in shape effectively for horror in “Get Out.” In “Avatar”, the process is treated as just one more conspiracy, discounted by presenting the avatars in question as insane lab-grown clones created from the combined genetic material of the Na’vi and their human “drivers”.
While this explanation may reassure sci-fi fans, it does not avoid the fundamental ethical issues related to this body-enslavement premise – or the moral issues related to the fact that the “avatar pilots” in the films are all characters depicted. as white, while the Na’vi are consistently portrayed as non-white (even when played by white actors such as Kate Winslet, Jamie Flatters and Britain Dalton).
All of this is not to say that Cameron has good intentions. The movies are emotionally powerful attacks on corporate eco-cannibalism. And his choice to portray white actors as landed “colonizers” and non-white actors as noble, oppressed Na’vi was deliberately intended to invoke the real circumstances of indigenous peoples, as he explicitly stated in the legal documents that he filed to defend the first “Avatar” from charges of plagiarism (after being sued three times, he won all three cases): “Avatar made very explicit reference to the colonial period in the Americas, with all its strife and bloodshed between the military aggressors of Europe and the native peoples. Europe equals Earth. Native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle.
Yet it’s easy to wonder whether Cameron’s reinterpretation of science fiction draws attention to, or distracts from, the historic struggles of Indigenous peoples against white Western invasion. And more than a few indigenous scholars and activists have called for just that. Yuè Begay, co-president of Indigenous Pride LA, tweeted a call for a boycott of the film, accusing Cameron of appropriating indigenous cultures to satisfy his “savior complex”. Crystal Echo-Hawk, President and CEO of IllumiNative, dismissed the film as telling a story of colonization “through a white man’s lens,” once again showing “a level of arrogance that ‘a white filmmaker can simply tell a story based on Indigenous people better than Indigenous people ever could.
Here’s the inconvenient truth: Cameron is very good at storytelling – indeed, he’s one of the best cinematic storytellers on this planet, and probably a number of others yet to be discovered. He has command of almost incalculable resources and his films reach more people on the planet than virtually any other filmmaker.
Which means that with two films out and three to come, the story of Pandora’s occupation is probably already far better known than all the stories of genocide, exploitation and cultural decimation of Indigenous peoples on Earth. , from the Native American Trail of Tears. to the brutal suppression of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion to the overthrow and seizure of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Indigenous educators and leaders like Echo-Hawk have suggested that Cameron should have partnered with Indigenous educators and leaders to connect his epic fiction to the tragic facts that inspired it. (Cameron, for his part, acknowledges that he speaks from “a position of white privilege” and has pledged to listen to criticism rather than push it away.)
As it stands, audiences and critics of today and tomorrow will praise Cameron’s creativity and attention to detail, and they should – but they probably won’t know how much. the franchise’s incredible world-building is simply an elaborate act of collage, putting pieces together. drawn from dozens of our world’s oldest civilizations, while attributing them to fantastical felines rather than resourceful human beings.
And Cameron is just getting started. It reportedly plans to introduce at least one new Na’vi tribe, rooted in a different set of human inspirations, in each of its five “Avatar” installments. The upcoming film, with the tentative name ‘Avatar 3: The Seed Bearer’, is supposed to include an evil Na’vi ‘fire tribe’ known as the Ash People, who could potentially be a group that lives on land. active volcanic. Will their cultural characteristics end up being “inspired” by the indigenous peoples of the lands of the Ring of Fire – the Papuans of Indonesia, or the Mayans of Guatemala, or the Aeta people of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines?
With two backlash experiences under his belt and having made a public vow to “listen” rather than dismiss native criticism, Cameron has some incentive to try something different with the third and subsequent chapters of his larger epic.
Using some of the countless billions Avatar has earned to elevate indigenous voices, stories, and stories would be a way for him to tell them, “I see you,” as the Na’vi might say — and right the wrong. which he did by jumping into a giant blue body and smashing his way through their cultural landscape, razing their reality even as he tries to save her.