Normally we wouldn’t bother to write a hate review about a movie that was merely boring. It takes some actual anger to fuel the time and energy that goes into these posts. However, there were two underlying messages of the movie that we found truly enraging.
First, the entire plot of the movie rests on what most people think of as the white saviour and the noble savage. Once pointed out, the application to Avatar should be obvious: the white, cultured, intelligent scientists save the pure, primitive (and blue) Na’vi. The brutal militaristic state cruelly oppresses the helpless, pure, and primitive Na’vi, who are only able to rise up against the oppressors with the help of Jake, Grace, and the rest of the white scientists. It really is disturbing; the Na’vi can’t save themselves but the white men can. This has pretty strong parallels to the savages-victims-saviours metaphor popularized in human rights discourse by Makau Mutua, but we won’t get into that here since it’s too academic to be illustrated via gif.
Second, a more subtle underlying theme of Avatar (and movies like it) is that technology and science are inferior to magic. Attempts to explain or question the magic make one unworthy to have the magic. The people who embrace science (aka the scientists) are punished in one way or another even when they’re the good guys. The people who embrace the primitive, magical ways of the natives are rewarded.
So, on to the recap. Our movie takes place in the year 2154. That’s roughly 150 years in the future. Remember this, dear readers, because it will come up later.
The main character, Jake Sully, is a former Marine paralyzed from the waist down who is heading to an alien planet called Pandora.
Jake is going to take his dead twin brother’s place in the “Avatar Program,” where white men (and women) are put into bodies designed to look like the natives of Pandora, who call themselves the Na’vi. Jake’s new comrades greet him by calling him “Meals on Wheels,” which doubles as both a disparaging comment on disability and an indication that the Meals on Wheels program is going to last a hella long time.
Sigourney Weaver is also there, but she is really angry that they sent a Marine to take the place of her highly educated scientist who was prepped for years to go among the natives. She’s even more angry when she finds out that Jake wasn’t briefed at all on the program or what he’s supposed to be doing. He doesn’t know the language, doesn’t know how the technology works, and has never even been in the avatar bodies yet.
This is in contrast to Norm, the other scientist who has been in the machine hundreds of times, and Sigourney, who speaks the Na’vi language fluently and has been earnestly building relationships among the people. Who do YOU think will be chosen to join the Na’vi as a real member of the tribe?
Sigourney goes to complaint to the CEO, who explains that all he really wants is a mineral called “Unobtainium” and there’s a huge deposit of it right below where the Na’vi live in a giant tree. Unobtainium has no stated purpose other than to motivate the plot.
Eventually Jake avatars up, but he gets a little over-excited the first time he tries on the blue guy suit. He ignores all the scientists, breaks expensive lab equipment, and runs away. This is apparently fine with Sigourney, who just gives him a fruit and puts him to bed.
When Jake wakes up, he is a human again. He then goes to meet the military side of the Unobtainium obtaining mission. Trudy, the pilot who flies all the scientific missions, brings him to see the General. The General’s real name is stupid so we’re going to call him Sleeves because he never wears any unless things get SERIOUS.
Sleeves tells Jake to infiltrate the Na’vi society and convince them to leave Hometree, which is their home…and a tree. If Jake complies, Sleeves will make sure that Jake gets his legs back. It’s immediately apparent that Sleeves is evil and that his robo-suit is totally a rip off of the Armored Personnel Unit (APU) from Matrix Revolutions.
After this bit of evil plotting, Jake and the scientists go on their first mission to visit the Na’vi. Jake immediately screws things up by dicking around with the plant life and enraging a herd of hammerhead rhinos. The enraged rhinos attract a giant panther-like creature who chases Jake through the forest, separating him from the rest of the group. The scientists wisely leave Jake to be eaten, but unfortunately he manages to survive until nightfall.
Another opportunity for him to die arises when our female lead, Neytiri, appears, aiming an arrow at Jake. Jake is saved by a floating tree seed landing on the arrow. Jake almost dies again after nightfall when he’s attacked by a pack of six legged cats. Jake does a poor job of fending them off with a burning stick until he is saved by Neytiri.
Neytiri kills the cats and prays over them as they die. When Jake tries to thank her, she scolds him by saying “You are like a baby…[you] don’t know what to do.” On that count, we agree with her.
Neytiri at first wants to leave Jake in the jungle, but she changes her mind when Jake is christened by the floating tree seeds, which turn out to be very pure souls of the dearly departed Na’vi. This marks him as the white savior of the oppressed Na’vi. Of course Neytiri has no choice but to bring him home.
Once there, the shaman disparages the idea of teaching the white men Na’vi ways because “It is hard to fill a cup that is full.” She references the scientists as those who have “full cups/brains” and are therefore hopelessly lost to learning anything else. Luckily, Jake’s brain is completely empty!
Neytiri is assigned to teach Jake, and she’s not happy about it because this is a movie. In the movies it is rare that a couple gets together after liking each other from the beginning.
Jake falls asleep in Hometree, then wake up as a human again in the lab. Everyone laughs about his near-death experience and marvels at his spectacular ability to ingratiate himself with the tribe almost immediately. Norm is jealous because, as we mentioned, Jake is dumb, knows nothing, and isn’t even sincere in his affection for the tribe.
We get a short montage of Jake learning the ways of the tribe before we find out that Sigourney suspects Jake of being a spy for Sleeves. She’s not keen on this idea, but can’t get rid of Jake because the Na’vi like him so much. So instead, she enlists Trudy to take them all up to a remote lab set up among these floating islands.
How could you possibly have floating islands on a planet that clearly has gravity? Why, the flux vortex of course! You’ve never heard of it before?
Apparently the planet produces some sort of field that not only makes huge chunks of land (but nothing else) float in the air, it also makes the 2154 version of radar completely useless. This becomes very important later to justify how the innocent, magic-infused natives defeat the technologically advanced earthlings.
There’s a second montage (now with more sexual tension!), and at the end we see Jake kill an antelope thing, thanking it for it’s sacrifice. Neytiri tells Jake that he is now ready to get a dragon to ride.
Before we move on to the dragon-acquisition scene, let’s take a break and ask a few questions about the animals on Pandora. Actually, we only have one question: why are there so many blue creatures?
Now, we’re no scientists or anything, but we do know a bit about evolution. Evolution says that those animals who have adaptations best designed to avoid predators will survive to pass their genes on. A key adaptation to this end is camouflage. It’s why you see so many animals in green, brown, and gray, because it blends in with the scenery.
We’ve seen a LOT of the scenery on Pandora ( and we’re not through with the sweeping vistas yet), and it seems to have roughly the same color mix as a typical jungle on earth, with the addition of phosphorescence at night. Yet half the animals we see are blue! What’s more, the dominant species on the planet is also blue!
Speaking of crazy-colored animals, Jake needs to get himself a dragon! He goes with Neytiri, the one Na’vi who doesn’t like him (let’s say his name is Grumpy), and a few other Na’vi to climb up to the floating island called Honalee.
Once they arrive, Neytiri tells Jake that his dragon will have to choose him before he can ride it. Jake will know which dragon picked him because the dragon will try to kill him.
But have no fear, dear readers! The dragon does not kill our intrepid hero. Instead, Jake tames the dragon with the nerve endings in his hair, they writhe around like they’re having sex, and it ends with Jake mounting the dragon and declaring “You’re mine.” Then they fly off together…right into another montage.
The montage ends when Jake-the-Narrator informs us that ther’s something else in the sky, a much bigger dragon that wants to eat him. Cut to this “Last Shadow” chasing Jake and Neytiri through the sky.
POP QUIZ TIME! Who do you think comes up with the strategy for escaping the “Last Shadow?”
A) Neytiri, who has presumably been riding her dragon for at least a few years and must have encountered this very situation at some point.
B) The dragon, who is in some sort of telepathic link with Jake and also must have been avoiding the LS for his whole life.
C) Jake, who only found out that LS existed at BEST a few weeks ago.
D) None of the above, they’re all eaten.
Did you pick C? Because C is the right, incredibly infuriating answer and just one of a host of situations showing the idea that the “white savior” is better than the natives at everything, including BEING a native. Avatar glorifies the native population as being noble and in harmony with nature (which is just as harmful of a stereotype as all the negative stereotypes are) while at the same time infantilizing them by showing that they need to be cared for at every turn, even in situations they should be more knowledgeable about.
If you’re still not convinced that this is a problematic theme in this movie, stay with us for Part Two. There’s more evidence to come!