Thursday, January 21, 2010

James Cameron's Avatar and the Critical Response: An Alternative Perspective

A guest post by Garrett East

In light of the many critical reviews of Avatar written in the past month (of which here are two examples), I want to say something in response.

Here is what I think. In criticizing the movie for its supposed racism and lack of depth or imagination critics miss what the entire movie is about. By analyzing the details and finding fault in them, they miss the message. The movie is not about a white guy leading the natives and saving them. It is not by virtue of his whiteness or cultural superiority that he is able to lead them. It is by his conversion that he is able to lead them. It is by his becoming one of them through his chosenness by Eywa that he is able to lead them. It is their God that chooses him to be their leader, their ways that empower him to lead them and become great, and their life that gives him new life.

Furthermore, although Jake Sully could be described as careless and a spoiled brat, I do not think these are his defining characteristics that make him so appealing. He is appealing because he is someone who has lost everything in one world and now has another chance to gain a new life. That is why people are drawn to him. His story is about not having anything to lose, but having everything to gain. It is about his finding new life in a people who, far from being inferior to white people, are portrayed as far more superior. People love Jake, not because he is “a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood,” but because he has the courage to change his ways, to switch allegiances, and to become a new person in a new world. That is his appeal.

In essence, I think Avatar could be described as a conversion story. Although this conversion is much different in content than Christian conversion, the process through which it happens is much the same. Jake’s conversion entails immersion in the community of the Na'vi. It has initiative rites of passage. It requires not only a change of mind and intellectual assent, but a whole new embodied way of life. It requires new eyes, new ears, a new language, and a new heart. It is a relearning of what is right and what is wrong. It is a transfer of allegiance from one people to another (the Na'vi), from one God to another (Eywa). It requires that Jake become nothing less than a new creature in a new creation. In my opinion, this is what makes Jake such a fascinating character to watch, and why his story is so captivating. When we watch the two and a half hour story about Jake Sully, we are not watching a story that celebrates white people above others, or American ways of life above others. We are watching the story about a man who has his life turned upside down. We are watching the story of a man who moves from despair, death, hate, and disbelief to hope, life, love, and even faith. When we watch Jake Sully’s story, we are watching a story about conversion.

Another aspect of the movie that has been critiqued is its failure of imagination in regards to the Na'vi’s response to the violence of the military. Rather than finding an alternative to war, the Na'vi respond to violence with more violence in order to protect their land and people. I have only two points to make about this. First, this movie is in many ways a retelling of the genocide of Native Americans by colonists, settlers, and explorers to America over the last several hundred years. As such, it includes the reality of the violent responses by Native Americans. Furthermore, the Na'vi are not portrayed as a group of non-violent Christians ready to lay down their lives for the sake of their commitment to following Jesus and because of their love for enemies. In my opinion, this is okay! Their use of violence is not a failure of imagination by the director; it tells the story of the way most human beings would respond in such a situation. Second, the violence is not the focus of the movie! Although it plays an important role in the story's climax, it is not what the movie is about. Focusing on the violence near the end of the movie shifts the focus away from the actual story line: the conversion of Jake Sully.


  1. Good posting especially when compared to anything written by right-wing religionists.

    Of course Jake only truly became the Avatar in the very last frame of the film.

    Everything else was a leading up to this moment of radical re-birth or Waking Up to a fully integrated Way of Being.

    A way which supposedly integrated both the Western ways and the Navi ways.

    But why does it have to be either Jesus or Christian?

    As if the usual Christian narratives are the only way of understanding both this film and by extension the world altogether.

    For instance this reference written by a Real Avatar provides a unique Understanding of the uses and consequences of violence against humans, and the non-humans too.


  2. Garrett,

    Let me say that I've read through some of the critical reviews before seeing the movie this weekend, and yours by far is the most excellent. I'll probably address the others' shortcomings in the future (I listed a few below), but this perspective is probably the healthiest and best way to understand the movie in its entirety. So kudos and thank you!

    (Jake didn't betray his entire race, just one company that wouldn't work for peaceful alternatives; Jake's humanity, or at least what I consider essential to humanity, he found more in the Na'vi than the humans he was with; this was not an anti-war movie, nor was it anti-soldier, but merely anti-imperialist; etc.)

  3. no content, this is just so I see follow-up comments

  4. J. Kameron Carter has written a post about Avatar at his blog, and there is an interesting dialogue about it in the comments section. You should definitely check it out:

  5. I think the message of the movie has been misunderstood a lot, because at the end, he saves them but just because he "becomes" one of them. So, the message is about accepting the difference of others.