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January 3, 2010

News from the Is Avatar Racist? front

Annalee Newitz thinks Avatar is racist (as do I-ish), and points to interesting comments by Remington. Will Heaven points to a bunch of other sources as well. OuttaContext replies to the racism charge, seeing also a more inevitable and mythic story. But I think he underestimates the perniciousness of the specifics of the native culture the movie depicts: They’re not just the “other”; they’re blue native Americans.

By the way, do you think the Na’vi and JarJar Binx descend from some ur-stereotype progenitor??

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December 23, 2009

James Cameron re-films Fern Gully, but in 3D! And uncomfortably near-racist!

Avatar is a big, visually beautiful movie whose march to dumbville is relieved by only a couple of bright ideas.

One of the bright ideas is the one you enter the theater knowing [SPOILER ALERT, IF YOU HAVE AVOIDED ALL $150,000,000 SPENT ON MARKETING THIS MOVIE]: A human can mentally inhabit an alien’s body. After that, it’s pretty much all downhill, making it the world’s most expensive computer graphics demo. Cool graphics, though!

It’s actually not a very imaginative movie. The landscapes are standard issue alternate-world stuff, albeit filled in with eye-gobbling detail. Worse, the plot and characters are straight out of a thousand other movies. There’s Mel Gibson doing his Brave Heart exhortation (right down to the blue skin). There’s Star Wars’ weirdly anti-technology message. And, yes, as my wife pointed out, most of all there’s Fern Gully‘s sentimental environmentalism. And these are not coy, arch Tarantino-esque references. They’re James Cameron thinking he’s touching our hearts and our minds. It’s pap. (For the record: So was Titanic.)

The racist tinge is the inverse of the old godawful racism that sees indigenous people as “savages” and “primitives.” Instead, Cameron sees them as wise, mother-earth-worshipping perfection. That’s a lot better, but you watch Avatar’s forest folks and see too many embarrassing resonances with stereotypes of native Americans, with occasional guest stereotypes making cameo appearances. (On the other hand, James Cameron’s most fully realized person in any of his movies was a cyborg, and #2 was a ship, so maybe we shouldn’t expect too much.)

It’s not a bad movie. The graphics were enough to carry me along for 2.5 hours. But it takes every opportunity to be predictable and sorta dumb. You leave wondering how many better movies could have been made if it’s $500M budget had been divided among 500 young filmmakers.

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