Avatar is a film centered around an encounter between two peoples. Two peoples seemingly diametrically opposed to one another. Species is pitted against species. Civilized against Primitive. Pandora is situated as a site of encounter not unlike the colonial encounter. Critics have read this encounter as a re-telling of the plight of Native Americans - a story about the cost of colonization of America in ecological destruction. But ecology here is not understood as something necessarily separate from humans in such a way that would require stewardship. The encounter between Humans and the Na’vi is one of a people (humans) cut off from their environment, from their ‘nature’, violently encountering a network, in which subjectivity is deeply embedded within the natural. The Na’vi world, Pandora, emerges as an articulation of the pastoral in which oppositions are undermined by the sublime power of recuperation that the pastoral offers to the divide between subject and object.
Pandora becomes an a/temporal space in which Cameron’s imagination (as a megaphone for contemporary whiteness) merges ‘pre-historic’ mutations of dinosaurs with a-historic representations of “primitives” and “indigenous”. Within the confines of another planet, time is made malleable through the de-limitation that science fiction as a genre offers. BC 248000000000 is mutually collapsed into AD 2154 in a movement that preserves the pastoral as simultaneously a-temporal, yet always present, ripe for a confrontation with the ever-evolving ‘human’ race and its burden of history. The placement of this encounter in the genre of futurist science-fiction preserves a romanticized notion of the native in relation to the pastoral. The ethical implications of the encounter are universalized through the suspension of time and the assumption that the encounter itself as problematic is sublimated by the implicit theme of repetition the movie suggests. Encounter, and a necessarily militaristic (read: exploitative) one at that, is the assumed eternal recurrent - the driver of history that, until this new opportunity, has remained in the favor of humans, conveniently here depicted en masse, refiguring a new humanism that, oddly enough, through the historical unfolding of 144 years, has magically escaped the question of race.
The difficulty of this movie for me, comes in articulating the complicated set of relations that are disarticulated, disfigured, and at times refigured by the encounter. The oppositions established in the film offer an interesting reading of these relations:
The film opens with a quote from its protagonist Jake Sully “Tommy was a scientist, not me. He was the one who wanted to get shot light years out into space to find the answers.”
His brother has died and he is asked by the military staff (most made of older, conventionally less attractive, white men) to replace his brother based on the convenience of his DNA. This cold suggestion, characterized through the music and camera angles of the film present a powerless, handicapped (yet clearly conventionally sexually attractive) white soldier in his prime being all but preyed on by these military men for their technological experiment in which it is only his DNA, removed from any subjective qualities, that they seek, heightened by the “investment” they made in him. Immediately, two oppositions emerge:
Young Man vs Older
Nice, Naïve vs Evil, Uncaring
Of lower rank, almost working class in implication vs Rich, money-motivated high-raking officials
Whiteness, already discussed in terms of masculinity, is split from within, and the idealized white male in his prime emerges as the primary articulation of human subjectivity, sympathized through his disability, on the cusp of fully enabled, but prevented so as to ensure something that must be repaired or redeemed before one could suggest that Jake embodies fully the role of whiteness.
Dealing with whiteness as whiteness is evaded in the film through the imagined confrontation of human and alien. Even though all in power are still white and, the contemporary racial and class categories still stand, the imagined confrontation places humans on one side, obfuscating the divisions and historical encounters that shape that very category (White female as biologist, latina female as military pilot, less masculine white male as scientist, only black presence as low-raking soldiers, South Asian male as scientist).
The Na’vi in this film represent, similar to the formulation Francis Bacon articulates inThe New Atlantis, a merger of races. Like the mutual collapse of pre-history and future in an a/temporal pastoral present, All non-white races, and non-human biological others are merged into a fantastic in-between, much like Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest. They walk upright with human features, yet are distorted and exaggerated in body height. Their skin is blue, with marks not unlike a leopard. They see through reptilian eyes, yet have a long tail. Their most human distinction, though is the merger of ‘ethnic’ cultural motifs hanging from their bodies. Braids, beads, tribal insignia etc.