Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Avatar Review: Part 2: "Militaristic Message?"

First off, my apologies for not getting this one out sooner, I got caught up in daily life events and such, as well as waiting for some feedback from a friend, specifically for this theme critique of the movie (you’ll see why).


With many films that have opposing factions between the obvious protagonist and antagonist characters, the inevitable epic battle is sure to take place. No more is this true than in the movie Avatar and its battle between the various ground and aerial Na’vi tribes and the military might of the RDA Sec-Ops (with a nice soundtrack to go with this battle sequence too, I might add). 

Many have described the battle as symbolic of progress vs. nature, colonialism vs indigenous cultural identity, or even capitalistic imperialism vs. noble savages. Typically, it becomes apparent that the human military are the antagonists, and such is the case in this film, but I've got to ask the question: is this depiction of the military a fair and accurate one? Or is it too one-sided?

Anyone who is still thinking this film is not political in any way is CLEARLY not paying attention to the film’s plot (either that or they were distracted by the CGI and special effects of the film and overlooked it, lol). James Cameron leaves no ambiguity, saying in an interview: “This movie reflects that we are living through war. There are boots on the ground; troops who I personally believe were sent there under false pretenses, so I hope this will be part of opening our eyes.” Oddly enough, in that same interview Cameron stated he doesn’t think the film itself is anti-military. Hmm…something about that statement for some reason doesn’t sit well with me. 

The storyline of the film is nothing new in itself. Think of films and stories such as Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, or (to a lesser degree) Princess Mononoke. All share similar themes of the protagonist (typically military affiliated) within a climate of clashing cultures and societies, while being drawn towards the culture he had previously been pitted against.

I decided to get an opinion from some who have actually been in the military, specifically a friend of the family currently serving in the U.S. Marine Core. My friend (we’ll call him ‘Tom’) told me he, along with some his fellow soldiers in his unit, saw Avatar during a leave when it premiered, and had an engaged debate on it. Tom felt the movie portrayed the military in a “typical Hollywood light, with all the bells and whistles.” Tom also felt that the movie was unfair in its method of making the military look like “a bunch of gun-toting, hair-trigger bullies.” Some of Tom’s fellow troops agreed with him, however a few others didn’t, at least not completely.

According to Tom, some argued that, generally speaking, from a military POV, the Sec-Ops soldiers in the movie were following orders, which is to be expected in any military outfit - insubordination (which did happen twice with both the main protagonist Jake Sully and with the pilot Trudy Chac√≥n) is grounds for discharge. 

Others felt that the Sec-Ops were not a true representation of the military since they were hired by the RDA conglomerate as security for the initial mining operation, thus making the argument about their military representation irrelevant. This part technically is true, since it was mentioned through Jake's naration at the beginning of the movie. Though a fair amount of the miltary personal that were there did have previous experience one deployment or another, many of them were more ‘mercenaries’, hired guns; for my friend and his fellow soldiers, a mercenary is a very different concept than is a soldier representing his/her country.

As for me, the "might-makes-right for the wrong reason" theme that Cameron is presenting is fairly obvious. From the preemptive strike the Sec-Ops planned and initated against the Navi, to using the term "shock and awe" (both sound familiar?), is Cameron showing the typical concept of fighting terror with terror as the antagonist tool, possibly to show further sympathy towards the Na'vi’s plight? Most likely. Is it a referral towards recent and current events happening in the world? Most defiinetly. Is the Sec-Ops a fair and accurate representation of the armed forces abroad? That’s debatable. As previously mentioned by one of Tom’s fellow marines, the Sec-Ops were hired security, for the RDA mining operation. There wasn’t even any indication of which branch of the armed forces they represented. In fact , there's no clear indcator that they come from any particular country like the U.S. though I will admit it would seem imply they were lead (Colonel Miles Quaritch played by Stephen Lang) by someone that might be from there.

Despite all of this, the military aspect of this film does play out very much like your general gung-ho type, only in this case the more familiar military faction are the bad guys compared to the alien Na'vi. In all honesty, I’m a bit torn on this. I can see where the Sec-Ops can make the military generally look bad, but at the same time, if you look carefully, it's done in such a manner that if anyone states it’s an anti-military film, there's a good amount of evidence to prove otherwise from that statement. So, I’m asking - what do you think about this representation of the military in this film? Some feedback on this would be good.

That reminds me, there's also the Na'vi’s representation in this film. Does anyone else think that the "noble savage" angle towards them seem just a tad too obvious? Just wondering….

Stay tuned for the third part of critique of Avatar. I will attempt to look at the religious and spirtiual themes in the movie, and there are quite a few of both (some fairly straight forward, some ambiguous, and some somewhat controversial) and I will try to get it out sooner, no promises


  1. Interesting questions raised.

    It appears that Cameron is trying to make a point, so does not make his symbols too ambiguous. As such, I think his representation of the military is done with broad brush stroke - military are bad, insensitive, colonial, environmentally indifferent, for hire by capitalistic corporations whose focus on profit opportunity will not allow an environment or its indigenous flora, fauna and peoples to stand in its way.

    Here's an article discussing the devastation that Big Oil has left in Ecuador - I'm sure more people will see the movie Avatar than may read the New York Times, but it'd be a shame if those movie goers fail to recognize that, while a work of fiction, greater culturo-environmental horrors are happening in real life, and may not even require the hired muscle of para-military organizations to inflict the damage.

  2. Hmmm it goes to show more people like to escape into the fantasy areas of film/videogames, books(well that last one not so much these days) rather than face reality of todays problems. I remember you mentioning people these days (yes even youth and adults in our age bracket) having much shorter attention spans compared to several years back.

    As for the military aspect in this film, You could be right, but I still think that Cameron might cleverly not have a specific country mentioned or involved within the film just to justify the military huge influence there. Come to think of it, for hired security, they sure were geared for a full scale war no? Then again it is in the futrue...perhaps the really big milatary army will come in the doubt about

  3. I think the main character did qualify that most of the people with whom he was working were former-military and were guns-for-hire. One might suppose that this would self-select the kind of individuals who went into that profession. As your military friends say, there's a big difference between a soldier serving their country, and a mercenary. I found this part relatively easy to excuse.

    The only thing that bothered me about the militaristic side of this movie were the overt attempts to equate what was happening in the movie with the very different conflicts happening in the real world, purely on the basis of a related commodity. Cameron implies, and unfortunately a lot of people believe, that the current conflicts are simply about greed. I thought this equivocation cheapened the film.

    In the movie, the human aggressors are clearly there to get Unobtanium. There's really no question about it, since the company administrator says it himself. The Navi are an obstacle, not an enemy.

    In the real world, without justifying the war, oil was clearly not the casus belli given. At worst, pretexts such as the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction were used as a justification for a conspiratorial invasion to get oil. At best, a few countries honestly trusted intel about WMD which was simply wrong and oil really didn't factor in. The truth is probably somewhere between those two views, inclusive, but let's please at least acknowledge a few facts:

    Hussein created this problem for himself when he ironically attacked a foreign country for its oil. He had used WMD in the past, and when he fired SCUDs into Israel people were genuinely afraid that he could still use them. The previous war ended with conditions that he would cooperate with WMD inspections, which he frequently obstructed.

    By contrast, the Navi didn't want or need anything the humans had. They evidently weren't fighting each other, and they never attacked anybody until people started tearing down their sacred spots to mine. As you point out, they were "noble savages".

    So, whatever one's feelings about the current wars, to equivocate the Navi with Saddam Hussein is a gross insult to the Navi (were they a real people). They are very different kinds of opponents in the moral sense, and that is why I felt the movie was cheapened by trying to suggest the two conflicts were in any way similar.

  4. Hey Lancer,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I do agree that this movie doesn't really point very specifically at any one circumstance, current or past. Again, "broad brush strokes" were used by Cameron to make a general statement about exploitation and colonialism (think gold and diamonds in Africa, for example, or just land in North America).

    As is oft the case when a seemingly technologically superior visitor finds what they consider to be valuable resources under sacred ground (including the ground itself), the natives unlucky enough to call that ground "home" aren't the enemy as you mention, they're just "in the way."

    For me, I just found the lack of development of the military rather cliched. Having seen films such as Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October, we know that there can be all kinds of complexity, ambiguity and internal conflict among military ranks in juggling concepts of right with national security, and that "who's right and who's wrong" isn't always black and white.

    I guess that, regardless the particular reason, we both just aren't swallowing the cliched broad brush stroke treatment of the military in this film - not a lot to think about with this depiction. Just scratching our heads trying to understand how they can be so void of compassion.

    They did do a good job, however, of using language that objectifies and dehumanizes the Na'vi. Reminds me of "Charlie" from the Viet Nam War how they sold an image of the Na'vi that we, the audience, were able to see was a misrepresentation.

  5. Thanks for the further feedback guys.

    In regards to Lancers statement about the comparsions to the movie's conflicts in comparsion to real life events...yep there was quite a bit of that, In fact the scene where the Hometree of the Na'vi was attacked and leveled, it was mentioned the aftermath of that attack was oddly simular to 911 attacks (with all that ash and destruction) Cameron mentioned that idea for that attack was made prior to Sept 11, though I find statement that a little suspicious.
    The way Cameron made the Na'vi out like the "noble savage" well seems pretty obvious...oh and I like that Saddam comparision too, lol!

    Also in regards to DA's mentioning about the language used to dehumanizing the Na'vi, Agreed..Its interesting and sad that is still the typical method we use against those whom we feel (or are told) are our eneimes. Or the ones we feel to have a superiority complex towards them. One other recent movie that does that well is in District 9,(a good movie btw) and the degroitory name they give the aliens there ("prawns" I think)which in its own way was re-telling/showing what apartheid was...and both iroinicly taking place in real life as well as within the movie in South Africa.

  6. I don't think you could duhumanize Na'vi in the technical sense, but yes, they weren't treated for what they were: equally sentient and moral beings. We ought to be very sensitive to dehumanizing language, wherever it is used. It's interesting how after watching District-9, I doubted how anyone could treat intelligent beings so badly, but then you turn around and realize that history is full of that kind of stuff. You can see it in how normal people regarded African slaves, you can see it in how normal people were able to justify what their country did to Jews in the 1940s, and you can see it in how women are treated in many third world countries. But these are just a few of the obvious cases. What about how people treat their political opponents? What about how people treat members of different economic classes (up or down)? Or those of a different age?

    To some extent, this is the purpose of the fantasy of the noble savage. In Avatar, it simply is the case. Not a few people however thought they saw actual parallels between this movie and the real world, and that's the main reason why I react to it. They place some third-world society in the place of the noble savage, and the West in the place of the greedy aggressor, and then shout injustice. It's an illustration used to make the West look evil no matter the situation. There are people who actually have a hard time seeing things any other way.

    It is a straw-man though. For instance, some people believe that North American natives were peaceful until the Europeans arrived and introduced war. In actuality, they brutally fought each other, and they each gained and lost territory through conquest. If territory was so tenuously held before Europeans came, how can these tribes complain that Europeans took over their land when they themselves had taken land from others? They do so by hiding behind the image of the noble savage being victimized by a greedy and rich aggressor.

    I'm not bothered with the individual instances of this characterization, but I guess I'm tired of seeing it over and over again. This imagery is so popular in Hollywood that they actually find it offensive to portray the West in a morally superior light. This probably wasn't what DA was thinking about, but I'd like to see more depth in the characterization of the rich aggressor at least.

    Maybe you guys might have in mind a few recent examples of movies where basically the opposite is present?

  7. Hey Lancer, good question. It took me a while, but yes, I can think of one movie that could possibly speak to your longing for portraying the West in a superior light...Independence Day! While most dismiss it as summer blockbuster claptrap, there were some developed themes in the film worth identifying. I'll get to it shortly.

  8. Hi DA, a good suggestion, but I think in Independence Day the West is actually the noble savages. It's gung-ho America leading a united world (who are all savages compared to the aliens' technology), versus the greedy advanced civilization coming to take our resources. The aliens wanted to strip-mine the planet and move on, but had to wipe-out the human race first. So I think this actually fits with the way Hollywood likes to see things.

    Star Trek is a movie/franchise that comes to mind. The Federation is kind of a Utopian-view of Western society and always tries to be benevolent to other races, regardless of their power.

    I'm having a hard time thinking of other examples that don't involve just a solitary rich man being benevolent.

    I think maybe "Tears of the Sun" is one, though I haven't seen it. I remember it being described as a movie where a US military unit saves refugees from a civil war in an African country, where the rebels are clearly the bad guys and are trying to kill them. I remember some people complaining that this movie characterized Americans as good and the rebels as bad, given that it was set in contemporary times, but that's the reality in some places in Africa otherwise you wouldn't get things like Darfur! This movie was made at a time when other filmmakers were trying to make movies that communicated why we shouldn't go to war, so I remember it standing out. Not sure if you've seen this movie and can comment on it. This is only based one what I'd read about it.

  9. Re: Independence Day - ah, perhaps I may still show you something! Stay tuned, I should get on it soon.

    Re: Tears of the Sun - I have seen it, but may need to see it again. Yes, Bruce Willis is the American hero, but I'm almost positive I'm forgetting something that creates the tension for his actions...will revisit this.

    Re: Star Trek, I must admit, I was never able to become a real "trekkie", but yes, I think you're on to something.

  10. Heh, What Lancer said about ol ID4, is true. That a gun-ho/Americans save the world from the brink of oblivion type of summer blockbusters (if I'm not mistaken he and I went to see that film with a few other friends opening day back then). I got to admit it was enteriaining for its time, still I think it leans a tad too much focus on just the Americans, rather than a united assult with all other countries against a common foe, but thats my opinion.

    As for the other films mentioned:

    Tears of the Sun: Never seen it myself, if you both are recomending it, I think I might check it out.

    Star Trek: Lancer are you refering to the latest film for ST? Or the previous 9-10 ST based films? I'm asuming the former, and yes that would be a good example, and oddly enough one of the few futuristc sci-fi franchies that shows a positive outcome of mankind in the future orverall.

  11. Hey M.Wanderer, I think what Lancer was saying was that Hollywood tends to make the West look like bag guys more often than not, and that in ID4 Americans/humans were actually portrayed as the noble savages before the technically superior invading aliens.

    I'm arguing that ID4 does position Americans as the good guys, as you perceive. But my thoughts on ID4 follow a different line of thought (gosh, I've really got to get that review done soon...)

  12. M.Wanderer, yep I remember there was a bunch of us that went to see it. That was kinda nostalgic. You're right it could have leaned a bit more "Yay humanity!" instead of just "Yay USA!". Still was fun though.

    Thanks for entertaining my thoughts guys!

  13. Hey Lancer,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

    Finally -


What do you think?!