Avatar is the latest Hollywood movie to carry out the ritual of what could be called the "white man's Native American guilt redemption fantasy," a narrative convention seen previously in Dances With Wolves, A Man Called Horse, and Little Big Man. There are other movies that use elements of this ritual — Broken Arrow, Cheyenne Autumn, even Disney's animated Pocahontas, though Avatar adheres to a more strict formula set down by movies in the former group.
This fantasy is typically set in the Old West, and requires a white man to be captured or adopted by American Indians, to go through a trial of assimilation and acceptance, and finally to emerge as a respected member of the tribe, one who in many cases uses the sk/ills of white society to defend his adopted people against attack by outsiders, even against his own white civilization. This fantasy serves as a form of confession, and allows the white audience to confront the injustices perpetrated against American Indians during westward expansion, to refute those injustices with a modern sensibility, and to return to its own culture appeased that a long-standing debt has been paid, if only on film.
To accomplish this purging of guilt it is important that the ills of white society be vividly demonstrated, most often by showing white violence toward Indians or the white bureaucracy's unquestioning commitment to what is depicted as an outdated and senseless doctrine of expansion at all costs. Further, the American Indians need to be inversely mythologized as the opposite of whites: they must be shown not only as victims justified in their resistance, but often as embodying a way of life that is steeped in tradition, balance, and spirituality — namely, all that ostensibly has been lost by white society. Finally, the white emissary must then undergo a transformation, whereby he comes to realize that his adopted culture is more worth fighting for than the white one he leaves behind. There are variations, but that is the basic structure.
While Avatar is applicable to the historic relationship between whites and American Indians, and while the story of Jake Sully fits neatly alongside the stories of John Dunbar (Dances With Wolves) and John Morgan (A Man Called Horse), its use of a fictional alien race instead of American Indians gives it distance enough to use the fantasy not primarily to comment on historic white/American Indian relations, but to protest what its makers view as the evils of modern society in general. To that end, the film glorifies the fictional Na'vi culture as the extreme opposite of an exaggeratedly corrupt human society. By doing so, the audience is able to side against those elements of white society which the film instructs are most abhorrent and to side with the Na'vi, who in turn represent our fantasized ideal, or rather a fantasized opposite of what the film suggests are our most ruinous attributes.
Avatar sets its sights primarily on:
1. Divorce from Nature
While the Na'vi believe in the interconnectedness of all living things and thrive in the lush forest of Pandora, the humans' only contact with the ecosystem occurs when they are out to destroy it. Scenes of huge mining vehicles razing the Pandoran forest, as well as the assault on and destruction of Home Tree, are very clear references to the real-life problem of deforestation. The fact that the Pandoran atmosphere is toxic to humans symbolically underscores how far humans have separated themselves from the natural world, and also echoes the concerns many have about the effects of rising CO2 levels in Earth's atmosphere.
2. Corporate Greed
The humans' interest in Pandora is due to its deposits of the mineral "unobtanium", and the force behind this pillaging is the the RDA, Avatar's evil corporate entity. RDA stops at nothing to attain greater wealth through unobtanium (valued, according to company stooge Parker Selfridge, at "20 million a kilo"). Avatar capitalizes on the idea of corporate greed in a timely manner, amid the financial crisis of the past few years. The Na'vi, by contrast, seem not to know of greed or even of commerce. While their Home Tree sits atop a massive deposit of unobtainium, the Na'vi appear not to value it at all. The economic workings of their society are not shown, though it appears that even benign capitalism does not factor in at all.
3. Dubious Use of Military Force
RDA brings its own mercenary force to Pandora to deal with Na'vi resistance, yet given the motives of the corporation and the relative naiveté of the Na'vi, the use of force is, at best, highly questionable. This reflects a skepticism toward military action that is firmly rooted in the Viet Nam era and immediately topical with US involvement in Iraq.
Jake's decision to fight with the Na'vi, then, is as expected as the similar choices made by Dunbar, Morgan, and Jack Crabb (Little Big Man), and his decision allows the audience to agree with — and be validated by — Jake's position against our world's problems.
Where Avatar veers from the strict ritual is in its ending — by letting Jake remain with the Na'vi. This is antithetical not only to the structure of the "strict ritual", in which the white emissary ultimately chooses to leave the tribe, but to many other Westerns as well in which the hero abandons society after briefly re-entering it — Shane and The Searchers come immediately to mind — and which adhere to the archetypical "walk into the sunset". (In a general way I am calling Avatar a Western, in so much as it fits the formula of the other films discussed here, and in that it deals with territorial confrontation along a frontier.)
The heroes of the strict ritual leave at the end because we know they have to — we know that the fantasy needs to come to an end because we know the reality of the American Indian and of westward expansion. These white heroes are our time-travelling ambassadors, armed with modern ideals and sent back to a West of our imagining to act the way we imagine white society should have acted in order to create a more peaceful coexistence and to spare us the guilt we now feel, but their remaining can only create a paradox — we know that any such "happy ending" is in conflict with what really happens.
Jake, however, is free to remain because Avatar is set in a fictional future, not on Earth but on a moon millions of light years away that is populated not by American Indians with a known past, but by an alien race specific to this one movie. It is therefore more immediately discernible as fantasy. Though we may have our doubts about how long the Na'vi victory will last, about how long the RDA will stay away from its valuable installation on Pandora, we have no corresponding historical record that forces deeper consideration of the moment.
Avatar photo used with the permission described here.