Friday, September 10, 2010

Double feature: Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Avatar

During the original release of Avatar, when everyone with a blog was either touting or condemning it ("Dances With Smurfs!" Ouch.), I thought up my own annoyingly Twitter-appropriate review: "Everything you have heard about Avatar — good or bad — is true." I liked Avatar and read or heard no criticism that I couldn't take for granted, nor which effectively undid what was good about the film.

I probably first watched Rambo: First Blood Part 2 on cable a few years after its 1985 release, though I can't remember — it was not a movie I was terribly interested in. I do remember watching it in college, however, as part of a class on "captivity narratives," and gaining a slightly better understanding of the Rambo phenomenon of the 1980's and beyond. I re-watched it a few days ago, enjoyed it despite some glaringly silly bits, and found myself thinking that my one-line review of Avatar also applied to it. And while the pairing of the two films hadn't occurred to me before, many likenesses came to mind. Both films transcended their status as box office hits to become "cultural phenomenons," due in part to their polarizing effect on film goers (or maybe the polarization was a result of the phenomenon...I'm not sure it really matters). Each movie can be seen as superficial entertainment, or as a film with a social message, or both. Or, perhaps more critically, as superficial entertainment disguised as social message. (In an interview clip on the Rambo DVD, director George Cosmatos explains that he never thought of the film as political, but rather as just an action movie. James Cameron has been somewhat less coy about Avatar.) In any case, it is these messages — or "message wrappers," if you prefer — that really connect the two films.

Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (which for simplicity in this post will be referred to only as Rambo, not to be mistaken for the fourth installment of the First Blood series) presents a re-writing of the Vietnam war. Made in the mid-1980's amidst the reexamination of America's treatment of Vietnam veterans, the film offers not only a way to redeem the American public for its poor reception of returning soldiers, but a way to win the war itself. Rambo's mission is to find American POW's still in captivity in the jungles of Vietnam. His success in rescuing several such soldiers not only presents filmgoers with an American victory in Vietnam, but shows forgotten and mistreated vets being brought back into the fold.

Key to the film's rectification of history is the transfer of all responsibility for the war onto a single, un-American source. While America's culpability for the treatment of its veterans is embodied by Murdock, the bureaucrat in charge of the ersatz rescue operation, and while Rambo kills a fair share of Vietnamese enemies, the real power behind the POW camp is the Soviet Union, in 1985 still a hot adversary to the United States in the Cold War. In this way, present and past animosities are united and blame is simplified onto a single, sneering, Soviet bad guy, sparing the audience any need to consider a more complex reality.

Avatar, in turn, offers vicarious and fantastical redemption for White expansion into the American West. Much has already been written about the similarities between this movie and others, especially Dances With Wolves (I am guilty of contributing my own two cents), though suffice it to say that Avatar's Jake Sully, much like Dances With Wolves' John Dunbar and A Man Called Horse's John Morgan, offers white audiences a historical re-do: he acts out a racial guilt-purging fantasy that displaces wrongdoing onto a specific subset of white colonizers (led by corporate cog Parker Selfridge, a stand-in for Murdock), which bears not only the blame for past racial sin but for modern evils as well: corporate greed, environmental neglect, and the questionable and excessive use of military force. When Jake is accepted into the native Na'vi tribe — when he is in fact accepted as their "chosen one" and defends the tribe against the invaders from Earth — he gains the forgiveness and redemption we desire.

Other similarities strengthen the connection between the two films. Rambo and Jake are both injured Marines — Jake's injuries are physical and visible, while Rambo's pain is emotional and mental — recruited to help in missions that will give them a "second chance." For Rambo, the mission is an opportunity to be released from prison and to finally get to "win" a war. For Jake, a tour on Pandora is a chance to leave the bleakness of an environmentally ravaged Earth and possibly have his injured legs repaired. Both heroes are sent to fulfill the orders of a military or corporate "machine" (both of which are headquartered in military-style bases carved out of and fenced off from the surrounding jungle), but each redefines his mission according to his conscience, putting him at odds with his own society. Rambo, like the Na'vi, is more at one with the natural environment than are his adversaries. He hides from enemies by covering himself in mud or by lurking underwater. He uses nature as a weapon, making traps and weapons out of tree roots and vines. Both the Na'vi and Rambo use simple weapons like bows and arrows and knives against the high-tech weaponry of their enemies (there is at least one instance of rack focus between shooter and arrowhead in each film!). Rambo repeatedly shows his disdain for technology by cutting loose his gear, shooting up a control room, and declaring "I've always believed that the mind is the best weapon." (Rambo is adept, however, at flying military helicopters, which are emphasized in both films as an important way of travelling between the two worlds straddled by the heroes). And it is probably not insignificant that Avatar writer/director James Cameron also co-wrote the screenplay to Rambo.