All the Cultural Themes on Avatar

Posted on January 6, 2010 by


My first movie of 2010, and already my mind was whorling at all the possible meanings of this monumentally long anime-sci-fi-love-adventure.

Avatar packed quite a few themes and references, something for almost everyone to chew on.  This makes it interesting as a springboard for discussion about our culture and society.

Incorporating all those themes into one movie was probably a monumental task,  I couldn’t help but smile at the end, but at the same time, it felt incomplete and annoying.  The feeling of incompleteness because it really only referenced themes rather than explored any.  The feeling of annoyance was elicited from how the movie represented the Na’vi and their protagonist.  But overall, I can’t really hate the movie.

1.  The themes that were worth a smile:

  • The intelligence and connectedness of the Na’vi. I liked how the Na’vi lived a connection to everything by their bio-botanical neural network.  That’s a nice fantasy.  The neuron-talk, the healing practices, showed that there was a certain knowledge and intelligence in their behaviors that people may not understand at first.   In real life, I’d hope people would understand that other groups of people also have their own knowledge and intelligence that many would not understand at first.  I also liked that the truth-driven scientist acknowledged the intelligence of the native people, perhaps a bit of a poultice for wounds inflicted in the Science Wars.
  • The importance of societal memory. The Na’vi had all their memories stored in this big tree of knowledge.  When that tree was about to be demolished by the humans, so too would’ve been their memories.  Those “memories” are quite similar, slightly dated yet slightly more advanced than “our” memories which are now basically stored on computers. By putting the Na’vi societal knowledge in terms of “memories”, this was a way to put the regular American audience member into thinking critically about destruction and taking of cultural artifacts from other cultures.  You probably didn’t like seeing their memories getting fucked with, and it follows that you probably won’t like your memories getting fucked with.
  • Making the destruction of the native Na’vi population’s structures and environment parallel to destruction of the US population’s structures and environment. The image of the destruction of the Na’vi tree looked a lot like the imagery of the Twin Towers falling on 9/11. By using that imagery and thereby eliciting a milder form of emotion from those events, I think it was a good way for audiences to internalize the destruction of the “other” and destruction of their own habitat.
  • The body as a technology;  a vehicle and extension of consciousness. A vehicle which can take you anywhere.  A vehicle,  also something that you can eventually trade in.  Your body, whether it’s in the form of an Avatar body, or a robot body, is merely an extension of your consciousness and your heart.  Interesting was the fantasy that with the development of neuroscience you could transport your consciousness to another living thing.

From Slate Magazine:

Memo to Al Gore: If we can just bio-engineer large blue representations of ourselves and hook them up to our brains via isolation pods, climate change is not going to be a problem.

  • Highlighting the link between corporation and science/academia.  I first noticed this when the scientist talks about the restrictions placed on her truth-finding missions by her corporate boss.  Corporate boss says that all the work that she does should lead him to make more new discoveries so that he could keep funding her work.  The tension was touched on a little bit by Savage Minds.
  • Highlighting the link between corporation and military power. The military is basically a machine that the corporation uses to feed its greed.  The corporate executive enjoys a leisurely life, flippantly making big decisions.  The military commander will pillage, kill, anyone it is asked to kill, sometimes injecting their own personal motives just to get their corporate-sponsored jobs done.  Also discussed by the Global Sociology Professor.
  • The Amazonian-like female protagonist saving her little crippled human man. That made my panties, *cough* I mean masculinity-proving, Alpha male boxer shorts, drop.

2. Themes that made me cringe:

  • The white man hero and protagonist. I really, really, really, REALLY hate this ongoing theme. It’s a Hollywood production so I shouldn’t have expected any less, but given that it’s a big movie with big reach, I always wish that people en masse could see more people of color as apt leaders who can go through tons of emotion as well. I wasn’t particularly wowed when it showed how decidedly unresilient the band of Na’vi suddenly became until the white super-hero did his thing.

From Sociological Images

Sully is not only a superior human being, he is also a superior Na’vi. After being briefly ostracized for his participation in the land grab, he tames the most violent creature in the sky, thereby proving himself to be the highest quality warrior imaginable per the Na’vi mythology.  He gives them hope, works out their strategy, and is their most-valuable-weapon in the war. In the end, with all Na’vi contenders for leadership conveniently dead, he assumes the role of chief… and gets the-most-valuable-girl for good measure. Throngs of Na’vi bow to him.

It’s as if none of the Na’vi were capable of bridging the gap or being a leader themselves.  I think that’s a hidden tension in this society — people of color, people from “minority” populations becoming leaders and protagonists.  I understand that it’s a movie with a certain vision, but I’m completely over the narratives dominated by these white guys from privileged backgrounds.

  • The persistent image of the stereotypical noble savage. The people who believe in chanting to random deities and interpreting signs from nature, which makes all this magic happen.  Also wasn’t thrilled when the Na’vi were persistent in futilely fighting with their bows and arrows and eventually getting crushed by newer technologies wielded by the white people.  It was as if they had no adaptability at all.  But as I mentioned in one of the things I like about the movie, we eventually see that they do have an intelligence to their ways.  Perhaps Cameron was trying to use the old noble savage template through Na’vi to talk about how old tribes were in fact smarter than you thought.

From the Savage Mind comments

Dances With Wolves meets Jurassic Park through the device of HTS.

Agree, and remain troubled by, the flatness of the Navi. Yes, it may take more time to develop, but take away a few minutes from the final militaristic invasion and would anything be lost? I don’t think so. What I missed was less a broad ethnographic understanding of their social systems and practices – politics, economy, material lives, etc. – and more some depth by way of a sense of subjectivities, on the one hand, and histories, on the other, related to these systems/practices For instance, how did the youth, Netyiri et al., feel about the traditions of marriage and leadership/rule? I didn’t get any sense of pride, resistence, identity conflict, etc. from within the Navi. They remained as much psychologically flat as culturally.

An Astrophysicist: suggests an alternative way to representing the Na’vi.

I do have one minor complaint, that given their networking abilities,
the Na’vi should not be so technologically inferior to the humans. On
Earth, the largest barrier to technological progression was that
information that existed in the brains of primitive humans could not
be easily shared or preserved. As soon as writing was developed,
suddenly it was possible to store information outside of the brain,
and record and build upon knowledge. The knowledge available to a
human or tribe went from one brain’s worth (and a minimal amount of
oral tradition), to thousands, and ultimately billions of brains’
worth. The result was a technological and social explosion. Hominids
have had technology like spears for about half a million years, but
only 7,000 years after the development of writing we had left the
planet. And the sharing of knowledge is still undergoing a revolution
with the development of the internet. Now we have instantaneous
access to the combined knowledge of the entire history of humanity.

Since the Na’vi have had the ability to download information and share
it in a massive network for long periods of time (evolutionary
timescales), they should be way ahead of us in terms of technological

I wondered why the Na’vi seemed to function so much like humans instead of these beings from elsewhere.

  • Ditching the Disabled Body. While it’s interesting that the protagonist has no legs, I was sort of hoping that he’d come to terms with his legless human body.
  • The sexification of the wild native woman. Wild native woman mating with civilized man.  Now where have I heard that before?  Probably,  a Psychology Today Blogger.  Or Pocahontas.  I was kind of hoping that this would be a completely different species who mated asexually, but of course once the audience is introduced to this female, I knew that there would be some kind of love story going on.   However, something interesting I noticed was that when Jake and Neytiri were in the process of mating, we see that Neytiri inexplicably temporarily loses her braids.  Braids that we see she has been wearing for the duration of the film but suddenly comes off in this one moment of intimacy, and comes back on for the duration of the film.

There was just a lot to think about for me, and if any movie can hold my attention long enough to get me to do that, I pretty much like it.