Big blue creatures with no body fat

I liked the movie Avatar (in 3D); even saw it twice. It is an amazing technical and visual experience and very well cast. Some of the story elements, such as the paraplegic hero and the way the avatars and their human operators work, are really clever. I’d see it again.

However, the story does have a “cringe factor” and this column by Brooks sums it up well:

January 8, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist

The Messiah Complex

Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.

This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

Avid moviegoers will remember “A Man Called Horse,” which began to establish the pattern, and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” More people will have seen “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Samurai.”

Kids have been given their own pure versions of the fable, like “Pocahontas” and “FernGully.”

It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen.

The formula also gives movies a little socially conscious allure. Audiences like it because it is so environmentally sensitive. Academy Award voters like it because it is so multiculturally aware. Critics like it because the formula inevitably involves the loincloth-clad good guys sticking it to the military-industrial complex.

Yet of all the directors who have used versions of the White Messiah formula over the years, no one has done so with as much exuberance as James Cameron in “Avatar.”

“Avatar” is a racial fantasy par excellence. The hero is a white former Marine who is adrift in his civilization. He ends up working with a giant corporation and flies through space to help plunder the environment of a pristine planet and displace its peace-loving natives.

The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments — are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. They’re tall, muscular and admirably slender. They walk around nearly naked. They are phenomenal athletes and pretty good singers and dancers.

The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master.

Along the way, he has his consciousness raised. The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.

The natives help the white guy discover that he, too, has a deep and tranquil soul.

The natives have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones. When the military-industrial complex comes in to strip mine their homes, they need a White Messiah to lead and inspire the defense.

Our hero leaps in, with the help of a pack of dinosaurs summoned by Mother Earth. As he and his fellow freedom fighters kill wave after wave of Marines or former Marines or whatever they are, he achieves the ultimate prize: He is accepted by the natives and can spend the rest of his life in their excellent culture.

Cameron’s handling of the White Messiah fable is not the reason “Avatar” is such a huge global hit. As John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard, “Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance.” The plotline gives global audiences a chance to see American troops get killed. It offers useful hooks on which McDonald’s and other corporations can hang their tie-in campaigns.

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.


9 Responses to “Big blue creatures with no body fat”

  1. kendra Says:

    I was thinking a lot of dances with wolves since seeing this. And also wondering why whites or humans in this case have to be so bad.

  2. Andy Says:


    This is what bothered me about it that I had a hard time stating. The
    Pocahontas type of tale that to me is so STALE!

    In a way, I would extend his last point further to say that the context of
    this message and its repetition is even more dangerous and threatening
    when it is so drenched in beauty and disguised as good morals.

  3. Bignik Says:

    What the heck – it’s still a visual feast and a great movie!

  4. Gaby Says:

    I’d say seeing the movie just in this context is a pretty limited view, especially sticking a tag to it called the “White Messiah Complex” or what not. It could have easily been any race of person being either the guy who said “Go ahead, pull the trigger” or the guy who played “Jake Sully” – to say otherwise is more a testament to your own sociocultural views than perhaps what the movie was trying to convey. Largely the movie is about human nature and trying to push past what’s so ‘preconceived’ both about the nature of life, ‘how things are’, and how they could be. If the story of Jake Sully only reminds you of the Trail of Tears or Dances with Wolves, fine. But the story in and of itself is unique to that character, his fate, the Na’vi people, so on. Yeah, it’s only a movie, but it has strong messages. and for whoever said something about “cloaking it in beauty and good morals”, yes, the movie is certainly beautiful. But beauty is relative and beauty can be found here in the present as well without it being a Na’vi superhero. All these things are meant to be transferred to how we see our own world and our own nature, as Jake came to see Pandora through the eyes of his Avatar Body. I think that whole play off of “oh the story is old news” and all this other crap is limitalist and lacking. What about the parts of it that speak to the messages of free will and most importantly Choice? Rising to meet your destiny? Being more than what you thought you could? Etc. So on. I think those things apply to everyone and anyone. I say see it again! :)

  5. Bria Bostelle Says:

    Okay, listen up little fuckers: THIS MOVIE IS NOT LIKE POCAHONTAS! In the movie, you don’t see giant blue people walking around with giant wierd/cool looking amimals. It MAY have a little bit of the same concept, but not fully. So if you think I’m wrong, than you’re fucking retarted. :)

  6. Bria Bostelle Says:

    BTW, I would deffinity watch that movie over and over again :]

  7. Charles Goldman Says:

    This comment received by email from Peter S: “Good for [Gaby] to not be intimidated by a NYTimes syndicated columnist. I think Brooks either has a lot of white guilt or got excited about a theory that would attract attention to his column.”

  8. Ziggy Stardust Says:

    GO BRIA BOSTELLE! I totally agree with you. Though there’s a slightly valid point here…come on you other people, you’re squawking like pink monkey birds! Can’t you just sit back and enjoy a good movie!!!

  9. Ken Morrill Says:

    Really? Gimme a break. Why do people have to focus sooo much on the WHITE aspect of the main character. Give up the guilt bull-junk and get on with real story telling and appreciation. Did you happen to notice the absolutely believable expressions on even the CGI characters, or the artistry of the sets?
    The story is compelling, the characters are lovable, and the dichotomy, while super-simplified and predictable, makes this film a family hit. There are wonderful morals in this film. For instance, stand up for the cause of good and unity, protect our ecosystems from over-development, sometimes the “machine” is not just corrupt government, but corrupt business practices, and the list goes on.
    I’m tired of being made to feel guilty that a white man came to be PART of the rescue. The same problem would exist if the main character were of any other skin color… or in your eyes, would it?

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