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“Things I Missed Over the Holidays” PRESENTS! The Complex and Sophisticated Politics of James Cameron

Oh, hey, guys: who noticed this headline?

Going Na’vi: Why Avatar‘s politics are more revolutionary than its images

I did! I noticed this headline! And to it, let me just say: hahahahaha. Hahahaha, haha, HAHAHAHA. Ha; ha ha!

Pause; I must catch my breath, with all this hilarity going on. Oh, how droll you are, Onion AV Club! Do go on, with this, your delightful joke. Although I don’t see how you’re going to match the headline!

Rather than a clunky work of agitprop the movie can—and, I think, ought to—be seen as a polemic, which makes criticism of its obviousness beside the point. Having Lang’s colonel refer to his plan to bomb the Na’vi into submission with the words “shock and awe” is not subtle, but it’s not meant to be.

Oh, I would IMAGINE NOT! My, but you are a delight this evening. Have you been sneaking into the brandy? Oh, wait, I see; you are not done.

It would be one thing if Avatar’s allegory stopped at a few repurposed catchphrases. But Cameron is after something much more ambitious, and substantially messier. At times, the corporation’s attempt to suppress the Na’vi resistance recalls the ongoing occupation of Iraq, and at times it evokes the jungle war of Vietnam. The attempt to wipe out an indigenous population to make way for the exploitation of natural resources resonates with the decimation of the rain forest and the genocide of Native Americans. The Na’vi belief in Eywa, an all-encompassing spirit that flows through every living thing on Pandora, parallels the holistic beliefs of the Plains tribes.

Oh, my. So, you mean to say that this particular movie – called “Dances with Wolves in Space,” subject to more Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest comparisons than any cultural artifact in recent memory save Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest itself, already noted for belonging to the benevolent racist “white guy saves and/or bangs the natives” (going Nativ’ei! GET IT) tradition of cinematic craftsmanship – actually attempts, much like many a terrible Star Wars prequel of years past, to wedge in an unnecessary, blatant, and manipulative set of parallels to the Iraq War, the American genocide of Native peoples, and some rainforest shit possibly also? Goodness! Such a feat has never been attempted until now! Or, to be more precise, such a feat has never been attempted by James Cameron, within the last month! Until now! It sounds less impressive when you phrase it that way, sure. But how does it work out?

The movie boils down to a master theory of European colonialism: an imperialist master narrative… The movie’s most seditious act is to evoke the specter of September 11.

Oh, right! The thing Battlestar Galactica did in 2003, you mean? Back when it was still vaguely shocking and a brave thing to do? But seven years later, and with Thundercats? I mean, I like a bright pretty bucketload of expensive cartoonery as much as anyone, you guys! Shit, you had me at “alien world” and “explosions.” Even if you can’t somehow get James Callis involved (WHY COULD YOU NOT GET JAMES CALLIS INVOLVED. Seriously, he does not have to bring his shirt, or have any lines. It can JUST BE HIM) that line will sell me.

But honestly: hahhahaha. HA. Hahahaha HAHAHAHA hahahahaha. Hahahahahahaha, hoo boy, ahhhhhhhhhh, we have fun. Say, there’s a movie named Titanic that I think you ought to check out! It contains lots of the complex and sophisticated politics of James Cameron, specifically those relating to Rich People and Poor People. Turns out, one of those types of people is SUPER-MEAN! It’s like Das Kapital, with boats. I think you’ll enjoy!


  1. Gentleman Associate wrote:

    I’m always a little bothered when I find myself agreeing with The Weekly Standard, but I find this bit from John Podhoretz’ review pretty wonderful:

    “The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar-with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe’s adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool-at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”


    While I tire of the whole Hollywood Liberal Elites trope that Podhoretz invokes, anybody who expects a quarter billion dollar film to have a “revolutionary” seriously needs a refresher course on how the culture industry works.

    Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Jenny North wrote:

    The same reviewer also describes the latest, cartoonish regurgitation of A Christmas Carol as “mightily impressive.”

    Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Gentleman Associate wrote:

    Err, that was supposed to read “‘revolutionary’ impact.” D’oh!

    Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Chally wrote:

    Oh, I think we have a winner.

    Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink
  5. Mel wrote:


    Personally, I would like to see someone on the real Onion side of things take on Avatar. Perhaps around Oscar time.

    Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  6. sqbr wrote:

    I’m going to pop my head up from happily lurking to complement you on your magnificent snarkage in this post, teehee 🙂

    Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  7. Scott wrote:

    I got a kick out of the idea that a movie made with half a billion dollars worth of the latest and greatest equipment/techniques/etc. could try to sell us on the idea that technology is bad. BAD I SAY!

    Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  8. Farore wrote:

    Scott, me too. Hee!

    My discussion with my roommate, who went to see Avatar in theaters (I’ll be waiting til it’s out on div’d, thanks) was kinda-sorta along these lines.

    Him: Avatar was AMAZING!
    Me: You do realize that the plot is basically just the same tired old trash about ‘going native’ and how white men and corporations are evil, right?
    Him: I dunno, I wasn’t paying attention to the plot. I was just looking at the cat people.


    Him: Hey remember that stuff you said about the plot of Avatar?
    Me: Yes… ?
    Him: I thought about it, and holy shit, you are right, that movie was pretty but it is amazingly offensive when you take the plot away from the graphics.
    Me: TA DA!

    Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  9. emjaybee wrote:

    I saw a quote somewhere where Cameron admitted that he “had” to give the female Na’vi breasts, even though it made no sense since they weren’t “placental mammals”. He HAD to. It was Hollywood Law.

    I noticed it was also Hollywood Law to have the species be gender-dysmorphic in the same way (males bigger than females) as humans are. Also quadrupeds who walked on their hind legs. Blah blah blah. I mean, Star Trek did this too with the whole Aliens = Humans with Funny Skin and/or Foreheads meme, but at least that got started way back in the 60s, when they didn’t have CGI. Real aliens wouldn’t be just humans that looked like blue supermodels, more than likely.

    Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  10. snobographer wrote:

    Trite and offensive plot aside, I’m just sick of CGI. It’s overused. You can make a totally crap movie anymore and get a Best Pic nomination just for making it look pretty with them newfangled computer contraptions.

    Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  11. Word! My contribution to the sheer shock and awe that is Avatar:

    Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

    Friday, January 1, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  12. Amanda wrote:

    Cameron’s actual interview with Playboy is even more entertaining. For instance, this excerpt in which he describes why he purposefully created an unrealistic ideal female lead:

    “Most of men’s problems with women probably have to do with realizing women are real and most of them don’t look or act like Vampirella. A big recalibration happens when we’re forced to deal with real women, and there’s a certain geek population that would much rather deal with fantasy women than real women. Let’s face it: Real women are complicated. You can try your whole life and not understand them.”

    It’s just offensive on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin.

    Friday, January 1, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  13. snobographer wrote:

    @Amanda – I’d start with the fact that it’s Playboy. And then that he’s perpetuating what he admits he realizes is a problem by writing female characters to cater exclusively to dudes, particularly dudes who don’t want to have to deal with “real women.” And that “You can try your whole life and not understand them” line is the cherry on top.
    That’s a handy quote to bring out in all those discussions about what a feminist Cameron is though. Sarah Connor in T2 was a fluke.

    Friday, January 1, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  14. kalmiopsis wrote:

    Thanks for this, Sady.

    Thought you may enjoy this synopsis:

    Monday, January 4, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  15. belledame222 wrote:

    “It’s like Das Kapital, with boats.”

    And how would Madam like her Internets, and where shall they be delivered?

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

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