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Movie Review: Avatar and Real World Struggles

December 27, 2009

Sometimes popular culture can provide us with a critique of the way the world really is. That’s not to say that it is perfect or even a great critique, but it can provide a forum to engage people in how to learn of the world.

I just saw the holiday-hyped movie Avatar and despite all of the flaws of Hollywood, this film does provide an interesting and timely critique of what I would identify as ecological and cultural Imperialism.

Once we can get past the fact that this film has come with lots of product tie-ins, that it will make tons of money for News Corp (which owns 20th Century Fox), and McDonalds is using it as a major marketing tool, we might be able to discuss how Avatar is a useful critique of contemporary forms of imperialism.

The film in many ways is retelling an old story – a genocidal policy based on the desire to dominate another culture for the basic purpose of stealing the natural resources from that cultures land base. To do this the predatory culture uses a variety of means to achieve it’s end.

First, the dominant culture tries to win over the “natives” by using a cross between anthropologists and missionaries. The do-gooders provide a school for the children and even learn their language. However, like all anthropological endeavors, the intent is to study their subjects for the benefit of the dominant culture.

Another tactic that is employed in the story-line is to create avatars as a way to infiltrate the native population. Members of the dominant culture try to become natives by creating avatars that are nearly identical to the genetic make up of the Native population. The intent here is to convince the Natives to flee their lands so that the dominant culture can extract the mineral resources.

However, it becomes clear early on in the film that the primary method that the dominant culture uses is military force. It is particularly interesting that in this movie the military personnel that are used are a privatized military, much like Blackwater and Dyn-Corp.

The problem is that one of the private soldiers decides to “turn native,” much like Kevin Kostners character in Dances With Wolves. The marine/avatar is converted by the Native culture, which is rooted in the idea that all creation is sacred. I thought the most profound comment made in the film was when one of the Native females said “we all are just borrowing energy, which eventually we must give back.”

Unfortunately, I fear that audiences in this culture, the current dominant culture, will be too distracted by the special effects, other world creatures and battle scenes that they will not see the larger picture.

Any good historian could say that the human-like species in this film are fantasy representations of Native Americans, cultures that suffered the genocidal policies of Euro-Americans. However, anyone familiar with global politics could easy use the film to make comparisons to current US foreign policy.

The mineral extraction that justifies genocide in the film could easily be compared to what US backed corporations are doing all over the world. The film is a depiction of what is happening in places like Guatemala, where serious human rights abuses are happening because of resistance to gold mining. You could also look at the case of what Shell Oil has been doing in Nigeria for decades, polluting the native lands and killing those who resist the company’s plans.

Another good example is what Chevron is doing in the Amazonian part of Ecuador. Here the petroleum company is killing indigenous communities through contamination and brute force. Joe Berlinger’s, Crude: The Real Price of Oil, captures this reality in a powerful new documentary, which will unfortunately not be seen by a majority of Avatar’s target audience.

In fact, one could go to a website like Mining Watch or read books like Al Gedick’s The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations to see that the plot of Avatar is being played out all across the globe.

For anyone who was moved by the plight of the Na’vi in Avatar, we would encourage you to become familiar with the struggles against imperialism and genocide happening in the world today and take action to affect change.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Micah permalink
    December 30, 2009 5:29 am

    Here’s another more critical review entitled “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?” (Admittedly, I haven’t read it yet, as I’m waiting to see the movie first.)

  2. January 7, 2010 10:46 pm

    Another critical perspective:

  3. February 8, 2010 8:24 pm

    Sweet Crude is another movie focusing on the exploitation in the name of energy/oil.

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