An Analysis of Avatar’s Themes and Messages
Avatar is a 2009 American science-fiction film written and directed by James Cameron, and starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Stephen Lang. The film employed the latest 3D technology, and broke several box office records during its release and became the highest-grossing film worldwide. The film is set in the mid-22nd century; the expansion of human mining colony threatens the existence of a local tribe of Na’vi---a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora. On the surface being a neo-liberal tale of eco warriors battling against corporate interests, this film conveys what it means to be a human. When examined at the ideological level, however, the film, promoting conservative attitudes and values in relation to identity and gender, is still a narrative of white male supremacy which reaffirms and normalizes patriarchal hegemony.
This is not a film about war, but a film about being a human and what it means to be a human; according to Cameron, this means being in touch with the environment and world:
The Na’vi represent something that is our higher selves, or our aspirational selves, what we would like to think we are or maybe what we realize we’re losing, and the humans in the film, even though there are some good ones salted in, represent what we know to be the parts of ourselves that are trashing our world and may be condemning ourselves to a grim future. (“Avatar Friday”)
In the narrative, humans as settlers have absolutely no concern for the environment or rights of the natives; they are driven by their own greedy need. At the very beginning of the film, the director uses a long shot to present a bird’s eye view of a mining field in which there is a super giant mining machine functioning. The super machine looks like a monster devouring the land. The director also uses a rack focus to make a distinct contrast between the tiny humans and the super size trucks. In addition, this scene is displayed in a monotone, dark grey lighting which is a sharp contrast to the colorful Pandora world. Therefore this opening scene of the film conveys to the audience the idea that the pitiless human settlers for the sake of valuable materials devastate the nature of Pandora, which serves to set the conflict between humans and Na’vi and precludes at the same time the failure of humans in the final assault on the Tree of Souls. Besides, in a later scene, after the giant tree, the home of the Na’vi tribe, is firebombed down by humans, the whole scene becomes black and white, muted, and retarded, showing on the one hand humans’ ruthless and devastating attack at Pandora’s environment and on the other the extreme sadness of Na’vi. The natives seem savage and primal, but turn out to be noble stewards of nature. They seem savage and primitive in many aspects. For example, the Na’vi do not wear normal clothes as humans do; they wear long braided hair; they sleep in nets tied among branches; they live in a huge home tree; their weapons of arrow seem quite vulnerable compared to machine guns, explosives and missiles. However, the Na’vi, on the other hand, have a spiritual, as well as psychic, connection with nature. The director uses a close-up shot to show Neytiri’s devout pray for a dying viperwolf, when she rescues Jake from the beset of a group of feral viperwholves, meaning that Na’vi bond with these creatures. When depicting the sacred trees, Cameron employs soft, bright, purple and blue light to create a holy and pure atmosphere, and he uses low-angle shots to display the nobleness of the Tree of Souls. Also non-diegetic sounds of Na’vi’s ancestors can be heard when they tap into a network of sacred trees which can store memories, thoughts and experiences. Moreover, when Jake is flying with an ikran that he has established a neural bonding with for the first time, non-diegestic music is played, giving audience a sense of freedom and awareness which cannot be felt by Jake in his human body. By refusing to be disconnected from nature, the Na’vi retain many animalistic behaviors but gain a greater dignity than their technologically advanced human counterparts. As for Jake, to be a greedy human or a pristine Na’vi, that is a question; he chooses the latter one, not only because the physical disability is obliterated when he makes the transformation, but for the reason that he could live his life with dignity, freedom, understanding and respect. Either being a human or a member of Na’vi is only the shell of life. What really matters to Jake is feeling of being alive, just as Joseph Campbell once said:
People can say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that what's we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alone. That's what it's all finally about. (The Power of Myth.)
Jake chooses the permanent transformation, and simultaneously submits
himself to nature. Therefore, by comparison between humans and the
Na’vi, an ideal human society would be one in which humans submit to
nature and honor it as source of life.
As for gender and identity, the film depicts two antithetical characters---the masculine character Quaritch and the feminine character Dr. Grace. To portrait the masculinity of Quaritch, Cameron employs several techniques. At the initial speech given by Quaritch in the headquarters, he uses close-up shots at Quaritch’s black army boots and three obvious scars on his face to show his dauntlessness and vigorousness, along with his sonorous and mighty voice in the quiet room. Cameron at this time uses a pan shot to show the solid and innocent faces of miners, engineers, geologists as they take in what Quaritch is saying, which in return enhances the masculinity of Quaritch. The scene in which Quaritch, dressed in tank top, is bench-pressing massive plates and says “This low gravity makes you soft” serves to intentionally show his brawniness as well. Moreover, it reveals Quaritch’s confidence and masculinity that he is drinking a cup of coffee when he gives the order to attack the home tree. The last scene to show Quaritch’s masculinity and rashness is that rushing out of the room, he doesn’t wear mask until he uses up all the bullets to shoot Jake and his friends down. By contrast, to portrait the femininity of the female character Dr. Grace, the director uses bright light to make her skin seem whiter than anyone else, especially compared to Quaritch whose skin is really dark. As a scientist, she is not eager to subjugate the Na’vi, but very interested in gaining samples from Pandora, and she is pretty gentle and amiable to interact with the natives in a pedagogical role and to make them civilized. She even asks Jake to finish the meal before allowing him to start the experiment, which probably can be associated with mother-like behaviors. Nevertheless, it can be inferred from the film that she is inferior to Quaritch in many aspects. There is always a high-angle shot to Grace when she is talking to Quaritch, which implies her less essential position on Pandora. Besides, in order to avoid direct confrontation with Quaritch and keep experiments in order, she moves the lab to Hallelujah Mountains. Unfortunately, people escape the headquarters safe and sound except Grace who gets one deadly gun shot from Quaritch. Thus, based on the above tiny techniques in the film the director basically tells audience men are in an active and aggressive position while women are inferior.
In the article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey argues “The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure.” While classical Hollywood uses formal compositions to heighten the aesthetic pleasure of the female form and consequently subjugates the female body as object of male pleasure, so too does Cameron's three dimensional aesthetics spectacularize the female form and relegate it to passive object of beauty and thing to behold. When Jake first meets Neytiri in the jungle at night, the director uses close-up shots and relatively dark light to display her slender hips and long articulated digits which are ethereal supermodel dimensions. The attached shadow on her body, on which the gently curved stripes line the blue skin, makes her very charming. Through a serial of trainings, Jake establishes the mastery of Neytiri and Na’vi tribe. These trainings are edited in a fluent and relatively fast pace, implying Jake is growing increasingly proficient to the skills that a competent Na’vi warrior should obtain. The pleasant, non-diegetic background music suggests both of them enjoy this process and that Jake is gradually and successfully assimilating the culture and nature of Na’vi tribe. There is one scene in which Neytiri is teaching Jake archery. A close-up shot in which Neytiry and Jake are extremely close to each other reveals a subtle affection between them. Moreover, after Jake’s chosen his ikiran, his skillful flying impresses Neytiri. It is Jake's skillful flying that protects them from the attack of the Great Leonopteryx, and it is through his newly found prowess as a skilled warrior that he takes control over the situation. Relieved, they laugh together, and Neytiri displays her growing affection for Jake through a close-up shot on her subtle, pleased expression. After Jake has finished all of the trainings, Neytiri takes him to the home tree. The soft, blue and purple light creates a sense of sexuality. Jake chooses Neytiri as his mate at this moment. They then kiss and then make love in apparent human fashion, which suggests Jake asserts his superiority and mastery over her. In addition, despite her already being betrothed to Tsu'tey, the incumbent chief, Neytiri accepts Jake's offer, positing the superiority of Western love matches over alternative cultures of arranged marriage through bloodline and kinship ties. At this point, Jake hasn't just conquered an ordinary Na'vi woman; he has conquered the Na'vi par excellence in that she is beautiful, desired by the succeeder to chief, great-great granddaughter of a legendary chief, and daughter of the current Omaticaya chief and of the high priestess. Jake’s mastery of Na’vi people is achieved by his mastery over the Great Leonopteryx. A low-angle shot, showing his descending into the crowd just like the return of the king, suggests Jake is formidable to Na’vi. At this time he earns the admiration and respect of all the Na'vi, including his love rival, Tsu'tey. What’s more, Jake then speaks to the Na'vi in their language, 'I am here to serve you' positing a humility, but then continues in English, asking Tsu'tey for his help, stating 'I can't do this without you,' reaffirming his position as the nominal leader of the Na'vi, responsible for their safety and the one to engineer their fight against the humans, but requiring Tsu'tey's aid in their fight against the common enemy. But what is telling is that in a show of brotherhood, Jake asks Tsu'tey to act as translator, relegating the formerly active Neytiri to the role of passive observer. The director conveys this is, after all, men's work and there is no room for Neytiri despite her better linguistic skills. The once valiant female warrior has been restored to her place as passive helpmate and quiet observer.
Having shown greedy, ruthless humans and pristine, yet noble Na’vi, Cameron transmits the idea that an ideal human society would be one in which humans submit to nature and honor it as source of life. Through the depiction of weakness of the femininity of Dr. Grace in conflict with masculine Quaritch, the director conveys women’s inferiority. Furthermore, it is through Jake’s mastery of woman and Na’vi people that the film translocates conservative American ideology into a new, 3D world and transposes white culture and white male mastery onto the Na'vi population while inculcating them into patriarchal hegemony.