The Art of War: Narrative Messages in Cameron’s AVATAR

29 April 2012

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) broke box-office records around the world, despite predictions the film would not obtain commercial success.  As with almost every Cameron film, Avatar’s success is not a result of its narrative; instead, Avatar’s stunning, cutting-edge, Cameronian visuals (yes, one day that may catch on) are key to the film’s success.  Yet, while the visual spectacle may be why Avatar is such a contribution to cinema, its allegorical narrative is equally alluring.  Despite its seeming lack of originality, Avatar’s narrative makes poignant, provocative, and bold commentary on the past, present, and future of America.

In summation, Avatar is a science fiction film that takes place in the future, the 22nd century to be specific.  The film opens up with Jake (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed Marine, arriving on Pandora, a moon planet which contains the desired mineral unobtanium.  The RDA Company established a station on Pandora, a control base from which they operate plans to excavate the planet’s resources.  The indigenous people of the planet, specifically a tribe called Na’vi, are enraged by the intrusive guests who harm their planet’s natural state.

Jake’s job on Pandora is avatar driver, a position originally belonging to his twin brother, a scientist, who was, sadly, gunned down on Earth just prior to departing for Pandora.  Stepping in for his brother, Jake inhabits an avatar, a half-human, half Na’vi vessel that looks and function like a member of the Na’vi tribe.  Jake’s and the other avatar drivers are there to build relationships with the Na’vi people, learn about their culture and life, and establish trust between the indigenous people of Pandora and the RDA Company.  For Jake, this opportunity is even more alluring because, while using his avatar, Jake is no longer confined to a wheelchair.  Ultimately, Jake meets and falls in love with a female Na’vi, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).  While growing closer to the Na’vi people, Jake begins to understand their resistance to the RDA Company’s invasion of Pandora and realizes the damage humans are doing to Pandora’s inhabitants and land.  Jake chooses to fight for the Na’vi people, opposing RDA, which leads to massive battle between the humans and the indigenous creatures and people of Pandora.  Ultimately, the RDA Company is defeated and exiled from the planet.  Jake, however, remains on Pandora and undergoes a metamorphosis which changes him into his avatar permanently, making him a Na’vi.

The most commonly discussed of Avatar’s statements reaches back to the indigenous people of present-day America.  Hundreds of years before explorers and colonists settled on the land, indigenous people inhabited central North America.  Very much like the Na’vi people of Pandora, indigenous people were attacked, killed, and robbed by settlers looking to take over the land and its resources.  The parallel between the Na’vis and indigenous people of present-day America is heightened by the parallels in narrative structure between the Pocahontas story and Avatar.  Both have a strong-willed indigenous heroine who falls in love with a good-hearted invader.  In both cases the heroine suffers tremendous loss, risks her own life for the invader’s, and fights, painstakingly, for the continuation of her people and culture.  Clearly, James Cameron is no fool, and the narrative similarities are no coincidence.  Because the connections between the Pocahontas narrative and Avatar’s narrative are so evident, Cameron must have intended his film to make a statement about American’s past.  Certainly, from one perspective, viewers can watch Avatar as a fictional Pocahontas story; a retelling of America’s past with a happy ending, making it clear we, as a people, have learned from our mistakes and now, in some small, cinematic way, are making an effort to right our wrong.  Undoubtedly, the most striking allegorical messages in Avatar are to respect all humanity by treating all beings equally and to respect the planet by not violating its complicated design to rob it of its resources, the same messages present in Pocahontas’ story.  However, viewing the film only as a retelling of the Pocahontas story is severely underestimating Cameron.

Cameron would never waste his visual efforts on such as recycled narrative if he did not have something new to add to it, particularly when the narrative is about humanity, a favorite theme of his. Thus, it stands to reason Avatar has its own allegorical narrative that uses Pocahontas’ story as a foundation to build from.  Cameron’s similarities to the Pocahontas story are a strong use of connotative expression; viewers will naturally side with the Na’vi tribe, distrust those who do them harm, and cheer for Pandora’s salvation.  The Pocahontas narrative taught us to feel all those things, so using a mirrored narrative allows viewers to reflect their feeling about the Pocahontas narrative on Avatar.  In many ways, the narrative works quite efficiently for Cameron.  Instead of beginning with a blank canvas and establishing a narrative from scratch, Cameron borrowed the pre-packaged, easily understood, and rich Pocahontas narrative to build from.

But what was he building?  The answer seems to be an allegory about warfare.  War is a major theme is Avatar, and what Cameron built off the Pocahontas narrative was warfare, carnage, and violence.  Those things are present in the Pocahontas narrative, but Cameron expanded on the theme of war, making more elaborate juxtapositions between it and nature and humanity. More so than the Pocahontas story, Avatar is about war.

Cameron drafted his original treatment for Avatar in the 1990s, but the project went into production, roughly, 10 years later.  Within that 10 year gap, America went to war, twice.  Of those two wars America entered, it seems Avatar is making a bigger statement about the second, Operation Iraqi Freedom.  To be fair, the film never contends the humans invading Pandora are all Americans, however, all the speaking characters, namely Jake, Grace, the Colonel, Trudy, Parker, Norm, and Max, speak with an American accent.  Also, the female voice sounding in the science lab and the voices in the control room are all American. That’s a subtly bold move.  The narrative’s claim is the Earth’s natural resources are extinguished, so the RDA Company plans to tap Pandora for its resources; however, if Earth’s resources are tapped, why aren’t representatives from all over Earth on Pandora?  At some point, it occurs to the audience that all the people on Pandora from the RDA Company are Americas; thus, Americans, specifically, are the invaders in Avatar.

Continuing to draw connections, the invaders in Avatar never claim to “free” the Na’vi tribe of tyrannical oppression, or are investigating potential threats Pandora possess, yet the invaders want a natural resource from Pandora now that the natural resources from Earth have dried up; a natural resource as valuable as oil. Moreover, the invaders in Avatar arrive on Pandora in full-force, clearly more advanced in technology, weaponry, and strategy than the Na’vi people or other beings indigenous to Pandora.  Lastly, the cultural divide is something Cameron calls specific attention to.  Communication between the invaders and the Na’vi tribe is non-existent, which is why avatars were invented.  The avatar drivers are there to infiltrate the Na’vi society, and avatars are necessary because Pandora’s climate is “poisonous” to the invaders.

While these connections between Avatar and the war in Iraq are simple enough to make, considering Cameron’s intention in making them is more difficult.  In the end, Avatar is not an anti-war or pro-war film.  Although it is political, Cameron is not using the film as his personal political stage.  Just as this film cannot be looked at as strictly a retelling of Pocahontas, Avatar cannot be looked at as strictly a statement on modern-day war either.  It is a fusion of the two that identifies Avatar’s overarching message.  More than likely, Cameron’s intention with Avatar was commentary on repeating old mistakes.  Placing the Pocahontas narrative in a film that also discusses modern invasion and warfare leaves the viewer with the message that we must learn from our past; that, in the present, we must remember the past in order to maintain hope for the future.

Within a narrative so often disregarded as simplistic and unoriginal, Cameron makes a consciously bold and contemporary statement about America and war, and managed to make that statement the largest box-office success of all time.  How many filmmakers could make a movie about Americans losing a war, while Americans are actually in two wars, and have that movie beloved by Americans?  Not many.  Surely, Cameron’s cutting-edge technology and remarkable visual effects are a huge factor in this (never underestimate escapism); however, that is not all there is to it.  There is a very clever narrative build going on in Avatar which people, likely, sense, if not full-out recognize.


~ by Kate Bellmore on 29/04/2012.

3 Responses to “The Art of War: Narrative Messages in Cameron’s AVATAR”

  1. 很型!

  2. Ilove avatar film

  3. […] Jake, the hero and savior of the people. Retrieved from: reel club […]

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