Monday, February 27, 2012

Is There More Than Meets the Eye? Thoughts on Teaching Avatar

This semester, I am teaching a class on race and difference in speculative fiction.  We just finished our first unit of the semester, which looked at various representations of Native Americans in texts by both Native and non-Native authors.  To finish off our discussion and lead into our next text--postcolonial short stories from the collection So Long Been Dreaming--we watched James Cameron's blockbuster hit Avatar.

I suggested that there are a number of ways to view the movie, both as a film and in terms of racial representation.  On the surface, the movie is a fantastic spectacle, drawing in record numbers of viewers and even making some people depressed when they have to face the reality of life on Earth.  But a more critical look reveals characters who are caricatures, a plot that bears strong resemblance to other movies, and some extremely corny dialogue.

Similarly, on the surface, the movie seems to be a politically correct depiction of a group of indigenous people who overthrow their invaders.  But as many critics argue, including Slavoj Žižek, Avatar is actually just another example of a story where the indigenous people have no agency and rely on a white man to act as the savior of their race.

It was pretty easy to get my students to this point in the discussion.  They were quick to point out the flaws in the movie, both generally and in terms of race, and even expanded their critique to other major issues, including the movie's portrayal of gender.

It was when I asked them to consider the possibility that there might be more to the movie than these problems that we got a bit stuck.  I asked them to think about whether or not they saw the movie engaging with any themes or ideas that might make the movie more worthy of critical attention.  I suggested a number of places to consider: the relationship between spirituality and science in the film, particularly given the name of the lead scientist (Grace Augustine); the identity of the protagonist, Jake Sully, who is both a twin and confined to a wheelchair; and the movie's treatment of the relationship between fantasy and reality, especially the scenes where Jake says that he doesn't know what's real anymore.  I also pointed out a number of really interesting things going on with the cinematography: the only handful of places, for example, where you see Na'vi and human bodies side by side; the opening sequence that hides Jake's handicap for over 5 minutes; and the fact that Jake's most intimate thoughts are filtered through two cameras, as it were--the video-log recorder and the film camera.

For the most part, however, they didn't buy it.  It seemed that most of my students didn't think there were many (or any) redeeming avenues of critical inquiry in the movie.

And this made me wonder: am I wrong to think there is more to this movie than meets the initial critical gaze?  Am I reading too much into it when I suggest that in spite of the many problems with the film, there is quite a bit of complexity in the way the movie engages with questions of identity, technology, and relationships with those not like us?

I would love to hear more from you in the comments about these questions, but I'm going to put out a tentative answer: in spite of my students' reticence to read past the caricatured characters, lousy dialogue, and racial stereotypes, there is more to Avatar than meets the eye.  The way in which Jake Sully negotiates between inhabiting a human body and his Na'vi avatar is fascinating, and provides a visual representation of the negotiating that many of us do on a daily basis between online identity and physical reality.  The way Cameron uses the juxtaposition of human and Na'vi bodies so sparingly throughout the film suggests an awareness on his part of the power of these moments, and points to the times in which this juxtaposition does happen as key to understanding the film. 

Certainly, I'm not denying that the movie has problems, and in many ways, that's the most intriguing thing of all--that although Avatar is a very flawed film, like almost any text, it is still capable of engaging with interesting and complex ideas.  And it is getting my students to recognize this contradiction--that a text can contain both stereotypical portrayals and progressive ones, that it doesn't have to be all or nothing, that all texts are complex negotiations of a wide range of ideas--that is perhaps my most important role as a teacher.