Elastic fantasy defies fixed ideas about race, identity

In a virtual world, James Cameron’s message is quite a stretch

By Wesley Morris
Globe staff / January 10, 2010

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For a movie that looks so much like the future, “Avatar’’ feels happily rooted in the past. Jake Sully is a white Marine who makes a great leap of identification with the Na’vi, the civilization of blue creatures that he’s been conscripted to destroy. What is writer-director James Cameron trying to tell us? Who are the Na’vi? If one is inclined to see things this way, they could be black people. Indeed, knowing that some of the creatures have been created in the image of the actors Zoe Saldana and C.C.H. Pounder reinforces that interpretation.

But the story of white guys coming to the rescue of the victimized knows no single race or species or ideological agenda, and the wonderful thing about Cameron’s allegory is that it’s elastic. The Na’vi could be American Indians, Polish Jews, or bald eagles. The controversy the movie has generated for its depiction of race seems limited in part because Cameron’s fantasy is based on a return to innocence that’s charmingly cuckoo. This is a little boy’s wish to shed his skin and not only live with blue people but become one of them. Their bodies look so cool.

The movie’s identity politics spring from an epic conflation of Cameron’s hawkish and dovish sensibilities. The muscled trigger-happiness of “Terminator’’ meets the humane scientific wonder of “The Abyss.’’ The rage that emerges in the delirious final act actually brings the allegory close to the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Sully and the Na’vi team up to take down a fleet of ex-Marine mercenaries who work for a greedy mega-corporation trying to mine a precious energy source on the moon called Pandora. The white American dude joins the insurgency. (The Na’vi battle cry sounds like certain tribal calls. It also sounds like the Marines’ “Oorah!’’)

Ultimately, the true romance isn’t between Sully and his Na’vi warrior woman, Neytiri. It’s between Cameron and The Other. Hug a tree? Hug a culture! The idea of visiting Pandora courtesy of an avatar is compelling. It allows Sully to simulate the experience of being someone else. Some critics of the film’s racial politics have complained that the character’s dual citizenship - to be able to move harmlessly between warring worlds - is just another example of white privilege. Why, the “Avatar’’ skeptics ask, can’t the Na’vi simply save themselves?

But the movie acknowledges that the simulation - that privilege - isn’t enough. Sully wants to go full Na’vi. Which is the point. “Avatar’’ brings us as close as it can to the wonders of this unnatural universe without granting us entry to the other side of the screen. There’s only so far we can be transported.

RealD, alas, is not real. And virtual reality is what saves the movie’s politics from itself: It’s a literal fantasy set, after all, on the moon. Cameron may be naïve, but the man is not a fool. He knew that if he wanted to be the king of the world, he’d have to invent his own.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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