The Anti-Imperialism of ‘Avatar’ Should be Celebrated

For all its faults, Avatar: The Way of Water does a service by bringing an anti-militaristic message to American cinemas.

Avatar: The Way of Water has attracted comment for its vast budget (so expensive that it had to become one of the highest-grossing films in history in order to break even) and vast length (over three hours, and its many scenes of running water send moviegoers running for the bathroom). But what is most striking about it—just how many tens of millions of dollars must have been spent on animating glowing anemones—is just how radical its implicit criticism of United States foreign policy is. Blockbuster action adventure films are not known for being anti-imperialist, and are often downright jingoistic. Avatar: The Way of Water is the only Hollywood movie I recall seeing in which U.S. marines are the villains.

For those not familiar with the Avatar world, the film is set on a habitable moon called Pandora, inhabited by blue humanoids called the Na’vi. Human beings, having destroyed the Earth, are colonizing and mining Pandora. At the beginning of Avatar: The Way of Water, the humans are facing guerrilla resistance from the Na’vi, who object to the destructive colonization of their world. 

Director James Cameron has said explicitly that the Avatar films are a retelling of the history of “North and South America in the early colonial period. The humans in the film are “the military aggressors from Europe” and “the native Americans are the Na’vi.” It is, he says, “not meant to be subtle.”1 The Na’vi are indigenous people who fight with bows and arrows and ride dragons, and the humans are mostly American (with some Australians) who wield high-tech modern weaponry and fly helicopters. Avatar is a “cowboys and Indians” type story, but its sympathies are firmly with the Indians, whose land is being seized and destroyed by rapacious, selfish, murderous colonists. 

Cameron is right that Avatar is not subtle: The Na’vi, draped in beads and loin cloth, are spiritual and emotional people who talk about it. The Americans are violent and stupid (except when it comes to developing weapons technology). The Na’vi are morally superior and appreciate the wonders of the Earth, while the humans destroy everything they encounter. In The Way of Water, whalers are shown killing beautiful whale-like marine mammals to harvest a small amount of valuable liquid from the whale’s brain, while the Na’vi protect the whales and value the whales’ contributions to philosophy and music. (“She was a composer!” a Na’vi woman cries when the whale she loves is killed.) 

There’s plenty you can say to criticize the Avatar films. Do they rest on a “Noble Savage” view of indigenous people, in which they are infinitely wise and superior to the “civilized”? Yes. Are they a bit stereotyped and corny, talking constantly about the spirits of trees and such? Definitely. I wouldn’t defend it against anyone who wants to point out capital-P Problematic aspects of it (Can’t disagree with the Gizmodo review that notes its “curious mixture of surface Indigeneity signified from a white man’s perspective: long braids and dreadlocks attached to foreign bodies, the bodies laden with “exotic” ta moko-style tattoos.”) Nevertheless: we shouldn’t underestimate what a radical move it is for a major U.S. film  not to take the side of the U.S. military—and for it to encourage its audience to see the humanity of those on the receiving end of colonialists’ violence and greed. 

I was actually shocked by how bold Avatar: The Way of Water was in retelling some of the U.S.’ worst crimes against the Global South. Searching for the leader of the guerrilla insurrection, the villainous Marine colonel hauls villagers out of their huts and brutally interrogates them. When they won’t divulge any useful information, he orders his troops to “burn the hootches,” and they set the entire village on fire. This is, of course, explicitly taken from the Vietnam War, when precisely the same thing happened. These kinds of brutal searches for insurgents were also a leading factor in turning the people of Afghanistan and Iraq against the U.S. occupation.

The humans in the film are depicted as having no respect for nature. The human operations base is all robotics and heavy machinery, with not a plant in sight, while the Na’vi’s forest habitat teems with plant and animal life of all kinds. A good portion of The Way of Water is devoted to beautiful shots of sea creatures undulating and twirling (if you’re into bioluminescence, boy is this the film for you), and it’s made clear that if it were up to humanity, all of this would just be killed for profit

Again, not subtle, which is one reason Jacobin’s film critic Eileen Jones didn’t care for it. Jones said that the films invoke issues like militarism and colonialism in the “silliest, shallowest way,” and had no time for the Na’vi’s “new age nonsense double-talk about oneness with nature.” It’s true, some of this is cheesy, but I think Jones is failing to see how remarkable it is to have a film that, as a friend mine told me, gets “normal-ass Marvel-watching white people in Ohio to stand up and cheer for the Viet Cong” against the U.S. Marines. (He credits the basic observation to Chapo Trap House, who are enthusiastic defenders of the Avatar series’ politics.) The Avatar films have extraordinary potential power as an empathy-generator, getting Americans to see the world through the eyes of the country’s victims. (As the soldiers use tasers on villagers, one also cannot help but be reminded of the behavior of U.S. police.) 

There’s a reason conservatives hate the films. The Weekly Standard’s film critic called the first Avatar a “deep expression of anti-Americanism” that “[asks] the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency.” Conservative commentator Reihan Salam lamented that “capitalism is the villain,” and believed Avatar would have been better had it acknowledged that “entrepreneurial societies are in a deep sense better than other societies.” By contrast, anti-imperialists have found a lot to love: Evo Morales thought the first film was a “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature” while columnist Saritha Prabhu noted the way Avatar depicts how the West “sees the natives as primitives/savages/uncivilized, is unable or unwilling to see the merits in a civilization that has been around longer, loots the weaker power, all while thinking it is doing a favor to the poor natives.” 

Actually, that last point is where I think Avatar could be much stronger. Colonial powers use myths of their goodness and benevolence to justify their atrocities, but in The Way of Water, the humans are depicted as nakedly murderous and avaricious. The lead whaler is openly gleeful about how much money he will make from a whale. A more realistic depiction would have the whaler insist that he is controlling the whale population for the whales’ own good.2 The Way of Water could have used some more depictions of how the humans rationalize their behavior through their own set of myths. As Noam Chomsky once pointed out to William F. Buckley, “pure predatory imperialism,” in which the imperialists are open about the fact that they are imperialists, is actually quite rare. Usually there are elaborate stories that help the aggressor convince themselves that they’re on some wonderful mission from God. I do think Avatar’s completely black-and-white (or rather, blue-and-white) storytelling, in which the Na’vi are pure and decent while the humans are selfish and violent, ends up giving an unrealistic portrayal of how colonialism actually works. The colonized and the colonizers are both human, and the colonized can end up committing their own atrocities in the name of a justified cause (see, e.g., the Viet Cong, or Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens), while the colonizer is constantly trying to avoid thinking of themselves as an oppressive power.

But frankly, I don’t mind that Avatar is purposefully unsubtle. I’d much rather have blockbuster action-adventure films that encourage people to care about nature and reject profit-seeking and militarism than Rambo-type features. The creators of the Avatar films have spent millions upon millions making nature look wondrous, and hopefully the audience will come away with a new ability to see what is so ugly about a civilization that is all tech and no trees. Having seen, and empathized with, the fight of the Na’vi to protect their forest, will some moviegoers come away more determined to stop the obliteration of nature in their own neighborhoods? Perhaps, perhaps not, but I certainly don’t think it can hurt to have our theaters filled with films that carry an unashamed “save the whales, don’t destroy the planet, the U.S. can be the aggressor, community is more important than profit” message. The Na’vi people are socialists resisting empire, and the original Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time. That’s good news for our culture. 

  1. I’ve previously commented on how Cameron’s Titanic is “one of the only major pop culture objects from the Clinton years to starkly portray the inhumanity of the class system.” 

  2. See, e.g., why hunting rhinos is good for rhinos. To see how perverse this is, it helps to imagine how the arguments would sound if applied to the trophy hunting of humans. 

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