Spoiler alert: Avatar extends ‘settler fantasy’
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Director James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water is not only a followup to the 2009 original, but a sequel to the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves.
Let me explain (warning: spoilers ahead).
At the end of Dances with Wolves, Lt. John Dunbar (played by Kevin Costner) abandons the Lakota community he has been adopted into because the U.S. cavalry is hunting him, and he fears the soldiers will massacre them.
The scene appears as a tragedy.
Dunbar and his wife — white people who have “gone Indian” — fade into the wilderness, alone.
The film’s epilogue says of the Lakota: “Thirteen years later — their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone — the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone, and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.”
In the end, the Lakota — and whether Dunbar stays or leaves — don’t matter. What matters is Dunbar’s nobility, sacrifice and heroism. The Indians are only a plot device, a tragic footnote in a story about a settler making a home in America.
When the original Avatar was released, critics likened it to Dances with Wolves.
The resemblances were uncanny. If you replace the Lakota on the western frontier with blue Na’vi on the planet Pandora, it’s basically the same story.
The main characters, John Dunbar and Jake Sully, are replicas of one another. Both are military men damaged by war and imperialism, who turn to Indigenous peoples to “heal.”
Both “go Indian” by learning Indigenous languages, ceremonies and cultures. They do so, magically, in only days.
Both lead Indigenous peoples in successful battles against evil invaders, like saviours of Indigenous life.
The films are mirrors, with one exception. At the end of Avatar, the Na’vi successfully kick most of the invaders off the planet, keeping a few of the “nice ones” around.
The Avatar sequel corrects this mistake, picking up where Dances with Wolves ends.
Ten years later, the invaders from Earth show up again, looking for revenge. Sully and his Indigenous wife and hybrid human/Na’vi children are hunted and must flee.
They end up adopted by a Na’vi clan who are cheap copies of the Maori peoples — complete with similar tattoos, songs and stories.
Almost instantly, Sully and his family become experts in their ways. Sully’s hybrid children become better at their “new” culture than those around them. One is even able to control the entire ocean.
The evil invaders destroy nature, build cities and wage war on the Na’vi. The general leading the effort calls Pandora “the frontier.”
Then, the Titanic shows up. (If you see Cameron’s vanity project, you’ll know what I mean.)
In the end, Sully decides to stop running, promising to fight the invaders and lead the Na’vi once again because they cannot save themselves.
“It’s settler fantasy,” film critic and Portland State University Prof. Theodore Van Alst said on the Niigaan and the Lone Ranger podcast during a review of the film, “right up there with The Last of the Mohicans.”
For Van Alst, who has been studying Indigenous representation in film for 30 years, U.S. cinema is obsessed with creating an America where settlers replace the Indians.
“Meanwhile, Indians, the land and water, and all of life itself is sacrificed in the process of Americans finding itself,” Van Alst said. “Western films are like one big naval gaze.”
So are western films set in space, apparently.
In the first two weeks of its release, Avatar: the Way of Water raked in US$1 billion at the box office, already becoming the 33rd-largest grossing movie ever.
The two Avatar films have grossed more than US$4 billion in films, toys and other materials. There are rides at Disney theme parks, so visitors can become avatars and Na’vi themselves.
“These films are powerful,” Van Alst said. “They give America exactly the kind of fantasy that retells and reimagines the story of America in a much more palpable way, where things like genocide and destruction of the earth is OK as long as a white man finds his place in the universe.”
There are more movies coming. Avatar 3 will be released next Christmas.
The Canadian-born Cameron’s misrepresentations and fantasies obscure some of the great steps Indigenous-created and designed film and television projects have taken recently.
“Indigenous stories of America are very different, and TV and filmmakers are telling some of the funniest, most interesting and different stories of this place,” Van Alst said. “And those are the things missing in any of this new Avatar. It’s just not funny in any way.”
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.