Daniel Heath Justice on ‘Avatar’

Unless you’ve made a deliberate decision to stay away from all news Hollywood in the past few months, you’ve likely heard about the wildly popular James Cameron film Avatar. And, if you’re like me, you might have been baffled to learn that this much-hyped, clichéd flick (with its handful of scenes that ooze with Titanic-like corniness) actually won two Golden Globes: Best Director for Cameron, and—wait for it—”Best Drama.”

But there is one very recent piece of writing that has caused me to take another look at this film. Daniel Heath Justice, author of Our Fire Survives the Storm: A Cherokee Literary History, has written a piece for the First Peoples blog that highlights the potential this film had to “engage an audience on Indigenous issues that might not otherwise have been interested or receptive.” Cameron’s final product is indeed rife with missed opportunities to spark real conversations. But despite (or perhaps because of) this, it is a film worth further consideration.

To be honest, I went in expecting to hate the film. I’d already heard that it was pretty much Dances with Wolves in outer space, and the heavy-handed parallels to Pocahontas and Last of the Mohicans were readily apparent even in the first half-hour. The minute I saw Michelle Rodriguez as the tough-talking pilot Trudy Chacon, I knew that her character was going to die, die heroically but die nonetheless–this is the almost inevitable fate of most Latinas in science fiction films. For all the amazing 3D effects, the characters were simplistic caricatures, much of the dialogue was leaden and cliché, and the storyline was surprisingly predictable for a $300 million epic. To my surprise, there was enough in terms of world-building and interest around the Indigenous Na’vi to keep my interest; indeed, I would have liked to have seen much more of the Na’vi and their world and much less of the generally obnoxious and self-absorbed human invaders.

The film didn’t annoy me so much as make me sad, largely because it promised to be much more substantial than it actually was.

Read the entire blog post here. (Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.)

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