By Frank Teichert, curator, Archaeology and Human Remains, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

Avatar was a large budget Hollywood film that was released on 16 December 2009. This American epic science fiction film was directed, written, produced and co-edited by James Cameron. It starred Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, and Sigourney Weaver.

The film is set in the mid-22nd century when humans are colonizing Pandora, a lush habitable moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system. The reason for the colonization is that a specific mineral that acts as a superconductor is being mined by the human colonisers. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe called the Na’vi, a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora.

Since the release of the film on 16 December 2009, there has been numerous discussions relating to a wide variety of cultural, social, political, and religious themes that have been identified by critics and commentators, and the film’s writer and director James Cameron has responded that he hoped to create an emotional reaction and to provoke public conversation about these topics. According to James Cameron: “Avatar is a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period. Avatar very pointedly made reference to the colonial period in the Americas, with all its conflict and bloodshed between the military aggressors from Europe and the indigenous peoples. Europe equals Earth. The native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle.”

Avatar looks at a number of themes that can be interpreted in a number of different ways. If one looks at politics, then we see things such as imperialism, militarism, and anti-Americanism. If one looks at cultural and social themes, then we notice things such as civilisation and race, and environment and property. Then one can study all the religious themes portrayed such as religions and mythology, the parallels with Hinduism and Pantheism (Nature Worship) versus the belief in Christianity. All these different themes and sub-themes can be drawn from the movie and debates about them have been and will be discussed at length in the past and probably in the future. The themes in the movie not only affects the Americas but there are many countries that can relate to one or more themes that Avatar portrays. The suffering of the Na’vi people trying to save their home and their resources from an invading alien species, is very common to many countries on Earth. Countries that are powerful taking over other countries, who might be larger than them but not as powerful, being bullied into submission by the more powerful so that their resources can be stolen for the more powerful country.

There have been many controversial views regarding these themes and can easily be found on the internet. One interesting fact is that in the movie the Na’vi are the colour blue where all the humans from Earth are white, even the actors playing the Na’vi were people of colour. This has sparked much debate by critics and commentators of the movie and seeing that James Cameron stated that this movie has a number of different themes, many of them being controversial this is probably one of the biggest. This take on a very real issue of race and how the white people have treated people of colour in the past and even in 2020 is still happening where there is still race issues in America, Europe and even hear in South Africa. In the movie the love story between a white male human and a Na’vi female, where at the end the white human sacrifices himself to save the Na’vi people. Some say that this shows the concept of the “White Messiah” , where the white people are considered to be the saviours of the so called “primitive” or indigenous people. By giving the Na’vi the blue colour and all the human white probably portrays the concept that many groups can relate to the Na’vi as they are not a recognisable race, but represent them, so not to pick out a specific race but to represent a race. This is very relatable to people living in South Africa as South Africa is made up of a number of different races and cultures living together in one country.

Other critics and commentators regard the movie as a stereotypical and propaganda presentation of the themes but not the facts. They believe that the movie is intentionally trying to portray stereotypical and propaganda views by the director James Cameron, that in fact are only one-sided and therefore not a true reflection of these themes mentioned about this movie. It is easy to show off the stereotypical and propaganda in a movie like this as it is basically a science fiction movie and not based on any real facts. It is very common to see this in movies coming from America where the Americans show off their power and strength. They are shown as the “good guys” and the saviours of the world and many of the so-called bad guys are from foreign countries, even in some the bad South Africans with really bad accents. So at the end of the day is this another propaganda and stereotypical American movie or does it really have a much deeper meaning?

One should make his or her own mind up about Avatar as I believe the movie is going to spark different ideas and feelings in different people, some might find it political, others racist and others just a fun Hollywood science fiction movie. The choice is yours and at the end of the day it is good to debate and discuss these issues. Even if the movie touches us in different ways, by discussing and debating these themes, I believe makes the world a better place because we are all different and everyone’s opinion matters.

Just as a side note. James Cameron is working on a sequel, Avatar 2, with the same cast as the first Avatar. It would be interesting to see if the themes in the first movie differs from the second, eleven or so years later.

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