Between advancements in camera technology and CGI, we are now a civilization capable of creating life-like renderings of anything we can imagine. As we've approached this reality, on more than one occasion I've found myself asking about the power, ethics and social advocacy potential of such images - if we can visually create anything, is there the potential to depict more just or sustainable visions of the future that might compel citizens to make them real? Can we harness that so-called post-Avatar "depression" into a force for good? Is it all just entertainment or is there also a new collective meaning that audiences are buying into?
When we reflect on our viewing experience, the meaning that seems paramount, at least in this first round of hyper real images, is immersive reality itself. Word of mouth goes something like, "you have to SEE it!" It's about the visual spectacle. When I first left the theater I felt a disconnect between the immersive power of the images and the relatively straight-forward story, after all, as many folks have pointed out (usually derisively), 'Avatar' is essentially a re-telling of Pocahontas or Fern Gully. With such original landscapes why wasn't the story more original? After chewing this over a bit, and appreciating the fact that I didn't question the story once during my viewing experience, I realized the story didn't need to be revolutionary because it already was, and even if we had seen it before, we'd never really SEEN it before. Every re-telling is richer, more vivid, more emotional, getting closer and closer to making us feel and accept the story's lessons on a visceral level.
It seems to me that certain human stories have been refined, distilled and in short, fine-tuned to a point where their morals and understandings are taught and reinforced in a fashion that resonates with audiences deeply and efficiently. True, there is plenty to criticize in the movie (particularly from a feminist POV) but I also think the bees in the bonnets
of critics like David Brooks and his "white messiah complex" are overwrought and a typical knee-jerk, conservative "white men can't jump," reaction to a story they never liked. Can the story be classified (as Brooks' does) as a "white messiah fable?" Definitely. Is that (or the fact that we've seen this story before) such a bad thing? No. How many people were exposed to the basic story of Pocahontas for the first time because of this film? How many people felt and took in that same story (even if they had experienced it before) more strongly because of this film?
In his list of stereotypes he feels the film perpetuates, Brooks' first and foremost criticism is that the story, "...rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic." On reflection, that statement (problematic because of his own totalizing formulation and Brooks' decision to strangely focus on "athleticism"), is not far off the mark if we recall the real historical examples of colonial domination the movie is meant to emulate: the decimation of indigenous peoples in North and South America (yes, "Pocohontas in space" for the cynical) and the rationalist and technocratic extraction of resources that followed that domination, not to mention rationalist and technocratic institutions of human domination like slavery or more recently, residential schools. Does Brooks think we've already learned the moral antidotes to these recent and disturbing chapters in Western civilization? All evidence is that this is a story and set of morals we haven't learned yet, and given our present course (present human and environmental destruction) there's nothing to say we aren't capable of making the same mistakes hundreds of years from today (minus some of the evil marine play acting).
The power and allure of the "white messiah fable" is the fantasy of turning on one's own morally bankrupt culture and seeking redemption in the culture of the oppressed. I agree that messages suggesting that indigenous people can only rise-up with the help of a "white messiah" are problematic, however I don't think that's the key lesson learned or even the point of the story - the real focus is on showing (sugar-coated in over the top heroics and girl-getting) that it is possible to go against the grain and to adopt new ways of being. I don't think that's such a bad thing...there's a reason the story of Pocahontas still resonates strongly today, and there's a reason Mr. Cameron's movie is shattering box-office records (it's very possible that a similar movie with just as immersive images but less primal storytelling would flop).
From conversations I've had with young adults, it was movies like Pocahontas and Fern Gully that first stoked their social and environmental awareness.
What's wrong with telling the "same story?"