A Horse of a Different Colour: Worldbuilding in Avatar

I wish I could remember where I read the funniest thing said about Avatar since the James Cameron hypemobile started doing laps around the PR racetrack months ago:

"It took him ten years to think up a blue horse?"

But since I can’t I’m just going to post it here totally unattributed and hope no one e-screams at me. I hope the author of the comment won’t mind however as I’m about to talk about why I think it’s a perfectly concise statement about the problems with the film itself. Before I go and start being Ned Negativity however I think it’s worth pointing out that Avatar is for all its faults an eminently enjoyable film. The CG work is easily the best ever committed to the screen there’s some fine performances decent dialogue and as a filmer-of-action-sequences Cameron continues to set standards we will still be in awe of twenty years on .

Still none of that makes the blue horse any less silly. It makes it even more frustrating in fact as a fraction of the effort that was applied to the film’s action would have surely produced creatures more creative and alien than blue horses dr agon-thingies hammerhead rhinos and obviously Native American elf-people. I can imagine how much of the film’s production design is owed to Cameron’s well documented underwater fetish but even then there’s nothing of Planet Earth’s haunting deep-sea vistas no indication at all that any of the creatures of Pandora couldn’t have evolved just as easily on earth.

Not that pointing out the too-obvious terrestrial cognates is a criticism in-and-of-itself mind you. The practice of lazily reconfiguring Earth Beasts as a sci-fi conceit has been around since before Kirk was getting rutty with green ladies . After literally minutes of consideration I’ve decided that Avatar’s blue horsies aren’t in fact lazy. Indeed I’ve come to think that the familiar jungle world of Pandora is represented as it is in service of Avatar’s oft-touted "social messages" which are so flimsy and simplistic I had to put them between scare quotes to prevent an uncontrollable giggling fit.

As I mentioned above the blue elf-people on whom the film’s plot center hit the Native American "noble savage" archetype so hard on the nose that there’s nothing left but an oozing twisted red lump. There is actually a scene where Sam Worthington’s half elf-thing half human "Avatar" is learning to hunt and he pauses after killing a blue deer to thank it for its sacrifice and remind it that it’s only fulfilling it’s role in the beautiful circle of life.

Don’t you see Dances With Wolves? They use the whole buffalo.

While I think there might be a legitimate argument to be made for the elf-people representing to some extent the many different races and cultures The White Man has exploited to his own ends throughout the course of history I’m not going to make it because I don’t want to start hating myself until well past dinner today. Thanks James Cameron but I already have enough pent-up guilt about being born white and middle class. I don’t need a $500 million action blockbuster that could not exist without the history and culture it’s criticising trying to exacerbate it with ham-fisted social commentary.

But does Avatar stop with a speech that ends — no joke — with the line "We will show them that this is our land! " Sadly no. That is where it begins. You see the blue elf people possess the ability to interface with the planet through tentacles in their hair providing what is at once a really cool sci fi mechanic that lets them wield nature as a weapon and also an eye-rolling abstraction of a nineteenth century "Magic Indian" device. Do you see my dillema here? On one hand this allows for a scene where a lady on a dinosaur fights a man in a robot suit which is So! Fucking! Awesome! But on the other there’s no getting around Cameron’s obvious intention that we interpret the blue people’s wonderful abilities as the all-too-real culture language and customs destroyed by white European settlers.

I find the reduction insulting personally. It’s as though Cameron assumes his audience is incapable of understanding the destructive outcomes of Colonialism (and for that matter Neo Imperialism) without reducing the concepts to a simplistic science-vs-magic story. What’s more I think I’d find it insulting if I was a member of one of those forcibly assimilated cultures because y’know my people’s pain would have been reduced to fucking hair tentacles . It’s a tune I play too often I realize but science fiction — all genre fiction — is perfectly capable of grappling with Big Ideas. The danger is that when it fucks it up it doesn’t look like a minor fumble. It looks pretentious and that only gives more ammunition to the small-minded pedants who use the word "genre" to end discussions.

Anyone who reads my blog frequently will know that I love science fiction. I love it the way some people love their pets and the the way some really awful people love their kids. I will happily dismiss cliche if its effective on some level or failing that is in the service of very awesome laser shooting. The Matrix is nothing but a collection of cyberpunk cliches done well and is often agreed to be one of the greatest action films ever made. Star Wars is the Lord of the Rings in space. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek is basically just Star Wars. But what do all of these wonderful films have in common besides their shared affection for the familiar?

They are!


For nothing!

In his review Ebert tentatively suggests that Avatar may be this generation’s Star Wars. And — Oh God — how I would love to agree with him. There has been virtually no effort to create original epic science fiction in my lifetime (at least on film) and Avatar has all the right ingredients. Agreeably maniacal villain? Check. Deliciously fun underdog story that manages to create and maintain a real sense of tension? You bet. A breath-holding nail-biting action-packed finale? Hells yes. Desperately confused subtextual melange of oversimplified liberalisms? I– uh. Wait a minute.

The most tragic thing about Avatar’s is how easy it would have been to improve. The "Boo War! Yay Green!" messages could easily be dialed back to virtual nonexistence by the removal of a couple mostly superfluous scenes trimming some dialogue then running a little wilder with the creature and world design. As it is though all of these things are knit together in a Gordian Knot of polemical stupidity that drags everything good about the film down.

So blue horse isn’t stupid because it’s a post Star Trek cliche. That much I’d be more than happy to forgive. It’s stupid because it’s feeding into a dumb unimaginative morality play that is itself based on ugly regressive stereotypes. And because the reference material for the visual design of the film is so distinctly terrestrial so intentionally familiar the creative descision Cameron made at an early stage of Avatar’s development becomes clear: He decided — actively decided — to sacrifice creativity in favour of a blunter simpler social message.

Fucking blue horse.