Avatar 2 and the Failed State of Not-China

So I watched that avatar movie that’s apparently going to be part of a series or something and it was alright I guess. Well, truth be told, my enjoyment of the movie increased as time went on – I was pretty down on it when I was walking out of the theater but I’ve mellowed on its flaws since then. Certainly, it made me kind of understand why people paint themselves blue in adoration of these films, but that might’ve just been the weed. But as I sit down to write this I remembered the things I hated about it and discovered a few new ones, and found myself souring again. Regardless of the mind-fucking visuals brought to the screen, the issues I have with this movie relate to some ideas that’ve been rattling around in the brainpan for awhile. So I’m interrupting the listicles to explore some of them now. SPOILERS BELOW

The way I see it, there are two things that hold this movie (and its predecessor, and probably its successors) back. The first and lesser is the general dearth of actual characters, and an inability to do anything interesting. Actually, this is one of the areas where Avatar 2 improves on the original; I counted a whole three well-realized characters, two of which were compelling, compared to nil on both counts. But this isn’t a movie with only three characters, or only focusing on three characters. Jake, Neytiri, and half their children are completely bland and unmemorable, and the only antagonist worth a damn is Quaritch. Of these, none of the arcs were particularly interesting.

Pictured: a character, I’m told

But all of this is entirely subjective, and not really my main issue with the film. If you’ve read this blog before, it might not surprise you to learn that my main concern is the construction of the film’s fictional world, or more concisely, the worldbuilding. And this is no frivolous complaint about continuities or timelines or the aircraft canopies that apparently aren’t proof against muscle-propelled arrows. This complaint is about the Na’vi and how they are depicted, which compromises the story being told as a whole.

You see, in my view the Na’vi are basically passive actors in what should be their story. They don’t seem to actively do anything – all the agency is foisted on the humans. The humans invade Pandora, the humans are fleeing a dying Earth, the humans are hunting Jake Sully, the humans want the magic rocks or yummy whale juice. Without the humans to propel the story, I get the impression that the blue boys would be frolicking in elysian fields, free of any sort of conflict, an eternal, primitive utopia. This ties into the character issue – it’s hard to make a character interesting if all they ever do is react to things, but it also has the knock-on effect of making the Na’vi themselves uninteresting and difficult to relate to. Which is kind of a downer, because they are the protagonists and also the side of this conflict we are supposed to agree with (and to be clear, I do), but it seems strange that the most likable character is actually the reincarnation of a war criminal. Quaritch is an absolute stain of a human and arguably worse as an avatar, but he cracks jokes, he has a rough charm, and he’s resourceful and devious and fun to watch. A good villain is always a plus, but he’s lacking a good hero.

We’re getting off topic here; the Na’vi can’t be asked to do fuck-all in their own story, but the problems run deeper than that. The real arrow through the canopy that fucks this whole operation is that Na’vi society doesn’t seem real. What it lacks in conflict it also lacks in detail. What do we know about Na’vi society? They’re primitivists. Their mounts correspond to social status. They have art, music, and material culture, but we don’t see much of any of them, nor many details. We know that each tribe has a chief and a religious leader, but these tribes have several hundred Na’vi – is there really no sub-organization? We know a decent amount about their religion and philosophy, but most of it is in the abstract and thrown to us to serve the plot. Like, ‘oh, these trees are super important to our religion, hope no one tries to blow them up in the 3rd act!’ or ‘yeah, one of our rituals uses the genius loci in the planet to do consciousness transfer between bodies – by the way, I hope none of your scientist friends get mortally wounded!’ Even this wouldn’t be so bad if they went into detail about what the ritual entails and the social context around it. Does this work for animals? Can an old Na’vi body jump into a younger one? If they can, why don’t they? I mean, it looks like they’ve done this before. It’s this completely insane fantasy/sci-fi concept and it gets brought up exclusively to further the story of the humans and their conflicts with other humans.

Pictured: the Na’vi of the Omatikaya clan, doing this for the first time, apparently.

Again, the sequel improves in this area, but not by much. I think we could’ve done with a Na’vi only movie, to actually make us relate to the blue people and understand them a bit better. I can get that it’s wrong to shoot them and blow up their big tree, but it feels like a sterile, impersonal conflict. It feels less like a story, and more like the news, if that makes sense, without the news’s benefit of being about real life.

None of this is typically necessary, but that’s because we’re with humans and in human societies – frequently our own! We can surmise what things are like, and it gives our characters context. But these aren’t humans, this ain’t Kansas, and if they want the people on this exo-moon to feel as real as the forests and reefs, they need to put the work in, simple as. But they don’t, because creating a complete society, or even a compelling one, isn’t their goal; referencing pastiche is. This movie is made by and for North Americans, specifically white North Americans, and the narrative of Manifest Destiny which is basically the lynchpin of understanding North American colonialism underlies the whole movie and the depiction of the Na’vi.

You see, there’s this erroneous belief that the various pre-Columbian peoples were living in a state of pure, nil-impact harmony with the virginal, unafflicted lands of the New World. Their primitive societies were incapable and uninterested in altering their environment in any way other than to gather what food they needed to survive. They lived in a simple state of noble ignorance. They forged no metals, worked no stone, and made no use of even simple technologies such as the wheel.

Sound familiar? If you grew up in Canada or the United States, then you’ve probably all heard this tripe before. But if you watched Avatar, you too should be experiencing Deja vu regarding the Na’vi. See below the “Three Laws of Eywa,” helpfully pulled from the Avatar wiki:

  • “You shall not set stone upon stone.”
  • “Neither shall you use the turning wheel.”
  • “Nor use the metals of the ground.

So really, the portrayal of the Na’vi isn’t based on any real culture or civilization, but instead on the inaccurate stereotype of American Indians that exists in the minds of Americans and Canadians. This is by no means subtle, either. When the original movie came out, there was no shortage of clever, handsome, and doubtlessly well-adjusted commenters glibly referring to the film as Dances with Smurfs, in reference to the film Dances with Wolves, with I guess similar plot and themes, but more explicitly about settler relations. And, having never watched Dances with Wolves, I can’t speak to their depiction of the Sioux, but I do want to take the time to tear into the depiction of the Na’vi.

The revision of pre-Columbian history is ongoing, but for an easily readable and concise summary of trends, I recommend 1491 by Charles C. Mann. Though it is now nearing two decades old, and is popular history besides, the main and correct conclusion of the book is that all the various societies of the Americas as a whole functioned basically similarly to the contemporary ones of Afro-Eurasia and beyond. They were (and are) stewards of their own environments, and left a noticeable and surviving mark on the landscape, which they used for their benefit, like most cultures throughout history. They possessed hierarchies, societies, and political arrangements about as complex as any other, and beliefs to the contrary is a combination of lack of interest in the field and political convenience.

Pictured: Beni Mounds in Bolivia. The wooded areas are raised mounds on a plain to support agriculture, or the causeways connecting them.

I mean, they even do the typical thing of grouping all the native peoples together, disregarding the fact that various groups inhabited different ends of the continent and in a Pre-Columbian world generally had fuck all to do with each other beyond indirect trade connections. In the 2nd Avatar film we’re treated to a minute long montage of the Sully family flying over presumably hundreds or thousands of kilometers to seek out shelter, and when they arrive they boldly stride into the Brave New World only to discover that it’s the same as the one they just left. Same dude warchief, same woman shaman, same culture, same fucking language down to the accent they force the actors to embarrass themselves with. Yeah, they swim a lot, and the mounts they use are different, and they’re a different shade of blue, but there’s no substantive difference. The Sullies get some fish out of water scenes then shape up and everything is okay. To be clear, these motherfuckers just crossed continents to join a new culture. Where’s the tension of trying to find a new place, the friction between cultural expectations, the drama that makes a story worth telling? If it weren’t for all the underwater scenes you may as well have set the movie in the place it was before*. The piss being poured into this open wound is that I know the screenwriters or whoever can fucking do this. The intelligent whale things have a culture so committed to non-violence that the act of even causing death indirectly by trying to fight the humans is enough to get one of their members exiled. Wow! An actual fucking conflict that isn’t purely about humans, informed by the tragic war-torn past of the whale things! So why the hell don’t the Na’vi have something like this? Literally anything at all that gives their society texture and depth beyond hugging trees and fighting humans? Why do the whales get this but not, ya know, the main fucking characters?

Pictured: a whale thing

So, yeah. The Avatar movies kind of suck, and it’s not because of their characters or plot or non-visual setting. Those are poorly done, but I don’t think they’re the main thing going. Pacific Rim was pretty bland in all these aspects* but I really enjoyed that movie. No, the Avatar movies commit the unforgivable sin of perpetuating the mythology of American colonization. Granted, lots of media reflects a colonial viewpoint, and tabletop games especially reflect and even enable players to act it out. How many of us have played or run games about conquering, settling, or exploring an “uninhabited” wasteland that’s really only uninhabited by humans, and is in fact crawling with demi humans or intelligent monstrous races that are considered less civilized. Okay, maybe the movie has the demi-humans as the good guys, but it doesn’t challenge any inherent mistruths. They can only repeat them, show all the terrors of colonization, and then say, “Well, that’s wrong. We shouldn’t have done that.” The filmmakers claim to be on the side of the natives, but the research and worldbuilding is so lazily done (or not done) that they instead replicate the viewpoint of their own villains. And the uncomfortable proximity the depiction has to the false conception of Pre-Columbian societies really elevates this beyond its peers in colonial media – in West Marches, you can say the orcs or kobolds or whoever aren’t based on any real society (or misconceptions thereof), even if their relationship to the players obviously is. Avatar seeks no such forbearance and certainly doesn’t earn it.

Also, I don’t want to hear any nonsense about how they’re not really depictions of what white people think Indians were like, because no one buys it. It’s a post hoc justification some asshole came up with; the entire fucking narrative is bound up in the specific relationship and historical narrative that arose between colonial settlers and native people. James Cameron and whoever else knew what they were and are doing, even if they somehow at this point don’t know why that’s bad.

* Incidentally, it’s basically unforgivable that the main character of the story abandons his people and also a possibly interesting plot to go fuck off elsewhere. How my heart leapt with joy when I saw them robbing trains for advanced weaponry. Actual change and agency on the part of the Na’vi to wage insurrectionary war imperialism! Ya – oh, we’re not doing that. Okay. Sigh. I get that he left to draw away Quaritch, but that doesn’t change the act that the humans have set up a city right fucking next to them. Also, he recommits to fighting the humans at the end of this movie anyway, so the move is also pointless from a character standpoint. Aside from the setting, this movie just has a serious plot issue. Jake Sully crosses Pandora but his character doesn’t budge a fucking inch.

** Although I will say that even Pacific Rim does a better job of depicting a real place than Pandora. The humans have conflict with each other, and they’ve adapted to the big monsters. They disagree about how to stop the monster, they build slums in their bones, everyone has the nearest bunker’s location memorized.

The Not-China Issue

But all of this is very heavy and not terribly original and is also causing my blood pressure to rise to dangerous levels, so let’s divert to something more superfluous and hopefully more original. You see, there’s this habit in crafting secondary worlds where the author will take some real life historical example, like China, and then change some names around, fabricate some political structure and many a few words of conlang, and bam! The Federation of Not-China is born. Now, I don’t want to go too hard on the people who do this. I’ve done it myself, and there are good reasons to do it. These reasons are most succinctly given by Rich Burlew in his New World series, sadly now only accessible through archive.org. The relevant text from part 5a, Politics, is replicated below:

By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, one of my favorite techniques is taking real-world material and twisting it before inserting it into my world. The fact is, aspects of the setting that are reminiscent of history ring more truly than anything made up out of whole cloth. After a few thousand years of human history, it’s hard for an imaginary world to compete with the level of complexity of the real thing-so why not steal a little of that density of information?

A compelling argument, and certainly one that convinces me. But you may have noticed from the ill-considered custom font and questionable web page design that you’re reading a blog, and damningly for the both of us, a gaming blog. Which means I have to bitch about it.

Again, I don’t have a problem with Burlew’s argument here. He’s basically correct. The issue is that this method is now endemic in fantasy literature and media. You can’t go five fucking feet with out running into a border outpost of Not-China. Most recently the latest Total War installment prominently features “Cathay” as one of the default playable factions. Other prominent examples include Yi Ti of A Song of Ice and Fire, or (bad example) Nikara in The Poppy War Series. Now, I don’t find these depictions particularly harmful – the history of American settlement is a particularly charged and misunderstood subject that makes Cameron’s Avatar (as opposed to the other Avatar I mentioned a sentence ago) especially egregious. Hell, Disco Elysium and the aforementioned Warhammer game have entire goddamn Not-Earths that manages to keep on the right side of tasteful. The broader point here is that this sort of worldbuilding has become a sort of default state, even for those worlds that have ambition to rise above the usual Tolkienesque template.

Pictured: Warhammer Fantasy’s Not-Earth. You’ll notice the Not-Americas on the far left. However, the creators chose to fill in these areas with cultures that don’t borrow from Native Americans or do so at a more comfortable distance. In any case they do better than Avatar.

See I think Burlew’s idea here isn’t especially novel – a lot of people have had it through the years, or imitated other people who had it. The issue is that they tend to borrow aesthetics instead of borrowing detail. They take surface level features of whatever historical culture or example – the look, the highest level political superstructure, the Germanic names – and frequently, they forget to substantively change anything. The result is pastiche, a glut of which has tormented the fantasy and sci-fi genres for years, to the chagrin of secondary world enjoyers.

Look, there isn’t anything wrong with pastiche, at least when it’s done better than here. It’s just tiring, and more than a little discouraging. Burlew’s webcomic has been around 15 years now, and is well past strip 1200 – the author started making Fantasistan jokes around strip 200. The charm of it is wearing thin and there are only so many real-life cultures we can export to fantasy. Besides being a well-worn trope, its usage risks really torquing my town halls when it’s done in an insensitive and ignorant way*, as in Avatar. Is crafting a thought out and interesting secondary world such an odious task that it is by default relegated to the realm of stereotypes and fiat? I can understand if you just want to tell a story or play your game and don’t want to worry about the details, but so many of these works have a clear ambition to display a beautiful and believable world, a task they only half succeed in. The visual elements are all there, but the background and details that make a world breath are apparently extraneous to the proceeding and the greater story at hand. This is a missed opportunity; a well-built world can and should be a jumping off point for a good story. Avatar could’ve been one of the greatest movies of all time, a transformative touchstone of fiction that altered the popular conception of the Anglo-Saxon states of the New World and their place in history. Instead, it’s okay – another distraction in the sea of them. A pretty one, but no one reminisces about the first film, and in a few years no one will care much for the 2nd either. If you’re going to tell a story set in Not-Iran, I think you should consider if that story gains anything from it, and if it doesn’t at least do your research to make the exportation interesting and or educating. And if you’re going to make a movie about settlers, Native American peoples, and the environment, you should probably actually try to understand the historical relationship between those three parties.

* For another example of this sort of worldbuilding backfiring terribly, check out the series of blog posts on A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry called Collections: That Dothraki Horde, which deftly got to the heart of my discomfort with this form of exportation in its worst form.

I just finished up Pentiment, and I have to say this is a new gold standard for how you should research and use a setting in a story. Granted, it is using an actual time and place, 16th century Bavaria. The town and characters are all fictional, but nevertheless informed by the setting and many of the town’s conflicts are informed by the history. This is how you do secondary world fiction. The setting informs the plot – the conflicts between social classes, the arrival of the reformation, the lifestyles of the people, it’s all there, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome because its used to create a world we want to get lost in. Obsidian gave one of the cultures that serve as the template for fantasy pastiche some actual fucking attention and created a unique story inherently tied to that culture and setting. But they could have easily set the story on the moon and made everyone purple and it would’ve been an effective story. It isn’t Bavaria or the history that makes it; it’s the attention to detail that does. Yes, the history helps with that – that’s Burlew’s point, and it’s equally applicable to secondary world fantasy.

Pictured: Pentiment, doing its homework and looking damn good.

To finish up here, I want to say that this is all a very specific and not terribly pressing problem (most works of fiction manage their setting acceptably well, at least) in the already niche hobby of worldbuilding. But it’s a hobby I care a lot about, and if you read or write this sort of stuff, this is basically a call to move away from the employment of teaspoon shallow pastiche and thoughtless cultural exportation. At best, it will be boring, another Not-China to put in the dinner cabinet. At worst, it’ll be Avatar.

Assorted Notes About the Movie

The character of Spider is, like most of them, utterly forgettable. However, his character is certainly, uh, elevated, by the visual contrast between him and the rest of the cast. The poor kid spends the entire movie running around in a loincloth and blue body paint and those fucking dreads and a goddamn face mask because he’s human and the look comes together to create an impression of a hallucinated trickster god you might see if you abused Benadryl shortly after watching Tarzan on loop for 24 hours in a sensory deprivation tank. Again, this might just’ve been the weed but every time he was on screen I didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or break into tears. Despite being the only unedited character in many of the scenes, he also somehow looks less real than the rest of the cast. I’m not opposed to the character’s existence but maybe we could have him put some clothes on. This could be the basis of a really interesting relationship between Jake and the kid – both are (or were) humans trying to be Na’vi. An able-bodied human is pretty much disabled compared to a Na’vi, so Spider can’t keep up with them forever and Jake could maybe help him come to terms with that, maybe show him that being Omaticaya isn’t just about being good at climbing or whatever. The story doesn’t seem too interested in exploring this, though, and the two principles hardly ever get screen time together. Another missed opportunity.

Towards the beginning of the movie, Edie Falco’s character mentions that Earth is uninhabitable now and they’re prepping for full-scale colonization of Pandora. I assume that the Earth is merely becoming uninhabitable and isn’t quite there yet, though this is never stated. This has massive implications for the story, and, of course, goes mostly unexplored. Now human colonization of another world is kind of an understandable goal, though why they’d choose a planet where they can’t fucking breathe is also unexplained, but whatever, maybe it’s the best they got. This again sort of feeds into the problem of the humans being more interesting, by giving them a very pressing, existential conflict and raising a bunch of questions that beg for answers – how long do they have? Who gets to go? What’s humanity’s reaction to the news of their impending extinction? All unanswered. Incidentally, if Cameron resolves this by saying that most or all of the 20 billion humans on Earth just have to die because there just isn’t any heavenly way they can control their ravenous destruction of their own environment, I will say things that will have to be marked as parody for legal purposes. We’ve already got enough eco-fascism in popular culture with strangely even-handed or positive portrayals and Cameron’s approach to environmentalism suggests to me that he might go “all the way,” as it were.

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