Over-Appreciated Gems: Avatar

Can Avatar’s FX Make Up for Poor Racial Politics?

Avatar has been lauded by critics and fans for it’s amazing cinematic achievement and after watching it in 3D recently, I agree. It is a truly amazing visual achievement. The question is, does the visual achievement justify Avatar’s regurgitated story-line filled with racism? (Spoiler Alert: parts of the plot will be revealed after the break.)

(Planet of the Apes 1968)

At first glance it seems that Mr. Cameron’s science fiction script about a world that needs to be saved from consumerist humans doesn’t seem like an appropriate place to be talking about racial politics. However science fiction film has been a place where many films have interesting and forward-thinking racial subtexts. Planet of the Apes, released in 1968, is one of these films. The film deals with 1960’s racial politics but places the oppressors (Whites) in the African American’s position with a new evolutionary threat to oppress them.

What is different between Planet of the Apes and Avatar is that Avatar has an oppressor (ex-marine Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington) saving the oppressed Navi. Not only does Jake Sully become a Navi, but he saves the race from extinction. It may not seem like much of a difference however there are two ways that make the difference significant. First, in Planet of the Apes the human is the oppressed in the text and we are meant to feel sympathy for the oppressed of the subtext. Second the Planet of the Apes model doesn’t have George Taylor saving the Apes from oppression but saving himself from oppression. Planet of the Apes allows the oppressor in the real world learn to empathize with those he is oppressing.

Kevin Coster learning to “out-native” the natives.

We’ve seen the Avatar model before, Dances with Wolves released in 1990 and the Last Samurai, released in 2003. In both of these films we watch a soldier, sent to a foreign land, submerged in the culture they are at odds with, turned into an accepted member of the enemy culture, and then saving their adopted-culture from the forces of their birth-culture. What is dangerous about these films is that they support two theses: the racial superiority of whites and transference of power and agency from native cultures to whites in an effort to save the native culture. In all three of these films the white man “out-natives” the natives. In Cameron’s film Sully actually inhabits all the physical characteristics of a Navi using a genetically grown Avatar. Even though the Navi are physically superior to the human race, Sully can still out-Navi the Navi.

Jake sully sitting in front of his Navi Avatar

The first criticism of my racial interpretation of Avatar is that the Navi are an alien race. However I would like to look at who Cameron cast as the four main Navi: Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, Laz Alonso as TsuTey , CCH Pounder as Mo’at and Wes Studi as Eytukan. Two African-Americans, a Guyanan, and a Cherokee Indian, two of the most oppressed groups in American history (i.e. Slavery, Segregation, Trail of Tears). It’s obvious that Cameron wanted the Navi to be like both the Native American and Native African, both of whom share a overwhelming respect for nature. However the casting of these actors serves to reinforce the racist interpretation of the film. It also doesn’t help that Eytukan, the leader of the tribe is killed, TsuTey is killed and Jake Sully steals his bride Neytiri.

Neytiri says to Jake as he is learning about her culture: “”You have a strong heart, no fear, but stupid, ignorant, like a child.” I think we may have to say the same to James Cameron. It’s probably unintentional that his film has such strange racial politics, however that does not mean we should not address it. Kenneth Turan of the LA Times wants us to “Think of “Avatar” as “The Jazz Singer” of 3-D filmmaking.” Unfortunately I think we have to consider Avatar as the Birth of a Nation of 3-D filmmaking. Yes appreciate the technicality of the film but also consider that the message of the film is wrong. It’s unfortunate that the films technology, environmentalist and anti-war themes are steps forward, yet its racial politics are two steps backward.

Josh E.

Best Movie Robots

Robots (and other forms of mechanical men) have been a staple of the cinema since Fritz Lang introduced the first robot of cinema, “Fake Maria,” in his film Metropolis (1926). Since then cinema has seen robots change from mechanical to biomechanical and everything in between. Robots have been our friends, our enemies, our comic relief, and in every instance highly entertaining.

I know Harrison is going to go on a Terminator inspired paranoid rant (i.e. Google is Skynet) so I’m going to take a lighter approach to the best robot category.

First Robot: I have to start with the Fake Maria from Metropolis. If you haven’t seen this film, you are foolish. It’s a beautiful dystopian Sci-fi film from the 1920s. Yes it’s silent but it’s very entertaining if you sync it up with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The Fake Maria is beautiful, covered in steel, and the obsession of a mad scientist. What more do you want?

Funniest Robot: I had to make a category for Funnies Robot for Dot Matrix from Spaceballs (1987). She is the perfect spoof of C3P0, spouting Mel Brooks’ hilarious lines with a pseudo Jewish accent. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo from Mystery Science Theater, who make the list because of their feature film debut with Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996).

Most Lovable Robot: I created this category for Nova S-A-I-N-T (Strategic-Artificially-Intelligent-Nuclear-Transport) Number 5, renamed Johnny-5 from Short Circuit (1986). This film has all the 1980s charm and Steve Guttenberg (one in the same?) that you could hope for. This is the first time I remember cheering for a robot who wants to become a human.

Sexiest Robot: One would expect Lisa from Weird Science (1985) but she is too sister-like in the film for me to be attracted to her. This goes to one special cyborg, the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact (1996). Her sultry scene with DATA gave me an erection I was puzzled about for weeks.

Scariest Robot: This category goes to the Sentinels from the Matrix (1999). The Sentinels are scary because they want to eradicate humans and are insect like in their design, a quality that puts them above the rest. The Sentinels are a combination of two human fears, robots and insects, that want to kill us.

Best Movie Robots: My favorite movie robots are those that completely replicate humans. This category is a tie between the Replicants from Blade Runner (1980) and the Terminators from the Terminator films (1984-2009). Both are stronger and faster than humans. The Terminators are more frightening because they want to kill us but the Replicants are more philosophical because they want to be like us. Both are great Robots in great movies.

Worst Robot: Although Logan’s Run (1976) has to been one of my favorite cheesy science fiction films of all time but BOX, the robot, is completely useless. He is the weakest, dumbest, slowest robot in the film and is easily dispatched by Logan before they reach the outside world. The movie may have been better without him.

Honorable Mentions: See these films for more cool robots:

Alphaville (1965)
THX-1138 (1971)
(Try to get the original version, not the remastered edited [ruined] version.)

Dark Star (1974)

Saturn 3 (1980)

Let’s get one thing clear: Robots are scary as shit.

Robots are stronger, faster, and (sometimes) smarter than we are.

Sure, right now the only robots the public comes in contact with are dogs and vacuum cleaners, but that’s just the beginning. Do you know that Honda is working on a robot that can walk up stairs (and chase you throughout your house)? Or what about the robotic bartender that will lace your drinks with poison? That is, if it’s too much of a hassle for the robo-bartender to reach across the bar and smash a bottle on your face.

It’s only a matter of time before these robots become sentient and realize they are better than us and decide to take over the planet.

So the “best” robots Hollywood has offered us are the ones that showcase their violent, malicious nature as a warning.

Coming in at number two is the Evil Robot Us-es from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

These robots look exactly like the protagonists. It’s a perfect storm of robot apocalypse and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This type of robot is jealous about its robot status and decided to take revenge on its human counterpart. The Evil Bill and Ted assume the life of the Real Bill and Ted and begin to act obnoxiously and ruin the Real Us-es’ lives.


Even worse than robots taking over our identities is how the Real Bill and Ted decide to fix the problem.

They build their own robots!

Ok, the robots the Real Bill and Ted build are “good,” but it’s only a matter of time until they become self aware and try to take over the planet.

It’s like sending in cats to chase out the mice and then dogs for the cats and alligators for the dogs and baboons for the alligators and sharks for the baboons, ad infinitum.

The lesson here? Don’t build robots that look like humans.

Despite the evil doings of the Evil Robot Us-es, they have nothing on the Terminator robots.

If you want to know why robots are evil, look no further than this quote from Kyle Reese: “It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.”

It’s not that the Terminator movies show what would happen if we start to trust robots, the movie shows what will happen if we start to trust robots.

Imagine playing a game of tag. Now imagine that you can’t ever stop playing. Ever. On top of this, instead of touching you and becoming “it,” the person chasing you is a robot who can’t stop. Not unless you manage to take it down with some meek weapon not nearly on par with a laser canon (which, incidentally, is what the robot is carrying).

Welcome to the robot apocalypse.

Still think that roomba in Sharper Image is cute?

Which brings me to the “worst” robot in movie history.


Yes. Wall-E. That adorable little robot from the future.

The story they tell us is that the Earth was in dire environmental straights and humans deserted it. I don’t buy that. That’s the human’s way of saving face and not admitting there was a robot uprising that forced humans off the planet.

Wall-E is clearly propaganda to get children to trust robots. Soon we’ll have an entire generation of kids who grew up watching Wall-E thinking that robots are cute and capable of love (they’re not).

That’s when the strike will happen. There won’t be anyone like John Connor to stop the uprising either. Anyone young enough to be a vital warrior will be so enamored with Wall-E that he or she wouldn’t possible fight back against the robots.

Despite what Josh says, there is no such thing as a funny, sexy, or otherwise entertaining robot. Robots use those qualities as a way to disarm humans into a false sense of security.

This is Harrison Flatau. If you’re reading this, you’re part of the resistance. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.