Okay, finally getting to my first Avatar entry.
It’s no secret given the title of this blog and the Na’vi words that I will likely be sprinkling throughout that I am a big fan of the movie Avatar. But, more specifically I’m far more a fan of the Na’vi people and of Pandora (or, more correctly, Ewya’eveng), but given that the film is the primary way one can experience Pandora, that keeps it high in my estimation. I despised most of the human characters in the film and was rooting for the Na’vi the whole time, and I don’t think I’ve ever cheered louder for the humans to die than I did in that film. Like with everything, the film is not without its flaws, and I don’t disagree with the criticisms. I won’t say that this is a perfect film or a superior one, but it is one that grabbed hold of my imagination and won’t let go, and it’s beyond just the incredible richness of an alien world and its people. But there is one criticism that I do disagree with in part, that of Jake Sully as the White Savior of Pandora.
The White Savior trope is a common one in films, where a white character comes to the aid of the “savage” people to protect them from other whites. It’s rooted in racism, in the belief that the only way tribal peoples can stand is if they have a white person to lead them or defend them. It’s a valid criticism and one of the many ways that subtle racism still perpetuates. Dances With Wolves manages to mostly sidestep this trap. Films like The Last Samurai can be viewed as playing into the White Savior trope, but I think in the case of it and Avatar, it’s not that simple, or rather that it’s not the entire story, and something is missed if it is labelled or dismissed so simply. Jake’s story is much more that of a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story), or of a hero’s journey within or alongside some of the white savior tropes, but I feel that if you look closely at Jake’s character and the events surrounding his journey, it’s much less cut and dry.
The extended edition of the film (available on the deluxe editions in both DVD and blu-ray) makes the story a lot clearer, and the deleted scenes add extra dimension. The extended edition begins on Earth, showing a scene where Jake sees a man beating up his girlfriend in a bar, and he intervenes and is ultimately thrown out. His voiceover: “The strong prey on the weak. It’s just the way things are. And nobody does a damn thing. All I ever wanted in my sorry-ass life, was a single thing worth fighting for.”
That for me changes the whole flavor of the film. You have a man who is broken and lost, unsure where his life is going, who is just following an opportunity given to him when his twin brother is killed. He has no emotional stake in Pandora, does not know about the Na’vi at all, and is not looking to become the leader of anything. His interests at the outset are basic; it’s good pay, a change of scenery, an option for someone who has few. What the hell does he have to lose? But more than that, the bar scene also shows us a man who is tired of seeing the strong dominate the weak because they can, and that comes into play later.
If you take Avatar in a strictly allegorical sense, then the framework of the savior trope certainly fits. You have a technologically superior group of humans (whose leaders are all white) digging up a planet whose indigenous population is a neolithic tribal society whose technology is still at the bow and arrow stage. Culturally the Na’vi are very similar to various rainforest dwelling peoples on Earth, with a close connection to their world, with Eywa, their Great Mother, so basically it is the White European versus the Amazonian Tribesmen.
Part of the white savior trope is that the tribal or native peoples are shown to be incompetent to protect themselves. That is certainly not true of the Na’vi; when Jake arrives on Pandora relations have broken down, with the Na’vi forbidding the sawtute from certain areas. It’s at least implied that this ban is kept in effect. The film early on sets up the fact that the RDA intends to take the rich unobtanium deposits under Hometree whether the Na’vi like it or not. They can leave on their own, or be forced out. The humans have no interest in settling Pandora, only taking the minerals that have value to them, so there’s no plot about expansion of settlements, only the destruction of nature. Indeed, Pandora is set up right away by Colonel Quaritch as a hell-like, hostile place where “beyond that fence, every living that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.”
It is into this context that Jake wheels himself in, getting his first information about Pandora through Quaritch’s safety briefing, where the Na’vi are described as “an indigenous species of humanoids.” (Quaritch, like many of the human characters in the film, pronounce it incorrectly as “nahvee.”) “They’re fond of arrows dipped in a neurotoxic venom that’ll stop your heart in one minute, and they have bones reinforced with naturally-occurring carbon fiber. They are very hard to kill.”
Before Jake (and we, the viewers) sees any Na’vi at all, they are set up by Quaritch as dangerous, part of the Pandora that wants to do nothing more than kill. Norm, quizzed on his Na’vi by Grace, clearly knows a lot more, but we don’t get to see any of it. The first Na’vi that the viewers see are all avatars “driven” by the human characters Grace, Norm, and Jake (along with others who are never named) but when they venture out into the forest wearing human clothing, it’s clear they are not Na’vi. The film sets up a clear distinction beyond just the physical (the avatars have five fingers and toes, unlike the Na’vi, who have four fingers on each hand and prehensile first toes, almost like thumbs on their feet; also, the neural queues on an avatar body are connected at the base of the skull; the Na’vi queues emerge from the top of the back of the skull); the human-driven avatars dress like humans in clothes and shoes and stick out in the jungle like the aliens they are.
When Jake is separated from the others by a palulukan attack (note: I tend to use the Na’vi terms for Pandoran wildlife because the human terms annoy me), we get our first look at a real Na’vi. But before Neytiri swoops in and saves Jake from a nantang attack, we see her on a branch above him, ready to shoot him with an arrow before the appearance of an ‘atokirina stops her. We learn later that these are seeds of the Sacred Tree, “very pure spirits” and a sure sign from Eywa.
Jake comes in as the intermediary, and in this sense he serves the narrative the same way Harry Potter does in the books and films. When he goes to Hogwarts for the first time, Harry knows nothing about the wizarding world, and as he learns, we do too. Without Harry the wizarding world would have been incomprehensible to us Muggles without extensive exposition to explain, and the stories would not have been so immediately captivating. So too with Jake; he comes to Pandora an empty cup, as we are, and we learn about the Na’vi along with him.
The theme throughout the film (cemented much further if you have a chance to see some of the deleted footage that covers Jake’s Dream Hunt) is that Eywa chose Jake for a purpose, and I think that while the White Savior Chosen One trope does fit, it doesn’t settle as neatly if you look at the story from the point of view of the hidden character of Pandora—Eywa herself. The story certainly shows that there is some kind of interlacing energy or power at work on Pandora, a planet where beings can directly connect to each other as the Na’vi do with their neural queues. When Grace is dying, her last words to Jake are “I’m with her. She’s real.” So it’s necessary then to frame events as being Eywa’s will, either through her direct action or her nudging, and all of those things lead to one thing; the protection of the planet. So it can be argued that Jake is a tool used by Eywa to save herself, and considering the mentality we’ve already established with Jake, that he wanted something worth fighting for, he is a natural choice.
He’s also a natural choice for the same reason it makes sense for Katsumoto to take Algren as an ally in The Last Samurai. Algren knows how the new army will think and fight because he trained them. That’s the entire reason Katsumoto took Algren prisoner in the first place—to “know my enemy.” Likewise, as a Marine, Jake knows how the Sky People fight, he knows their technology, their tactics, weaknesses—information the Na’vi wouldn’t have without him. The Na’vi certainly do not need him to attack the Sky People; in another deleted scene, after the Tree of Voices is bulldozed to the ground (nearly taking Jake and Neytiri with it), the Omatikaya retaliate against the humans, and attack the site, destroying the bulldozers and several of the AMP suits (large mechanical suits that allow humans to move about) and killing several people on the ground.
The Na’vi are not helpless or backward, but all they are able to do is fight the only way they know how, and the power isn’t necessarily on the Sky People’s side; the Na’vi have greater numbers overall, and even though they do not have advanced weapons, the Na’vi are ten feet tall and ride proportionally-sized pa’li and fly on ikran that are as agile as the Sky People’s gunships. But as the climax shows, they are able to present a defense, but it’s not enough. Even with Jake leading them, it’s not enough. It’s only when Eywa takes direct action that the tide is turned, giving Jake—her tool—the ability to destroy the ship before they can bomb the Well of Souls, and to take down Quaritch’s ship.
It’s also interesting to note that despite Jake being the hero of the story, ultimately it is Neytiri who strikes the final blow; Jake is at Quaritch’s mercy when Neytiri’s arrows take him down, and it is also Neytiri who then saves Jake’s human body, having the presence of mind to leap into the link station and put the mask on Jake before the unfiltered Pandoran atmosphere kills him.
Jake is not an arrogant White Savior, nor is there any indication that he sees himself as such, even when he swoops down to the Tree of Souls as toruk makto. You can argue that the very fact that he does is proof, but I see it somewhat differently. Neytiri told him the story, and that all Na’vi know it. When he’s faced with the urgent need to be able to reach them, it’s something they will not be able to deny. He goes after toruk without any idea if it will even work, going on faith, on the need to do something to protect the people he’s come to love. And when he does, his only motivation is to help them, and to beg Eywa to help Grace. He comes to Tsu’tey humbly, acknowledging his leadership and status, and addresses the assembled Omatikaya only with Tsu’tey’s permission.
For me, Avatar is less “Pocahontas in Space” and less White Savior Protecting The Savages and more about someone finding his place, his home, finding love—finding, as he desired, “a single thing worth fighting for.”