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Avatar and the Vocabulary of Evildoers

Josh Schrei

An image of a Navi character.
Avatar, 20th Century Fox

While critics have unanimously agreed that the visual spectacle that is James Cameron's Avatar is beyond compare, there has been less enthusiasm for the plot line, which has been called out as flat and unoriginal.

It's quite true that the movie's script -- which centers on a tribe of indigenous creatures whose ancestral arboreal homeland is being destroyed by contracted soldiers in service of a resource extraction company -- has its weak points, perhaps most notably the endless stream of one-liners that emanate from the film's primary antagonists: corporate evil bad guy Parker Selfridge (played by Giovanni Ribisi) and the muscle behind his operation, Col. Miles Quarritch.

In one memorable moment, Ribisi's character (who apparently keeps a hovering chunk of the hilariously yet somewhat profoundly named mineral "Unobtanium" on his desk at all times just so he can explain its purpose to those of us who may not know) says: "Killing the indigenous looks bad."

In another, he says: "They aren't people, they're savages" while his Colonel sidekick says: "Let's scatter the roaches... I want to be home before dinner."

While it's easy to smirk at lines like this and dismiss them as boorish screenwriting, the sad truth is they actually hit much closer to home than one might think. The history of colonialism and destruction of indigenous peoples brings with it a panoply of one-liners and inhumane vernacular that would make even Cameron cringe.

In the 1990s, Freeport-McMoran mining company blasted the top off a mountain in West Papua, poisoned the water supply of thousands of indigenous residents, hired Indonesian soldiers to "protect" the mine from any insurgents, and quite possibly had two of the tribal leaders killed. The notorious CEO of Freeport, JimBob Moffett, was later quoted as saying that "the environmental impact of my mine is equivalent to me pissing in the Arafura sea."

Chevron spokesman Don Campbell, speaking about a lawsuit filed against the company by 30,000 indigenous and peasant farmers in Ecuador over the systematic rape, destruction, and poisoning of their land, told a reporter, "We're going to fight this until hell freezes over, and then we'll fight it out on the ice."

The same company's corporate lawyer, in Joe Berlinger's powerful film Crude, sits on camera with a stone face while looking at pictures of tumor-addled children and exclaims that there is no evidence that oil contamination causes cancer and blames the cancer on the indigenous people themselves because of their lack of hygiene.

Slightly more to the point is Christophe de Margerie, CEO of French oil company Total, who in August of last year bluntly said that critics of Total's destructive operations in Burma can "go to hell."

Historically, the vernacular of colonialism has followed a consistent track of smug superiority, debasement, and dehumanization, putting -- as Ribisi's character does in Avatar -- particular emphasis on the word "savage."

The British used the word with relish, alternately using it to refer to every one of their conquered peoples, starting with the Scots and the Irish and then moving briskly through the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. In 1919, after slaughtering 349 men, women, and children in Amritsar India, British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer still maintained that Indians were savages who would "never be enlightened."

Yes, 1919 was a long time ago -- relatively. But as late as 1983, in my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the town's central monument honored Don Diego De Vargas's victory over the "savages" (during which twelve native chiefs were hung in the public square). This victory was commemorated every year -- until it was finally stopped several years ago -- by a Fiesta parade in which a man dressed in Native garb was paraded around the town in chains.

Most recently, in Peru, after police attacked indigenous protesters in the Amazon basin, killing over a dozen and injuring several hundred, Peruvian President Alan Garcia demonstrated his overt hatred of the indigenous by characterizing them as "savage and barbaric." He went on to say that:

"These people don't have crowns....These people aren't first-class citizens."

While the word "savage" is debasing and degrading, it still denotes some level of humanity in the native. When the United States Army detonated a series of nuclear bombs on Rongelap Atoll in the 1950s and then moved the indigenous people back to the blast site in order to measure the effects of radiation on test subjects, for example, it stated, "While it is true that these people do not live the way civilized people do, it is also true that they are more like us than the mice."

The next level of debasement is to dehumanize altogether, i.e. to compare people who are about to be killed to insects or other lower life forms. During the Rwandan genocide, less than two decades ago, Rwandan Public Radio was calling on all law abiding Hutus to "exterminate the cockroaches," a mandate that makes Colonel Quarritch's one-liner about insects seem not so outlandish after all.

Such evil-speak is not the stuff of Hollywood fancy. It is the true life vocabulary of people who do unimaginable things. The real reason we find one-liners like this so laughable in movies is not always that they are cheesy, it's that most of us -- in a post-modern and somewhat self-aware world -- cannot even conceive of a mentality that would utter such bile. Sadly, such bilious people are not only still out there, they are thriving.

In one of Avatar's climactic battle scenes, a massive robot-driven machine chews up and spits out forest while helpless natives fire upon it with puny bows and arrows. Such is the exact fate of the Penan, who, as this is being written, are blockading roads with fallen trees and firing blowguns at Caterpillars in order to stave off the same destruction faced by Cameron's fictional Na'Vi. The indigenous tribes of Peru's Amarakaeri Communal Reserve face a similar fate. And less than a month before Avatar's release, two Salvadorans, including a woman who was 8 months pregnant, were assassinated for protesting the El Dorado Gold Mine. The instances in which Cameron's film mirror reality are far too many.

Avatar certainly has a few low points. But for those critics who wished for fewer one-liners and evil caricatures in the film: Maybe we should wish for fewer of them in the world first. Because they're still out there, and they're still speaking the language they've always spoken. If James Cameron -- and the rest of us -- want to do something about it, lets start today.

This review was originally published on huffingtonpost.com on January 6, 2010.

Josh Schrei is a full time Marketing Director and a part time writer, activist, critical thinker, and student of Indo-Tibetan history and philosophy. His work focuses on the dissection of all-too-common memes in China-Tibet propaganda and American political and religious thought.

Read more about Josh Schrei

Comments (12)
  • Thank you for this article. 

    m

    — Mo'in on January 15, 2010

  • Thank you for sharing this tragedy, informing us.  My heart aches to see the loss.

    — Salima on January 15, 2010

  • This movie impacted me so greatly, for the very reasons Josh Schrei mentions. I knew this was not fiction, but an accurate depiction of what our country has done for centuries in the name of progress and Capitalistic Democracy. I’m not sure how much of difference my contributions will make on the big scale of planetary degradation, but I am now committed to being a better steward of our planet through my daily actions.Thank you for a review that considers the deeper message in this movie.

    — Ananda Mariam on January 15, 2010

  • I thought this film was a Sci Fi version of Dances With Wolves. It had the same message anyway. I liked the film. Both of them.

    — Nathan on January 15, 2010

  • I agree with you quite whole heartedly. But it was not the script writing that was so bother some as 1/3 of the movie using gratuitous violence to entertain us. Why couldn’t the avatar been non-violent like Gandhi or MLK. That would have been some film making, but sorrily not a blockbuster.

    — Daniel ( ALi Jemal ) Mount on January 15, 2010

  • I thoroughly appreciate the author’s response to those who saw this film through such narrow eyes.  I would also like to call attention to some of the other themes I found in the film. 
    There’s the fundamental difference in the quality of life between the invaders and the indigenous and the consequences (beauty, strength, responsibility, understanding) of living life in tune with nature.  Then there is the question of whether we can have our eyes opened by the unknown.  Can we reconsider our “knowledge”, beliefs, and perspective?  Can we - literally - fight against what is mistaken in that on behalf of our new insight?  Can our minds fall in line behind our heart, instead of the reverse?  And how about this - the availability of the One and Only Being, if sought?  And an ultimate question - are we willing to abandon our “body of limitation” for a greater, expanded “body”?

    — rabia on January 16, 2010

  • An amazing film to see at this time.  It has the same mythic dimensions for me as Star Wars, had for Joseph Campbell, only this is for the 21st century.  It’s recognition of the destructive nature of colonialism on indigenous cultures was what touched me most strongly.

    When Pir Zia was in Sydney he commented on the way that Sufis related strongly to the indigenous cultures of the land.  In that respect this is a film about the ‘sacred manuscript of nature’
    -Arjuna, in Sydney Australia

    — Arjuna Ben-Zion Weiss on January 16, 2010

  • People seem to miss the point: The best way to reach mass culture is thru films and if is a blockbuster film more people get the message. Yes this film was made to bring in big bucks to Hollywood power studios, etc. But I praise Mr. Cameron’s choice to tell a story about human flaws and alien utopian world. Even with its so called cliches (male, white hero) and ironies (a film about nature made entirely on cg technology) Avatar is a film with a message. Perhaps this is the only way he could materialize (get financing) his idea and his message.
    Finally, this film reminds me what I learn about European colonization in college. But in this case the civilization being colonized won the right to keep their home and their culture.

    — Andres on January 17, 2010

  • I am always intrigued by the perpetrators(colonials)  going into indigenous people’s territory and referring to them as savages to justify them moving in and taking what does not belong to them. Makes one wonder who the real savages are?????
    Yena on January 18, 2010

    — Yena on January 18, 2010

  • When i left the theatre last evening, i thought perhaps i would never go to another movie.  I am glad however now to read this review.  A fallacy in the movie plot—that a political campaign, (organizing the clans), can save the world—seems akin to the notion of mass communication i.e., pop culture doing anything to champion justice or halt the next war.  Maybe the avatar movie would be more effective as a story of anihilation,  in getting people to wake up.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, don’t go.  The movie isn’t even a great time killer. Insulting to beauty, special effects and 3d imax may deplete your own visionary imagination.  Let’s revive storytelling, slow trains, unamplified music, hand made stuff, and prophetic ranting+lots of kids

    — timezone jonathan on January 20, 2010

  • The movie AVATAR illustrated how violent the corporate greed can get. Having a greater awareness of corporate greed and its traumatic psychological impact on people can put some issues in a better perspective. The private pain of people can reveal its public meaning. For example, someone I know is painfully suffering from unemployment. He was laid off from a corporation that reported record profits last year. This corporation can afford hiring him back, but they won’t. Corporations are realizing that they can make more money with fewer employees. They just work their employees to death.  We need to do more on holding corporations accountable for their social responsibilities.

    — Payam Ghassemlou Ph.D. on February 8, 2010

  • All I am reading above is criticism, criticism, criticism, from mental minds and you seem to be missing the point.

    For humanity to be brought to the the edge of another reality is a gift. As one sufi friend said, “humans can’t take very much reality” and your comments show that.

    — Linda Justice on February 12, 2010

14 January 2010

Tagged Under
ecology, avatar, language,
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