I had been almost done writing my original draft of my Avatar review, full with the references to stunning visuals and nods to possible inspirations such as FernGully, Pocahantas, Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai, when a friend asked me a question. I was essentially asked, “What genre is Avatar?” At first I said “Oh, Military Science Fiction,” but as soon as I said it matter-of-factly, I immediately began doubting that answer and continued on with rambling about alien invasion versus Space Opera. All of which was likely more than my friend wanted to hear but something I thought was an interesting discussion. I reread my review and decided I couldn’t just throw that out there, not when I had something interesting to discuss.
Avatar at its most obvious is Military Science Fiction (here on: MSF). You have a hard ass Colonel with the standard marine mentality. You have a “grunt” as Jake Sully describes himself in the beginning, setting up a character that all fans of MSF know is not only going to be the main character but through his actions will prove he’s more than just another military drone. We dare not forget the cool military tech: mech suits and helicopters, along with an assortment of other spacey tech! It is easy to see how this could be confused for a straight up MSF, but after putting some more thought into it, I decided it couldn’t be 100% classified as a MSF even though it does use it as a backdrop.
The next stop on my exploration into the genre of Avatar was whether or not it qualified as a Space Opera. We have humans coming from Earth to another planet, and we see the ship they rode in on (an important aspect of Space Opera). We have humans interacting with the “people” on that planet, and those “people” are surprisingly humanoid. There’s romance, danger, and not a little bit of daring-do thrown into the mix. All of which would lend itself to being a Space Opera, but there’s something a little more sinister here. This isn’t people from Earth coming to a planet of beautiful savages and saving them from their oppressive overlords; this is something else.
This realization told me that maybe the first two options were way too easy, and maybe I needed to dig a little deeper into the story. My friend and I had been discussing Avatar in comparison to District 9, and he had asked me if they were in similar genres. I originally dismissed it out of hand saying District 9 is essentially alien invasion (even if the invasion part initially failed or whether their original intent was invasion or not, the “Prawns” still invaded parts of South Africa), while Avatar was more Space Opera. However, when I stopped to think about it, that is a very human-centered and egotistical evaluation.
We think of the “alien invasion” aspect of science fiction in a very egocentric way, and really it’s hard to look at it any other way. Alien invasion stories include a group of “people” from a planet traveling to another and then trying to take over or exploit the native population. In general terms, we think of alien invasions happening to us, not us being the alien invaders. In District 9, the Prawns were clearly alien, and they were encroaching on our planet, so they clearly must be the bad guys. However in Avatar, we’re the ones traveling to another planet, threatening a more primitive people and trying to take something that isn’t ours to take. With this assessment, I believe we’re getting closer to defining Avatar.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Avatar begs being compared to Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai, and this is because it is an “Going Native” story as well. Yet somehow, just calling it that doesn’t seem sufficient either. Jake Sully does indeed “go native”, even moreso than either Dunbar or Algren. Not only does he get accepted into a tribe of people, but he has to enter an entirely different body before he even has to do the “coming of age in the tribe” actions. As in most Going Native stories, at first he is skeptical but then embraces this way of life to the point that he deeply desires to leave behind human life and its frailties.
Unlike other examples of this genre, Sully’s actions have a broad effect on the outcome of the movie. Humans are invading Pandora because it has the one thing that can save life on Earth, unobtanium (yes I KNOW how dumb that is, but that has probably been covered by every other review ever). Sully’s actions aren’t benign. It isn’t so much that he is escaping capitalism, but he’s actively working against a plan that would save his own kind on his home planet. Colonel Quaritch asks a question that ends up hanging out there and never being answered: How does Sully feel, betraying his own race? Even if his race is the bad guy?
Could I make the decision to save a people I have just become associated with if it meant that all of the people I knew would at best have to spend valuable time and resources coming up with other alternatives, or at worst die as a result of my actions? I don’t know. Yes, the Omaticaya people would likely have died… I guess the thing here is that there isn’t a good answer if you’re truly a compassionate person.
Yes, the guy ends up with the girl. Yes, there are obvious and sometimes even obnoxious plot devices from start to finish. Yes, the visuals are stunning 98% of the time. None of that makes Avatar a good movie or a bad movie. What makes it stand apart is that it doesn’t spoon feed you the answers all of the time. How would it feel to betray your whole race? What would you have done? Sully is not a hero, anti-hero or villian. In the end it is hard to know if he is truly selfish or selfless, but this ambiguity is (for me) wonderful to ponder and what makes Avatar memorable.
That still doesn’t answer the question though. What genre is Avatar? Science fiction, surely. I wouldn’t firmly place it in any of the previously mentioned subgenres, but don’t take that to mean I am saying it is genre defying. It spans many subgenres, but in the end I think the most prominent is Going Native. The story may not be unique or new, and I have to admit to feeling a little insulted by the over simplification of certain plot elements, but in one way it did really stand out for me. They may have spoon fed you the rest, but they didn’t tell you how it feels to betray your own race or how you chose one over the other. This is a movie I will be thinking about for quite some time, and not just for the visuals.
Rating: 3 / 5 Stars