Earlier this year, I managed to get tickets to the movie of the summer. The portrayal of the indigenous homonoid species on the planet is pretty interesting. Instead of jumping to a conclusion about the movie, I wanted to give the director a chance to explain his choices. In this interview, I ask the director about some of the politics behind the movie.
Interviewer: For starters, what about the depiction of indigenous people? As a white man making this movie, were you concerned that you might offend some cultures?
Director: There will always be an extremist minority that take pleasure in being offended by what the majority enjoy. The fact is, minority cultures would never be seen on the big screen if it wasn't for western filmmakers willing to take that risk. I've made this movie for the minorities of the world. My portrayal of indigenous people as big blue spiritualists shows the whole white world the nobility of the indigenous races.
Interviewer: That’s an interesting position. Why the decision to set it on another planet and invent an indigenous people? Why not base it on an actual indigenous culture?
Director: We really wanted to avoid a racist depiction of someone's tribe. Rather than privilege one race over all others by focusing the movie on them, we thought it would be more equitable to combine the best features of all indigenous races into one—that's why they're so big, we had to fit it all in—their strong, slim physiques, their primitivist spirituality and oneness with nature. If you watch closely, all aspects of indigenous races are there. And we chose blue because there actually aren't any native blue-skinned people in the world, most of the other colours were taken already. You know, if we'd chosen black, the native americans would feel left out; if we'd chosen red, the Asians would feel left out; if we'd chosen yellow, you know, we thought blue was more inclusive.
Interviewer: And what about the avatars themselves? What do they symbolise—the separation of modern man from himself and nature? The yearning of the main character to be free from his physical disability, and which ultimately frees him from the world he's been trapped in?
Director: Oh no. People will read all sorts of messages into everything we do. But we wanted to avoid any heavy-handedness. You'll see all the messages are very subtle—if you pay attention, you can actually see that some early scenes could be read as a comment on some current political situations. Rhymes with spy park. I don't want to labour that point though, the movie can be read on many different levels.
Interviewer: So why the avatars then?
Director: Well on one level, because they're cool. And on another level, it was more subtle to have the main characters look like the natives. We didn't want to be accused of being another great-white-hope-to-the-rescue, white-man-saves-the-day movie. God, what a cliché.
Interviewer: Like Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves?
Director: Well that's not a good example, because Kevin Costner's character actually becomes an Indian before he saves the tribe. We wanted to pick up that theme of becoming a native, and then saving them. Like Costner, our main character combines the best of both cultures, the physicality and intuitiveness of native people, and the strategy and technology of western civilisation.
Interviewer: So your movie is a modern Dances with Wolves?
Director: Exactly. Other people have been comparing it to Mr Pip, which I think is a book, so it's not really the same.
Interviewer: And what about the environmental message of your film?
Director: Well, as you know, science fiction is like an exercise in imagine if. Some of my friends and I got to talking about native people's spirituality…
Interviewer: Which native people is this?
Director: Oh sorry, on Earth, not in the movie. We were talking about how they believe they're connected in some way to the earth and other living things. Their whole spirituality is based around this. They even believe that the earth is a living thing like their mother, and in some way it provides for them. It's pretty way out. So, we got to thinking, what if there was a world where that was actually true, where they were right and we were wrong. And that's this movie.