Movies

The Racist Sci-Fi Trope the New Avatar Can’t Quite Quit

James Cameron can’t discard the genre’s troubled history, but he can rewrite it.

Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis in Avatar: The Way of Water
Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis in Avatar: The Way of Water. 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water is a 192-minute film about a family of blue aliens who enjoy riding dragons and are taught to ride fish and befriend whale aliens—whaliens, if you will—by another tribe of aliens, who are teal. Together, they must resist the nature-hating marines who ride around in robots and, in a shocking betrayal of the correct order of things, have cloned a squadron of themselves into blue alien bodies. The film’s director, James Cameron, has shot the whole thing in 3D, and much of it, especially the action scenes, is also displayed at a special high frame rate, which looks as if Cameron has personally switched on an obscure setting in your brain. It rules. To see a James Cameron movie is to remember that in rare cases it does not matter whether a film is good so long as the film is fucking awesome, and those are the cases on which Cameron has built his filmography. That some of his movies are also good—the Terminator films, Aliens, The Abyss—is more a matter of coincidence.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Cameron loves stories about swashbuckling warriors in alien lands, a genre of pulp entertainment built on the form of the serial Western, in which you had to have at least one good action sequence in each chapter to keep the reader curious between installments. The patron saint of these stories is Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose novels of Pellucidar (Tarzan’s home) and Barsoom (Mars) have been filmed and ripped off scores of times, though cowardly filmmakers have never, to my knowledge, depicted the miracle of egg-laying among the beautiful and otherwise totally humanoid Barsoomians. If the natural world of Cameron’s Pandora occasionally seems a little silly and pretentious, it is a quirk he comes by honestly, and from the same source that gives him his devotion to nail-biting action sequences. “With Avatar, I thought, Forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars—a soldier goes to Mars,” Cameron told Dana Goodyear in 2009. Like John Carter, Jake Sully is suddenly translated into another body while his own lies asleep; he falls in love with an alien princess; he must stop a planetary cataclysm. It’s not a straight adaptation—Andrew Stanton’s unjustly maligned John Carter can give you an idea of the gaps—but it’s Cameron’s acknowledged inspiration. He’s not the only one, either: Star Wars is most notable for its homages, let’s call them, to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies, but George Lucas’ original treatment for Star Wars is almost line for line the first page of A Fighting Man of Mars.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There are good reasons to draw from Burroughs’ work; it’s terrifically plotted and paced, for one thing. The prose is perfectly clear, and Burroughs’ interlocking alien cultures are interesting and feel realistic—he’s one of the first fantasists to create a constructed language. (The same guy who made up the Na’vi language, Paul Frommer, developed an expanded Barsoomian for the John Carter film, interestingly.) At the same time, nothing interrupts the action. There’s always peril close at hand, and however firm the alien ground beneath his characters’ feet, Burroughs never neglects to put them in mortal danger as often as possible. It’s a great way to tell a story, and it dominated science fiction for most of the 20th century. That’s not entirely a good thing.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

A larger problem plaguing Cameron’s entire generation of sci-fi storytellers is that the stories that helped form his young imagination are inextricable from a kind of unapologetic racism no longer publicly tolerated in works of art—a quality found especially in Burroughs’ books, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain novels, and the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft. In the Tarzan stories, for example, Tarzan’s status as a kind of superhero is derived from his whiteness and his upper-class ancestry—his “well-shaped head,” no less—which also gives him a natural aversion to cannibalism not shared by the apes who raise Tarzan or the villainous African tribesmen of Burroughs’ imagination, nor by the lower-class sailors who mutiny on the Fuwalda. It’s worth noting that Burroughs doesn’t appear to have harbored a personal animus toward Black people the way Lovecraft absolutely did—his stories have good African tribesmen and bad white characters—but he was enamored of eugenic hierarchies with fancy white people at the top, as was most of the culture in which exclusively white writers flourished. Cannibalism itself was fair game, but Burroughs’ editor at All-Story, the magazine that originally serialized Tarzan of the Apes, demanded he cut from its proposed sequel the suggestion that the evil Count Nikolas Rokoff, becalmed in a lifeboat with Jane Porter, had considered eating her to survive. “I am afraid that I must definitely taboo your suggestion concerning the cannibalism of the people in the boat where Jane and Clayton are,” wrote Burroughs’ editor Thomas Metcalf in 1912. “Really, now, that is going a little bit too far.” The rest of the cannibalism, the kind practiced by and on apes, nonwhite people, and the lower orders, was fine. On Burroughs’ Mars, the races may interbreed—the human John Carter and the alluring Red Martian Dejah Thoris have eggs together—but they are distinct, and the Black Pirate race of Mars is the most feared. “Only in the colour of their skin did they differ materially from us; that is of the appearance of polished ebony,” observes John Carter, “and odd as it may seem for a Southerner to say it, adds to rather than detracts from their marvellous beauty.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Burroughs’ father was a Union veteran, but in his Mars stories, Burroughs makes Carter a Confederate. “At the close of the Civil War I found myself possessed of several hundred thousand dollars (Confederate) and a captain’s commission in the cavalry arm of an army which no longer existed,” he observes wryly. It is a formula duplicated innumerable times, and for Burroughs, it gives his hero an extra dash of romanticism, the sweet poison of the Lost Cause. Cameron, to his credit, sees other opportunities in the premise, and so Jake Sully’s bad war is still going on when he is initiated into the alien culture. “I’ve always had a fondness for those kind of science fiction/adventure stories, the male warrior in an exotic, alien land, overcoming physical challenges and confronting the fears of difference,” he told Entertainment Weekly before the first Avatar came out. “Do we conquer? Exploit? Integrate? Avatar explores those issues.”

Advertisement

I mean, kind of. Cameron has invented his own alien races, just like Burroughs did. Where Burroughs drew insulting parallels to the Apache villains who dog John Carter’s steps just before he accidentally teleports to Mars, Cameron seems to be trying to pay homage to various nations’ Indigenous cultures in the Na’vi. (The Maori bear the brunt of his admiration in The Way of Water.) Complicating this proposition is the fact that some of the Na’vi are played by white people doing horrifying pseudo-Indigenous accents (Kate Winslet, hello), alongside Black and Maori actors doing the same accents. I guess we’re not supposed to see color, except varying shades of blue, because these movies are so heavily CGIed, but it gets difficult to ignore, especially since Winslet’s character is supposed to hate our hero, the Na’vi-ized former marine Sully, for having once been human.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Cameron is not stupid, and this is not the first time he’s tried to reinvent these tropes for an audience that shares his progressive politics. In the Terminator movies, the displaced warrior is simply the bad guy, and it’s up to the invaded world to repel him. In The Abyss, the beautiful undersea culture can be reached only if his explorers, who are badly compromised by the military, can stop bickering and defeat the one character who has gone crazy from the terrible combination of having the bends and being an Army guy. Even in Aliens, in which the culture being invaded is one of straight-up monsters, the first act of the movie is taken up in large measure by Ellen Ripley’s announcing how likely it is that interfering with the xenomorphs will kill everyone involved.

Advertisement

Cameron is also correct that there’s a lot of fun to be had with the idea of a soldier from the wrong side of a bad war suddenly finding himself on the right side. Sully has made a little military “squad” of his family, and it sets him against his sons in a way that, blue or not, feels very true to life. The Na’vi around him seem to be better parents, though they, too, are strict; it’s the human sadism we see in his former Marine colleagues that seems to be weakening Sully’s bond with his kids. Cameron’s mastery of macho, bullying JSOC guys is so grounded and realistic it often feels out of place alongside the scientific-pantheist mumbo-jumbo that Sully has adopted, but the spec ops meatheads never feel accidentally sympathetic. Instead, all of The Way of Water’s sympathetic characters are improbable blue aliens with enormous CGI eyes, and when humans do show up, it’s almost exclusively to get killed in ways that encourage the audience to cheer for their deaths. It’s sort of the reverse of Top Gun: Maverick.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s tempting to ask why Cameron doesn’t just jettison Burroughs’ lineage in favor of a tradition more in line with the person he is obviously trying to be, but I think that conflict is part of why he is so desperate to make these gigantic blockbuster spectacles that nobody on earth seems to want—until they open and break all the records there are. At the risk of being presumptuous, I would say his personal efforts to open vegan farms and preserve New Zealand suggest that he is trying to tread the path he has set out for Sully, from dictatorial egomania to something like humility before the natural world and the people who depend on it.

But the golden age of science fiction, as convention organizer and fanzine author Peter Graham famously observed, is 12. It is no easier to avoid your formative influences than it is to translate your consciousness into the body of a blue übermensch who is perfectly at one with nature. As the years pass, these stories become harder to parse in retrospect—one thing that keeps vintage nerd culture out of the mainstream is that well into the 1990s, sci-fi authors and comics were riffing on the pulps of 70 years prior—but the artists who succeed tend to be the ones who at least try to fight back against their inspirations. Sometimes they fall on their faces: Lucas’ own foreign-inflected underwater world in The Phantom Menace is especially odious, and the less said about the racial politics of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the better. But sometimes they don’t. Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse’s Tom Strong comics duplicate much of Tarzan’s origin story with a series of clever progressive twists. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy makes joyous absurdity of the idea of the spacefaring everyman who rises to the occasion. There’s no perfect work of contemporary pulp reclamation, but the alternative is a Disneyfication of the past, in which we pretend there’s no movie called Song of the South and nobody asks why Mickey Mouse wears white gloves. The world of pulp science fiction is, for better but largely for worse, the one Burroughs built, and we just live in it. Cameron thinks we should admit who we are and try to change. I do too.

Advertisement