We are ready to return to Pandora, the setting of James Cameron’s Avatar films, video games, and theme park collaboration with DisneyWorld. And it is, without a doubt, one of the most thoroughly realized alien worlds ever put to screen. Cameron basically launched an entire mini-industry to design the animals, plant life, geography, tools, and even jewelry found littered around Pandora’s bioluminescent waters.
And yet, there is a question about this world that persists long after Avatar’s end credits have rolled, and Avatar: The Way of the Water doesn’t look like it will be setting them to bed either. That question is: “What do the Na’vi need warriors for?”
In everything we have seen of the Na’vi so far, there are two fundamental truths about the people and their culture.The first is that this is a peaceful people. That doesn’t just mean they don’t want to fight or aren’t particularly warlike. They are presented as completely lacking the kind of avarice, greed, and lust for power that drive the human need for empire-building and military dominance. This is, ultimately, why the Resources Development Administration, the company that is the villain of Avatar, decides the Na’vi need to die.
As our protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) says, “They’re not gonna give up their home. They’re not gonna make a deal. For what? A light beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never gonna leave Hometree.”
But it’s not just that these aliens are simple, nature-loving folk. Avatar shows that the Na’vi are intimately connected to the planet’s ecosystem. All animal life on this planet has a fleshy USB cable dangling out of the back of their head, which is sometimes used when two members of the same species mate, and is sometimes used when they want to, ahem, mount an animal of another species. We won’t dwell on the implications of that, but suffice it to say, the Na’vi share an almost hivemind-like connection with their natural environment, with their “Tree of Souls” acting like a kind of massive communal cloud server.
In other words, everything they do is based on harmony—right down to thanking and apologizing to the animals they kill for food. And if you think it’s odd that they live harmoniously with nature while killing and eating animals, well, meat remains one of the best ways of gathering protein, particularly in non-agrarian cultures, and plenty of cultures manage to do it non-disruptively. But it does point toward the other thing we know about the Na’vi.
They aren’t just hunters. They are warriors.
Na’vi are armed. They know how to fly dragons and space horses, combatively. In a fight, every able-bodied member of the society is ready to fight, and their most respected tribe members are their bravest warriors.
This is the whole reason Sully can gain entrance into the tribe when others can’t. The RDA sends scientists, teachers, linguists, and diplomats to meet the Na’vi. These humanitarians build schools for them, but to no avail.
Now, partly this breakdown in diplomacy is just the Na’vi being smart. After all, history is littered with examples of our linguists, researchers, and missionaries being the vanguard of a colonialist occupation. But it is telling that the one “dream walker” allowed to learn and take part in the Na’vi ways is Sully “of the Jarhead clan.
He is taken into the tribe precisely because he is a warrior, because he can fight. He even rises to the point where he can lead the Na’vi, bringing all the tribes together because he pulls off the trick that Neytiri’s grandfather’s grandfather did before him: riding the biggest fucking dragon.
We’ve got a tribe of warrior citizens who prize martial prowess highly, who can relate to a warrior more than a scientist or a diplomat, and who have an epic tradition of riding giant dragons into… battle, presumably. In their battle with the RDA, we see they are familiar with the practices and strategies around cavalry maneuvers and aerial combat.
When you take all of that into account, it leaves unanswered an absolutely massive question. A question the film never really answers or even wants you to ask.
Who are they fighting?
Sure, the Na’vi live on a giant monster planet, but their relationship with the giant monsters seems mostly pretty chill. Which leaves only one answer. They must fight other tribes.
We know there are other tribes—Sully gathers them all together when it becomes Toruk Macto and rides the biggest big dragon. And indeed, in Avatar: The Way of the Water, the plot sees Sully’s band of Na’vi entreat with another maritime tribe, and it looks like there exists some basic tension between the factions.
But tension, even a little light xenophobia, is not war.
And if they are fighting a war, then what are they fighting over? Pandora is a world of abundant natural wealth; there is no sign that anyone here is suffering for living space, food or water, and nobody seems interested in currency or mineral wealth. So, to quote the great poets, what is war good for?
There is an answer to this question, but it is a pretty disappointing one. The Na’vi have warriors because humans have warriors. For all the amount of work that has gone into imagining and creating the world of Pandora and the culture of the Na’vi, a lot of that culture is a mish-mash of props, practices and beliefs from indigenous societies on Earth.
It doesn’t take a great deal of analysis to see that the Na’vi are a stand-in for various indigenous groups who have been oppressed by colonialist and capitalist exploitation. It is that metaphor which makes Sully’s whole arc a bit problematic. He is the absolute textbook example of a white savior.
The Na’vi, meanwhile, are not an attempt to portray the reality of indigenous peoples, but colonialist fantasies of what indigenous people are like. It is the “Noble Savage” trope writ large, depicting indigenous people as mysteriously connected to nature, possessing a kind of innocence that colonialists, who are “corrupted” by civilization, lack. It is a trope that has nothing to do with the people it supposedly describes, aside from flattering them in a way that manages to be simultaneously patronizing and depicts them as less than human.
And Avatar never had to do this.
What if the Na’vi actually were different from humans? What if, instead of making them a stand-in for a collection of Earth cultures, the Na’vi came from a genuinely alien perspective? What would your worldview be like if you had a USB in your head that you could connect to every animal and tree? What sort of civilization would you build if you put no value in holding territory or amassing wealth? Maybe they wouldn’t even be ruled by a monarchy (if you can imagine such a thing)!
Alternatively, what if the Na’vi really were more like humans? What if they had their own flaws, their own bigotries and even atrocities? What if they actually practiced the brutal, localized wars their culture is implicitly supposed to be built around? Does this “primitive” civilization really need to exist in a state of Edenic purity in order for audiences to understand they do not deserve to be paved over by the Not-Weyland-Yutani-Corporation?
Either take could have created a story that was as exciting and visually thrilling as Avatar became while actually having something challenging to say. But by taking the middle road, Avatar’s Na’vi are not allowed to be properly alien, or even fully human.
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