Who Actually Saved the Day?


  Student Reflections and Curriculum Ideas

  Natalie SynhaivskyLast 
			Edited: Feb 11, 2010 12:53 PM

Avatar Review
Surface Plot  The plot of this futuristic story involves a crippled marine who is flown to an earth-base on another planet  so that he can operate the avatar (a body "shell" without thinking/williing/motivating capactiy) of an indigenous alien which was aligned with his deceased scientist brother's DNA.  The marine ends up by becoming assimilated into the alien culture, and attempts to thwart the earth-base's designs to excavate a pricelss natural resource from the planet, which is highly prized on earth.
Metaphor Plot : Human Level   The story of one man's acceptance by a culture, and by the woman who comes to love him.  His ambiguity between his responsibility to the culture which brought  him, and which provided the technological know-how for him to infiltrate an alien culture, and the spiritual/intellectual affinity he comes to feel for his adoptive culture. Symbolic Level  The name of the planet, "Pandora", symbolizes the unknown treasure box which the mythological Pandora is forbidden to open.  In the myth, Pandora does not listen, and when she opens the box, she lets out Evil into an up-to-then utopian world of only Good.  This parallels both the earth culture and the alien culture.  The earth culture "opens up" the box of the Navi's world by letting in a person who plumbs the reality of that culture deeper than any previous infiltrator, thus letting out the "evil" of his role as a manipulator (of the Navi) and traitor (of the earth base).  The alien culture "opens up" the box of establishing a trusting relationship with the infiltrator, thus letting out the "evil" of having the princess fall in love with an outsider who may ultimately betray the interests of the people, and of having the infiltrator use his knowledge of the ways of the people to his own advantage. Social Level  An examination of issues of imperialism, territorial rights, social dominance, social subjugation, military directives, scientific directives,  and human ethical responsibility.  Of particular interest to this class, was the presentation of all five of James Banks' social paradignms (SMASH), which were demonstrated in:
  • Social Reconstruction  The earth base's inhabitants initially tried to change the alien's lifestyle by providing them with schools, teaching them English, and with other aspects of industrial/technological advancements on earth 
  • Multiculturalism  The earth base and the Navi were co-existing, and could have conceivably continued co-existing, if it were not for the (dramatic) conflict created between the shared location of a natural resource (unatanium) and the Home Tree -- a tree with extensive sociological significance -- of the Navi tribe.
  • Assimilation  Jake is assimilated into the Navi cultural, which culminates in his ceremonial induction, i.e. "You are one of us".
  • Single Culture  The Navi are essentially a non-proselytizing, homogenous group (although there are other tribes with varying characteristics on the planet as well).  They are happy with their culture, and have no desire to adopt or allow any aspects of the earth-base's culture into their own.  They are most definitely ethno-centric.
  • Human Relations/Heroes & Holidays  The plot is essentially centered around human relations, or the love which grows between the chieftain's daughter and Jake, and the gradual acceptance of Jake into the Navi culture, which begins with the induction ceremony, but ends with his mounting of the giant pterodactyl during the climactic battle with the earthlings.
  • Jake --hero
  • Native girl -- redemptive love
  • Grace (scientist) -- mother figure; disinterested scientific research
  • Evil colonel -- anti-hero
  • Chieftan's wife -- religious cult-figure; link with natural forces on the planet
  • Native brave vying for girl's hand -- love interest conflict (Ronno in Bambi)
  • Business-guy -- "base", self-serving economic interest
  • Helicopter woman (Tracy) -- "real" people; acts, re-acts and talks the way a "normal" person should
  • Grace's side-kick scientist -- useless intellectual-type
Setting  The setting is a lush, pre-historic forest.  I believe it is a metaphor for "unspoilt nature", or a type of paradise which many cultures believe preceded the corruption brought about by man's ascent in the hierarchy of living creatures.  There are many recurring instances of this fantasy, from the 1980's movie Blue Lagoon, to the 19th century French novel Paul et Virginie, to the Golden Age of classical mythology, to the Garden of Eden of the Old Testament.
Techniques  The film score was a fully -orchestrated, heavy, John Williams-type orchestration, with lots of brass in the climactic scenes, and sudden modulations in pivotal scenes.  The idea of a human-like species living with tamed dinosuars was taken part and parcel from James Gurney's Dinotopia (Atlanta, Turner Publishing, 1992, ISBN 1-878685-23-6, www.dinotopia.com).  Even the name, Tok malik, is a combination of Malik, the timekeeper, and Tok Timbu, the "chief craftsman in metals".  The young hero of Dinotopia also meets a girl who lives in harmony with nature.  "Melanie has re-awakened in me the love of Nature, the joy of knowledge gained in carefree wanderings out-of-doors".
Relevance  The message of this movie connects to the target audience by combining the powerful medium of film with the non-stop action of video games.  is is really not necessary to have any "deeper" understanding of the film in order to walk away thinking that one got good entertainment for $10.50.
Although the movie might appear to be anti-American military/economic establishment, we discussed afterwards that the hero's, Jake's, superior qualities were also those which are associated with the U.S. Marines, so there is no one-sided political message.  (Jake could just as easily have been cast as a black man, as white, in which case Mr. Meade could have spent his article vituperating about the racism of having only a black man being able to understand an essentially primitive species.)  I also don't think that it was obvious that "unatanium" was somehow evil in-and-of-itself just because the earth-base went about its excavation in such a de-humanizing way: as someone pointed out at the discussion, for all we know, unatanium was being used to save lives on earth.
Major "Take-Away" Message  
  • Oldest son (22)  "Don't set up colonies on other planets"
  • Second son (18)  "Don't hang out with blue people"
  • My message -- Maslow's hierarchy of basic human needs is right: each person lives to satisfy his/her own needs.  Jake would have joined any community which satisfied his need for physical wholeness.  (I do not think that having surgically reconstructed human legs is equatable with the physical prowess pocessed by a healthy, young Navi warrior, especially to an ex-marine.)
Provocative questions for student viewers 
  • Learner objective: Imperialism.  To what extent are the needs of a technologically superior culture justification for territorial expansion?
  • Learner objective: Scientific directives.  To what extent can science "recruit" participants in experiments who may not be intellectually, morally or physically capable of undertaking the consequences?
  • Learner objective: Anthropological manipulation.  Jake took advantage of the story which the native girl had told him about Tok malik to present himself as another "savior" to the tribal people, even though he knew he was only an imposter.  To what extent are people from potentially "controlling" perspectives allowed to take in a culture more naive than themselves?
P.S.  I am buying a digital TV tonight...


  Peter ScholtesLast 
			Edited: Apr 5, 2010 9:03 PM

This activity was a good challenge for me, because it required looking for what might be useful (to me as a teacher) in a film I didn't like all that much. This involves a certain objectivity that will come in handy: I might not like the latest rap song many students are listening to, but if I can find something teachable in it, I'll use it. If nearly everyone has seen a movie, then the opportunity for examples, metaphors, and discussion-starters is too good to pass up. Below are the questions I'd ask, with learning objectives in parentheses.

Some of my questions reflect my issues with the story itself. My biggest problem with the film (besides its indifference to character, talk, pacing, and even that dragon Jake abandons) is that it strains to be a metaphor for real-world imperialism, but then violates that metaphor in either of two ways, depending on how you look at it: If it's about the past, it rewrites history with a happy ending. If it's about the future, it advocates violent resistance with the help of God or the Internet. Since that kind of violence isn't part of most people's experience, and would be suicidal if it were, the movie feels like an idle video-game revenge fantasy.

That's not something I feel comfortable "teaching" in the sense I would explore the life lessons behind, say, the 1976 original The Bad News Bears (swear words and all), where students can apply things the characters learn to their own lives.* But I do love what came through of Zoe Saldana's personality in her Na'vi character, the dragon scenes, and a few other moments, and Avatar is a rewarding reference because of its ubiquity. So here's what I would use:

Questions and topics for discussion (with learning objectives in parentheses):

1. What real-world figures could the Na'vi represent? What words does "Na'vi" sound like? What do you think the significance was that the company soldiers had recently fought in Nigeria?

(Objectives: The student will demonstrate knowledge of metaphors and how they function in fiction. Also, the student will demonstrate knowledge of various concepts learned in social studies. Connect film metaphors to "natives" of all kinds, indigenous populations, natural resources, oil mercenaries in Nigeria, the idea of "going native," Native Americans, Navaho, nature, the color navy blue and its associations, the U.S. Navy, green as the green life on earth, plants and trees, sea creatures and animals, the green movement, Greenpeace, the Green party, deep ecology, the expression "true blue," "blue-blooded," the boys in blue, blue uniforms, red/white/blue, etc.)

2. What does the company represent? (Objectives: The student will demonstrate knowledge of metaphors and how they function in fiction. Also, the student will demonstrate knowledge of various concepts learned in social studies, including imperialism and mercenaries. Imperialism of British empire in India, various European powers in Africa, Japan in Asia, Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, United States in Central America and the Caribbean and elsewhere, various kinds of economic, military, and political imperialism in the postcolonial age, and the post-communist era.)

3. Why do you think the filmmakers had Jake succeed and lead the Na'vi to victory, rather than have one of the Na'vi's own become the hero? Why do the Na'vi ultimately accept him in his human form? Why do you think the storytellers make that choice? Can you think of any other stories, real or imagined, when a person working for the more powerful side in a conflict switches sides to become a hero of the less powerful side? Is that person a traitor or a hero?

(Objectives: The student will demonstrate thinking about authorial intent and narrative comprehension. The student will show higher-level thinking by judging this intent, and demonstrate knowledge of metaphorical thinking. The student will apply the concepts of traitor and hero to various situations and synthesize.)

4. What do you think the film has to say about pretending to be someone you're not? Does it endorse this idea? Did it emphasize the dangers? What is the film's idea about what identity is? Is it the body you're born with and the mission you start out with? How did Jake function as a Na'vi? What is "connectedness" and how do you connect with things every day? (See above, except applying concept of pretending to be someone else, identity, mission, function, connectedness.)

5. How do the Na'vi ultimately succeed? Does this scenario apply to the real-world situations? Why or why not? Why did Ghandi lead a nonviolent revolution as opposed to a violent one to oust the British?

(Objectives: The student will demonstrate knowledge of metaphors and how they function in fiction. Also, the student will demonstrate knowledge of various concepts learned in social studies. See above.)



*In fact, my problem with most G-, PG-, and PG-13-rated movies that have come out in the lifetime of our students isn't just that they can't tell a story, or insult the intelligence of viewers, but that they're actually mindless in a destructive way. The ratings system is pretty meaningless for parents on this score: Why can 13-year-olds see Avatar without parents but not Shaun of the Dead, which has something to say about friendship, and where the violence is so cartoon that it doesn't feel the least bit malicious? The number of good PG-13 films from the past decade with "teachable" ideas is pretty slim: Personally, I'd include Cast Away, About a Boy, Hotel Rwanda, and The Bourne Identity, whose ideas about violence and revenge are a lot more interesting, even when it comes to myths about ourselves, than Avatar's. I'd love to compile a longer list with other teachers!