I decided to start my Aliens and Vampires in Literature class with the Aliens contingent (though, now that I think about it again, I probably should have started with vampires, since Hallowe’en is coming up… Oh, well…) and, while I’m waiting for them to score copies of Carl Sagan’s Contact, I am showing and discussing films.

We started with Avatar.

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I love this movie.  Is it formulaic and predictable?  Yes.  Does it tell a new story?  Not really; in fact, it’s nearly one-to-one with Dances with Wolves (which I also love, so there!).  Despite the panning that it received in some circles for its lack of originality, I think it is an important movie, and I was excited to show it to my students.

One of my goals in this course is to get kids to think about the functions that entertainment serves beyond simple entertainment.  We spent three classes watching the film (I got a M/W/F short-day class instead of the long-day T/TH class I wanted, so we’re making do; it’s going to mean covering less material, but I’ll make sure we do more with what we do see), and I patently refused to let the kids talk about the films in class before we’d gotten to the last scene.  (That made them CRAZY, especially since it turned out that I had to stop the film for the end of classes in some really compelling spots; the kids nearly lost their minds when I had to stop the movie when Jake drops onto the creature to become Toruk Makto on Wednesday.)

We had our culminating discussion yesterday, and it was amazing.  All but two of the kids had seen the film before – several of them more than once – but every single one of them said that, despite being very familiar with the movie, there were a number of things they saw when they were “watching it for a class” that they never noticed before.

My absolute favorite moment in the whole discussion came at the very beginning of the class and from my “school son” (whom I’m probably going to talk a lot about this year, so let’s call him Bart, okay?)  We were all talking about the idea that, in typical alien movies, the aliens are always the bad guys* when Bart pointed out that, in this movie, the aliens are still the bad guys.  I pointed at him with my eyebrows-up, “you-just-nailed-it” look on my face and waited for what he said to sink in with the rest of the kids.  One by one, the light dawned; we’re so used to thinking of the “aliens” as ‘whoever isn’t us’ that shifting our thinking to recognize that, in this film, we’re the aliens is a surprise.

The conversation took off from there.  We talked about the ways in which we create an “other,” and how that process of making a pariah allows us to behave in ways we likely wouldn’t otherwise.  We talked about where each character made his or her realizations (and about the characters who never got to the point of change) and about how some of the “good” guys in the film – up to and including the hero – were still complicated and flawed.  We talked about the film as modern social commentary in the context of the Iraq invasion after the 9/11 attacks, and about how some people – particularly Americans and those in positions of political power – don’t seem to understand that “our way” isn’t the pinnacle of human experience; that not everyone wants democracy or McDonald’s or jeans and sneakers.  We talked about the different perspective of this film – the human as alien – and about how the film asks us to think about things we do in ways that we might not have been able to if the Na’vi had come to Earth; that the position of the different ‘races’ impacted the way we think about them (and us).  We talked about power and economics; we talked about religion and belief, about what we value (and how we value what others value), and about the environment.  We talked about what it means to be connected – to our environment and to each other – and we talked about colonialism and its effects on both occupier and occupied (though they didn’t use the term, they still nailed some of the high points of the concept).

It was a wonderful, dynamic, interesting, and exciting conversation.  We’re off to a good start.

*I recognize that not ALL alien movies are about violent invasions and forced occupation – I’m also planning on showing the kids Cocoon and maybe E.T. – but I think it’s fair to agree that most of our alien genre is stacked with stories about invasion and occupation.  Those films bring up ideas I want to get the kids thinking about; I’m trying to train them to see beyond the explosions and action to get at what some of these stories have to say about us and how we treat each other.



Filed under analysis, critical thinking, ethics, film as literature, fun, I love my job, I've got this kid...., Literature, politics, popular culture, success!, Teaching, the good ones

5 responses to “Avatar

  1. M

    I think this is a fantastic project! I love that they’re understanding the deeper ideas and actually participating.

    On the other hand…Avatar: Let’s be honest here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/04/avatar-pocahontas-in-spac_n_410538.html

    • Donna

      Sounds great!! Your students are lucky they have such a conscientious English teacher. I saw Avatar when it came out, but like your students I didn’t quite grasp all the concepts. Now I understand. Thanks for sharing–good job teacher!

  2. Oh, it’s TOTALLY been done before. In fact, I think it’s so much Dances with Wolves that this was the entry I left on our discussion board:

    One of the (many) things that strike me about Avatar is its similarity to Dances with Wolves, another of my favorite films. The plots of the films are practically the same; a representative of an invading race arrives at a village ahead of the invasion and comes to learn about and to appreciate the native people to the extent that he is accepted into the new tribe and abandons his own culture. The main characters have a nearly one-to-one mirror in the films – Jake is Dunbar, Neytiri is Stands with a Fist, Tsu’tey is Wind in His Hair. The conflicts that the characters experience are nearly identical, and the realizations they come to (and the reasons they come to them) are strikingly similar.

    What’s different about these films, though, is the way they end. What always hits me after I watch Dances (and I watch it a lot) is that we KNOW that the story is going to end badly. We know the whites are coming, and we know they’re going to all but destroy the Lakota culture. We know that there’s death and deprivation coming – we know that this story ends with poverty and reservations and second-class citizenship for the descendants of these people – and we know there’s nothing we can do about it.

    Avatar imagines a different ending for this story, though, and it’s one that I find myself conflicted about. Avatar ends with the Na’vi overseeing the expulsion of the invading humans, and we’re meant to feel a sense of justice and of hope at this ending; our sympathies lie with the native people and we want for them to have their home unmolested. I feel glad about how Avatar ends, but I find myself feeling profoundly sad at the same time that others’ stories didn’t end as well.

    If you were to think about Avatar as social commentary – as being critical about some aspect of our culture or behavior – what do you think its biggest message would be? Do you think it’s effective in that message, or does it fall short somehow? How do YOU feel about how this story ends? Do you think that my response to it is reasonable?

  3. Jessica

    Oh man…if you’re doing aliens, check out the TV show Dr. Who. (It originally airs on BBC, but PBS shows it and it’s available on Netflix) There are all kinds of perspectives on aliens in that show. There are nasty aliens bred to fight and there are peaceful aliens who are simply trying to exist in a nasty world. It’s phenomenal! It also places a heavy focus on how humans play into a universe full of other life.

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