Nothing quite sparks debate like James Cameron’s “Avatar” film franchise. Although known substantially less for its storytelling than for its signature giant blue cat people, known as the Na’vi, the film series has drawn criticism both for what it contains and what it lacks.
The first movie, released in 2009, was perceived by some as anti-military, anti-American and anti-Marine Corps, among other “anti-s.” It was also perceived by some as perpetuating a “white savior” narrative of a type found in poorly researched and generally cheesy Western films. (And perhaps more esoterically, some gamers have perceived a faint resemblance between the Na’vi aliens and Navi the fairy in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time video game, who in addition to having a similar name is also visually conspicuous, blue, and annoying. I am Spartacus.)
One thing most people can’t fail to perceive is the correlation between both films and the Vietnam War. When discussing the first film, Cameron himself stated that parallels to the wars in Iraq and Vietnam were “there by design.” Thus we know that scenes that evoke Vietnam for some people were intended to at some level.
Viewers have been quick to pick up on it. One review notes that the new film, “The Way of Water,” depicts a “military-industrial holocaust” showing “jungles engulfed in walls of flame, the torching of villages with flame throwers, the brutal abuse and objectification of locals (who rise up in guerrilla warfare)” and alleges that the film’s visuals hearken to “the Vietnam War in general and of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979).”
As the term “Vietnam” keeps popping up in “Avatar” film reviews, it’s worth unpacking the differences between reality and fantasy—even as “Avatar”‘s visuals blur the line.
Door Gunners, Hueys and Deforestation
The Vietnam War was a complex conflict and cannot easily be translated into a simplistic “good guys vs. bad guys” movie storyline. Like most things about the “Avatar” franchise, similarities with Vietnam occur in terms of visuals.
In both of the “Avatar” films, American military personnel are shown burning and destroying jungles and the people who live in them. In the first film, they are aided by the use of helicopter-like transports and gunships. One of these, the fictional “Aerospatiale SA-2 Samson,” bears a hauntingly similar resemblance to the Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, better known as the Huey, featuring skids and door guns.
Many Vietnam War veterans still feel a connection with the Huey due to their memories of it; the helicopter is regarded with affection by some veterans, and others have made efforts to preserve them in museums and even to make them airworthy again. In the world of “Avatar” however, the “Samson” is an undeniably sinister aircraft, as is the fictional “AT-99 ‘Scorpion’ Gunship,” which also may call to mind Vietnam War helicopters for viewers familiar with the war.
Door gunners feature in the “Avatar” universe, as do flamethrowers. The military undertakes deforestation efforts to get rid of their jungle-dwelling opponents, the Na’vi, who begin an insurgency against them. It might be tempting for some viewers to draw a parallel equating the Na’vi with the Viet Cong here, but there are a couple of key differences to note. In “Avatar,” the Na’vi are a peaceful forest people minding their own business when suddenly evil humans swoop down and attack to eradicate them (and pillage their resources.) By contrast, the Viet Cong had clear political objectives and used violent means in pursuit of them; they also engaged in acts of terrorism.
It’s also worth noting that the communist insurgency in Vietnam began long before American troops actually arrived there. If you want to talk about how the insurgency started, you need to go back to the French colonial period. But the U.S. military personnel depicted destroying jungles in “Avatar” are distinctly non-French types.
Villains of choice?
Watching “Avatar” scenes gives the inescapable impression that the military characters are the “bad guys.” Anyone coming into the “Avatar” universe naively believing that the conflict shown somehow echoes the Vietnam War might also get the impression that men who fought against guerilla forces in Vietnam were the “bad guys.” It’s a risk especially for younger generations, for whom the “Avatar” movies will be the first time they see anything resembling scenes from the Vietnam War, like Huey helicopter lookalikes or door gunners for example.
Movies are capable of shaping unconscious biases and although the “Avatar” series is obviously science fiction, it does run the risk of doing this in terms of the Vietnam War. No matter what one’s political views may be, it’s a disservice to Vietnam veterans to continue to perpetuate perceptions of them as “evil.”
Of course it can be argued, and has been argued, that the films’ central protagonist Jake Sully started off as as a U.S. Marine—however, Jake is both morally and visually disassociated from this role as he ends up turning into a Na’vi, a.k.a. a tribal blue cat person. This visual difference distinctly separates him, in the minds of viewers, from the U.S. military and thus also from any negative Vietnam War parallels. Admittedly the lines start to blur slightly in the second film with the transplantation of the main antagonist Col. Miles Quaritch into Na’vi form, but the U.S. military remain depicted as the villains.
Art imitates life and it should have the freedom to do so. However it’s worth mentioning that the manner in which the Vietnam War has been represented—and misrepresented—in films over the years has affected perceptions about the war’s veterans. They have largely been typecast as bad guys, psychos or written off as unfortunate pawns on a chessboard, according to Vietnam magazine’s Senior Editor Jerry Morelock.
“We were all assumed to be incurably and permanently traumatized by the war: drug-addled, unemployable, homeless misfits; or soulless, psychopathic killers deserving of fear,” wrote Morelock, himself a Vietnam veteran, in a review of the book “They Were Soldiers” by Joseph L. Galloway.
“The typical villain-of-choice in Hollywood films and TV ‘cop shows’…was a ‘deranged Vietnam vet’ driven by combat experiences to commit homicidal mayhem. Years of daily bombardments by ‘all the bad news that’s fit to print’ media coverage of the war convinced the public that those who fought in Vietnam were poor, ignorant dupes who should be either pitied or feared—no ‘in-between.'”
Morelock praised Galloway for telling the stories of Vietnam veterans “who served nobly—sometimes heroically—and went on to forge outstanding careers in private and public life, much like the heralded ‘Greatest Generation’ of World War II vets.”
Imagery but Not historical substance
The world of “Avatar” might be visually entertaining to some, and its themes focusing on preserving the environment doubtlessly resonate with people today (this writer included.)
However it would be a mistake to assume that that either of the two extant “Avatar” movies truly parallel, or even really touch on, the essential themes of the war in Vietnam.
It is true that the film series draws on imagery that is reminiscent of the Vietnam War, but the deeper themes behind the war, and the diverse experiences of military personnel who fought in it, are not reflected.
Although “the Vietnam War” might seem like a distant imaginary planet to some people, for others, including and especially veterans, it was reality. It’s important to respect that reality and to seek to better understand the experiences of those who played a role in the conflict.