One key to understanding Avatar, I think, is something James Cameron said when I saw him at Comic-Con. As I wrote in my entry reacting to that presentation, "Cameron talked about how, although the Navi, Saldana's people, were aliens, they represented the spiritually superior side of humanity, while the humans represented a corrupted side."
One of the few negative reactions I've seen to the movie, by Mike Russell at Ain't It Cool News, talks about how an earlier script for Avatar was, in his opinion, superior to the finished project for having more psychologically complex human characters as well as a portrait of Earth massively overpopulated with people desperately in need of the new resource which the marines and Giovanni Ribisi's corporation are on Pandora to obtain, called "unobtainium".
Titanic's often criticised for its weak characters, and Cameron's defence at the time was that the characters were meant to be archetypes. In Avatar, the idea is that the Na'vi and the humans represent two sides of the human soul, a story which would naturally be diluted by psychological complexity on either side. The Na'vi resemble the indigenous peoples of South America in clothing and mannerisms with the humans resembling conquering Europeans. With clear references to modern struggles between super-powers and foreign countries over natural resources, it seems Cameron's presenting an essay on a basic, perennial human struggle.
Meanwhile, it's also a pulp science fiction adventure, greatly resembling, as many reviews have pointed out, Princess of Mars--a military man, transported to an alien world eventually earns the trust of the indigenous peoples and eventually becomes their leader. Like a lot of great fantasy fiction, the story is indulgence for the male ego, featuring a guy who has an inner strength unseen by the world's oppressive hostility but that allows him to both physically and spiritually best everyone, proving to even his most potent friends and foes that his point of view is the right one. So Cameron's taking some of the very instincts that made the European conquerors do what they did and saying that they can be used for good. Yes, you may say that Sully had his opinion changed from aiding the military to aiding the Na'vi, but it is only because he realised the Na'vi better serve his true motives--finding a people and a way of life that recognise his value and in which he's able to prove himself and earn respect by his own means.
I don't like people who dismiss fantasy for being simplistic, indulgent fantasy. I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with such fantasy--in this complex world, it's good to have hypothetical situations in a vacuum that allow us to reaffirm our basic ideas of goodness.
And on a similar vein, I don't mind the use of a certain racial stereotype for characters like the Na'vi. In his review for The Princess and the Frog, Roger Ebert said, "It is notable that this is Disney's first animated feature since Song of the South (1946) to feature African-American characters, and if the studio really never is going to release that film on DVD, which seems more innocent by the day, perhaps they could have lifted 'Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah' from it and plugged that song in here." I went to YouTube and watched some clips from Song of the South and it occurred to me that although Uncle Remus is a reflection of American attitudes to categorise black people in certain personality types, most importantly as people who are happy with the status quo, he's also a likeable and evidently wise character and any child ignorant of the history behind the character type could certainly take from the film an innocent, happy experience.
Now, let me tell you why I didn't like Avatar.
The beginning of Avatar exhibits Cameron's talent for efficient narrative flow--we're given a lot of spoken exposition as well as visual data about the universe in which Sully lives very fast and with little ambiguity. You could say this is to accommodate the shorter attention spans of modern audiences, but, so what? This is the modern language, and so this is the language one uses to tell a story. When I saw the preview footage at Comic-Con, I remember thinking the military stuff is the best part. This stuff is really second nature to Cameron, and in fact the characters strongly resemble new versions of characters from Aliens--as Stephen Lang himself observed at Comic-Con, his character, Colonel Quaritch, is the character Michael Biehn would have played had he been in the film. There's also a Paul Reiser analogue in the form of Giovanni Ribisi and a Vasquez in the form of Michelle Rodriguez. The difference now is that Cameron hates his old self--this is a reversal of Aliens, with the aliens being the good characters versus the evil, invading human marines. Somewhere along the line, Cameron got a new philosophy. The old him which wanted to tell visceral stories of guns and monsters frightens the new him which feels his movies, as he put it at Comic-Con, now need a "conscience"--instincts of conquest and violence have to be tempered with sensitivity for other people. Cameron's always considered himself a feminist, putting female characters in the foreground, often proving themselves as badass as men, but he no longer trusts his ability to write female characters, which is why all the female characters in Avatar are the simplest and most purely good in the movie. Yes, as I said, complex characters would detract from his allegory, so this isn't strictly a problem for the film, though it does make the characters far less interesting, of course. But I respect that it's not meant to be that kind of movie.
The problem is that Cameron's argument comes from ignorance and naiveté. Yes, we should respect and honour nature and its folly to plunder natural resources at the cost of harmony. In fact, at the cost of paradise, for paradise is where the Na'vi live. This is the inherent problem--the Na'vi don't really have problems. They face danger, but mostly it's danger they choose, taming the dangerous beasts to establish feelings of worth for themselves and their peers. And the Na'vi are super strong and skilled, and we never see a Na'vi killed by anything but invading humans. They even have a certifiable afterlife (though I've never understood the modern idea that having memories preserved is as good as continued life in another realm). Life's good when an omnipresent God, or World Mommy, is looking out for you while allowing you to play the self-reliance game. It's a conservative perspective in liberal clothes. Or, hell, maybe both liberals and conservatives want a story that tells them everything's going to be okay at the end.
But when you realise this, you realise that the Na'vi are an extremely privileged community who are like children in the Garden of Eden. Innocents. Which, of course, is the bottom of the noble savage stereotype. The humans are sinners from a world where pillaging natural resources is often a matter of life or death. To put it simply, Avatar's fundamental philosophy is extremely childish and insulting. I like a story of good versus evil--I'll never stop enjoying Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. But that story never claimed the protagonists were pure souls, and neither, for that matter, did Princess of Mars of its characters.
This is one of the reasons why Princess Mononoke is a superior film. The moment where Ashitaka stands between Eboshi and San with the demon energy surrounding him, showing them the face of the common seed of hate in both characters, whose violent acts are also both in the interest of noble ideas of survival for their peoples, is a far more beautiful and insightful moment than the whole of Avatar. I would say Princess Mononoke's a better film in just about every way, including its visuals as I still find Avatar's palette to be dull and uninteresting, its even lighting and colourisation, its true, being necessary for 3D, the result is nonetheless a grey mess in comparison to the far cheaper animated feature. And, obviously it's just me, but I still don't find this cgi superior to traditional cell animation. But I guess that's another kettle of fish at this point.
A part of me is really sorry I can't enjoy this movie as much as other people seem to, and part of me is depressed that so many intelligent people seem to be taken in by it. There's a religious quality to the glowing and insubstantial reactions I've been seeing to the film--I've been suspecting for a while that Roger Ebert's been taking money from studios to cover medical costs, but that doesn't explain the 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. Me, I'm the heretic who would love to see a movie where the aliens from Aliens infest Pandora.
Last night's tweets;
Blue people are very spiritual.
And I like shopping malls that never close.
Pink glow sticks hardwired my schedule.
It's never too late for men to wear hose.