Oh, where to begin? I suppose at the beginning. (Massive Spoilers!!!!!)
In the future, mankind is out and about in the stars, and have located the forest moon of Pandora. Not only is Pandora lush in flora and fauna, but a noble sentient race, the Na'vi, make the moon their home in various tribes situated in various locales. The moon Pandora is also rich in the extremely valuable mineral “unobtanium” which means the humans are willing to do what they must to, well, obtain it.
Along with the Military/Industrial mission to Pandora to mine the unobtanium, there is also a scientific team using “avatar” technology to study and communicate with the native Na'vi. This means scientists have cloned human/Na'vi hybrids capable of surviving on Pandora's atmosphere. The human half allows for a mental transference; i.e. the human DNA donor can actually project mentally into the nine foot tall blue body as if it were their own, while their own frail human shell lies in a transmitting chamber.
A member of the team dies in a freak accident, but happens to have a twin brother who is a Marine. Jake Sully takes his brother's place in the scientific mission, but for the first time is a member who straddles the line to the military. Additionally, the former Marine suffers from paralysis due to an old war wound- use of the avatar will allow him to walk again.
Though initially there only to help the Military backed Corporation exploit the Na'vi, he becomes attached, falls in love with the Chief's daughter, and proves himself to be the great warrior they need to defeat the superior human forces.
So what's good? The imagery and cinematography are without peer. Every frame and design are beautiful, from the graceful (and scientifically plausible) human starship the Venture Star, to the Scorpion helicopters, to the Battletech-like power suits. The organic design is also masterful, with the majority of Pandora's wildlife designed by the famed Wayne Barlowe, known as the author of “Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.” (A must have for all geeks BTW.) With a single exception (to be discussed later) the fauna of Pandora follows an evolutionary chain lending a stunning realism and suspension of disbelief to the creatures.
The cast has some of my favorite performers. Sam Worthington, despite being in some awful movies, is always worth watching. Zoe Saldana, the newest Leiutenant Uhura in my favorite film of the last decade, Star Trek, delivers as Neytiri the Chieftain's daughter even through the mask of motion capture CGI imagery. Her skinny blue alien is, and maybe I'm a freak for saying it, sexy as all get out. James Cameron alumni Sigourney Weaver, no stranger to dealing with aliens herself gets to perform as both human scientist and nine foot blue hottie. So what could be wrong?
Well, everything else.
I have hugged more than a few trees in my time, and I have taken responsibility for my share of White Guilt over the abominable treatment of the Native Americans. Cameron wants to make sure we do both, and he isn't hiding this message- he's bludgeoning us with it. Where's the subtle message of cooperation so deftly delivered in “The Abyss”? How about the sidebar conversations on the inevitability, or non-inevitability, of being destroyed by our own science in “Terminator”? Where's the quiet little jabs at Corporate inhumanity as personified by Paul Reiser in “Aliens”? All of these themes which rode in on the backs of movies in the form of brilliant Science Fiction allegory are replaced by Cameron reaching out of the screen and choking you with the barest minimum of character development or plot to deliver the social message. There are no characters in this film- there are stereotypes. Giovanni Ribisi I assume was cast as Parker Selfridge, the Corporate dick, because Paul Reiser was unavailable to reprise his role from Aliens. Sigourney Weaver tapped her Dian Fossey button from her performance in “Gorillas in the Mist.” The military commander, Colonel Miles Quaritch (which I have to assume is named for H.R. Haggard's novel 'Colonel Quaritch, V.C.” about a military man forced to fit into a quiet, nature-like country environment) is nothing more than a two dimensional amalgamation of every military hard ass to grace the silver screen. From reveling in his scars to casually clutching a coffee cup while on missions of genocide, he's about as deep as my belly button. The only character who goes through any transformation or development at all is Jake Sully, who one could very well argue becomes sympathetic to the Na'vi because the avatar program lets him walk again, and no longer being paralyzed means hot jungle sex with a nine foot tall blue Zoe Saldana. Speaking of stereotypes, let's discuss the Na'vi.
After countless hours someone spent imagining the ecosystem of Pandora, the culture of the Na'vi is simply lifted from your standard “noble savage” story. The tribal rituals, the native peoples type accents- no originality WHATSOEVER in their existence. The only attempt at allegory instead of direct rip off is the Na'vi's ability to psychically link with the animals of Pandora- they are literally connected instead of symbolically. Physically, instead of giving us something truly alien, we get exaggerated versions of Western beauty images. Long legs, rounded hips, full lips; only the somewhat feline facial features and impossibly long bodies make them alien at all (Yeah, ok, and they're blue). Their expressions of emotions- exactly human. Their symmetry, idealized human. Why is it every other form of animal life we see on this planet, from the big rhino things to the black panther dogs, even the pterodactyls, have six limbs, but the Na'vi only have four? Are they a transplant? As far as their worship- of course there's a Mother Goddess, and though there is an attempt to give some scientific reasoning to her existence, we are still looking at the same old Gaia/Earth Mother/Living Planet idea used in such brilliant movies as “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.”
The story? Equally derivative. If you caught a double feature of “Dances with Wolves” and “Pocahontas” you have seen this film. Did Neytiri really have to be the chief's daughter? Did they really have to teach Jake Sully their ways as a hunter so he could understand them? Did the Na'vi really need a white man to come in and save them from the other white men? There's no depth here either. No surprises. It's like someone took a Hollywood Mad Libs script book and followed the formula. Hell- Cameron doesn't even bother to tell us WHY unobtanium (and dear god, what a dumb name! Why not “Hardtogetium” or “Rareicity” or “MacGuffinanium”?) is so important! Is it fuel? Food? Medicine? You want depth in this story? Tell us there's a plague ravaging Earth, and the only way to save the human race is to mine unobtanium (though I guess then it would be “panaceaithium”). have some of these characters desperate to find another way, but needing to ensure the survival of their children on Earth. Nope- we just get that the Corporation wants this stuff 'cuz its 'spensive. Quite the cliché.
And speaking of clichés, here's the part that really got my goat about this film. The portrayal of the military. My own commentary on my Firm on this very Blog has shown there are plenty of people in the military willing to dehumanize the enemy and exploit poor situations. However, the military is also full of some of the finest, most honorable, most intelligent, and caring people on this planet. Many do their jobs to make Earth and America a better place, not just to get resources of value for the Corporation. Yet in this film, the only military characters who show the slightest bit of empathy for the Na'vi are the ones who have been properly deprogrammed by working with the scientists; Jake Sully and Michelle Rodriguez's Scorpion pilot Trudy Chacon. Trudy's been flying these scientists out on their missions, and loves the beauty of the world. She is the sole pilot to disregard the order to bomb the Na'vi tribe's “Hometree,” this tribes homeland for all of history, full of women and children. EVERY other pilot and Marine launches. Every other member of the military shown on screen is perfectly happy to slaughter the blue people because corporate said so (except of course for Jake Sully, who may only be resisting because of the tail... his and Neytiri's). Cameron has dealt with the military in a Science Fiction setting before. The Colonial Marines in Aliens are felled a bit by their arrogance, however most of them are sympathetic characters (CPL Hicks in particular, and even the dipshit Hudson isn't evil) on a mission to save human colonists- in the end those Marines are every bit as exploited by the Corporation Weland-Yutani as the colonist sacrificed to the Xenomorphs are. Even in The Abyss, the SEAL Team leader trying to blow up the aliens is a) trying to do what he thinks is right to save the humans from evil aliens, and b) suffering from madness due to high pressure syndrome. Not here; here in this remake of a film which showed how awful we were in the 1870s, we get Manifest Destiny Marines in the future. Now, maybe I am being over sensitive, but I have a tough time thinking Cameron is trying to remind us of what happened to the American Indian. This would seem to be a message pointed more toward modern day, and since the script and film were developed while GW Bush was still on office, I have a tough time thinking I shouldn't imagine unobtanium as oil, and RDA as Haliburton. Does this mean I should be imagining the soulless, heartless, killing machines perfectly happy to carry out genocide at the request of their corporate masters as... well, me? That seems like a pretty personal affront to me and people like me who put our lives on the line in service to our country. Our leaders goals may be skewed at times, and some of us do certainly lose our way, but to generalize so willingly and unapologetically was more than a bit troubling to me. I kept hoping the movie would surprise me with a twist to break the stereotypes in character, story, and military vilification; nope, we rode it all the way out to Jake leaving his battered, broken, inferior body behind in favor of new blue hotness after leading those noble savages to defeat the evil humans and drive them from the planet.
Again, maybe I am being too sensitive, but I remember another movie came out a few years ago, “Final Fantasy.” It was full CGI, had great production design, a sexy CGI lead, and centered around a Gaia situation being exploited by an evil military officer. “Avatar” doesn't even manage to offend me with any originality.
I am however looking forward to the sequel where the human ships return and don't even bother to land before razing the surface from orbit, magic tree and all. Perhaps by the third film in the trilogy, Jake will show the few surviving Na'vi how to build casinos...
Choose for yourself what you think of it. As a conservationist, it offended me with it's simplistic take on why we should protect our environment. As an SF fan, it offended me as being so derivative of other, better films, and for the laziness involved in developing a truly alien culture. As a member of my firm, it offended me with it's simplistically brutal portrayal of my honorable profession. As someone who wants to see us put aside our differences and reach out into the stars as one world (yeah, I said it), it offended me to say the future is more of the same.
Why can't I have a science fiction movie where human and alien come together, overcome their differences, and put aside barbaric concepts like greed and avarice, while showing a military both strong and humanitarian?
Oh yeah. Live Long and Prosper.