Avatar is an extremely pretty and well-meaning film that suffers from the same core problem that plagued Drag Me To Hell, another mostly enjoyable 2009 film: both were written in the early/mid-90s, a different cultural epoch for both the horror and fantasy genres. Drag Me To Hell was somewhat disappointing because the marketing:
had me ready for a fierce woman battling the forces of darkness for possession of her soul when the main character was, in fact, maybe 3% fierce at most. And that was only to battle mud and a gross but inanimate opponent. The remaining 97%, she was pathetically likable and personality-free, hiring others to fight and die on her behalf. Around Army of Darkness‘s release, it would have been enough to have a non-Final Girl female protagonist, but in the post-Whedon era, that’s retrograde and (worse) dull.
Avatar immediately suffers from plot and thematic parallels to environmental films of the previous decade (Dances With Wolves, Ferngully: The Last Rainforst, Pocahontas) that didn’t age well, or weren’t fine cinema (or aimed at adults) to begin with. These films were rooted in a less sophisticated conception of post-imperialist theory, little more than a generational update on cowboys and indians that allowed little white boys to join the bows and arrows brigade (as the leader, as was appropriate to their majority status). This genre illuminated the inhumane actions of historical oppressors and modern land developers while leaving the oppressed as voiceless and objectified as Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din.
The script has been somewhat updated from its original form to become a heavy-handed allegory for the last several years of US and UK military action. I agree with Miles Antwiler that this is a very valid massage that shouldn’t be dismissed solely out of cynicism, but here the execution is mis-aimed and even childish, refusing to risk losing audience sympathy in any small aspect. The planet Pandora and the Na’vi living on it are initially presented as pants-crappingly terrifying to a large settlement of hardened former-Marine mercenaries, but the only evidence of their deadly nature is a few ineffective arrows stuck in a futuristic Hummer’s tires.
In this allegory, the Na’vi represent real people in occupied areas who’ve resorted to guerilla tactics, blurring the line between combatants and civilians for the uniformed soldiers charged with pacifying those areas. Unfortunately, James Cameron is unwilling to bring any level of subtlety to the simplistic morality at play or challenge the audience by having the Na’vi assault even valid military targets on screen, let alone exploiting vulnerable civilian areas with terrifying, showy attacks designed to drive the humans off-planet. This is an insult to all oppressed people, whose cultures are twisted by the dirty, dehumanizing tactics required to resist an overwhelming force. That is the unique tragedy of occupation. The Na’vi suffer massive loss of life and significant habitat destruction, but this could be caused by fires, floods, earthquakes, etc – disasters a mystical culture “living in harmony with nature” would be expected to encounter from time to time. Occupied nations suffer this destruction along with the wholesale loss or perversion of a cultural identity, whether their citizens capitulate or resist.
Na’vi culture is somehow unstained by many years of humanity’s strip-mining and attempted infiltration, a miraculously preserved playland that welcomes and seduces interlopers who should by all rights be shot on sight and have their bodies left in some horrible state as a message to others. (Corporal Sully is spared exactly this fate by godly intervention; there’s no mention if the scientists who had previously spent enough time with the tribe to learn their language and make lifelong friendships had a similar divine dispensation.)
That culture is visually stunning and fulfils every wish a daydreaming suburban white boy could have, but dull, far more suited to a children’s direct-to-video cartoon. There’s no ideological flaws to add depth and personality to the people as a whole, nothing that individuals can rail against and thus create their own character arc separate from that of the outsiders observing them. One interesting possibility avoided is the question raised by the Na’vi’s uniform physical perfection – where are the weak or disabled natives? Nature, which the Na’vi are so in tune with, is a great lover of congenital oddities and offers many misadventures that can permanently injure even those who don’t regularly plummet several hundred metres for lols. Is there a 300-esque Spartan cliff with generations of rejected infant corpses at the foot of it? Even a much more palatable scenario, such as the obvious fetishism of athletic ability verging on a fascistic requirement, could have made for an interesting knot when Sully’s real-body disability was revealed.
There is one interesting, even nuanced allegory running through the film, illuminating the human (and possibly filmmakers’) neurotic mass psyche. The avatars referenced in the title – genetically engineered hybrid bodies remotely inhabited by humans – are only the tip of the body-horror iceberg. The bad military humans also (literally) step into bigger, stronger versions of their ordinary bodies, mechanical exoskeletons that stand, move, and fight just as a meat-body would.
These robotic extensions don’t even provide a faster or more stable method of locomotion or even come with a jet-pack for independent short flights. They even use the same weapons as human soldiers, large handguns and combat knives. Their ridiculous, redundant design is highlighted when the hoo-rah Colonel Quaritch conspicuously meets with the newest recruit while bench-pressing a gigantic load, warns the recruit that any physical softness will get a person killed on Pandora, and then immediately hops into a protective exoskeleton that will face the dangerous world for him.
Even the supermodel natives of Pandora aren’t satisfied with their ubermensch physicality, using an organic USB connector to hijack the bodies of larger creatures. The only individual in the film truly pushing his own body to its physical limits, refusing assistance, is the injured marine who’s lost the use of his legs. Even he gives up this effort as soon as he’s able to sometimes inhabit a fully functional body. Eventually he abandons his broken, neglected body entirely, his mystical transfer into the better, non-disabled abomination of corporate science symbolising his rejection of tarnished humanity and birth as a truly whole spirit. Ideologically, it’s pretty gross, taken on face value.
On a deeper level, though, it could be only species-wide self-disgust and childish rage against the generational slowness of evolution; humans want to be physically more from the bones out and lack the creativity to fully utilise technology for anything but destruction and the extension of what already exists. This conceptual thread is particularly appealing because the solution it offers is not to retreat intosopophoric Na’vi connectivity, as they suffer the same neurosis. It’s the sole dissonant note in the final triumphant chorus.