NB: Spoiler alert!
Somewhat biased quick plot summary
A corporation supported by the military has its eye on a rare mineral called unobtanium which can be found in large quantities on a planet called Pandora. This planet is covered by primeval forest and inhabited by blue ‘noble savages’ with cultures reminiscent of those of indigenous North Americans. Scientists have also tagged along for the ride and have grown Pandoran bodies in vats to which they are able to transfer their human consciousnesses. The hero of the story, a disabled war veteran, is transferred into one of these bodies, is accepted into a tree tribe, falls in love with the daughter of the chief, ‘goes native’ and shows said natives how to rid themselves of evil Earth military industrial alliance.
I will take the opportunity to weigh in with the countless other comments on James Cameron’s new film Avatar. I will begin by saying that watching a film in 3D is a fun experience, blue is a lovely colour and plants that glow in the dark are great to look at. But all this graphical expertise is sadly let down by a story which is a rather pallid string of Disney cliches laced with highly questionnable social and political messages.
I always find American militarism in films extremely irritating. Militarism and nuking everything in sight is a common solution in American science fiction. As a variation on the theme, this film expresses moral outrage at these usual procedures and proposes another set of cliches in their place – a rather depressing set of cliches actually. Thus we are exhorted to all get back to nature and lose ourselves in the exotic Other, rather than trying to find a workable social solution to the situation in hand. Our science and knowledge is clearly useless and scientists are a bunch of effete intellectuals. The military industrial complex is populated by power and resource hungry psychopaths. It is far better to live in a dangerous jungle with no modern comforts, cinemas, libraries or modern medical science.
The protagonist completely loses himself in the Other, even to the extent of abandoning his clearly inferior and disabled human body, and the humans (described as ‘aliens’ at the end of the film) are sent packing, back to their ‘dying world’, after being defeated by some stroppy armoured dinosaurs and bows and arrows mobilised by the human outsider. This outsider, in the fine tradition of other American films such as A Gentleman’s Agreement, Tootsie, Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai , demonstrates that the white American male is the only one who can show less powerful groups (Jews, women, Native Americans, fading Japanese warrior elites etc.) the way to salvation.
I personally would have liked to have seen the planet (which is clearly modelled on Gaia principles) come up with some nifty science fiction method of ridding itself of the humans. Giant trees uprooting themselves and joining the battle like the ents in Lord of the Rings, or a strange energy immobilising all the technology. Alternately (or additionally!) I would have liked to have seen the humans come to some kind of realisation and engage in the beginnings of social change and discussion rather than just a blanket self-destruct and expression of self-hatred.
It is hard to see why this film is described as ‘left-wing’ (or ‘liberal’ to use American terminology) – when its message is so conservative, harking back as it does, to hoary old myths of the noble savage and the purity of nature.