Okay, I finally saw "Avatar" last night. (I had to go regular 3D, as the IMAX version was sold out, a month after opening. Impressive.) Let me just start by saying, yeah, it's really good, and I didn't mind paying $13 for the experience. The visuals alone make it worth the price, but the story is coherent and compelling (if predictable) enough to keep you engaged for 2.5 hours. The combination of the two mostly make up for the crappy dialogue, casting, and acting.
I was impressed with how overtly political (and left wing) the film was. Unless I've missed it, there's been surprisingly little conservative blowback against this very mainstream action film that so openly portrays Earthly (read: American) corporations as exploiting and killing an indigenous people to recover a valuable mineral and the military (well, mercenaries) being used to serve corporate interests. The only human good guys are scientists and a rogue marine or two.
The plot is, as has been mentioned by others, very similar to that of "Dances with Wolves," although that film really didn't get into the agenda of the white people. Whether it was for territorial conquest or profit or religious mission or whatever, the white people were just coming, and the Lakota had to figure out how to deal with that. "Avatar" was much more specific about the Sky People's agenda. Karl Marx couldn't have written it better. Another point of contrast between the two films is that Jake Sully's version of "going native" is much more complete than John Dunbar's. Dunbar married... another white person, while Sully actually physically becomes a Na'vi. One thing that I think makes "Wolves" a superior film is that it actually has a sad ending. Stone Age tribes with bows and arrows going up against Space Age soldiers with missiles and flame-throwers generally get cut down like grass. With that kind of an ending, you have cultural commentary. With "Avatar"'s ending, you have fantasy.
SEK argues that the film is racist, and that the Na'vi themselves are racists:
The Na'vi are not merely distrustful of "the space people," they're inherently xenophobic, incapable of trusting any sentient being that doesn't look like them. If that mistrust is justified for some other reason (like a hairy first contact), the film never mentions it, meaning (in a classic case of projection) the humans assume that the Na'vi will be xenophobic before they even meet them.I disagree. Or at least, we don't have sufficient data to make such claims about the Na'vi. We can probably assume that Earth people have been their first extra-worldly contact, and there's plenty of evidence early in the film that there have been lots of skirmishes between the Na'vi and the Sky People. The Na'vi don't seem to be xenophobic so much as distrusting of a) those who cut down their trees and mine their land without permission; and b) those non-Na'vi who disguise themselves as locals. Such distrust seems entirely reasonable to me. It's hard to know whether conflict bred racism or racism bred conflict in this case.
In a fine essay, Robert Farley draws useful comparisons between "Avatar" and "The Mission," although I was struck by "Avatar"'s thematic similarity to earlier James Cameron films. The "Alien" series had a relatively dim view of scientists, but "Aliens," the one Cameron directed, redeemed the dispassionate researcher -- Bishop was one of the film's heroes. And while the military was being used to advance corporate interests, it did so unwittingly; the marines thought they were coming to rescue civilians. It was the company that was evil, sacrificing humans to bring back valuable alien embryos. Similarly, "The Abyss" (whose lame ending prevented it from being one of the best sci-fi films ever), featured scientists working to protect an alien species from a paranoid rogue Navy Seal with a nuke. Cameron seems to have ambivalent feelings about the military. The marines in "Aliens" are portrayed quite favorably, but that training and firepower seems to be easily compromised and perverted by mental illness or corporate interests.
Cameron also seems to have ambivalent feelings towards women. "Aliens"'s Ripley and "T2"'s Sarah Connor are two of cinema's great feminine badasses. Indeed, his films usually have some strong female characters in them, although they get compromised in weird ways. (Think about Ed Harris saving Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's life by repeatedly punching her in the face.) "Avatar" had some weird stuff along these lines, too.