[This review contains mild spoilers since the movie's huge box office numbers suggest that I might be one of the last people to have seen it.]
Unfortunately for RDA, Pandora is also inhabited by a sentient species called the Na'vi, a clan of which lives inside an enormous tree (simply called "Hometree" by the natives) that grows over some of the richest deposits of unobtanium. Irreconcilable differences between the Na'vi and humanity have led to the failure of all previous attempts to negotiate with the large blue natives. Dialogue early in the film suggests that the trigger-happy security force lead by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is to blame for much of the difficulty.
In a final attempt to relocate the natives relatively peacefully, RDA has brought in a group of scientists to carry out the Avatar Program. An avatar is an artificially grown Na'vi-human hybrid that is controlled remotely by the human whose DNA was used in its production. During the connection, the operator essentially becomes the avatar while remaining completely oblivious to his or her human body that remains in the operator's booth. The use of avatars not only allows the scientists to more easily explore the moon (the fauna is highly dangerous and the atmosphere is unbreathable for humans), but it also facilitates interaction between humans and Na'vi. The head of the Avatar Project, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) briefly ran a school among the aliens that succeeded in teaching English to a surprising number of them. Although the avatars are very similar to the Na'vi, they're different enough that the aliens readily recognize the "dreamwalkers" (the use of human-style clothing doesn't exactly make for great camouflage, either). Augustine's time among the aliens has earned her some of their trust, but most see the avatars as unnatural, soulless creatures.
Our protagonist is paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who lost the use of his legs in the line of duty. Unlike his fellow avatar operators, who are scientists that have studied Na'vi language and culture extensively, Jake was chosen merely because his scientist twin-brother was murdered shortly before he was to leave for Pandora. Jake may not be a highly trained scientist, but the fact that his DNA is identical to that of his brother means that his avatar won't go to waste.
Sully arrives at Pandora after spending the multi-year trip in cryosleep. Augustine thinks Sully is another dumb gunslinger while Colonel Quaritch sees him as someone who can get inside Na'vi society and serve as an intelligence source. It's revealed that RDA intends to bulldoze Hometree relatively soon in order to get to the unobtanium desposit. The RDA administrator, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and Colonel Quaritch want Sully to convince the aliens to leave the tree willingly, but the bulldozers will be coming whether they leave or not.
Although Augustine gives Sully the dirty job as the team's bodyguard, the ex-marine is just happy to be able to walk again through his avatar. During his first mission, though, Sully is separated from his group when he's chased by a predator. He eventually loses the creature but becomes thoroughly lost himself. While wandering in the jungle, a female native sees him from a distance and begins to draw her bow. The only thing that prevents her from killing him is a feathered type of seed that lands on the tip of her arrow. She begins to follow him at a discreet distance.
That night, Sully's avatar is attacked by hyena-like predators. Just as he's about to be overwhelmed, the female Na'vi, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), comes to his rescue. Sully tries to thank her, but Neytiri is disgusted that Sully's clumsiness brought the predators to him and made it necessary to kill them. Sully insists on following her anyway, which Neytiri tries to prevent until Sully becomes surrounded by the odd seeds. The seeds turn out to be from a sacred tree and their presence is taken as an omen by Neytiri. She takes Sully to meet her clan (she just so happens to be the daughter of the chieftain) where she is ordered to teach him the ways of the Na'vi to see if the human's "insanity" can be cured.
Sully starts to sympathize with the Na'vi and falls in love with Neytiri. He also learns that the Na'vi's worship of a nature goddess they call Eywa isn't merely native mythology; all plant and animal life on Pandora is neurologically linked, with the moon's trees acting as a type of neural network. Eywa is effectively the collective consciousness of the world's biosphere. Thus enlightened, Sully eventually proves his worthiness to the clan and is adopted into it. When the bulldozers finally come, Sully attempts to disable them and ends up making an enemy of Colonel Quaritch. Sully is allowed one more chance to inhabit his avatar in order to attempt some last minute negotiations with the clan, but his subsequent failure gets him branded as a traitor by both the humans and the aliens. As Hometree burns, Sully's avatar is left unconscious on the forest floor and his human body is thrown in the brig. A daring rescue puts Sully back in a hidden avatar operator's booth. When the Na'vi's trust is regained, Sully organizes a resistance to his former employers.
Let's go over the good stuff first:
For starters, Avatar doesn't commit the unpardonable movie sin; i.e., it isn't boring. I actually enjoyed the movie quite a bit. James Cameron and Weta Digital are justly credited with creating one of the most visually impressive films ever, with nearly flawless CGI and motion capture effects. Pandora's animal and plant life look amazing while the design of the human technology is impressive in its own way. As soon as I saw the RDA's Amplified Mobility Platform walkers (which look like they stepped straight out of Warhammer 40,000), I immediately wanted one. (Note to filmmakers: if you make your villains' weapons cooler than your heroes', the audience might want to identify with the bad guys.)
Certain sci-fi elements are also interesting. The Na'vi's faith in Eywa and their worship of trees are obviously meant to be analogous to the various beliefs, whether literal or figurative, of a variety of ancient religions and of many environmentalists. I don't share those beliefs, but I'm a sucker for any concept wrapped in a good sci-fi package. Once the mythology is stripped away and it's revealed that Pandora's biosphere is linked in a way that Earth's never was, even I can understand the Na'vi's tree hugger mentality. Hidden in what appears to be a long braid, each member of the Na'vi has an exposed nerve bundle that corresponds to similar bundles on Pandora's other animals. When these bundles come into contact, the Na'vi and the animals form a mental bond. The bundles can even be used to link with Pandora's trees. One particular tree, the Tree of Souls, contains the memories of generations of Na'vi, which the living natives can access.
Obviously the Na'vi refuse to allow the humans to harm the trees because they're an essential part of the moon's linked biosphere. This is particularly true of Hometree since it's a major node in the network. Later in the film it's implied that the world's high degree of biological interconnectivity has given rise to a real intelligence that the natives know as Eywa. And just as the bodies of terrestrial creatures can muster antibodies to protect themselves from infection, Eywa is apparently able to direct the various life forms of which it's composed to defend against the human invaders.
Now for the film's weaknesses:
Avatar certainly has a lot of eye candy and several interesting ideas for sci-fi buffs. Unfortunately, like the Star Wars prequels, a lot of effort went into the visuals and general ideas and not quite as much into the plot or the characters. When I saw the first trailers I thought, "Oh, so Cameron made Dances with Wolves... In Space!" Now that I've seen the movie I realize that my first impression was pretty accurate. For all its sci-fi window dressing, the story of Avatar has already been done and has been done better. The movie is predictable to the point of absurdity. This problem is most eloquently summarized by Eric D. Snider: "Once the basics have been established and the story starts moving, you could stop the film at any point, guess what’s going to happen next, and be right almost every time."
Much of Avatar's predictability stems from the fact that Cameron infused the film with ham-fisted anti-imperialist and anti-business messages. My problem is not necessarily that the movie has a leftward slant (conservatives have to get used to that), but that Cameron chose to present his heroes and villains in a comically stereotypical way.
The good guys are obviously the Na'vi. While the aliens' biology is interesting, their culture is not. They may look like giant blue aliens, but they're essentially a generic and idealized race of Native Americans... in space! At least the Native Americans in Dances with Wolves (1990) were portrayed as real people; much of that movie revolves around the conflict between the Sioux and Pawnee tribes. In Avatar there appears to be no rivalry between the various tribes of Na'vi. All was peace and love among the Na'vi until the eeevil humans arrived.
And then there are the villains. Our first view of the RDA complex might as well have had SYMBOLISM flashing in big letters across the screen. The drab facility has huge refinery-style smokestacks belching smoke and flame into Pandora's blue sky. This scene makes little sense given that it's set in the year 2154 when humanity has the capability of interstellar travel. Is RDA actually supposed to be using fossil fuels? If so, why are the emissions of this 22nd century facility worse than those of modern facilities? Is RDA supposed to be like one of those ridiculous villains from the Captain Planet cartoon series who deliberately pollutes?
Then we see how RDA is organized, with Selfridge acting as the nominal administrator while the head of security, Colonel Quaritch, serves as the de facto authority. RDA might as well be called "Military-Industrial Complex, Inc." Both Selfridge and Quaritch are callous individuals who care little for the natives' lives, let alone their land rights. Selfridge actually calls the Na'vi "fly-bitten savages", although he occasionally has the decency to look uncomfortable with the thought of killing them outright if they don't relocate. Quaritch, on the other hand, is downright eager to send his army directly into Hometree. If Avatar had been made during the golden age of film, the climax would have seen Neytiri tied up and about to be run over by a slow moving bulldozer while a fiendishly chuckling Colonel twirled his long black mustache.
James Cameron completely stacks the deck by giving us utterly irredeemable two-dimensional villains. The movie tries to convince us that Sully's change of allegiance is a hard decision, but it's an obvious choice for anybody with a hint of conscience. Cameron's Na'vi are the noblest of beings while RDA's administrators are motivated by pure, unadulterated greed. I have to wonder if Cameron or the makers of tripe like Captain Planet really believe that businessmen and corporations are so cartoonishly evil. Does Cameron even know where the plastic, metal, silicon, and electricity that make his movies possible come from? It's the height of hypocrisy for someone like Cameron to praise a culture such as the Na'vi's and deride the modern lifestyle when he owns an 8,272 square foot mansion. That's a mighty big glass house to be throwing stones in.
What Cameron's story really needs is moral complexity as well as a true dilemma for the protagonist. Sci-fi and Fantasy writer Orson Scott Card excels at this. While his novels often have bad guys, Card always portrays them as human beings who do bad things rather than as caricatures that the reader is expected to reflexively hate. At the same time, his heroes have realistic flaws or weaknesses. Often the conflict between Card's characters or societies stem from misunderstandings or unfortunate circumstances rather than from evil intentions or actions.
Avatar could have been so much better if RDA's personnel weren't so comically evil and the conflict between the Na'vi and the humans were more realistic. A much more nuanced version could have gone something like this:
RDA has established itself on Pandora in order to mine unobtanium. Earth is a dying world and the rare energy-producing mineral may very well be its final hope. In this version, however, money is an incentive but not the primary motive; Administrator Selfridge is proud of his role in trying to save mankind. Unfortunately, his concern for his own species has made him insensitive to the rights of the Na'vi and the health of Pandora. Recent communications with Earth suggest that circumstances there are worsening. RDA's schedule has thus been shortened since any unobtanium will require nearly seven years' worth of travel to reach Earth. 'Desperate times call for desperate measures' has become the administrator's motto.
Colonel Quaritch is no longer the mustache twirling villain but a career soldier who follows the civilian authority (in this case, Selfridge) and generally keeps his opinions to himself. Like Selfridge, he understands the importance of the mission to humanity. To him, the Na'vi represent a threat to the success of that mission. He takes no pleasure in the thought of displacing the Na'vi and, having an extensive knowledge of military history, recognizes the parallels between his current assignment and the notorious Trail of Tears. However, human civilization, to which he owes his loyalty, faces an existential crisis. In addition, Quaritch values his men and sees their safety as his responsibility. During his time on Pandora, the Colonel has become embittered by the losses his force has suffered from attacks by Na'vi clans.
The Na'vi of this revised Avatar remain self aware and retain their nature-worshiping culture. However, the film would more fully consider how the Na'vi would be affected by developing on a world where all plant and animal life are interconnected. Eywa, the super-consciousness formed by that interconnectedness, permeates their conscious and subconscious minds. Although capable of speech, so much of the beings' language is dependent on non-verbal communication through Pandora's neural network that to reach a true understanding with humans is nearly impossible. Although they can seemingly speak the same language, and despite RDA's good-faith efforts to communicate with them, humanity is utterly alien to the Na'vi and vice versa. This leads to frequent conflict and has made Selfridge and Quaritch even more desperate.
As RDA's scientists begin to study Pandora through their avatars, they become aware of the presence of the super-consciousness. Jake Sully's brain is more sensitive to Eywa and he begins to better understand the Na'vi's point of view, especially as he spends time with Neytiri. Even more importantly, he understands that RDA's actions could seriously damage Pandora's unique biosphere and, by disrupting the super-consciousness, devastate the Na'vi physiologically as well as culturally. Given the choice between obtaining a mineral that might help humanity, whose irresponsibility landed it in its current situation, and preserving a vibrant culture that still has a future, Sully chooses to side with his adopted species. The humans' desperation results in a large scale conflict with the natives and Sully must fight against his own people to preserve the Na'vi long enough to reach some sort of accord.
I have no idea whether a more balanced take would have been as popular as what Cameron delivered. By the end of Cameron's movie, just about any viewer will find himself cheering on the Na'vi as they kill the human invaders. A version in which even the villains have flawed but understandable motives would make every Na'vi and human death a tragedy. I'm not sure if that would have sold more tickets, but I think it would have made the story a lot more evenhanded and convinced many viewers to think of Avatar as something more than just eye candy.
But I have to admit that I look forward to the sequels.