Groundbreaking. Epic. Beautiful beyond all reason. Racist. Anti-American. Doing justice to the question ‘What is James Cameron’s _Avatar_?’ would take infinitely more than 500 words, so I shall attempt to briefly collate the more prominent theories that are floating around cyberspace, whilst offering my own interpretation.
Even a scant outline of the plot gives an instant glimpse into a phantasmagorical wonderland: in 2154 a corporation is mining ‘unobtanium’ in Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon inhabited by 12-foot blue-skinned humanoids with luminescent freckles – the Na’vi. The Na’vi live in harmony with Nature, worshipping a mother goddess called Eywa. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is our protagonist, a paraplegic ex-US marine who comes to inhabits a human-Na’vi hybrid ‘avatar’ body controlled by a genetically-matched human pilot: created in an attempt to improve relations with the natives. Ferngully-style, the corporation starts felling the majestic trees of the Pandoran rainforest, while Jake begins to fall in love with the planet and people his race has come to destroy and exploit.
Online, critics like Annalee Newitz have been quick to dismiss the film as “just the latest sci-fi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy”, casting the Na’vi’s plight as “white America’s foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent”. By foregrounding race in this way, however, she distorts the thrust of what I feel is the more rich and subtle allegory of Cameron’s intention. It is not the colour of their skin, the feathers in their hair or the pseudo-African drumbeats/nuances of James Horner’s magical score that should be noted, but the clashing economic and social models of the two species.
Surely they represent the battle for Earth in our present moment: multi-national conglomerates and whole governments continue to stand complacent whilst atrocities are committed under their watch: Amazon deforestation, species extinction, genocide and illegal wars blight our planet. It is not so much a ‘white guilt’ film as a ‘Western civilisation/capitalism guilt’ film: Cameron makes it clear that the humans “Sky People” are not destroying Pandora because they hate the Na’vi, but because large portions of their population, including the explicitly referenced shareholders, judge self-absorption, greed, and profit to be more valid than compassion. References to Iraq are not hard to find: replace ‘unobtainium’ with oil, and the Colonel fills in the blanks, conducting a “shock and awe” campaign against the aliens.
The Na’vi stand tall (literally) as Cameron’s imaginative representation of all that we could and can aspire to be, and the humans are a clear indication of what we are headed towards. It is no coincidence that the film begins and ends with shots of opening eyes: clearly, _Avatar_ is a rallying call to ‘wake up’ to the beauty and diversity of our world and undertake what will be the crucial challenge of this decade: to preserve it, and to find alternatives to economic methods that have clearly failed.
Interestingly, what is Cameron’s most powerful ideological tool is also his most groundbreaking technical feature: by the end of the film he ensures that, you, the audience, are part of the Na’vi: you are the anti-American insurgents, you are the Vietcong, you are the aliens. Seeing the film in 3D has an incredibly immersive effect that is like nothing I have ever experienced: it is obviously a game-changer in live action and CGI integration that will, like _The Matrix_ did 10 years ago, influence the film world over the next decade.
Not only has he created a multifaceted modern myth, but James’ Cameron’s visionary imagination and technical wizardry has constructed the ultimate escapist’s paradise: I dare you to leave the cinema and not dream of Pandora.