It's a rainy day in Orlando, so we went to see Avatar today in IMAX 3D. It is excellent; well worth seeing. In fact, I'll wait while you go see it now.
That was fast.
A lot of the reviews (Roger Ebert's is a good example) claim that the movie is anti-American, or at least anti-war (and who am I to deny that the two amount to the same thing). But of course it's not possible to make an anti-war war movie. At the end of Avatar we're thrilled to see the Na'vi and their tree god demolish the mining company's mercenaries. When the leader of the mercenaries asks Jake (our hero) how it feels to be a traitor to your "race," we know he's the bad guy and cheer to see him shot twice with the giant poisoned arrows of our favorite Na'vi princess. We're not against the war, we're just against the humans.
As for anti-Americanism, there is some of that. It's just hard to tease apart from the anti-capitalism. The National Guard, slyly, answers this concern by running a full-throated ad for soldier/citizens before the movie. They understand that Jake does nothing that we don't wish our ex-Marines to do. Or, as Jake says, once a Marine, always a Marine, even if that requires that you side with the Indians against the Cowboys.
And that's the real transgression of Avatar. Cameron tells a story in which the Indians win, turning our founding myth upside down. That might be disturbing, if it were possible to take seriously. Avatar is a retelling of Disney's Pocahontas in which Pocahontas gets John Smith (excuse me, Jake Sully) and her people keep "their" land. It shares with Disney's Pocahontas the conceit -- perhaps better suited to science fiction -- that the Indians are fundamentally different from you and me -- when they talk to trees, the trees talk back. We have machines; they have a mystic bond with the land.
Cameron spends no time on the question of what else the Na'vi don't have, besides mechanized killing machines of all types and sorts. We don't see many Na'vi older than what, for the humans, amounts to the late 20s. We don't see healthcare or education that isn't exceedingly practical. We don't see the arts or even much in the way of crafts. Na'vi fashions are, to put it mildly, minimalist. The Na'vi have no interest in anything the humans have. Indeed, both the Na'vi and the humans seem weirdly uninterested in what makes their mountains fly, and how much that would be worth on Earth. It seems fair to say that no Na'vi Adam Smith is pushing for free trade. How many Na'vi children die of dysentery or malaria or malnutrition? The Na'vi are at one with nature, but it's made clear that the bond doesn't make nature any nicer.
In Avatar, the Indians were able to use their mystic bond with all life to use nature as a weapon and send the white man (literally and figuratively) packing. In real life, Pocahontas died of smallpox in Gravesend, England.