Avatar works by two basic premises – It’s not racism if they’re blue and no-one remembers Heinlein.
Basically it’s like a Japanese videogame. It’s beautiful, it’s got wonderful imagry, you can get lost in the film. The foreign culture lends it alien wonderment. But ultimately, the plot paints itself into a corner, and there’s precious little plot to begin with so it has to end with a hail mary pass where suddenly this magical tree can do soul-tranfers as to let our human antihero become a blue tribal idiot.
If you’re saying “This sounds like Stranger in a Strange Land“, you’re right. It is SiaSL, but instead of being born in a foreign culture and coming to earth, Jake Sully is a human who never feels at home on Earth and then goes to Pandora where he meets and alien cast and finally understands people. He’s disgusted by how people have “lost touch with nature” and love the blue’s treehugging faggotry and then the movie ends with the blues having a huge war on humans. Great – so all the beauty and whatnot he fell in love with and the movie ends with him picking up a spear. Suddenly there’s powered armor, nuclear weapons and if you’re saying “I saw this when it was called Starship Troopers and it still sucked” you would be correct. To add to this, Sigourney Weaver washes up playing the same role she played in the Alien series (a doctor – a series of video logs) and basically you could rip out all her dialog, plunk it down in Alien 4 and not notice anything amiss.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there’s a ton of great imagry in there. Cameron probably watched the garden in Coraline about 100 times and then some kind of shangri-la generic crap to figure out how Pandora looked. The problem is that he wanted to make a movie like The Thin Red Line (still one of my favorites) but the problem is he’s not willing to go into the madness that is war. He wants his actors to be squeaky clean and he wants there to be some deep moral message against a beautiful backdrop. The problem is that he’s not willing to make his people bleed. Yes, the “bad guy” warmonger gets killed. Yes the hotshot pilot gets shot down (you’re not sure if she’s KIA or just out of the fight). The blue guys have their “betrothed” warrior get killed so Cameron won’t have to deal with a weird lovetriangle. And finally, when he’s rained fairly generic and nonsensical destruction down on a generic, beautiful and nondescript planet, he has the chance to really say something about the cost of violence, war and greed but instead of killing Jake Sully, we suddenly find out there’s a tree which can move his soul into a new body (conveniently supplied by a soulless avatar used as a meat spacesuit so there’s no cost to that either) and we realize that there’s no sacrafice anywhere except in the backdrop – the very nature the blues are supposedly fighting for in the first place.
This movie borrowed much from much greater works, and all of it was wasted.
Update: Global Politician calls it “Dances With Wolves in Space” and I think he’s spot on.