I am perhaps that last person in the country to see James Cameron's Avatar in 3D. I enjoyed it immensely. It was, in my opinion, a very good movie. No it was not as profound or subtle as Up In The Air, which I saw the same day, but it was a very different kind of movie. I went to be entertained, and boy was I, but I was also amazed, and transported. Avatar accomplishes exactly what it sets out to and that is high praise.
Some critics complained about the script. They're wrong. A movie like Avatar needs a simple workmanlike script. It wasn't dazzling dialogue, but dazzling dialogue would have gotten in the way of the immersive experience. Some critics complained about the acting. They're wrong. Like the script, the acting was serviceable. The actors needed to disappear behind the drama and the effects for this movie and they did that well without being wooden.
But more than these complaints I heard a bunch of complaints about the politics of the movie. Criticism hit Avatar from both the Left and the Right. The left didn't like the depiction of the Na'vi or the fact that they were 'saved' by a white man. The right didn't like the fact that humans were depicted as immoral colonialists. Both sides were straining out gnats to swallow camels in my opinion. There is something I would criticize about the movie, much bigger than either of those complaints. I'll deal with them in order.
I've heard Avatar compared to Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves every 30 seconds since the film came out. According to many liberals out there James Cameron is rehashing a tired Hollywood cliche about a white guy who "goes native" and then fights with the natives against his own people (see The Last Samurai). This cliche is insulting to indigenous peoples who are often portrayed stereotypically (even if the stereotype is a good one) and who, furthermore, don't need more white saviors - they've had quite enough thank you very much.
Basically this criticism is true. This is a Hollywood cliche and it is racist and demeaning. James Cameron does indulge in it to a certain extent as well.
But the criticism is way overblown in the case of Avatar. First, the movie is science fiction. These are not any historical indigenous people. They are similar to several cultures superficially, but also substantially different. There just isn't enough real substance here to make a clear and damning comparison. Secondly, the white savior in this case actually becomes a native, and saves the natives using their tools, their culture, their God. Third, and most importantly, James Cameron is a white guy. He can only make movies as a white guy, and I think this represents a pretty decent effort at moral imagination from a white perspective on issues of colonization and indigenous peoples. What we need are more filmmakers from indigenous cultures to tell their own story.
Avatar is full of hippy-environmentalist, anti-American, anti-military bullshit. The badguys in the movie are all military and corporate people. The good guys are scientists and naked blue people who are "in-touch with nature". They even use the phrase "shock and awe". It is just a bunch of your usual Hollywood liberal crap.
Again, I'll concede there is a level of basic truth here. Cameron does play into some stereotypes - the macho violent colonel, the calculating indifferent corporate executive, the awe-struck scientist. The overall message of the movie is in fact environmentalist and anti-violent hegemony.
But this criticism falls flat since in the context of the basic story Cameron is telling (a powerful colonial people fighting with a weaker indigenous people over a natural resource) real world analogies are abundant and overwhelmingly justify Cameron's portrayal. In fact, Cameron went easy on us colonialists. Besides the main character he puts a variety of sympathetic characters on the colonial side, not just the scientists either. There is the pilot who defects, and even the corporate executive is shown having moments of doubt. Frankly, if we were to just give a historical portrayal of similar situations like the Trail of Tears, we would have to search long and hard for any redeeming qualities in white-man.
The Real Problem With Avatar
If Conservatives are angry that Avatar portrays the violence of the humans as unjust, and Liberals are angry that Avatar portrays the Na'vi as needing a human to lead their just defense, both sides have missed the forest for the trees. The problem is that James Cameron couldn't imagine anything but a violent resolution to his story. The third act was always going to be a big guns and explosions set piece. We knew that from the beginning and the only thing conservatives and liberals are arguing about is whether one side or the other was portrayed fairly. Both agree that the violence was necessary and inevitable, they just want to see more nuance in the portrayal of their favored side.
This is the eternal myth of redemptive violence told in 3/4 of movies and books produced. In Avatar it is extremely explicit. The Goddess of the Na'vi "blesses" and even assists in the final military victory of the Na'vi. Salvation takes the form of a battle waged between good and evil. When the humans are shooting Na'vi we cringe. When the Na'vi shoot humans with javelin-sized arrows we cheer. It's that simple. Reverse this description and nothing of substance has changed, we merely tell the same story with a different protagonist and antagonist.
I can't wait for an epic science-fiction or fantasy movie where the possibility of peace is held out as a viable alternative. I suspect I'll be waiting a long time.