Since it was released late last year, James Cameron's new wonder of the world has compelled people to read meanings into it, as if meaning must be in there somewhere. The simplicity of the characters and the familiarity of the basic story tempt many observers to presume that the whole thing must be symbolic somehow. Certainly the thing is riddled with archetypes, echoes and homages, but do these cohere into a meaningful philosophical or political statement? Hell, no. The story of the planet "Pandora" and the Na'vi is so singular that any attempt to interpret them as allegories for contemporary politics or recent history must fail. The only exception I'd make is for the twin-tower-like collapse of the World Tree under attack by human mercenaries, a bit that really only complicates further any attempt to identify the characters of the film with the antagonists of present conflicts.
At the heart of Avatar is a simple "What If?" scenario that has probably been done before in sci-fi pulps that Cameron may not even know about. What if future explorers found an aboriginal, superstitious population on a "new" world, but then found that their superstitions were based on irrefutable, inexorable truth? The concept could well be old but it is also new as in "New Age," at least in Cameron's holistic vision of an organic network of sentience linking humanoids with other animals and the entire ecosystem. The New Age-iness of it rubs some sci-fi fans the wrong way. Its vindication of religiosity and worshipfulness goes against the secular-humanist vision of someone like Gene Roddenberry, whose dream scenario was to have the Starship Enterprise fight God and win. Had Avatar been a Star Trek episode, the Eiwa that the Na'vi worship would be revealed as some malevolent parasite that had been holding back the blue folks' evolution for its own perverse reasons -- or, irony of ironies, a machine. And Kirk would destroy it. And that would be the Na'vis' liberation, the beginning of their necessary progress. That faith in progress isn't fashionable anymore, while we can more easily imagine, or desire, a utopia where people don't need to progress. But Cameron's planet is not a utopia. It isn't something we can imitate. It's just a big what-if designed for a big payoff when the Na'vi, their animal friends, and their renegade human buddy Jake Sully (driving a ten-foot blue meat puppet) defeat a futuristic invasion force that, for all its firepower, is still small enough to be overwhelmed by the blunt force of charging beasts. Why this defeat of the human invasion is presumed to be permanent I don't know, but it does make for a happy ending to a rock-em, sock-em adventure.
Perhaps because New Age-iness rubs me the wrong way, I waited these long months until a copy of Avatar turned up on the library's new-arrivals shelf. That means I didn't get to see the epic panorama at its ideal size, but I can easily imagine what the experience was like. As spectacle Cameron's film lives up to the hype, though the middle-section of Jake's immersion in the wonders of Pandora started to drag after a while. The familiarity of this part of the story and Cameron's failure to do anything really new with the trope made it tiresome until the Company and its mercenary army made their move. My sense of wonder is not limitless, and the CGI landscapes became merely decorative without any real drama in the foreground. In other areas Cameron's imagination failed or he didn't even try; nothing seems futuristic about the human characters, for instance. You'd be excused for believing that the movie takes place about ten years from now, technology aside. More importantly, though, Cameron can be excused for not intending to speculate on the evolution of human society and culture when he wanted to make a different film. And once we get to the real action toward which everything's been building, Cameron's skill as an action director did not fail him. The last hour of Avatar kicks ass on a pretty consistent basis as dragonriders (more or less) battled helicopter gunships and a guy in a mecha outfit with a big f'n knife dueled our dehumanized hero to the death. Once the basic archetype switched from Dances With Wolves to Dune, that is, I enjoyed the film much more. I'm not saying it was awful before. It was just too familiar to be especially compelling despite the purportedly unprecedented spectacle.
Like Star Wars, Avatar is a mosaic of myths. Along with the obvious influences, I caught a hint of The Ten Commandments, not just in the heroine's name (Neytiri) but in her relationship with a foreordained but not predestined mate who grows antagonistic toward the interloping hero. Unlike Rameses, though, his Na'vi counterpart proves more of a good sport and gets to go out like a hero himself. Cameron's film could work as a Rohrschach blot for movie buffs; what other films do you see in it? For my part, I thought I saw an homage to the finale of City Lights when Neytiri finally sees Jake's crippled human body and they repeat the traditional "I see you" greeting. On the other hand, I failed to see any influence of Cameron's alleged favorite film, The Wizard of Oz, even after reading Daniel Mendelssohn's extensive comments on that film's influence in The New York Review of Books. However derivative Avatar may be, it works in its own right as long as people don't try to read too much into it. A film like this almost has to be derivative to work on the fundamental level Cameron wants, and that's not a dishonorable aspiration.
Of course, watching the film in August 2010 allows me to see angles that couldn't have been imagined back at Christmastime. Seeing how the planet's world-mind worked, I realized that the Company and the army guys were taking the entirely wrong approach. All they really needed to win Pandora for themselves was a really good inception team....