No less an eminence than Roger Ebert has identified the special status of Avatar, the most ambitious film by the most celebrated Canadian filmmaker in history, James Cameron. “It is an Event,” Ebert wrote, “one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.”
No one will deny that it’s currently the subject of several million conversations, but the meaning of the Event deserves scrutiny. Is Avatar, as Cameron’s publicity implies, a gateway to the movies of the future and an affirmation of elevated spiritual values in a coarse, commercial world? Or is it the sign of an art form in grave danger of losing its heart to technique, proof of a public addiction to worn-out storytelling—and fresh evidence that North America is the first society in history that willingly pays good money to see itself depicted as essentially evil?
When a work of science fiction runs dry it becomes a minor footnote to contemporary fashions in opinion. Avatar, more than most films, drives itself into this narrative dead end. It comes across as a commercial for the Green party, a New Age hymn to pure nature, and a florid work of anti-war propaganda, a simple-minded story of an army dedicated to evil purposes fighting a nation of innocent victims.
Avatar’s future is 2154, a date presumably chosen (just a guess) as the year when the world will celebrate the 200th anniversary of James Cameron’s birth. But Americans in this world-to-come are obsessed with the subjects that fill the TV news of today. It’s remarkable that a future-minded fellow like Cameron assumes that nothing much in human consciousness will change during the next 144 years. It’s like a story invented at the time of Confederation that imagines everyone in 2010 will be worrying about the future of European royalty.
Avatar is also the perfect cinematic embodiment of anti-Americanism. It appeals to the teeming masses who may well know that corporations have made them affluent but don’t like to dwell on such an uncomfortable truth. Still, among moviemakers, a dislike of corporate power goes only so far. Apparently no one is planning to regret publicly that the huge profits from Avatar have notably buttressed the stock of its backer, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
In Cameron’s script, an army of mercenaries, former U.S. Marines, have established a mission on Pandora, the lushly forested moon of a distant planet. Pandora is rich in a precious ore, “unobtanium” (and that word is as close as the movie gets to a good joke), which means to the 22nd century what oil means to the 21st. Earth lusts after it, apparently because it will solve the energy crisis.
But the most ore-rich mountain happens to be home to the peaceful, pious and ecologically intelligent Na’vi. Sigourney Weaver, the chief scientist on the U.S. mission, discovers that the mountain is also alive, just as our pagan ancestors imagined.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic war veteran with no space experience, gets chosen for the mission as a replacement for his dead twin brother. The identical DNA of a twin matters because the scientists are combining human DNA with native Pandora DNA.