I can think of one thing that would save Avatar (written and directed by James Cameron) and make it a much better movie-going experience. See it with the sound off. No subtitles, please. This avoids the story, which is somewhere between lame and insulting, and the soundtrack, which runs from weak to annoying. All that would be left is the visuals, which are gorgeous and immersive. The last hour of shoot ’em up and explosions can be skipped, too.
There are two moments that approach honest emotion in the entire 2 hour, 40 minute movie: 1. When the main character, the paralyzed Jake Sully, first has his consciousness inserted into an alien avatar and he is able to walk and run. 2. After Jake and Pocahontas -- I mean the native Chieftain’s daughter Neytiri -- bond to flying creatures, very much like the dragonriders of Pern, they recount their flight, waving their hands through the air in an imitation of flight. All the rest is a boring retread of other stories and it is dead on arrival.
The story riffs on the following movies:
Disney’s Pocahontas -- check
Costner’s Dances with Wolves -- check
Every single movie where a white male shows an “inferior culture” how to fight and he is better at pretty much everything (from Tarzan onward, there are hundreds of these movies) -- check
This last trope was the subject of a panel discussion at Wiscon 31, called “What These People Need is a Honky.”
I doubt Cameron reads much science fiction, but if he did he might have come across a similar story by Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Word for World is Forest,” first published in novella form in 1972. Cameron is only 37 years behind in his source material, which is how far behind Hollywood science fiction movies typically are.
The production designer for Avatar argues that since the natives, the Na’vi, are blue aliens and not a specific Earthbound oppressed group (such as, say, Africans or Native Americans), the movie can’t possibly be racist.
“Think of the imagery of the Johnny Weissmuller movies of Tarzan and the portrayal of Africans, which any of us watch today and we go, ‘Oh, that's a little cringe-making.’ . . . By Jim (Cameron) picking a state of existence that does not exist and then all of the jumps of science — like combining human DNA with an alien DNA and projecting a character's consciousness into the new being — all of that creates a ‘there’ where you can stage a story that you can tell with a real freedom. ”Actually, no. By making the natives non-specific they stand for ALL oppressed and exploited groups. The Na’vi are Tarzan’s Africans, Dances with Wolves’ Native Americans, and every other racist portrayal of an “inferior people” all at once.
Cameron is able to mount huge, visually stunning productions (Avatar, Titanic, The Abyss), unfortunately each film is hobbled by painfully bad storytelling. The characterizations are weak and plot developments are obvious far in advance. Who wrote these wretched, broken screenplays? Oh, that would be James Cameron.
Edited to add:
I don't mean to suggest that Ursula K. LeGuin's novella "The Word for World is Forest" is infected with the same sort of racism. Far from it. Her story is better in every way than the Avatar story.