Every conversation I’ve had about the movie has concentrated around three areas. (There’s a few very minor spoilerish details ahead.)
Tech: The filmmaking technology is breathtaking. This is the first time I’ve left any 3D movie with no trace of eyestrain. The 3D effects were not used as gimmicks; instead they simply add depth to the film. The CGI was fascinating – out of the entire 2 hours and 40 minutes, there were only momentary traces of the uncanny valley. It lives up to every bit of hype.
Story: The story is a pretty solid soft-sf story. It makes no pretense at hard sf – they’re after “unobtainum” on Pandora – but instead does soft sf well. The characters were well-rounded and definitely able to be empathized with – even if you don’t always like them. This is not the film equivalent of Blindsight or Accelerando; there are no huge concepts or brain-twisting ideas here. Instead, Avatar delivers up the twisted funhouse mirror of our modern society that sf – especially soft sf – does well, while telling an entertaining and moving story. While there are political and social themes (addressed below), they are part of the story, rather than being the whole of the story. Ultimately, this is about Jake Sully, Neytiri, and the other characters, not about politics. Yes, in some ways it’s Dancing with Elves – but damn, if wood elves were normally portrayed this bad-ass, I would have been playing them for years.
Race: The Na’vi have flat broad noses, many of them have hair that looks like dreads, and tend to speak English with an African or Caribbean accent. When I first heard Neytiri speak, I thought “Oh dear God, please keep this from being a Jar Jar Binks kind of appropriation.” The movie manages to avoid that; the strength of the characters helps keep them from becoming caricatures. They’re people – despite being called “monkeys” by the overwhelmingly white male corporate and military humans and typically treated as animals except by the much more diverse (both in gender and race) scientific crew. That contrast – along with the degree of characterization of the Na’vi – led me towards interpreting the Na’vi’s appearance (and culture, which further borrows from African and Carribean cultures) as deliberate and sympathetic rather than the racist stereotypes used by Lucas in the Phantom Menace. While the Na’vi are primitive – they’re not the ones driving mechs – their achievements and worth are consistently overlooked by the majority of the humans because they’re not the same kind of achievements. That theme – and the exploitation of indigenous people for profit – run through the ongoing globalization debate and through this film. Its release so close to the Copenhagen talks, and the revelation of a plan to screw developing countries so the global West could get off easy make this film even more timely.
Overall, this film works. If you’ve seen it, your comments are welcome below.