Catching up on my RSS feeds, Tom Lee has two posts on Avatar that strike me as so obviously correct that they leave me with very little original to say. Go read them. Especially this part in response to this widely-linked post on Avatar and white guilt:
The self-congratulatory white guilt narrative discussed emerges from narrative necessity as least as much as it arises from an incoherent, subconscious and pervasive sense of racial culpability. Put another way: it’s not just liberal guilt! It’s professional laziness, too!
Consider an alternate explanation for the movie’s setup. We’re writing a script! We’ve gotten an impressive rendering farm online and built these neat cameras and the crew jackets are all printed up, but there are still a few nagging details to work out before we start rolling. For instance, we need a protagonist around which the action will revolve. He or she needs to have an arc. And the opposing sides of the central conflict need to be drawn in stark Manichaean terms — the innocents need to seem super-innocent — because we’re not trying to make That Kind of Movie. When things blow up at the end, we want to audience to be happy!
All of this can lead us directly to a colonial narrative, and it can do so without anyone trying to atone for white privilege at all. It also explains Romeo Must Die perfectly well, for example. And The Transporter. And Total Recall (though admittedly that movie added some pleasantly confusing recursion). And The Professional. And really just about every other action movie, where a protagonist recognizes his complicity in an evil enterprise and then assumes an unrealistically prominent (and violent!) role in resolving the central injustice.
Update: Brad Templeton says that the Na’Vi are obviously the descendants of an advanced civilization that decided to live more harmoniously with nature. He compares it to Star Trek’s “Errand of Mercy”, although I think The Apple is a better parallel.
This is clever, but I do have one nit to pick with his argument. He lists the floating mountains as an example of a phenomenon that couldn’t have emerged naturally. But I think there’s actually a (vaguely) plausible explanation for this: the mountains are made of unobtainium, which is a high-temperature superconductor, and so they exhibit magnetic levitation.