There’s something to the responses you’re going to hear that rather negatively call out Avatar as having the same story as Dances with Wolves and any number of “going native” films, though it should be remembered that none of them are particularly original stories themselves. Apart from going to an alien world to meet your natives, and becoming one of them by transferring your mind into a created body, there isn’t that much that separates Avatar from any number of films, and that’s something you have to look at more openly than some may care to.
What I suspect will come flooding forward among what negative reviews Avatar receives is a kind of misplaced response, but one that is understandable. The truth is, the problem is not that Avatar is simply Dances with Aliens, it is that it is that same story told so poorly.
As is probably not surprising, given that this is James Cameron, everything about the story is delivered in the simplest possible terms, whether that manages to make any sense or not. Ideas are played out because they sound cool, and there isn’t really much thought about what they do to the overall structure.
The humans who are attacking the natives on this planet that is a five-year voyage from Earth have mechanized armor suits, because that looks really cool. They are after some rare mineral, and they find a huge deposit of it under the giant tree the natives live in, because otherwise there is no story. When the natives don’t seem inclined to let them destroy their home, the only alternative is to destroy them, because then they are not just the bad guys, but the really bad guys.
This is all well and good in a movie like Aliens, or The Terminator, where we just zip along for the ride, but Avatar thinks itself rather clever, and demands you to think. Frankly, it’s rather condescending about it too. There is a good deal that might be forgiven with the right approach, but Avatar is so slow, the “bad” is so overblown, and it’s ultimately so oddly preachy, that at some point less and less makes any sense at all. You want to let it go and throw off your disbelief, but it gets pretty hard.
We can send people on five-year space missions, but we can’t drill over to some ore? Or, fire a couple of really cool missiles at them from fifty miles away instead of going in so that we can have our obligatory war scene? Or, find some other places to get this ore on the whole planet despite this cache being pretty close to where we setup our base? What does distance matter?
But, you might quite correctly be thinking, this is all the same sort of thing one has to put up with in any movie. Well, fair enough probably. It doesn’t help things that the really bad guy is in a final showdown that is utterly pointless, and I mean pointless in the sense that your reinforcements are five years away, but it says something about big showdowns in some book on scriptwriting, so what can you do?
When it all comes together though, it’s not only trite, it’s delivered from such a cornball perspective that it doesn’t have full understanding of what it’s being trite about. Imagine, for example, if Dances with Wolves really came across as having an agenda. I know, you can’t access that sentence with a straight face, can you? But, imagine if Dances with Wolves initially came out with this ‘spirit of the Earth’, interconnectedness of all life philosophy, but after a bit Dunbar was actually taken to meet The Earth Mother, and the goddess came up and said, “Hello. Yes, I’m the Earth Mother, and let me show you exactly how all life actually is connected, and you can see the whole design… Boo! I’m God!”
Well, then the opposition isn’t a misguided group with an alternate, but at least semi-legitimate viewpoint (especially if they’re whack, money hungry warmongers, of course), they’re just idiots. That’s rather a different story, and frankly a silly one.
Avatar sure looks pretty though.
Now, all that aside, it’s a fun movie. Terminator doesn’t necessarily withstand a lot of scrutiny either, but it’s a good ride. If you’re just out for a good time, this is your movie. It has incredible special effects, and you can really see the time that was put into the effort. Let yourself drink in the sights, and play right along with plot you knew every piece of anyway. There’s a worthy encounter there. But, when it slows down and wants you to think about something (and pretends there is some intelligence to the story and that the characters aren’t ridiculously hollow), don’t fall for that trap.