Short form: Good movie. I think the following review does not have any significant plot spoilers.
For me, in retrospect, the movie started before it started with a long multi-part tear-jerking recruiting ad for the U.S. National Guard, followed by a tribute to the troops in Iraq sponsored by Walmarts. Why was that part of the movie? I’ll tell you in a minute.
The premise of Avatar is this: In the year 2154 or so, Earthling-Americans have started to mine the hard to get and rare mineral Hardtogetium (or something like that) and an indigenous population is in the way. There are scientists who want to work with the natives and a military unit led by a hawkish ex Marine officer with a bad attitude that wants to boogie booya style and macerate the natives. And the scientists.
The “Pandorans” (the Natives) are very Native American (Neo Pan Native American), mounted (on something vaguely like a horse) hunter gatherers exhibiting relative group and gender egalitarianism and a sort of kingship, with a subequal female spiritual leader, that strongly resembles Sumerian kingship. And they also can ride pterodactyls. The trope is highly derivative of Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” which is probably why it all seems so anthropological. In this story, rather than have the natives possess a feature or essence that earthlings just can’t understand, they possess a set of cultural traits that earthlings can totally get, if only they would put down their guns and test tubes and corporate quarterly reports long enough to whatever whatever.
There are numerous cultural references to “primitive” and “tribal” people, and I sense that the words “primitive” and “tribal” were used routinely in making the movie. “Get me something that feels primitive for this part” or “I know they’re doing the tribal thing but it doesn’t feel tribal enough” and so on. The ululations as war cries are a bit hokey but maybe actually authentic as a kind of universal feature (in that many groups of humans do this, not just Movie Indians). But tuned in people will notice it.
But, the Pandorans, who are large and blue with alieny faces but very human bodies with tails, are the cool ones, the ones you root for. And the “highly advanced civilization” is not cool and you want to seem them all die.
Except for the scientists who, for once, are all doing the right thing all of the time.
One of the big stars in this movie is the bio-luminescence. The plants glow sufficiently that the night is not dark, and even the humanoids have glowing freckles.
Another underlying feature of the story is this: The natives have a spiritual religious thing going in their relationship to their planet and all life on it which, again, is very Native American. When a hunter kills an animal, she or he gives the animal a greeting, says sorry about the part where I have to kill you and stuff, and thanks the animal for the meat, as it is being done in. But there is an important difference between Pandoran spirituality and the Native American one it is vaguely based on: The former is real. The plants and the animals really do have a connection, in the form of ubiquitous neural-like tissues with at least two modalities of intraspecific interconnection (one direct fiber connection the other some kind of fossorial transduction) which are, in fact, the subject of scientist Sigourney Weaver’s research. So, the Tree that is God has more than a walk-on part in this film, and gets directly involved in the plot, and not for being god-like, but rather, for having evolved on what has always been a fantasy plant of mine: A planet on which it just happened to be the case that neural tissues were cheap and easy instead of expensive and finicky like they are on Earth.
The language spoken by the Pandorans was designed and taught to the actors by Linguist Paul Frommer, by the way.
Otherwise, the great thing about this movie is that it is exactly what doing field work is like. Oh, and did I mention that they ride pterodactyls?
The depiction of the military in this movie would not have been allowed from a mainstream US based studio in 2002/3, or if it did happen it would have drawn protests (from crazy people, but protests nonetheless). There is exactly one and only one active duty soldier or officer in the movie that you do not want to see throttled (and she is, indeed, a rebel and a hero). The rest of them you hate. Which is fine, but just a few years ago in the US a movie that ridiculed and demonized the military to this extent would have received some form of whinging criticism. In my theater, the movie was preceded by two “The Military is The Thaing, Worship It” commercials as I mentioned above, which is what made me think of the contrast. So Imma gonna let the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan finish and all, but I just want to say it is refreshing to see The Military Solution get raked over the coals for once in a decade.
As I have noted before, I’m a movie slut. Not because I watch a lot of movies, but because I’ll watch anything. So don’t get your movie advice from me. But this is actually, in my view, a must see if your tastes include any kind of sci-fi or if you just like alien plants and bio-luminescence.
I saw the 3D version, but I don’t think the 3D is that important. Either way should be fine.
When I look at the following trailer, I realize that what I saw in, and say above about, the movie is totally unrelated to what the marketers of the movie think. So maybe you should watch this: