I saw Avatar a couple of nights ago with the words of many earlier critics in mind. The template was in place. This would be a left-wing, pantheistic film.
Coming out of it, I think Avatar is more complex than that. Whether or not Cameron intended that complexity, I don’t know, but I saw more than I expected to see.
Yes, the humans from their “dead planet” are on a paradise planet attempting to rape it for its natural resources. I suppose many people will see this, and have seen it, as westerners technologizing the world and expending so much fuel that they have to steal it from poorer humans around the globe. Cameron may have been thinking NO BLOOD FOR OIL.
For the most part, the humans are completely uninterested in the religious beliefs of the people they are exploiting and appear to have none of their own. That was something that stuck out to me. The humans of the future, the ones exploiting another planet for corporate wealth, appear to be resolutely secular. The military contractors are even worse. They are secular and tribal. You are with them or against them. Right and wrong don’t enter the picture. What is right is what the chain of command says is right.
Cameron may be the kind of western liberal who doesn’t recognize the influence of Christianity on his own thought. The human being who inhabits an avatar and becomes one of the alien Na’vi caused me to think about the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. The avatar in the film is sent to deliver one message, one of power and oppression, but ends up being a mythic, savior figure who somehow connects with the “real” god of the planet and turns the tide in battle.
Another point that I found compelling is the insistence of Sigourney Weaver’s scientist character that the religion of the Na’vi is a real religion. What she means is that elements of the physical existence of the planet bear out the religious attitudes of the alien people who live there. In other words, they are connecting with (apologies to Francis Schaeffer) a “god who is there.” Again, I thought of Christianity because the church has always insisted that the things that make the faith matter are real things that happened in time and space. For instance, the resurrection is a physical resurrection. Christ is not an attitude or a collective spirit of his followers who remember him well. He is real and because of his unique ability to triumph over death, his authority can be trusted.
These things I’ve picked up are far from the dominant notes in the film. What I noticed more than anything is that Cameron seemed to set out to make the ultimate film in the genre of primitive peoples who are better than those who exploit them. Billy Jack is a well-known example. Dancing with Wolves has been the reigning champion. Avatar contends for that throne.