The setting is the 22nd century, and Americans have brought their considerable technology, including their formidable war machines, past a distant planet, to its moon known as Pandora. There, it seems, is an abundant supply of a rare but critical fuel resource. There’s only one problem: there’s an indigenous population living there, and they consider their land sacred and inviolable. (So, of course, would the earthlings, if the scenario were reversed.) The “natives,” naturally, are considered primitive, but not necessarily savage. Some scientists are brought along in this military expedition, to try to understand the inherent culture, infiltrate it, and then barter with it, in exchange for the precious mineral rights. (Manhattan Island, anyone?) The problem is that the Na’vi don’t want anything from the alien earthlings, except that they just go away, which, of course, is the one option not available.
So the Americans recruit a Jarhead, a quadriplegic Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to subject himself to the special morphing device that transforms him into the 10-foot-tall-with-a-tail Avatar, but only when he’s asleep in his specially-constructed chamber back at the controlled lab.
So we go back and forth, between Jake’s human self and Avatar alter ego. Suddenly able again, physically, and taught the incredible naturalistic skills of the villagers (including being able to ride flying beasts), it’s not surprising that he starts “going native.” There’s also this beautiful girl, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who patiently teaches him the tribe’s ways — from hunting and tracking skills to a kind of nature-religion that connects with “Our Mother” (sort of a combination between “Mother Earth” and “The Great Spirit”).
So, imagine if John Smith fell in love with Pocahontas, then they somehow managed to form a grand coalition of all the tribes on the continent, and they all combined to throw out the aggressive colonizers, somehow, Tarzan-like, with the cooperation of the very animals of the wild themselves? Well, how else are you going to do bows and arrows against spaceships?
The biggest problem with this extraordinary sci-fi fantasy is not the technology, which is considerable, but the screenplay that calls on the Marine to lead the enemy against his own troops. After several years of war in Iraq, and now mounting military presence in Afghanistan, somehow it doesn’t seem right to root for one of our own soldiers teaming with the enemy to throw us out, even if our commander is a conscienceless, Neanderthal brutish warrior. So, the viewer’s problem is that we’re torn about whom to root for, which creates an internal tension not recommended in an escapist fantasy flick.
It’ll be interesting to see if the political incorrectness here is overlooked in favor of simply enjoying the incredible moviemaking achievement that is “Avatar.”
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.