Avatar (the one with the blue people) is, plot-wise, big budget Fern Gully set in a sci-fi universe. It’s dull, really, except for the military bad guy, who in any movie that took advantage of its hinted complexities would maybe not be painted in such a simple light.
First of all…unobtanium. Just…it’s a trope name and an old engineering joke that my dad told me when I was kid. It’s the first sign you get that this movie is, for all its flash and style and carefully constructed language, not even trying with its world building. Do a classical callback and call it orichalcum. Just put some effort in. It might as well have been called McGuffin Rocks, or Plot Excuse Minerals.
The Na’vi, down to their name (it’s just “native”; this is how a third grader names a fictional species), are the same way. There’s plausible reason to believe they were meant as fetish fuel, fine, but it’s the laziness of their culture that irks me the most. It’s all ambiguous woo-woo that is ridiculous, to say the least, as a send up of any native culture anywhere.
The two most interesting things in Avatar get sort of…shuffled off in favor of its white savior plot.
The first interesting thing in Avatar is the neural connection of the planet’s life which essentially creates the planet-goddess, Eywa. This connection is why the Na’vi don’t need to domesticate animals; they essentially brain-hijack them, though this is not how the movie presents.
Eywa pretty clearly has a will of its own. The Na’vi, in the movie, seem to take it as benevolent, if sometimes harsh (not that harsh as presented in the film). But! The Na’vi seem to have their own will, while all the other animals don’t. They aren’t going about reprogramming each other’s minds to get in line with their interpretation to Eywa’s holy will- huh, what an interesting idea to give them an actual culture– so it seems they are not susceptible to this hijacking.
What if a Na’vi isn’t okay with being part of this interconnected ecosystem? What if there was a group of Na’vi who wanted to chart another course, who found the human technology fascinating and prefer not to live in a world of tooth and claw?
That’s assuming the Na’vi really do have a will of their own. Maybe, like every other being that evolved in this ecosystem, they are not really capable of breaking from it. They have an illusion of sentience. The sex scene with the blue chick and the Avatar guy, then, could have been really reprogramming him to Eywa’s will.
The Eywa thing actually does explain the human inability to get along with the Na’vi. Because of the nature of Pandora’s ecosystem, nothing humans can do can properly connect with the natives because humans are like foreign containments to a body. They’re a disconnected will, which has never existed on Pandora before, and Eywa would be hostile to that automatically because it innately disrupts this closed and regulated system. If the Na’vi cannot go against Eywa’s will, then violence was inevitable no matter what.
Interestingly, the connection within the ecosystem might mean the Na’vi don’t have real relationships with individual animals like we can. It’s either a predator-prey encounter that follows the set rules of Eywa or its hijacking the animal’s neural system. There is nothing like a dog among the Na’vi, or even a horse or cow. To us, they would seem both weirdly intimate with nature and weirdly disconnected from it at the same time.
The ambiguity of Eywa and the potential implications of the Na’vi’s relationship with it- which maybe they can’t even define- are pretty interesting. However, the movie doesn’t even play with it. Eywa is all angelic lights and motherly benevolence.
The second interesting idea that isn’t properly played with is the Avatars themselves.
This clones are grown on the trip to the planet from Na’vi DNA and the DNA of the donor. They have no personalities or will but have otherwise fully functional neural systems. The scenes we have of the clone in its vat (and the Disneyworld animatronic) seem to imply they dream, through.
Are these things, fully rigged for sentience, fully organic, actually individuals? It’s sort of taken for granted, but…they twitch in their dreams. The main character’s Avatar was actually made for his twin brother, who he seemed estranged from and who died from plot. Their relationship isn’t hit on, but wouldn’t it be interesting if the Avatar somehow had, oh, a neural snapshot of his brother and he got some of his memories? It could have made him more interesting, that’s for sure.
Also, if they are individuals at all, the creation and hijacking of these bodies is creepy and wrong and I can’t shake the feeling that is what’s going on.
Once again, the lack of Eywa connection to the Avatars meant that they were never going to work as diplomatic go-betweens. They probably creeped the Na’vi out worse and made Eywa’s “immune response” even more intense.
All of these ideas have been explored by serious science fiction writers, and exploring them would have made the movie much more interesting. But they also would have made it much less preachy…ah, what do I expect of a movie that can’t even bother to get custom font and uses Papyrus?