AVATAR (2009) James Cameron
brief commentary Tony McRae

Both James Cameron's sci-fi extravaganza "Avatar" and Arthur Penn's 1970 revisionist western "Little Big Man" have as their central character a white American male who is gradually assimilated into another race:  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine, is scientifically transformed into an avatar, a replication of a Na'vi, a people who inhabit the planet Pandora and live in harmony with nature; Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) is adopted by the Cheyenne, and undergoes numerous adventures in both the White and Indian worlds.

Though separated by some 40 years, each director has a similar central subject, the American genocide of an indigenous people.  

"Little Big Man" is a mixture of both comedy and drama:  Penn's depiction of Native Indians and their struggles to hold on to their culture and traditions is moving and persuasive.  He makes no attempt at historical accuracy (e.g., the battles of Little Big Horn and Washita River), yet Penn does not cover-up the horrendous treatment of Indians, mostly by villainous American soldiers and politicians.

Cameron has much the same agenda as Penn, to show the attempted occupation and eradication of native people by rapacious Americans.  Unlike Penn, Cameron need not worry about historical verisimilitude, since the planet Pandora exists only in the minds of Cameron and those who created the sets and images.  His aim, somewhat heavy-handed, is an attempt to show us the appetites of industry which has little concern for the environment and its inhabitants. 

While Penn used clichés--many from B-westerns--for comic effect, Cameron takes the same source (the western) and wallows in its depiction of good and evil.  (At least we don't see the white hat/black hat bit but he comes close.  Example:  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the avatar of the title, comes among the Na'vi as one of them.  Many are suspicious and wish to ban him from their clan.  He appears to be inept, but the beautiful Neytin (Zoe Saldana) finds him attractive. Later, of course, they fall in love.  

The Na'vi are incredibly fit and can do acrobatic maneuvers that would put Tarzan to shame.  This includes Neytin.  Jake can't believe what he sees, yet in a relatively short time he turns into a great warrior.  He becomes the first Na'vi in ages to tame and ride a gigantic bird/beast, thus becoming the clan's leader.  He takes his band of Na'vi into the maelstrom of the most outlandish of movie battles.  Naturally he conquers the marauding American forces who had been bent on eradicating the Na'vi and plundering their precious resources.  Wow!  Who else but an American marine could do all that?

I have not see "Avatar" in 3D.  No question, the CGI is spectacular, but it cannot overcome such naiveté and silliness.  Yet there are many who were swept away by the sheer spectacle, the fantasy that can make telling points against both our invasions of other countries (read Korea, Vietnam, Iraq) and our unconcern for global warming.  Still, give me Dustin Hoffman's 121-year-old man anytime.