AVATAR (2009, Directed by James Cameron).

M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

Avatar is a 3-D science fictionepic that went on to become the biggest commercial hit of all time, ultimately surpassing the $2.7 billion dollar mark in global box-office receipts and holding the all-time box-office record for a decade. The film deals with a number of topical issues and employs a veritable encyclopedia of science fiction motifs, though both its plot and its treatment of these issues are ultimately predictable. It is also fairly weak on characterization, lacking the memorable iconic characters who have populated many of the greatest science fiction films. Avatar is, however, an impressive visual spectacle that employs groundbreaking technologies to present audiences with an unprecedented filmgoing experience. Indeed, the most impressive technology that features in this science fiction film—and the main reason for its astounding commercial success—is the technology that went into the making of the film itself. Avatar’s 3-D imagery was widely proclaimed as the finest use of such imagery in film history, while its mixture of computer-generated animated imagery and live-action imagery was also groundbreaking.

Upon its initial release, Avatar was one of the biggest sensations in the history of the film industry. Much anticipated (thanks to an extremely successful marketing campaign), the film very quickly rocketed to the top of the all-time box-office charts, easily eclipsing Cameron’s own earlier Titanic (1997). It also achieved immediate critical success, drawing considerable praise from critics, though this praise was clearly inspired in great measure by the film’s advances in 3-D cinematography. Still, the important critic Roger Ebert praised pretty much everything about the film, calling it “extraordinary” and “an Event” and declaring Cameron (in a call-back to Titanic) “the king of the world.” Even critics, such as The Guardian’s George Monbiot, who acknowledged a certainly “mawkish” character to the film’s plot, regarded it as a “profound, insightful, important film.”

Avatar’s technical achievement had a dramatic impact on the direction of the American film industry, pushing American movie theaters toward the adoption of 3-D exhibition technologies and pushing American filmmakers toward a greater emphasis on producing 3-D films. 3-D technologies have remained important since that time, especially in children’s film. Avatar even helped to inspire innovations in 3-D television technologies for home viewing, though these technologies are beginning to seem more and more gimmicky more than a decade later, while Avatar itself has likely now been viewed more often in 2-D (where its famed visual effects sometimes appear a bit wonky and video-game-like) than in 3-D. As a result of all of these developments, the technical achievements of Avatar now seem a bit less impressive than they once did, while reassessments of the film based on its actual achievements as a film have generally not been kind, based partly on the rather stereotypical nature of its most foregrounded theme, the critique of colonialism[1]. At the same time, emphasizing its environmentalist themes can perhaps still extract some important value from the film.

Avatar and Colonialism

Avatar is, most obviously, a science fictional critique of the phenomenon of colonialism, focusing on the efforts of colonizing forces from earth to exploit the mineral resources of the distant moon Pandora (in the Alpha Centauri system), which also happens to have a particularly beautiful and abundant (though sometimes dangerous) natural environment. Science fiction as a whole presents a rich variety of opportunities for the refiguration of stories of colonial conquest and domination in unfamiliar settings that potentially cast a new light on the historical phenomenon of colonialism. Most obviously, if alien invasion narratives provide an obvious venue for the exploration of Western anxieties and fears associated with encounters with other cultures (including those of the colonial and postcolonial world) the converse science fiction subgenre in which humans from earth colonize other planets, often subjugating (or eradicating) alien cultures provides a much closer (yet still defamiliarized) parallel to the history of colonialism on earth. Many of these science fiction stories provide a sort of fantasy alternative to the real history of colonialism, allowing the human colonizers to experience the adventure and triumph of the conquest of exotic planets that are not inhabited by intelligent species and thus present few of the moral and ethical dilemmas of real-world colonialism.

In Avatar, however, Pandora is already inhabited by an intelligent species, the tall, blue-skinned Na’vi, which makes the film less a celebration of adventure in an exotic locale and more a critique of the seizing of that locale from its rightful owners—and thus of the entire history of colonialism. The story is in many ways a familiar one, and the Na’vi are most obviously based on Native Americans, while to an extent serving as a sort of allegorical stand-in for non-Western peoples as a whole. In this case, however, the history of colonialism on earth is ultimately reversed, and the Na’vi are able to win a decisive military victory over the human invaders, with the help of a group of renegade humans and of the resources of the planet itself.

The film begins as a number of new human colonizers arrive on Pandora after a six-year trip in cryo-stasis. The newcomers include Jake Sully (little-known Australian actor Sam Worthington), the film’s central protagonist—and a character who has been perceived by numerous reviewers as one of the film’s central weaknesses. Some of the weakness of this character comes from Worthington’s lackluster performance, but most of the criticism has to do with the stereotypical nature of Sully as a character. A former Marine, he has come to Pandora only because his twin brother, a scientist assigned to the project there, has been killed, leaving Sully as the only person whose genetic makeup allows him to interface successfully with the human-Na’Vi hyrid avatar that has been prepared for him, thus saving the project the wasted expense of having to discard the avatar.

Because of this substitution, Sully begins the film as a sort of fish out of water, a gruff military man who has no background in science and no initial interest in learning about the Na’Vi and their culture. This completely stereotypical situation, however, is complicated to some extent by the fact that Sully himself is a paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down due to a battle wound. But this situation only adds to his sense of liberation when he is subsequently bonded with his avatar, which is strong and agile (as well as able to breathe the atmosphere of the moon, which is toxic to humans). This enhanced physical ability not only enables Sully to move freely about the moon and to interface with the Na’vi but ultimately to become their white savior, assuming still another stereotypical role that has drawn numerous comparisons with the Dances with Wolves (1993), which purports to convey a sensitive and sympathetic view of Native American culture, but also features a white protagonist whose superior insights are required in order to save the day for his new Native American friends.

In the case of Sully and his avatar, these friends include another major character in the film, a young female Na’vi by the name of Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana), who is also one of the leaders of the Na’vi clan that is central to the film. Saldana also provides a model for the facial features of Neytiri, who (like all of the Na’vi and the avatars) appears in the film only via computer animation. This animation has itself been the topic of considerable discussion. On the one hand, the film’s mixture of animation and live action is the most technically sophisticated ever achieved to that time. On the other hand, one could also argue that the heavy use of animation in the film is a bit distracting, creating a certain amount of uncertainty concerning just what sort of film one is watching when viewing Avatar. Of course, the animation facilitates the representation of the Na’vi as different from humans, though there is some question about whether they are different enough. They are still highly anthropomorphic, making it easier for audiences to identify with them, and they are also clearly coded as physically beautiful, graceful and physically perfect, their differences from the human (such as their blue skin and their long, slender tails) serving as rather aesthetic design features. In addition, there is the fact that they are nearly naked, causing some reviewers to complain in particular about Neytiri’s level of undress, which makes her a sort of stereotypical version of the beautiful, exotic, scantily clad native girl so often featured in colonialist narratives.

Given this particular stereotype, it is perhaps not particularly surprising that Sully (via his avatar) falls in love with Neytiri and that they become a couple. Again, the rapid development of such a relationship between two individuals with such different backgrounds is pure cinematic stereotype, included here largely for purposes of driving the plot and, particularly, of driving the evolution of Sully from a rather conventional military type into a sensitive idealist who not only loves Neytiri but also loves her people, her culture, and her world. This rapid evolution does not seem particularly realistic; indeed, it might be seen as an illustration of the way in which this film and its plot were conceived in a rather superficial and schematic way largely just in order to provide a framework within which to exercise the film’s new digital technologies.

Sully’s avatar and Neytiri.

Saldana was almost unknown when cast in this film, though this film helped to propel her to stardom. For one thing, she also appeared in 2009 as Uhura in the Star Trek reboot film, giving her some immediate science fiction credentials. But the real science fiction credentials in this film belong to Sigourney Weaver, who plays Dr. Grace Augustine, a returnee to Pandora who arrives on the ship with Sully. Weaver, of course, had played Ripley in the Alien films, a role that was one of the breakthrough roles for women in the history of science fiction film. In this case, the tough-talking, cigarette-smoking Augustine heads up the scientific part of the Pandora mission. In particular, she is the head and principal architect of the avatar program, having designed the biological avatars that resemble the Na’vi and are compatible with the environment on Pandora, but whose brains interface with human controllers with whom they are genetically linked and for whom they serve as stand-ins. These avatars are themselves a relatively common science fiction device; they are supposed designed specifically to facilitate communication with the “real” Na’vi, though the effectiveness of their mission as good-will ambassadors is somewhat undercut by lack of support from powers-that-be behind the mission.

Augustine is an extremely positive character who seems devoted not just to the advancement of science but also to learning about and respecting the culture of the Na’vi. Unfortunately, it is fairly clear that she has relatively little influence with the real powers behind the mission on Pandora. The film itself supplies relatively few details about that mission, but the large fan base that initially grew up around the film has developed a more detailed consensus account of the situation, which sees the mission as being administered by the Resources Development Administration (RDA), a huge non-governmental organization that, in this mid-22nd-century future, has far more power than any of the governments on earth.

It is clear from the film that the RDA has not come to Pandora out of anything other than a purely economic motivation and that the organization has very little interest in understanding, communicating with, or helping the Na’Vi. Their chief administrator on Pandora, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), does not seem to be openly malevolent as far as the Na’vi are concerned. He is, however, unwilling to let them stand in the way of his assigned mission, which is to extract the extremely rare and valuable mineral Unobtainium, of which Pandora has been discovered to have an unusually rich supply. Thus, when Augustine complains about the company’s tactics on Pandora, he explains to her that Unobtanium sells for “twenty million a kilo” and is thus far too valuable to let the Na’vi or concerns about the ecology of Pandora to stand in the way of its extraction.

Some might argue, of course, that the name “Unobtainium” is a bit silly, and it does strike a problematic note. At the same time, one could also argue that this hokey name is actually quite effective because it gives the mineral a sort of allegorical quality that allows it to stand in for any number of other potentially valuable real-world materials. Meanwhile, the fact that the film gives no explanation of why Unobtainum is so valuable or what it is used for gives it a similar allegorical quality. In the same way, incidentally, one could argue that the name of “Pandora” is also carefully chosen, even though it seems to be an odd choice for anyone who wants to promote mining on the planet. After all, Pandora is the name of the mythical woman who was the owner of a mysterious box that, when opened, released all of the world’s evils on mankind. Naming the moon after this particular myth seems to suggest that the mining operation on the moon is likely to lead to horrific consequences for everyone involved. Thus, the film subtly makes Pandora a sort of allegorical stand-in for all of the evils of colonialism, even though it doesn’t explain how the RDA could have been tone-deaf enough to allow this name to be applied to this moon. Of course, many elements of this film are specifically designed to make certain points and should not be judged on the level of verisimilitude.

That Selfridge’s primary motivation is so clearly economic suggests that his corporate masters have the same priority, and it is no surprise that he gives relatively little weight to the goals and concerns of Augustine and her scientists. It is also no surprise that he ultimately puts his weight behind Augustine’s principal antagonist, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a former military officer who now heads up the “security” operations of the RDA on Pandora. These operations, of course, are really more offensive than defensive: Quaritch and his forces seem much more concerned with launching offensive attacks on the Na’vi than in providing defensive protection from them. When Sully arrives on Pandora, he sees all of the former soldiers who are working for Quaridge and immediately sums up the situation. Noting that these men were once devoted to fighting for freedom (suggesting that freedom might be seriously under assault on earth), he concludes that “out here they’re just hired guns. Taking the money. Working for the company.” Sully thus expresses a certain amount of disdain for the mercenary orientation of these soldiers, though his negative reaction does not imply that he has developed an antipathy toward the military: it simply indicates that he does not believe that fighting for money instead of principles is an appropriate military function.

This problematic distortion of the normal function of the military is embodied in the figure of Quaritch, who, in some ways, seems to be a perfect representative of the military mentality. He lacks, however, the sense of a noble mission that Sully associates with the military. Instead, he seems interested in pure power and in asserting his dominance over the Na’vi and over Pandora. Indeed, it is clear that he views the Na’vi as the enemy—or at least as an obstacle that must be overcome in order for the company to achieve its mission on Pandora. But it is also clear that Quaritch represents the worst aspects of the military mentality in that he shows a racist hatred for the Na’vi, whom he regards as an Other to be defeated or removed, without any respect for the fact that they are a sentient species as intelligent as humans—not to mention the fact that Pandora is their natural home, while Quaritch and his troops are foreign invaders. In this attitude, of course, Quaritch resembles many precedents in the real-world military, especially in the case of Native Americans and the Viet Cong, both of whom were the victims of multiple massacres at the hands of the U.S. military.

Indeed, despite the obvious echoes in this film of various aspects of the baleful legacy of the conquest of the American West, the anticolonial commentary of Avatar also extends to the broader context of colonialism in general. Perhaps the most important secondary referent of this aspect of the film involves the ways in which the invasion of Pandora by forces from earth recalls the American neo-colonial adventure in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s[2]. Early in the film, for example, Selfridge explains to Dr. Augustine his understanding of the role that she and her team of scientists are supposed to be playing on Pandora: “You’re supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives,” he tells for, which inevitably recalls the well-known project by which the Americans and their South Vietnamese collaborators sought (unsuccessfully) to win broad support among the general population of Vietnam. This project, of course, was not terribly successful, leading many in the U.S. military to advise a more brute-force approach. One of the most widely circulated quotes about the war (often attributed to General James Hollingsworth but widely used among the U.S. military in Vietnam) was the retort, “Grab them by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow.”

This attitude, of course, is precisely the one that is pursued in Avatar, to some extent by Selfridge, but more directly by Col. Quaritch, whose hyper-militaristic approach leads little room for the winning over of hearts and minds. This attitude then leads to an all-out military assault on the Na’Vi, and in terms that often recall the American military assault on Vietnam. Thus, the large-scale battle that brings the film to its climax features a force from earth that sports vastly superior military hardware, its dominant involving flying craft that are essentially helicopters, the one piece of hardware that was most iconic with regard to the American presence in Vietnam, as memorably featured in such well-known films as Apocalypse Now (1979). And, of course, the most controversial images related to the use of helicopters in Vietnam (again, memorably featured in Apocalypse Now) involved the dropping of incendiaries such as napalm on the thick jungles that provided cover for the anti-American Viet Cong forces in Vietnam, a tactic that all—too-often also involved the dropping of such chemicals on the actual people of Vietnam. It is thus surely no accident that the final assault on the Na’Vi in Avatar begins as the attacking copters bomb the jungles of Pandora with incendiaries.

This movement from commentary to the assault on Native Americans during the conquest of the American West to commentary on the American involvement in Vietnam has numerous precedents in American film: as usual, Avatar here covers well-known territory with both its images and its ideas. Indeed, at a time when the ongoing war in Vietnam made it a bit sensitive to make direct antiwar films, the Western was widely used as an indirect means of critiquing the American involvement in Vietnam. In Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), for example,the genocidal white American assault on Native Americans is quite clearly paralleled to the imperialist American assault then still underway in Vietnam. It was, in fact, one of the most effective of the numerous anti-Vietnam Westerns of the time, a subgenre that included The Professionals (1966); The Wild Bunch (1969), Soldier Blue (1970), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), and Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

There are also, incidentally, science fictional precedents for the mixture of elements in Avatar, in which a critique of colonialism is combined with an environmentalist message in order to show the common ideological drive behind both colonialism (including Vietnam) and the destruction of the natural environment. Probably the most important of these is Ursual K. Le Guin’s 1972 novella The Word for World is Forest (1972), which has been widely considered to be an allegory of the American experience in Vietnam but also addresses the colonial situation in a much more general way, at the same time dealing with issues related to gender and environmentalism. Here, human colonists are engaged in an effort to “tame” (which largely means devastate) the forest planet Athshe (also known as New Tahiti), which is highly valuable as a source of lumber to be sent back to a deforested earth, where wood is now a rare and precious commodity. Again, though, Athshe has intelligent indigenous inhabitants, whom the human colonizers refer by the derogatory term “creechies,” regarding them as decidedly subhuman, despite a common genetic heritage. In an especially clear repetition of the history of the European encounter with Africa, the peaceful Athsheans are rounded up and used as slave labor. At the same time, the forests so dear to their culture are systematically destroyed in logging operations.

However, the Athsheans turn out to be more intelligent (and formidable) than the humans realize. In fact, they have a highly sophisticated culture, though the colonizers from earth are unable to recognize it as such because it is so different from their own. The abusive treatment of the Athsheans leads to an uprising, to which the leader among the colonists, Captain Don Davidson, organizes a brutal response, though the Athsheans eventually triumph. Davidson is that text’s Quaritch; he feels no remorse as he envisions overrunning the planet with humans and their machines, destroying the Athshean environment and the “creechie” way of life. Davidson lack of respect for the Athsheans is mirrored in his lack of respect for their environment and his lack of respect for women, suggesting that colonialism, environmental irresponsibility, and sexism are driven by similar impulses. Meanwhile, his attitudes his general clearly reflect attitudes that drove the American intervention in Vietnam. For example, Davidson relishes the idea of dropping “firejelly” from the air to destroy the Athsheans’ forest cover (or even the Athsheans themselves), recalling the similar use of napalm by the American forces in Vietnam (and anticipating the incendiaries of Avatar).

Avatar is quite unapologetic in its negative depiction of Quaritch and his mercenaries in direct opposition to the positive depiction of Augustine and her scientists, with Sully initially tilting toward the soldiers and then aligning himself fully with the scientists after he comes to know Neytiri and to sympathize with the Na’vi. In this, Avatar once again delves into science fiction cliché, which has quite often seen scientists and the military as opposed groups, with precedents going all the way back to The Thing from Another World (1951), one of the very first science fiction films about encounters with aliens. In the case of that film, the encounter occurs on earth and involves an extraterrestrial invader. Perhaps predictably, the military elements in the film are dedicated to the destruction of the alien, while the scientists want to preserve the alien for study and the advancement of knowledge, making these two forces very much the predecessors of the scientists and the military in Avatar. The Thing from Another World, however, is ambivalent about its own sympathies, with certain indicators in the film aligning the scientists with the Soviet Union, though there is also critique of the military in the film. Meanwhile, the alien in the film gets no sympathy at all; it is unequivocally represented as an essentially monstrous invader that feeds on human blood[3].

Avatar and Environmentalism

Given the somewhat clichéd nature of Avatar’s engagement with colonialism and related issues, the most important message delivered by Avatar might have to do with environmentalism. And one could argue that this message is so important that it is impossible to ignore, even if the film does not deliver it in the most nuanced of ways. Still, Avatar might well be more sophisticated in the delivery of certain other messages (including the environmentalist message) than in the delivery of its anticolonial one. For example, one of the most important aspects of the film’s political message is one that is not foregrounded in the film and could easily be missed by many viewers. The film takes place entirely on Pandora and we see nothing of life on the future earth of the film, though it is clear that this earth is extremely advanced in a technological sense. There do, however, seem to be some social and economic problems. At the beginning of the film, when we learn that Sully has lost the use of his legs due to a war injury, he also tells us that “They can fix a spinal, if you’ve got the money. But not on vet benefits. And not in this economy.” This statement itself reads like a cliché, but it is an important one: while the technology is available to restore the use of his legs, Sully cannot afford the necessary treatment, nor do his veterans benefits extend to covering that treatment, despite the fact that his wound was incurred in the line of duty. We thus learn that, in this high-tech future, many of the most advanced technologies are still available only to the wealthy, while the values of this future society do not extend to taking care of those who had made major sacrifices in the service of their country.

This lack of support for injured veterans seems to be an important failure of social priorities. At the same time, a closer look at the film’s treatment of Sully’s disability suggests that this almost offhand remark is a sign of something larger: the ableist notion that disabilities need to be “fixed,” and anything short of a complete “repair” is a failure. Moreover, as Susan Flynn explores in great detail, much of this film is built around that same notion, with Sully’s physically adept avatar serving as a sort of fantasy fulfillment of the repair of his disability, while there is little indication in the film that he might have been able to have a successful and productive life even with his disability. “Engulfed in this spectacular and unquestioned drive toward repair, the audience and society at large are discharged from any responsibility. The science fiction body is suggested as an offering of the future, where the awesome potential of repair will be available to those worthy of the transformation and where society will be alleviated of any requirement to accommodate otherness. Science fiction, in this way, can itself be viewed as a tool of ableism” (89)[4].

Flynn has a point, of course, but it is also surely the case that Avatar does not mean to pursue a consciously ableist agenda. The problem is simply that Cameron did not adequately think through the implications of his treatment of Sully’s disability in the film. And the problem here is not simply that the film is insensitive to the issue of disability: the issue is that this film is not especially concerned with a thoughtful exploration of specific social issues. It is a big-budget entertainment spectacle designed to demonstrate the potential of its groundbreaking filmmaking technologies, and it achieves that goal very well.

Nevertheless, I think there is at least one area in which Avatar might actually achieve some effective commentary on important social issues, even if almost inadvertently. This area has to do with the film’s environmentalism, which has probably attracted less critical commentary than its treatment of colonialism. An environmentalist message is certainly an obvious element of Avatar, though the film’s most dire warning occurs in a moment that passes quickly and could easily go unnoticed. Late in the film, Sully, as his Na’Vi avatar, issues a dire warning to the planetary spirit of Pandora about the potential impact of the colonization of Pandora by earth. “There’s no green there. They killed their mother. And they’re gonna do the same here. … Unless we stop them.” Earth, in short, is a ravaged planet, its natural environment essentially destroyed, despite the fact that technology has clearly advanced to unprecedented levels of sophistication.

The film again is not interested in following through carefully on the full implications of this offhand indication of the state of earth’s environment, but it seems clear that the advanced technologies featured in the film have not been used to try to prevent climate change. In fact, it the film seems to suggest that the unrestrained pursuit of technological advancement as a profit-making venture is at least partly to blame for the decay of earth’s environment. Moreover, the behavior of the mission on Pandora seems to indicate that humans have learned nothing from the destruction of their environment but are still willing to wreak environmental havoc in order to extract Unobtainium, which is presumably so valuable because of its use in high-tech devices, perhaps some of which are weapons systems.

As opposed to the lack of respect for nature shown by the powers that be on the earth of Avatar, the Na’vi (again echoing Native Americans) live in total harmony with their environment, which they treat with reverence, but which is threatened with large-scale destruction by thehuman mining efforts. The human attempts at communication with the Na’vi via “avatars” that are essentially artificial Na’vi bodies, modified with the addition of human DNA, are already problematic suggesting an extreme form of appropriation that goes beyond the merely cultural and extends into the biological. But they are also halfhearted: the scientists involved in the avatar program appear to be sincere, but their bosses in the company regard that program as a necessary, but unimportant effort in box-checking. And, of course, the insensitivity of the humans (and their tendency to resort to brute military force to achieve their objectives), inevitably leads to conflict.

This conflict involves a fairly conventional, even clichéd critique of colonialism, as I have already noted. However, this critique is supplemented in important ways by a strong emphasis on environmentalist themes. Indeed, the lush and exotic environment of Pandora, represented using breakthrough techniques of 3-D photography and digital animation, may be the most important “character” in the film. Avatar is first and foremost a technological masterpiece, a striking demonstration of the way in which the most impressive technologies in a science fiction film can sometimes be the technologies that went into the making of the film itself, which in this case include a seamless integration of live action and computer animation, but most importantly involve three-dimension imagery that is superior to that seen in any previous film, thanks to special cameras and processing that Cameron and his crew developed in the years-long process of planning and making the film. The enthusiastic response of audiences to the film suggests that these new technologies have a promising future in science fiction films of the coming years, though some critics have been concerned that the film relies too heavily on visual spectacle, to the detriment of its ability to explore complex ideas or to tell compelling stories about believable characters that audiences can genuinely care about.

Avatar itself embodies all of the contradictions implied in its use of advanced technologies, including the fact that it uses those advanced technologies to critique an excessive reliance on advanced technologies. Timothy Morton emphasizes the environmentalist message of Avatar, noting (among other things) the complexity of this message, which at first seems to oppose the destructiveness of technology to the nurturing character of nature, but does so within a film that is itself a technological marvel that uses high-tech digital processes to construct the “natural” environment of Pandora: “The movie depends upon a massive technological apparatus—and yet it cannot speak about this layer directly, for fear of destroying its message,” because without advanced technology, “there would be no movie, no back-to-nature fantasy, no we-are-the-world” (220). Avatar thus moves beyond the modernist opposition between nature and technology and into a “genuine ‘postmodernity,’ a historical moment after modernity … without ever being able to tell us to go there, or even wanting with all its heart to push us there” (Morton 222). Ultimately, for Morton, the film suggests, not the rejection of technology but the development of a technology that can operate more in harmony with nature (212).

Franciska Cettl pushes this reading a bit farther. Noting that ecological science fiction “thrives at the intersections of environmentalist and colonialist narratives,” she argues that the environmentalist focus of the film acts to undermine the kind of binary thinking upon with colonialism depends (227). In particular, she notes that the film seems to be structured according to a series of binary oppositions, including those between “the technological and the organic, Western science and indigenous animism, [and] Western technology and shamanic practice” (226). She argues, however, that the film ultimately undermines these oppositions in a mode reminiscent of Derridean deconstruction, thereby undermining colonialist logic in ways that are much more subtle than the anticolonialism of the surface plot of the film.

Given that climate change on earth has significantly accelerated since 2009, the environmentalist message of Avatar seems more urgent than ever, as does its suggestion that the destruction of the natural environment arises from the same impulses as colonialism and other forms of exploitative social violence. The film has now lost its status as the biggest box-office hit of all time, eclipsed in 2019 by Avengers: Endgame. Avatar nevertheless remains one of the most commercially successful films ever, while enjoying the extremely unusual critical reputation of being a film that succeeds in delivering some important messages almost in spite of itself. Over the years, the film seems to have receded in discussions of science fiction film in general, while critics have become more and more concerned over its hackneyed plot and potentially simplistic treatment of important social and political issues. Initial enthusiasm over the film has waned significantly, but it remains to be seen whether the film’s much anticipated sequels will extend its commercial success while perhaps redeeming its critical reputation.

Note on the Avatar Sequels

Since therelease of Avatar, Cameron has been at work on improving and extending its technological achievements in what is now projected to be a series of, not one, but four sequels. However, these sequels, expected once again to push the technological envelope of science fiction filmmaking, having become almost the stuff of legend due to repeated delays in their release. As of this writing, Avatar 2 is slated for a Christmas 2022 release, with subsequent films to be released on a regular basis every two years until the appearance of Avatar 5,projected to be released in December of 2028.

Works Cited

Blichert. Frederick. “10 Years Later, Avatar Is the Most Popular Movie No One Remembers.” Vice, 13 November 2019, https://www.vice.com/en/article/bjw4bv/10-years-later-avatar-is-the-most-popular-movie-no-one-remembers. Accessed 14 March 2022.

Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood Press, 2001.

Cettl, Franciska. “Staying with the Paradox of Avatar:Decolonising Science/Fiction.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol.12, no. 2, 2019, pp. 225–40. 

Ebert, Roger. “Cameron Retains His Crown,” RogerEbert.com,2009, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/avatar-2009. Accessed 15 March 2022.

Flynn, Susan. “The Future is Fixable: Convention and Ableism in Science Fiction.” Journal of Science Fiction,Vol. 3, No. 2, July 2019, pp. 76–91.

Monbiot, George. “Mawkish, Maybe. But Avatar Is a Profound, Insightful, Important Film.” The Guardian, 11 January 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/jan/11/mawkish-maybe-avatar-profound-important. Accessed 17 March 2022.

Morton, Timothy. “Pandora’s Box: Avatar, Ecology, Thought.” Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction. Edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson. Wesleyan University Press, 2014, pp. 206–25.

Schalk, Sami. “Wounded Warriors of the Future Disability Hierarchy in Avatar and Source Code.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol.14, no. 4, 2020, pp. 403–419.


[1] See Blichert for a discussion of the film’s loss of prominence over the years.

[2] One could even argue that the very term “Na’vi” can best be read as a sort of contraction of (Na)tive American and (Vi)etnamese.

[3] See my discussion of this film in Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War (118–20).

[4] For another critique of the film’s treatment of disability, see Schalk, who argues that the film, by focusing on its white, male, heterosexual disabled veteran (whose disability is physical, rather than mental), supports a hierarchical vision of disability in which some disabled people are considered more valuable and acceptable than others.