The only Avatar analysis worth reading

Okay, maybe I'm being a bit melodramatic with that title because there are a ton of Avatar reviews out there and I can't pretend to have read them all. But Roz Kaveney's examination of the film on Strange Horizons is still the most insightful I've read, and is highly recommended for anyone trying to scratch deeper into the film.

While you should read the entire review, here's one of the many points I totally agree with:

The most important and telling criticism levelled at the film—to the extent of causing some people to boycott it altogether—is that its central plot structure is a standard neo-colonialist one, in which the Pandorans need the help of a superior being, a white American, to survive and the story is about him, not about them. The argument is that, even granted that sometimes members of a privileged group renounce privilege, telling their story inevitably still privileges them above the unprivileged group whose story is not being told. This charge is not, let us be clear, without merit, though it is hard to see how a film with any other plot structure could be scripted, let alone made in Hollywood at vast expense.

As well as being the Great White Saviour, Jake is that most useful of plot devices, the protagonist who has to be told things; he is also the Man Who Learns Better, and discards earlier convictions; he is also someone who cheerfully signs up for complicity with what he comes to realize is atrocity, and has quite a lot of expiation to do. Yes, the story is about him, but all stories have to be about somebody—Jake is somebody who has been part of the most negative aspects of human society and who comes to understand that he has been exploited and spat out. His relationship to privilege is complicated even at the start. It may be fanciful to think his surname a reference to the great French Protestant rebel and statesman, but, given Cameron's form in such matters as embodied elsewhere in the film, possibly not.

It might be superficially appealing to reimagine the story so that it could have been about a Pandoran coming to understand the degradation of human society. This is superficially attractive, save for the fact that we would need to be shown from the film's inception the underlying assumptions from which such a protagonist was operating. We would need to have an entire alien world and society shown us in what would end up being "As you know, Bob" conversations, and with the risk that such a protagonist's naivete about human institutions would end up being portrayed in a way best described as minstrelsy. Moreover, the process of thinking oneself into the mindset of a Na'vi would almost inevitably involve an even greater appropriation of the identities of actually existing forest hunter-gatherer peoples, which would itself be problematic.

This is the best response I've seen to the neo-colonists criticisms, which while raising valid points in my opinion miss the overall message of the film.

And for my final comment about Avatar, I point people to the best explanation I've seen for why James Cameron's films have been so successful: He "made a pact with Satan. How else do you explain Titanic being the highest-grossing film of all time? Seriously, think about it. Someone should look into this."