As I watched “Avatar,” I kept thinking about the Amazon. It seemed pretty clear that Pandora is an outer-space Amazon, though it certainly could be an outer-space African Congo. Avatar is no “Heart of Darkness,” nor is it a “Fitzcarraldo.” In those tales of ironic conquest, the European finds the unknowability of the natural and cultural Other brings him face to face with none other than his own shadow-self, the ambition and brutality that reveals his self-assumed cultural superiority and refinement as absurd.
Avatar, you have probably heard, is a “Dances With Wolves” story. This isn’t actually true; it is more of a “Last of the Mohicans” story, in which a non-native (white/European/human) can not only completely assume knowledge of the other (non-white/tribal/alien) but can do so in a superior way. Thus Fenimore-Cooper’s 19th century myth – of the white man who becomes an Indian becoming a “super-Indian” who is better at being Indian than the Indian – is closer to Avatar’s storyline.
But let’s not get carried away. Despite the overwhelming similarities to the past, Avatar is a science fiction movie, and as such is a dream of a possible future. And this is a future in which humans have “killed our mother” and, already having devastated the earth, have moved on to strip-mine other planets.
As in Cameron’s earlier “Aliens,” the film’s antagonist is a corporation focused solely on profit, in a future where space exploration and colonization is not a government function (as in Star Trek) serving the higher human ideals of exploration and the expansion of knowledge, but a corporate one in a deregulated, mercenary future dystopia.
The crowning irony of “Avatar”: as lavish a corporate-funded production as you can imagine, it nonetheless has an anti-corporate sentiment.