Here is one case for why Avatar, James Cameron's sprawling science fiction epic, should win the Oscar for Best Picture at tonight's 82nd Annual Academy Awards. It is not because of the film's ground-breaking special effects, or the surprisingly imaginative and gripping plot, but because Avatar makes the viewer intensely sympathetic to the Na'vi: the blue-skinned humanoid inhabitants of the far-away planet Pandora, which is also the inter-galactic Saudi Arabia of a mineral Earth desperately needs -- "unobtanium." Having come all the way from Earth to establish an unobtanium-mining colony on Pandora, the RDA Corporation, complete with its own mercenary army, correctly views the presence of a local tribe of Na'vi as the central obstacle facing the successful extraction of unobtanium from Pandora. The film's plot, a crescendo of conflict between the Na'vi and their "Avatar" allies against RDA's mercenary army, leaves the viewer aching for the Na'vi to crush the venal (and obviously American) RDA Corporation's army.
The reason I believe the film deserves best picture is not so that the Academy can express disapproval of real-world energy and mining corporations, whether they employ mercenary armies or not. Rather, Avatar should win best picture because such a victory would underscore the vital need for our powerfully self-centered political culture to appreciate other states', cultures', and societies', points of view -- even the ones we see as antithetical and dangerous to our own.
Avatar makes the case for a more realistic and sympathetic approach to engaging divergent points of view in political conflict, whether that conflict is inter-planetary, international, or domestic and partisan. As has been much remarked, the film's McGuffin, unobtanium, is strongly reminiscent of fossil fuels in its importance to the continuation of human life on Earth. In its scarcity and in the extremes of human behavior its extraction provokes, too, unobtanium closely parallels the role of fossil fuels in the global political economy of today. The Na'vi -- the director of the mining operation tells the substantially more empathetic scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) -- are "savages" and therefore the RDA should feel no moral compunction about driving them from their homes. Though Augustine points out early on in the film how ludicrous it is for the RDA to expect to win the hearts and minds of the Na'vi while "firing machine guns at them," the Colonel in charge of the RDA's mercenary army is quick to conclude, after a paltry effort at negotiation, that "diplomacy has failed." The RDA's tactics -- described in the film as "shock and awe" -- are, like so much else in Avatar a direct reference to the Bush administration's approach to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The depiction of the RDA's violence upon the Na'vi, whose culture and society is clearly modeled upon stereotypical notions of Native American civilization, is strongly evocative of such dark episodes in American history as the Trail of Tears and the Wounded Knee Massacre. In the end, the film has left no doubt as to the fundamentally immoral (if perhaps not evil) motives of the RDA corporation. We root for the Na'vi, and glory in their ultimate victory against their American assailants. We see the conflict through the eyes of Iraqis, Cherokees, and the Lakota-Sioux. This is an extraordinary cinematic accomplishment.
It is noteworthy, if not unprecedented, that this message is conveyed almost exclusively in the format of Science-Fiction/Fantasy. Of course, there are many American-made antiwar movies in which the viewer finds themselves cringing at the horrors of war made real by American military power, but rarely does a film go so far as to make the viewer support the Americans' enemies. For example, no American movie depicting the Vietnam War itself seeks to make the viewer empathize with the Viet Cong. The Battle of Algiers, which depicts the Algerian War from the perspective of an Algerian protagonist and expresses sympathy for the FLN guerrilla force, was banned in France for five years. It is likely that a Hollywood film explicitly depicting the War in Iraq or the Vietnam War which asked the spectator to view the film from the perspective of Al Qaeda in Iraq or the Viet Cong will not be made in the foreseeable future. In some respects, this may be for the best. On the other hand, time has made it possible to make films depicting the American government's cruelties toward Native Americans, a part of American history which, even today, still deserves much more serious treatment from Hollywood.
But for the foreseeable future, Avatar has set a new standard of excellence for making an American movie-goer empathize with perspectives of the world that may well be very different from their own. Previously, this distinction was held by the original Star Wars trilogy, also science fiction, in which a rebel force wages war against an evil empire. George Lucas, the trilogy's creator, has said that the trilogy "comes out of the Vietnam era" and that, among other parallels, the "Ewoks" from the third film in the trilogy, The Return of the Jedi, represent the Vietnamese. Though outgunned, the Ewoks play a crucial role in defeating the empire. Even such right wing authors as Niall Ferguson (in his book Colossus) have commented upon the clear parallels between the protagonists of Star Wars and the Viet Cong and the Viet Minh. Perhaps the science fiction format makes the very discomforting thematic goal of the film palatable in a way that cinema vérité could not.
Avatar's delivery of its message of political empathy is not perfect. The film preserves the irritating trope of the American who, upon entering into an endangered and exoticized foreign culture, saves that culture from within (think Tom Cruise starring in The Last Samurai). Moreover, as the astute cultural critic Kenneth Edelson pointed out to me, the ultimate victory of the Na'vi over the RDA corporation's mercenaries seriously undermines the film's message; were the RDA corporation to win the final showdown, the film's story would have made the viewer cringe even more at the Americans' behavior and thereby made the case for political empathy much more forcefully. But, like Star Wars before it, Avatar is a hugely popular movie, despite its deeply unsettling depiction of an alternative reality that reflects some of the worst aspects of our own. In the hope that Avatar's popularity reflects upon and encourages the potential for political empathy among its viewers, the Academy should award Avatar the Oscar for Best Picture.