The only good thing about Avatar was watching imperialist mercenaries die.
I know that's kind of a bold statement, but I have to be honest. Maybe it's just that I'm in the middle of re-reading Ron Takaki's "A Different Mirror" right now, so issues of racism and imperialism are at the front of my brain, but man... Avatar was trash. I went into the theater with an open mind too; I hate the "good is bad because it's not perfect" attitude that's so prevalent in progressive thought, particularly when it comes to art, so I WANTED Avatar to not be as bad as people have been saying. But it is.
And I don't mean "the movie was bad," like with plotholes, or bad acting, or stock characters or a predictable story. I mean that the movie was offensive, insulting and racist. I have good friends who love the movie. But again, I have to be honest.
The films' major problems have already been written about by Annalee Newitz HERE and David Brooks HERE (both articles are must-reads, whether you agree or disagree with me) so I won't go on for forty paragraphs about it. Those two writers pretty much sum up my feelings. I'll just say this:
Part of the reason I didn't like it is because it's a white guilt fairy tale: white guy (and even if Jake Sully had been played by Will Smith or whatever, he'd still be "the white guy" because the film is INESCAPABLY a parable about white imperialism and colonialism) infiltrates the mysterious, idealized natives and doesn't just begin to identify with them but becomes their greatest warrior, their leader, the guy who marries their princess and the hero of the story (see also: Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai). He can't just be a guy who defects and helps out, he has to be "the chosen one." And yeah, that's just how Hollywood works, but that's not an excuse. (I could go on, but the two articles linked to above really dig into this idea).
But more than that, I think what gets to me about Avatar is that it's escapist fantasy masquerading as something progressive. Yes, the film is anti-imperialist and pro-environment on a superficial level, but it doesn't talk about struggle or resistance in any kind of real-world way-- it's all deus ex machina "chosen one" bullshit. In real life, throughout history, the U.S. murdered millions of Native Americans (and others, from Africa to the Philippines to Central America to Iraq and beyond); I just couldn't watch the movie and not think about that. As liberal-minded people, we want the story of Avatar to reflect our world, and feel good about ourselves because we want that; the film never challenges us, however, to understand struggle or imperialism as things that exist in real life.
I know people will disagree. That's fine. I just don't want to hear that "it's just a movie" bullshit or that "you're over-analyzing it" bullshit. That's lazy. Art, especially film, is a community experience and it always has meaning, whether you want it to or not.