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The movie’s most seditious act is to evoke the specter of September 11, only with the terms reversed. The corporation’s most villainous act, overseen by a calmly coffee-sipping Lang, is the destruction of Hometree, the Na’vi’s ancestral home and the root of their connection to Pandora. Its support structures blown apart by missile fire, the massive tree, hundreds of feet tall, collapses in a shower of flame and debris, its incandescent embers wafting through the air as the bereaved Na’vi wail their grief. The resonance with the familiar images of lower Manhattan is inescapable (although for once unremarked upon), except that here, the U.S.’ stand-ins are the perpetrators, and not the victims. Cameron’s willingness to question the sacred trauma of 9/11 is audacious, and his ability to do so in a $300 million tentpole movie is nothing short of shocking. If Avatar has a claim to revolution, that is where it lies. It’s not surprising that the studio has chosen to focus on selling the movie’s visual sizzle rather than its conceptual steak, but the extent to which critics have uncritically followed their lead has warped the movie’s reception.
The money-hungry company, willing to sacrifice any number of lives in the pursuit of profit, is a frequent Cameron bugbear (think the Terminators’ Cybderyne, or Aliens’ Weyland-Yutani), but what’s different in Avatar is that their avarice is not the exception but the rule. Apart from a few outliers—Worthington, Weaver, scientist Joel Moore, renegade pilot Michelle Rodriguez, and a handful of barely sketched personnel back at base—the humans we see are overwhelmingly in thrall to the corporate ethos, to the extent that Cameron has no trouble bumping them off when the shooting starts. By the time of the final battle, our sympathies are lodged firmly with the Na’vi, to the extent that we’re encouraged to cheer every time a human takes a supersized arrow in the chest. The insurgents, fighting a guerilla war against an enemy whose overwhelmingly superior firepower is undermined by their arrogance, are the heroes. To borrow another phrase from the contemporary lexicon, Avatar, in a very real sense, sides with the terrorists.