David Brooks, yes that David Brooks, on Avatar (Warning: spoliers in article):
Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.
This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.
Avid moviegoers will remember “A Man Called Horse,” which began to establish the pattern, and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” More people will have seen “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Samurai.”
Kids have been given their own pure versions of the fable, like “Pocahontas” and “FernGully.”
[H/t: Ajay Chaudhary]
A similar take from Annalee Newitz in io9:
When will whites stop making these movies and start thinking about race in a new way?
First, we'll need to stop thinking that white people are the most “relatable” characters in stories. As one blogger put it:
By the end of the film you're left wondering why the film needed the Jake Sully character at all. The film could have done just as well by focusing on an actual Na'vi native who comes into contact with crazy humans who have no respect for the environment. I can just see the explanation: “Well, we need someone (an avatar) for the audience to connect with. A normal guy will work better than these tall blue people.” However, this is the type of thinking that molds all leads as white male characters (blank slates for the audience to project themselves upon) unless your name is Will Smith.
But more than that, whites need to rethink their fantasies about race.
Whites need to stop remaking the white guilt story, which is a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white.
Asking if Avatar is racist is the wrong question, I think, however necessary it may be; a negative answer is impossible, but a positive is insufficient. To build on what Scott and Annalee have written, then, I think we should look closer at what it actually uses its warped racialism to say.
After all, defenders of the movie will point out that the natives are the heroes, that the main character’s journey is towards a greater understanding of the native culture and appreciation for all sorts of values that his own society, a damnably capitalist, militaristic, and scientific culture (with a different figurehead for each value), has given up, to its own profound detriment. And I think Wax Banks is right that the best ending for this movie would have been to submerge Jake into the collective and produce “an eco-disaster film in reverse, with the audience cheering for Nature to wipe out the goddamn army,” without any “heroic” focus at all. He’s right because the movie wants its politics to be an argument that “modernity” has profoundly harmed us, and that because we, like Jake, have been crippled by the times in which we live, we have to go native, go natural. But this means that while the movie is profoundly patronizing towards its natives, it infantilizes them only because it idealizes them for that very infancy, making them into children because it, too, wants to retreat from the adulthood/modernity.
This is why, for example, Jake Sully is such a spoiled brat. To note that he is the worst stereotype of the ugly American isn’t nearly enough; he’s profoundly satisfied with his ignorance and his self-absorption is so awesomely complete and all-encompassing that it seems perfectly natural when other people make huge investments in him, to the point that he makes saying “thank you” all about him.