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By the time you read this, I'll have seen (and reviewed) James Cameron's Avatar, but as of this writing, I haven't yet. This column isn't so much about the movie as it is the oddly negative vibe it had been receiving up until about a week before it came out.
However Avatar winds up performing at the box office, after it's gone from theaters people will be analyzing exactly what Fox did "wrong" in marketing it to earn so much negative buzz before it had even been seen. Were they too cautious? Perhaps Hollywood has already forgotten how to sell a genre film that isn't based on a pre-existing comic, cartoon, book or toy?
One thing is certain: The moment the intangible "meh"-ing of Avatar's pre-release crystallized was with the debut of its trailers, which brought with them the revelation that the film's top-secret plot seemed disappointingly conventional. A sci-fi/fantasy spin on the well-worn Post Colonial trope of the conflicted soldier who takes up arms against his own to fight for the "primitive" tribal society he was supposed to be helping eradicate - in this case, mecha-piloting space marines versus blue-skinned aliens. Or, as South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone ironically immortalized it, "Dances With Smurfs."
At this point, it certainly doesn't look like "strikingly original story-outline" will be on a list of Avatar's strong suits. Still, as funny as that South Park bit was, the fact is Dances With Wolves hardly owns a patent on the "White Man fights for the Indians" hook; and Battle for Terra didn't invent applying it to science-fiction. The theme of the civilized protagonist achieving heroism by going native is an ever-evolving one, and it's been part of genre fiction for almost as long as there's been such a thing.
In the broad strokes, it all goes back to Colonialism - the unpleasantly-complicated "yeah, but" to all of Western History and an unignorable aspect of Western fiction. However one chooses to approach it, Colonialism and the storytelling tradition of brave men venturing into exotic lands are permanently linked. British fantasy-adventure tales of treasure-seekers exploring lost continents were the romanticism of the British Empire's colonial exploits in Africa, India and The Americas, and such fantasies helped drive the very exploits they were inspired by. One can easily chart the West's shifting attitude toward this part of history by watching how the books and movies depicting these fantasies evolved.