I went to see Avatar prepared to see a hackneyed eco-hippie-themed noble-savage-vs.-evil-technology plotline, richly decorated with spectacular visual effects. And the film fully met my expectations on both counts, although the latter were a bit too derivative (of past jungle/rainforest films, from Tarzan to Emerald Forest; of sci-fi flicks such as Star Wars, Aliens and The Matrix; and of man-battles-dinosaur classics from The Land That Time Forgot to Jurassic Park) to lift the film above the level of "mildly entertaining".
What I was not at all prepared for, though, was Avatar's take on relations between the sexes. Not since the laughable Antonia's line--which, despite its wide acclaim, appears to have been made primarily by and for lesbians--have I seen a film so strongly premised on the assumption that women are superior and dominant, and men inferior and subordinate.
The Omaticaya, Avatar's idealized indigenous hunter-gatherers, are, of course, highly matriarchal: their deity is an earth-goddess, their most powerful figure is a shamanistic high priestess, and their women are fierce hunters at least on par with their males. The only Omaticaya men portrayed in the film are the tribe's chieftain, who appears outranked by his high-priestess wife, and the chieftain's heir apparent, a rather sullen young man whom the film's hero quickly supplants. (Remarkably, Omaticaya children are nowhere to be seen in the film--perhaps because depicting women in a childrearing role might cast doubt on their seeming complete dominance over men.)
The earthlings aren't much different--the film's human males are, for the most part, followers, dupes or fools. The corporate executive overseeing the entire mining operation, for instance, is portrayed as a vapid, golf-playing buffoon. The soldiers--with the exception of a single female pilot--are simply disposable grunts following orders. The male scientists are meek minions of the hard-driving female project leader. Even the film's hero is essentially a lost, confused soul unsure whether to be a pawn of the military, a servant of science or a follower of the Omaticaya cult.
(The single exception, of course, is the film's arch-villain, who, despite being portrayed as a brutal, racist psychopath, nevertheless shows enough leadership, drive and independence of mind--enough manliness, in short--to make him by far the most genuinely interesting male character in the whole movie. Like Mad Men's Don Draper--a cold-eyed, philandering snake who has become something of a sex symbol in the eyes of the show's female fans--Avatar's Colonel Miles Quaritch benefits greatly from being, despite his flaws, a welcome island of cojones in a sea of feckless beta males.)
Now, it might seem surprising that a film clearly intended for a young male audience would so glorify women running roughshod over hapless men. And it's certainly not typical of the sci-fi/fantasy film genre: consider, for example, that the most successful recent film series of this type have all featured wise, powerful father figures--viz., Yoda, Gandalf, Morpheus, Dumbledore. Yet in this film, there are only mother figures to admire.
We shouldn't forget, however, that nerdy males--presumably the film's core demographic--are widely understood to live in awe and fear of women. And it may be that Avatar's filmmaker, James Cameron, has in fact struck a chord with his gynocratic vision. After all, if there's anyone who would be expected to understand what appeals to a target audience of adolescent filmgoers, surely it would be the maker of Titanic...