My critical analysis of Avatar rests upon a simple premise: there is a jarring disconnect between the content of the film and the form in which it is executed. Let me explain.
The film's story has already come under fire for a variety of critical reasons: it's weak (tepid romantic epic); it's derivative (Dances With Wolves in Space); it's imperialistic (indigenous population saved by white man in indigenous disguise). I would argue, however, that the true content of the film is the espousal of a very particular brand of ecological politics. The film signals this at the outset when we encounter characters traveling to outer space in order to procure resources exhausted on earth. While this motif is not by any means new to science fiction, what accelerates the narrative into a thoroughly ecological mode is the desirability of Pandora-as-fetish-object. This planet, Cameron's dream-child, is the visualization of a whole host of ecological metaphors. It is a perfectly "balanced" "ecosystem" where the "bond" between the humanoids and the rest of the environment is actually affected through a physical entanglement; an almost orgiastic inter-penetration of the follicular ends of their hair with a similar appendage in the creatures to which they attach.
Further, the planet is a deified Mother entity, Awai, a near approximation of Lovelock's Gaia, which was originally intended to operate as a personified metaphorization of the totality of processes on Earth. In Avatar, the interconnectedness of all things through Awai is most explicitly visualized in the final battle scenes when all of the animals, stirred by this spirit, come to fight on behalf of the Na'vi. As these examples attest, the type of ecological affectation present in the film resonates with (still persistent) 20th Century beliefs in "Mother Nature," "balance," and "unity." The political program of such an affectation, when faced with an ecological crisis such as resource depletion, tends to be primitive-pastoral: i.e. the return to earlier, hunter-gatherer forms of existence, rather than technological-utopic: i.e. the overcoming of environmental limit through direct intervention into natural process. This is what makes the indigenous tribe so appealing: they approximate our own myths of (lost) environmental balance, so that the future of science fiction becomes the past of the American Indian.
Our alignment then, as audience members masked in 3D goggle, is with the indigenous tribe, presented to us as both our past and our future. We begin to root for them (quite vociferously in the screening I attended) to a) destroy the white man who is trying to steal their land, thus allowing us a revisionist moment of American history where, for the majority of viewers, we eradicate ourselves, and b) to destroy the white man's technological prowess. This is where the radical disconnect between form and content begins to make us feel schizophrenic. Because at exactly the same time, Cameron has us both optimistically hoping that a slew of bow and arrows will overcome the technological behemoth of the invading party, and, masked in 3D goggle at IMAX theater, passionately engaging in a spectacular celebration of the technological innovations of the film itself.
So while we thought we were rooting against the technological-utopic, we are actually in full support of it. It is Cameron's achievement in terms of digital effects: the seamless merging of live action, motion capture, and CGI shots; the invention of a new 3D stereoscopic camera that blend[s] recorded and synthetic environments; the perfect alignment of the optical stereo images (right and left eye shots) for 3D effects, that draws us in droves to the theatres. Cameron has famously touted his quest to present the cinema viewer with an immersive environment, and, as 1700 of the shots are digital (an estimated 60% of the film), this immersive environment is unquestionably synthetic.
So if the content of the film at first glance is an ecological one: the desire to obtain Pandora-as-fetish-object, then all of it: the lush visual landscapes, the neon luminescence of the night scenes, the tangible materiality of the bulbous plants that disappear upon touch, the delicacy of the floating seedpods, everything about Pandora that suggests a kind of vibrant fecundity, an environment that is completely satisfying in biological, material, and aesthetic terms, is digital. The idealized eco-environment is a product of binary code. Which means that, formally, it is an extended commentary against a primitive-pastoral return to bows and arrows. The digital is many things. Primitive is not one of them. The film answers the ecological problematic it poses at the level of content with a technological reply: if you exhaust the "greenness" of your home planet, we will synthesize a new one for you.