Beyond the shameless, co-opted caricatures of tribal Native American, African and Aboriginal cultures, I think there is something deeply problematic in the way moviegoers are invited to participate in our own entertainment by sympathizing with the marginalized (as we clearly should, and must) - and then feel good about ourselves for being so sensitive.
The Empire outrages us when helpless savages (or natives, or pagans, or immigrants, or peasants, or "Rebel scum," or Bajorans - that's right, I went there...) are abused, attacked, and hopelessly outnumbered.
Here's the problem: nothing ever changes.
This may not be the fault of the filmmaker. Clearly, James Cameron has good intentions. Good 350 million dollar intentions (so there's a question of how funds might best be used...) but filmmaking makes a big spectacle, makes us clap and cheer, and then gives us PERMISSION to go back to our comfortable lives. Unchanged. Truly, unconvicted. At least, not for very long.
So I teared up when the blue cat people were getting blown to smithereens (yeah, I actually did) but that doesn't matter. And I'd bet what's worse is that I'm crying over a stolen story: this story played out here on U.S. soil, and involved tens of millions, instead of a few thousand.
When we're encouraged to sympathize with the "least of these" (be they human OR alien) and then get off the hook, habitual permission to go back to our lives unchanged, then it doesn't matter if you call it art or entertainment - it's destructive. How do we break the habit of caring enough to cry, but not enough to take action? We are, after all, still waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And ready to do so, elsewhere. The same script plays out in Braveheart and The Last Samurai, and dozens of fabulous, captivating "epics." And they all teach us to care about the RIGHT things. But not to care too much.
As an aside, I do love sci-fi, and Avatar created one of the most vivid worlds I've ever seen on film. After 45 minutes, I even got used to the douchey-looking cat people. It was an experience as much as something to merely watch. I want to give credit where credit is due, and it's an impressive spectacle. I simply cannot divorce my viewing experience from this feeling that makes my stomach more than a little unsettled.