Chinese writers condemned Avatar, a branch of the Russian communist party condemned it, the Vatican has weighed in, and other groups are endlessly debating its political meaning. What makes people respond so strongly to this flick? It's the realism.
But how can such a blatantly fantastical movie be realistic? This is a movie about blue cat people who ride dragons and bond with six-legged horses. The whole thing takes place on the moon Pandora, whose lush mega-forest is actually wired up with synapses so that the moon can think like a giant brain. Plus, one of the most memorable features of Pandora, other than its bizarre flora and fauna, are its floating mountains that hover inexplicably over a weird magnetic anomaly that's never explained.
Nevertheless, this is realism of the highest order. I'm not just talking about the special effects, which are as close to photorealistic as you can get with computer animation. I'm also referring to the extreme levels of detail in the way director James Cameron presents this world. He's said in interviews that he thought about everything from handles on boxes (they need to fold in to get through narrow doorways on spaceships) to how the six-legged horses would breathe (through airholes in their necks). Pandora and the human military base aren't just vaguely sketched-in concept art that we view in backgrounds. They are vividly realized, and our brains rarely have to fill in little details to flesh out the fantasy of being on another world. All those details are already there.
Avatar's realism goes beyond visual effects, however. While Cameron's dialog in this film may not be the most complex, his depiction of relationships between the characters is. Cameron easily evokes the kinds of relationships that form between soldiers on a base in a hostile land, and between scientists on a dangerous assignment. We immediately understand why Sully is loyal to the military at first, and it's easy to understand why he's able to fit into Na'vi society so easily: He's a trained soldier, and the Na'vi respect warriors. Sully and his comrades come across less as epic heroes and more as the confused, angry, lustful, and occasionally righteous humans we meet every day. They may find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, but they're not megabeings on a date with destiny.
It's worth noting that Cameron has long been a master of bringing a believably awkward human realism to his science fiction scenarios. The comraderie in Aliens between the marines, full of dirty jokes and bullet-riddled bonding, was hardly the stuff of outer-space adventure heroism, but it worked. People who've seen the movie years ago still remember both the minor and major characters because their tight-knit unit was so vividly portrayed. The family relationships in Terminator 2 were similarly believable. John Connor is a squeaky-voiced geek and his mother an unstable badass - even when they tangle with unbelievably futuristic robots, we never forget the relatably mundane details of John's life as a foster kid whose coolest possession is a dirt bike.
Given the intensity with which people have responded to Avatar, it would seem that Cameron got his wish for a fully-immersive fantasy that felt real. The problem - or maybe the benefit - is that when something feels so real, people react to it much more strongly. Instead of enjoying the movie as fantasy, they find themselves asking, "What if this were real? What would it say about my life?"
It's this kind of realism that has inspired Chinese people evicted from their homes to call the plight of the Na'vi their own. It's what turned representatives of the Vatican into film critics, evaluating whether this piece of fiction undermined Christianity with its portrayal nature-worshiping aliens. And it's what inspired me to write an essay several weeks ago about the race politics of a story about blue people. Even though we are well aware Avatar is fiction, all of us are behaving as if the events in this movie are woven into the fabric of our real lives.
If anything, Avatar has reminded us that realism isn't just the purview of drama, or even of science fiction that bends over backwards to get physics right. Realism is in the details of worldbuilding. It's about making a fictional space look as messy and complicated as our homes and neighborhoods do. Remember that scene in Avatar when the science team is fleeing the military to a remote lab, and when they arrive things are kind of broken and dusty and there's crappy food in the fridge? That felt like a more realistic environment than most of the "real life" spacious city apartments I've seen in dozens of so-called realistic dramas set on Earth in the present day.
Perhaps, for this reason, it was too easy to imagine ourselves into the world of Avatar. Maybe we are overreacting to what is after all a fictional story. Or maybe this film is a reminder that stories, when told realistically enough, can change people's minds and lives. And that isn't always a bad thing.