It was trying pretty hard not to be science fiction, though. Its characters, you may have noticed, were pretty weak. And its plot definitely didn't need to be science fiction to get its message across; numerous people have noted that the plots of Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and Disney's Pocahontas seem to have been created by filling in the same Mad Libs sheet.
So what is it that makes Avatar science fiction? In short, the "avatar" concept. By including this concept in the film, James Cameron created a reality that asks the question "What makes us human?" And it asks the question really, really well.
Think back to the beginning of the film. Jake Sully, fearless protagonist extraordinaire, gets off his transport and heads into the base. At this point, he's definitely very human. Not very long after that, he's introduced to his avatar--a giant, blue, genetically engineered cat-man. He uses the fancy technology available to take control of this body and control it with his mind, in much the same way he would control his own body. I think that most people would agree that, at this point in the story, he's still definitely a human being. But at the end of the movie, he makes a dramatic switch: he uses the magical powers of the Pandoran supertree to permanently transfer his consciousness into his Na'vi body. At this point, I think that most people would agree that Jake is definitely no longer human.
So where did the shift happen? When was it, exactly, that Jake switched from being human to being Na'vi? Did it occur when he switched bodies? Was he able to switch back and forth (from human to alien) voluntarily? If so, does that imply that nothing about our minds makes us human? Our humanity is contained within our bodies and nothing else? Well, I think that most people would disagree with that; correct me if I'm wrong, but it certainly seems like most people believe that their humanity is contained (primarily) within their intelligence or mind or soul. I don't purport to have an answer to this question, but Avatar asks it very, very well. It's definitely something to think about.
Similarly, another of this year's Best Picture nominees asked the same question in a surprisingly comparable way. In District 9, Wikus, like Jake, finds himself in transition between human and alien. His transformation is involuntary, however, and throughout the film he continues to empathize most with his own civilization rather than the aliens'. In addition, the process is much slower; rather than switching from human to alien at will, á la Avatar, the transformation is slow, gradual, and irreversible.
Interestingly, while I believe that most people would have no problem saying that Jake is a Na'vi at the conclusion of Avatar, I think most would have a tougher time admitting that Wikus is a prawn at the end of District 9. This could be for any number of reasons:
- Perhaps, because Wikus's transformation was involuntary, Wikus retained his humanity.
- Perhaps the gradual transition makes it more difficult for us to draw a line between human and alien.
- Perhaps the inherent human aspects of the Na'vi (compared to the prawns) make the transition process easier to accept (as an audience).
- Is humanity something one can opt into, like a citizenship?
- We "gradually transitioned" from our simian ancestors. What distinguishes us from them?
- Certainly, the Na'vi look more "human" than the prawns, but otherwise their cultures are both fairly similar to our own. Why should our physical similarities with the Na'vi prevent us from being uncomfortable with Jake's transition in the same way we're uncomfortable with Wikus's?