I really wasn’t sure whether Avatar rates as an empathy film, but I think it’s worth including in the Empathy Library for its good intentions.
Political scientist Gary Olson describes James Cameron’s sci-fi extravaganza as 'a dangerously empathic film of the first order' ('dangerous', for him, is a positive attribute, meaning 'politically radical'). Cameron wants us to empathise with the cyan-skinned, ten-foot tall, nature-loving Na'vi people, whose planet is being destroyed by human beings and their anonymous corporations – an obvious metaphor for our current degradation of the environment and the habitats of indigenous peoples. The main character, Marine Jake Sully, literally occupies the body of a Na'vi and, by walking in their shoes, is converted to their way of life and to fight for their cause.
The problem is that this empathic messaging is buried under an assault of special effects and hi-tech gadgetry, such as spectacular flying battles between giant alien dragons and menacing spacecraft with blazing gunfire. In contrast, a movie like All Quiet on the Western Front has a sparse, theatre-like quality that brings out the personal, empathic moments with an emotional power that Avatar lacks. Overall, though, as long as you don’t get too overawed by the techno wizardry of the film, Avatar does a pretty good job of expanding our empathic imaginations in a way that might inspire us to care more about the ecological crisis that we are creating for future generations.