Thursday, January 14, 2010


The entertainment blockbuster of the season is James Cameron's 3D extravaganza, "Avatar." After resisting the initial barrage of hype and expecting more dazzling special effects than good storytelling (a la Star Wars) we packed into the car and paid our hard-earned money. The film was indeed dazzling, and while elements of the story seemed familiar at times (okay, expect a little "Dances With Wolves") it was a moving experience and we enjoyed it very much.

While most sci-fi epics tend to be pro-technology, pro-"progress," and jingoistic to a fault, this film surprised us with its politics--in a good way. The villains were obviously modeled after the Bush Administration and the military occupation of a distant planet parallels the Iraq War. There were analogies to the treatment of Native Americans, and an anti-colonial angle throughout. Central to the plot was a plan to move the indigenous population off land filled with valuable natural resources. If that wasn't "liberal" enough for you, there was also a message about saving the environment. As you can imagine, it was enough to drive some neo-cons crazy.

According to the Huffington Post, "Conservative commentators such as Jonah Goldberg wondered why the space aliens didn't 'accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts' and said it was a tired attack on the Iraq War. John Podhoretz said the movie was both 'anti-American' and 'anti-human.' John Nolte, a critic at the conservative Big Hollywood, called it 'America-hating.'"

"This movie reflects that we are living through war," said director James Cameron to TheWrap. "There are boots on the ground, troops who I personally believe were sent there under false pretenses, so I hope this will be part of opening our eyes...I don't know if there is a political agenda exactly, but as an artist I felt a need to say something about what I saw around me. I think we all need to take stewardship of our planet."

There is also criticism from the Left that the film is the familiar story of a good white man (in this case, a white Earthling) helping save the noble savages. For long, Hollywood has insisted upon a central character who is easy to identify with (for white, mainstream audiences, that is) and in many stories this character enters the alien world and "goes native." This storyline may remind you of "Dances With Wolves," "The Last Samurai," "Shogun," and others, but is this inherently racist? Patronizing?

Even the Vatican has gotten involved. L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said there was "not much behind the images," and warned that the worship of nature should never replace good old religion.

In spite of criticism from the Right, the Left and the Pope, the film is breaking box office records and people are lining up for their 3D glasses and popcorns and sitting for two and a half hours in another world. It's thrilling and beautifully rendered. Like any old fashioned epic, you root for the good guys--who happen to be blue.

Don't get me wrong, it's political but it's a great popcorn movie. It's science fiction, not a manifesto. Politically speaking, it's not likely to replace personal experience as a radicalizing force. Cameron is neither Franz Fanon nor Che Guevara. Still, it's nice to have a hugely popular crash-bang 3D film with some sense of history--even distorted through a funhouse mirror--and who knows? Maybe some popcorn-munching filmgoing sci-fi fan will think about another world. This one. We can only hope.

"Avatar" featurette

No comments: