Patrick Goldstein on the collision of entertainment, media and pop culture
It’s no secret that “Avatar” has been stunningly successful on nearly every front. The James Cameron-directed sci-fi epic is already the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time, having earned more than $1 billion around the globe in less than three weeks of theatrical release. The film also has garnered effusive praise from critics, who’ve been planting its flag on a variety of critics Top 10 lists (it has earned an impressive 83 score on Rotten Tomatoes). The 3-D trip to Pandora is also viewed as a veritable shoo-in for a best picture Oscar nomination when the academy announces its nominees on Feb. 2.
But amid this avalanche of praise and popularity, guess who hates the movie? America’s prickly cadre of political conservatives.
For years, pundits and bloggers on the right have ceaselessly attacked liberal Hollywood for being out of touch with rank and file moviegoers, complaining that executives and filmmakers continue to make films that have precious little resonance with Middle America. They have reacted with scorn to such high-profile liberal political advocacy films as “Syriana,” “Milk,” “W.,” “Religulous,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” saying that the movies’ poor performance at the box office was a clear sign of how thoroughly uninterested real people were in the pet causes of showbiz progressives.
Of course, “Avatar” totally turns this theory on its head. As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it clearly evokes the can’t-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, so say the right-wing pundits — and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere, from Mississippi to Manhattan.
To say that the film has evoked a storm of ire on the right would be an understatement. Big Hollywood’s John Nolte, one of my favorite outspoken right-wing film essayists, blasted the film, calling it “a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC cliches that not a single plot turn, large or small, surprises…. Think of ‘Avatar’ as ‘Death Wish’ for leftists, a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you freakin’ hate the bad guys (America) you’re able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all.”
John Podhoretz, the Weekly Standard’s film critic, called the film “blitheringly stupid; indeed, it’s among the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen.” He goes on to say: “You’re going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about the movie’s politics — about how it’s a Green epic about despoiling the environment, and an attack on the war in Iraq…. The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism — kind of. The thing is, one would be giving Jim Cameron too much credit to take ‘Avatar’ — with its … hatred of the military and American institutions and the notion that to be human is just way uncool — at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard issue counterculture cliches in Hollywood have become by now.”
Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, took Cameron to task on another favorite conservative front, as yet another Hollywood filmmaker who refuses to acknowledge the power of religion. Douthat calls “Avatar” the “Gospel according to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, ‘Avatar’ is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.” Douthat contends that societies close to nature, like the Na’vi in “Avatar,” aren’t shining Edens at all — “they’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.”
There are tons of other grumpy conservative broadsides against the film, but I’ll spare you the details, except to say that Cameron’s grand cinematic fantasy, with its mixture of social comment, mysticism and transcendent, fanboy-style video game animation, seems to have hit a very raw nerve with political conservatives, who view everything — foreign affairs, global warming, the White House Christmas tree — through the prism of partisan sloganeering.
But why is it doing so well with everyday moviegoers if it’s so full of supposedly buzz-killing liberal messages?
“It has the politics of the left, but it also has extraordinary spectacle,” says Govindini Murty, co-founder of the pioneering conservative blog Libertas and executive producer of the new conservative film “Kalifornistan.” “Jim Cameron didn’t come out nowhere. He came on the heels of all the left-wing filmmakers who went before him, who knew that someone with their point of view would have the resources to finally make a breakthrough political film. But even though ‘Avatar’ has an incredibly disturbing anti-human, anti-military, anti-Western world view, it has incredible spectacle and technology and great filmmaking to capture people’s attention. The politics are going right over people’s heads. Its audience isn’t reading the New York Times or the National Review.”
I suspect that’s a good explanation. But if I were trying to get to the bottom of conservative complaints with “Avatar,” I’d offer three more key reasons why the film has set the right’s hair on fire:
1) Glorifying soft-headed environmentalism:
If you hadn’t noticed, the conservative movement has become the leading focal point for skepticism about global warming. The Wall Street Journal’s ardently right-wing editorial pages have been chock-full of stories ridiculing everything including government sponsorship of alternative energy, nutty Prius enthusiasts and scientists who allegedly suppressed climate change data that called into question their claims about global warming (a flap the WSJ dubbed “Climategate”).
Ever since Al Gore took center stage with his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” conservatives have been falling over each other in their attempts to mock liberal planet savers, taking special pleasure in slamming Hollywood environmentalists who fly private jets or live in huge houses. (As soon as Climategate erupted, two Hollywood conservatives surfaced, asking the academy to take back Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” Oscar, even though, inconveniently, the Oscar had actually gone to the film’s director, not Gore.)
So Cameron’s giddy embrace of a primitive people who live in harmony with their land — and his scathing portrayal of a soulless corporation willing to do anything, including kill innocent natives, to steal and exploit their planet’s valuable natural resources — is the kind of anti-technology, pro-environment dramaturgy that sets off fire alarms. If “Avatar” had been a western that showed sympathy for the Indians (many have in fact compared its storyline to Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves”), conservatives would probably have been up in arms too.
As it is, they have been content to hoot at Cameron’s portrayal of the Na’vi’s one-ness with nature, with Podhoretz writing: “Like the Keebler elves, the Blue People all live in a big tree together and they go to church at another big tree, under which we learn lives Mother Earth, only since it isn’t earth, she isn’t called Mother Earth, but the Great Mother or something like that.”
2) Godless Hollywood triumphs again:
Conservatives have complained for years that Hollywood ignores, laughs at or disrespects religion. And to be fair, they are not so wrong. It’s almost as rare to see a film with a sympathetic portrayal of an openly religious character as it is to see a film with a leading role for an African American actress. I think it’s a stretch to call Hollywood godless, but it would certainly be fair to call it an extremely secular world.
Conservatives are always quick to point out that when someone actually made an openly religious film — and of course we’re talking about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” — it made hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course, they usually fail to mention that when Hollywood made 2005’s “The Nativity Story,” a sweet, very respectful religious drama, it earned $37 million in the U.S., just about what it cost to make. Ross Douthat is probably right. Moviegoers are far more comfortable with a fuzzy, inspirational form of pantheism than they are with an openly biblical message.
3) Hollywood’s long history of anti-military sloganeering:
There is no doubt that “Avatar” portrays its military contractor characters as barbarous mercenaries, willing — even eager — to wipe out innocent natives in their pursuit of Pandora’s precious resources. It almost feels as if Cameron is drawing parallels, not only to the Iraq war, but to Vietnam, where the military found itself in the nihilistic position of destroying villages just to save them. Even the New Yorker’s David Denby, hardly a die-hard conservative, found himself in awe of the film’s “anti-imperialist spectacle.” But while Hollywood often makes antiwar movies, “Avatar” is something different — a peaceful warrior film, celebrating the newly aroused consciousness of a Marine turned defender of a higher faith.
What’s fascinating is that the American people, who have almost always shown strong support for our foreign wars, would happily embrace a film that portrays its military characters in such an unflattering light. My guess is that audiences have seen past the obvious because the film is set in a faraway, interplanetary future, not in present-day America. When Russian political dissidents wanted to criticize their oppressive regimes, they would often write stories or make films that were set in the past, inoculating themselves by using a 15th century czar as a stand-in for the tyrant of the day. Cameron has done the same thing, but by moving forward into the future, creating a safe distance for his veiled (and not-so-thinly veiled) social messages.
“Avatar” has, of course, far more on its mind than its politics. It’s a triumph of visual imagination and the world’s first great 3-D movie. But it is fascinating to see how today’s ideology-obsessed conservatives have managed to walk away from such a crowd-pleasing triumph and only see the film’s political subtext, not the groundbreaking artistry that’s staring them right in the face.
Photo: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in “Avatar.” Credit: 20th Century Fox