I finally—reluctantly—gave Jim Cameron, Regal Entertainment, and Imax my $16.50 to see Avatar in Imax 3D the last week before it got booted out by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland so that I could knowledgeably explain why I knew I wouldn’t like the film before I saw it.
Let me state that I am a big fan of Cameron’s films. I love the Terminator series and think Aliens is the best of the four in that series. Whenever True Lies is on, I have to stop and watch it. And, yes, I cried at Titanic. But then again I cry at Muppet movies, so take it for what it’s worth. The man’s a brilliant master of visual storytelling. And that is the big reason why I am so upset with Avatar. I knew that I would dislike the film as soon as I learned bits of storyline as the hype began last year. Aliens are the beleaguered good guys enduring invasion. Check. Earth people (specifically, American Earth people) are the venal, rapacious invaders. Check. One man defies his people to save the aborigines. Check. Scientists always seek Truth and never twist their research for grant money or to please the government. Check. And businessmen will always opt to exterminate potential trading partners, have no respect for life or property, and are bereft of morality. Check.
Other reviewers have already made the more-than-obvious parallels with Dances With Wolves, Disney’s Pocahontas, Ferngully, and a bunch of others. And I’m probably writing this late enough that most of my coming points have already been made by others, but I think the problem with Avatar is endemic in American culture, and highly damaging.
George Lucas understood the importance of removal from reality in writing fantastic fiction. Star Wars originally took place “in the year 3000”, but moved to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” not merely to make it sound more like the opening of a fairy tale, but to remove it from any connection with 20th Century Earth. In that way, the elements of the story become a template that can apply to any viewer’s outlook. What was the Empire? To one, it might be an analogy for the British Empire versus the Rebel Alliance of the 13 colonies. To another, it might be evil Corporate America vs. heroic union organizers. Roman Empire vs. Christianity. In other words, you can’t pin Lucas down to a particular current political viewpoint. He’s merely for liberty and against tyranny—it’s up to the viewer to choose the analogues.
Cameron’s mistake (and I use the word advisedly, since Avatar is one of the highest-grossing films of all time) is an artistic one: making a fantasy film too specific. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings will be timeless because they are not bound to any specific historical matrix. James Cameron has chosen to plant Avatar squarely in a specifically 21st-Century American matrix. In other words, the ex-Marine mercenaries we see are obviously American ex-Marines; the corporate weasel is obviously an American corporate weasel; the native-loving scientist is portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, the same actress who played ape-loving Dian Fossey. This allows viewers only one template: the film is only an analogy to American corporate rapacity, American military brutality, and 21st-century environmental insensitivity.
In Lord of the Rings, one could look at the destruction of Isengard’s forest to build Sauron’s war machine as a critique of Nazi, Soviet, or American war economies (or insert your own government) having a deleterious effect on the environment. The choice was up to the viewer. It did not alienate anyone watching it (except maybe for foresters and arms dealers). Avatar alienates, making it less universal or lasting in its appeal (said, again, with a grain of salt, since it’s made a billion bucks plus my $16.50).
Cameron protests that his film is not anti-military. Why, he purposely made his hero a Marine to show how the finest attributes of honor and defense of the weak enabled him to defy orders and slaughter his own people. In this, though, Cameron engages in several liberal conceits.
Liberal conceit #1: The highest form of patriotism is treason. This is the theme, too, of Dances With Wolves. The liberal creed seems to be “My country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, join the other side and kill as many of your countrymen as you can.” For all the horror we are supposed to feel at the callous way the Americans kill Na’vi without any awareness of their individual sovereignty (and certainly no discussion of their property rights), Cameron’s “Good Marine” Sully (and Costner’s “Good Cavalryman” Dunbar) had no compunctions about slaying his former comrades en masse. Are we supposed to cheer that massacre? I’m reminded of the brilliant deleted scene in Goldmember where the wife of the beheaded henchman receives The Call and has to tell her son that his father has died at the hands of super-spy Austin Powers. “No one ever thinks about the henchman’s family!” she wails. Similarly, we are not supposed to feel anything but satisfaction at the mass slaughter of all those other Marines. (OK, ex-Marine mercenaries, but Sully himself says there are no ex-Marines, so he’s killing fellow Marines, Q.E.D.) (Semper fi indeed.)
Liberal conceit #2: Native populations live in wise, eternal harmony with the land; White Americans relentlessly destroy nature for short-term profit. Right. Would someone like to explain why—shortly after the arrival of humans in North America—all the megafauna vanished? Chinese dudes cross land bridge, look at mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, and saber-tooth cats, and say “Get in my belly!” (pace, Fat Bastard). You could argue that they learned from their errors, I guess, but why aren’t Americans given the same indulgence? It took 10,000 years for Indians to learn to live with the land. Europeans have only been here 500 years or so (900 years for Vikings). What Cameron portrays as a Na’vi prayer acknowledging the Circle of Life (when killing an animal for food or self-defense) could just as easily be interpreted as the Na’vi version of liberal hypocrisy: acting all apologetic and spiritual (and believing it, of course, with all your heart), but still getting what one wants by killing. Hey, I didn’t hear any prayers to Eyah (meant to sound similar to Gaea or YHVH?) when the Na’vi were dispatching fighter pilots by the score with armor-piercing arrows. If the Americans prayed to Eyah while bulldozing the Tree of Souls, would that have made it better?
Liberal conceit #3: Only a white male newly minted liberal convert can get these disorganized, unfocused, superstitious ethnics to recognize the threat they face and only a white male neo-liberal possesses the wisdom and savvy to guide them into victorious battle (isn’t that how we lost the Vietnam War—a bunch of liberals telling the military how to fight?). This is the same conceit displayed by Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves and (forgive me, Sarah Jessica) Matthew Broderick in Glory (the story had to have a white guy as the lead character to make it more “accessible”) (Hollywood code for “we want more than 12% of the population to see it”). This is the same messianic complex that leads liberals to think that they are the only ones wise enough and smart enough and pure enough to prevent destruction of the entire planet by car exhaust, the only ones who can end the business cycle by dragging us into socialism/fascism, the only ones who can tell us what to eat/drink/drive/smoke/read/think, and the only ones who can mobilize the masses to push for social change (which is why they don’t think the Tea Party people are really a grass-roots people’s movement and must be an evil corporate plot).
At least in Return of the Jedi it was the Ewoks’ own idea to run off and attack the stormtroopers, and they did it with their own skills, tactics, and weapons. They didn’t need Luke telling them what to do.
Was the decision to bash American business, slander the American military, and ignore the American conservationist tradition intentional on Cameron’s part, or is such self-loathing so endemic that it didn’t even occur to him that he was attacking the very corporate structure that made him a mega-millionaire, the military that has kept him safe both from communists who delight in slaying the wealthy and the intelligentsia after they have served their purpose and from Islamic jihadists who delight in killing everyone, and the American inclusiveness that made Hawaii a state, preserving vast swaths of its natural beauty for location filming on Avatar?
I said sympathy for your enemies was dangerous. It’s everywhere, even in children’s films. When I saw the trailer for How to Train Your Dragon, in which the young hero discovers that dragons aren’t the monsters his elders made them out to be (because naïve youngsters full of Hope and Change always know better than their elders, who actually may have experienced a few dragon attacks), I thought Yes... that’s just what the dragons want you to believe... Islamic terrorists love Americans who think that their jihad on the West is merely a reaction to American imperialism—they are the current version of the “useful idiots” Lenin used so well to drag Russia into a tyranny worse than that of any tsarist.
I didn’t dislike the film per se. Artistically, it was superb. Pandora looks like a fun world (if you can survive the Deathworld-like fauna). The plot is tried-and-true (some might say clichéd and worn-out). And Zoë Saldana’s left breast stole every scene it was in. But the anti-American, anti-business, anti-military, anti-reason sub-text turned me off completely. It was superfluous to the basic storyline; the villains could have been anyone. They did not have to be from Earth at all. (I recall the super-hit Independence Day made the rapacious invaders non-humans and the heroes the US military.) They did not have to be capitalists at all. Didn’t fascists and communists invade the lands of native people and rape and pillage them? And wasn’t it, oh, I dunno, American military men and women who fought and died to liberate those lands? Who’s leaving Haiti after weeks of sweltering work keeping quake victims from dying, only to sail down to Chile to conduct more rescue and relief work? Would that maybe be the Marines? Hmm. Odd thing for them to do. From watching Avatar, I’d swear they’re supposed to go in there and murder everyone.
And I don’t like seeing movies disingenuously engineered to give me that utterly false impression.
Victor Koman is a three-time winner of the Prometheus Award for best novel—The Jehovah Contract (1988), Solomon’s Knife (1990) and Kings of the High Frontier (1997). His other novels include Captain Anger #1: The Microbotic Menace, and Death’s Dimensions.
He blogs at komansense.com/blogger/blog.html, from where this entry first appeared, and is reprinted with permission.
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