Avatar – Nowhere Near Kansas Anymore

5 Jan


To watch the nearly three hours of James Cameron’s film Avatar – which takes the meaning of sheer color from The Wizard of Oz, runs it through the swirling psychedelic universe of Yellow Submarine and then sends it as an attachment to computer technology more of tomorrow than today, you’d think folks could just watch the darn thing and be amazed. The last thing you’d figure is that conservative commentators would find yet another life-and-death struggle against everything they despise. Yet in Avatar, an entertainment and an adventure yarn first and foremost, they have. These are people who seriously hate to have a good time at the movies. 

Over the past couple weeks, as Avatar delighted a huge audience in America and around the world to the point of making box-office history, it was being dismissed (no, attacked) by some as leftist environmentalist claptrap, as “anti-Western” and “anti-military” (contrary to some, those anti’s are not synonymous) and, strangely, anti-religious. This last seems a subset of its being “anti-Western,” since the film carries a widely-arching, tolerant and flexibly feel-good spiritual message that most believers in major Western religions do indeed find in their faith traditions. Though stopping far short of the sacrificial intensity of, say, a Mother Teresa, Avatar presents a theology no more feel-good than Joel Osteen on a typical Sunday, and nobody complaining about Avatar seems to be complaining about him. 

When it comes to environmentalism, I’d bet anyone involved in the film’s content would plead “guilty as charged.” The story of a Western company destroying the balance of a distant planet to reap untold riches (from a substance too-cleverly called “unobtainium”) points out our few unassailable historical truths – that human beings East AND West have often sacrificed nature and indigenous populations in pursuit of profit (profit being a good thing, even to James Cameron and his backers), that much of the damage from pollution and other forces around the world has been irreversible, and that, starting today, we could surely do a better job of balancing these forces for our own long-term good. End of message. It’s hard to imagine anyone disagreeing. But oh how quick and loud they are to do so. 

The villain in Avatar is not “progress” as maligned in some other environmental films – since apparently unobtainium does nothing to spur the growth of civilization or the spread of culture, meaning progress. It is, literally and figuratively, only a profit thing. One thinks less of progress here than of recent Wall Street greed, which produces nothing, contributes nothing, but pays itself very well for not doing so. Avatar does not carry an anti-progress “tree-hugger” message at all, only one of respect, of responsibility, of (in the film’s striking final image) opening our eyes. 

As for being anti-Western and anti-military, there is no debate that the bad guys mowing down the lovely planet Pandora and needlessly wiping out its indigenous population (who call themselves The People, much as the U.S. Constitution calls us) talk like Americans. And yet – though it’s hard to believe conservatives both miss and misrepresent this 100% of the time – these people are not The Military. These are not the brave men and women we honor on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, not the ones we support when we put a “Support Our Troops” sticker on our car. These are thugs hired by a single corporation and – in the film, as in recent all-too-real examples – they show none of the courage, honor or basic honesty that American soldiers are called to demonstrate under fire every day. Avatar, presumably, is against companies that would hire such lowlife thugs and send them armed to strange places. The only people “Western” or “military” who need feel attacked here are those who would do that. 

Lastly, left unmentioned by conservative kneejerks is the film’s unambiguous embrace of what any theologian or moralist would call a “just war.” The film’s destruction of The People’s towering Hometree has been rightly seen as an allegory for the Twin Towers brought down on 9/11. Anyone who watched those towers crumple upon lower Manhattan on TV will suffer painful, frame-by-frame déjà vu in Avatar (as, I’m told, Manhattan audience experience regularly). That said, the response of The People to this attack and their battle for self-preservation argues that theirs is the ultimate “just war.” Of course, it’s unlikely Dick Cheney will see it that way – but he and his ilk should at least recognize their own arguments. 

So, let me see… To hear the far right talk about this movie (which again is “only a movie”), the proper stance of the patriotic American facing the modern world is to: 1. Hate the environment and want to destroy it as quickly as possible. 2. Support thugs and criminals at all cost, as long as there’s a profit to be made. 3. Miss the clear moral call to “just war” while rabidly supporting any and all unjust ones. 4. Murder anyone who’s a different color, speaks a different language or expresses even slightly different religious beliefs. 

I’m sorry. That may be a poor summary of the position. But having enjoyed Avatar as entertainment and then read these silly commentaries, it’s the best I can do.


2 Responses to “Avatar – Nowhere Near Kansas Anymore”

  1. Diane January 5, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    This is an excellent commentary, and an apt description of how some people just don’t get entertainment (I wonder if they actually watched the film). I thoroughly enjoyed this movie (in 3D) and hope to see it again soon but on IMAX this time. I like to be entertained, and Avatar entertained me!

  2. martha January 7, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    Really, John, I’m speechless. This is such a good write up.

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