Verdict on ‘Avatar’
Not so much politically offensive as just plain stupid.
Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
As Avatar closes in on the all-time box office record set by its director’s previous film, Titanic, journalists and bloggers looking for a fresh angle on the movie—one that didn’t involve its brilliant but boring-to-read-about special effects—finally came to rest on its politics. One of the only published reviews to discuss the movie’s ideological frame in a critical manner was mine; it appeared in this space a few weeks ago. And so, every hour or so, a Google Alert has appeared in my mailbox with one piece or other quoting my contention that the movie “does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency,” and is therefore “anti-American.”
Now, what I actually said was that Avatar was “anti-American—kind of” because “one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar . . . at all seriously as a political document. . . . He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”
In other words, I don’t think Avatar is a politically meaningful work of popular art. Rather, it’s interesting in this regard only because it is illustrative of what Hollywood thinks is acceptably anodyne when it comes to such fare: mystical mushy enviro-nonsense spouted by pacifist characters who are beyond reproach because they are not actually human and who then happily turn around and commit mass murder themselves against humans in the name of pacifism and environmentalism.
Cameron himself told the New York Times that he is a “child of the ’60s. There’s a part of me who wants to put a daisy in the end of the gun barrel.” The sophistication of that perspective was matched recently when he declared, “I believe in eco-terrorism.” Interesting. One wonders just how gigantic is the carbon footprint left by a movie that cost anywhere from $300 million to $500 million and whose major publicity partner is McDonalds. Maybe an eco-terrorist could do the math.
Some of those Google Alerts link to articles that simply take me to task for being on the right, which I am, and which is certainly a crime in the eyes of many. “It is fascinating to see how today’s ideology-obsessed conservatives have managed to walk away from such a crowd-pleasing triumph and see only the film’s political subtext, not the groundbreaking artistry,” sniffed Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, even as he offered words of celebration for Avatar as a “peaceful warrior film, celebrating the newly aroused consciousness of a Marine turned defender of a higher faith.” Note that all I did was offer a description of Avatar as a work that depicts American military personnel in a very negative light whose violent deaths we are directed to applaud, and then tell people not to take it seriously; Goldstein actually wants you to take it seriously. So do other film types, who are positively enthralled by Avatar’s politics: “Somewhere,” writes the high-energy movie blogger Jeffrey Wells, “Ho Chi Minh is smiling.”
Such reactions have led me to revise my take on Cameron’s injection of a political attitude into his ludicrous and empty-noggined epic. He did something far more canny than I realized: By echoing both trendy green ideas and 1960s blather, and repurposing them to a planet far, far away two centuries from now, he actually gave the film a patina of respectability among the filmerati that has all but assured it victory at the Academy Awards. Thus, David Denby in the New Yorker: “The continuity of dynamized space that he has achieved with 3-D gloriously supports his trippy belief that all living things are one.” Quoth Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: “An Emersonian exploration of the invisible world of the spirit filled with Cameronian rock ’em, sock ’em pulpy action.”
At least Denby and Dargis know when they’re being stroked. Would that such were the case with some folk of differing political perspectives who have talked themselves into believing that the movie is (in the words of Ann Marlowe, a sometime contributor to these pages) “the most neocon movie ever made.” Or the paleoconservative Steve Sailer, declaring that Cameron is the heir to the libertarian science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein—and an assault on evil neocons who can’t fathom that “Cameron is pro-soldier and anti-war, a combination the neocons find shocking.”