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Does Avatar's Political Agenda Matter?

When the buzz about Avatar first got rolling, it was all about whether James Cameron had somehow "reinvented" filmmaking. Now that everyone's seen...


When the buzz about Avatar first got rolling, it was all about whether James Cameron had somehow "reinvented" filmmaking. Now that everyone's seen the movie, and we all pretty much agree that the 3-D format was spectacular, and it's firmly lodged in box office history, a debate about the political agenda of the movie is raging in the blogosphere.The first volleys came from conservative commentators. At Big Hollywood, John Nolte sayscriticizes the movie's embrace of what he calls the "White Messiah" narrative:
Would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive? It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace.
At The Weekly Standard John Podhoretz rails against the film for "its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe's adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool..." Ross Douthat calls Avatar "Cameron's long apologia for pantheism-a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world." And he doesn't mean that as a compliment.Oh, and the Vatican doesn't like it either, for basically the same reason: It "gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature." If you want more, search the National Review Online for "avatar." I hope you have Monday off.Now there are responses to the conservative assault from the Los Angeles Times and from Slate.Some of the complaints are about the movie's plausibility. Podhoretz's piece harps on the ridiculousness of the "fiber-optic cables coming out of their patooties" as if we weren't searching for "unobtanium" on another planet that also somehow happened to evolve Earth-like trees and sentient bipeds. If he needs more fodder for columns, I'd point him to the entire genres of science fiction and fantasy.But the criticisms are motivated by what people see as the film's pernicious message. And they stretch the facts of the film to paint it as an allegory. Johns Nolte and Podhoretz both focus on the "anti-military" message. But the soldiers in Avatar are mercenaries, working for a corporation. You could argue the film has an "anti-military-industrial complex" message, perhaps, but Avatar doesn't paint the military, per se, in a bad light. David Brooks says the movie promotes the idea that illiteracy is the path to grace. But the Na'vi seemed much more linguistically gifted than the humans in the movie. They learned English quickly. Jake Sully, on the other hand, needed a translator when he wanted to rally the troops at the end of the film.Where these critics see deliberate allegory, I see uninspired storytelling. The movie's morality is black-and-white, sure, but that means it's a simplistic script, not insidious propaganda. They're taking the political message of the movie more seriously, I suspect, than Cameron did himself.But here's the real question: What are the stakes? I can't imagine the voter who would change his or her opinion about cap-and-trade legislation or the justification for the war in Afghanistan or the ethics of private security firms based on Avatar. Are any Roman Catholics going to switch to Gaia worship because Home Tree seems nicer than Giovanni Ribisi's headquarters? There might be a few 10-year olds who start considering these issues thanks to Avatar, but I think we can safely assume that by the time they're 18 other influences will outweigh this movie in shaping their political identities.I don't think Cameron set out to make "an apologia for pantheism"; he set out to make a spectacle that would look cool in 3-D glasses and hung it on a hackneyed story with an "environmental conscience" because green is in right now. But even if the movie were propaganda, it would still be a far cry from effective propaganda.
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