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“Avatar,” which set a record as the biggest-budget movie of all time has also set a box-office record with a total world gross in its first two weeks of $617.3 million. It is a technological wonder, seamlessly combining live action and digital images in a story set on the planet of Pandora in the future, when Earth has been ruined by abuse of its natural resources and humans are about to disrupt a peaceful civilization called the Na’vi so they can collect a highly valuable mineral called “unobtanium.”
Most movie critics, including me, have described the story as thin, mundane, unimaginative, or almost an afterthought, just enough to add some emotional weight to the stunning visuals. But any movie with this level of visibility is going to attract the interest of columnists as well as critics. The very thinness of the story has the advantage of allowing for different interpretations, but that can be a disadvantage when commentators want to project their own ideologies onto it.
For example, on the right, John Podhoretz of the Weekly Standard calls the movie “blitheringly stupid.”

“Avatar” is an undigested mass of clichés nearly three hours in length taken directly from the revisionist westerns of the 1960s-the ones in which the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys.

Some people might say it is taken from the actual historical incidents in which the Indians were the good guys and the settlers the bad guys, or from other actual historical incidents involving colonialism and imperialism that resulted in the slaughter and exploitation of indigenous people. Or actual evil actions by corporations in externalizing their costs by pouring toxic substances into the water and air and toxic financial instruments into the balance sheets of the surrounding community. And they might say that comparing the characters’ worship around a sacred tree to the Keebler elves (whose tree is a factory, not a church, by the way) is condescending. But Podhoretz can only imagine that this movie is inspired by other movies or television commercials; he has no interest in engaging with its possible sources in reality.
What I think is especially fascinating about his commentary is his conclusion that the movie is not based in any expression of authentic concern about the issues of environmental stewardship, tolerance, and respect for other cultures. Whether he does not believe anyone can hold those views or whether he just does not believe this particular expression, he concludes that it is all as big a fake as the pixel versions of a lush, natural world on an imaginary planet.

The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take “Avatar” — with 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 — at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. 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.

This of course tells us much more about Podhoretz than it does about Cameron or “Avatar.” Podhoretz confuses insult with argument, calling Cameron or anyone who is moved and inspired by a “nature-loving tribe” as “mindless” without taking the trouble to explain why bringing environmental ruin on our sources of water, air, and food is not what is mindless and saying that Cameron would devote twelve years to making a film and then sketch in the story in the most cynical possible way because it does not matter to him. And he goes on to suggest that by telling a story that will connect to the broadest base of audience members, then it must be because the audience is mindless as well. What is particularly funny about this is that Podhoretz is livid at the portrayal in the film of an evil corporation and yet here he blithely assumes that the corporation behind this film is so soulless that it will churn out anything the audience wants to hear. Hmm, an evil corporation. Perhaps that could be the plot of a movie!
At the New York Times, Ross Douthat disapproves of the movie because he sees it as an apologia for pantheism. Movieguide’s David Outten sees it as an attack on both capitalism and Christianity. But a sympathetic, even romanticized portrayal of one belief system is not necessarily an attack on others. The bad guys in this movie are not affiliated with any religious practice or institution. Outten at least notes that it is not the structures that are at fault but the people in them. There is a reference in the film to a time in the past when the different groups on the planet did not live in harmony. And there are good guy humans in the movie as well, so I think Outten’s view is represented in the film, whether he sees it or not.
Some who wrote about the film approvingly or disapprovingly discussed the portrayal of the “noble savage,” the Rousseauian idea of a civilization untouched by corruption. But it is not so much that the “noble savage” is a myth — the idea of the “savage” is the myth. There is just as much savagery in societies of people who read books and live in houses as in those who cook on a campfire and kill their dinner with arrows.
Beliefnet’s own Pagan blogger Gus diZerega wisely called the film “a Rorschach of the Soul.” And then he tells us how it speaks to him as a Pagan:

It is a wonderful and very Pagan movie. As I understand it the movie’s basic messages are that completeness is achieved in connection with others, that harmony is the basic value and its loss the basic failing of the modern mentality, that individuality exists in the context of connection, and that Spirit exists as immanent in the world. It is a beautiful picture of breathtaking dimensions.

I particularly like his description of the way that the conflict in the movie is more than anything else about power. Again, this is Outten’s point that it is not the belief systems or the societal structures but the people who struggle to aspire to the values of those systems and structures that get into trouble. And that is also the point of the movie.

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