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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Avatar': Why do conservatives hate the most popular movie in years?


It's no secret that "Avatar" has been stunningly successful on nearly every front. The James Cameron-directed sci-fi epic is already the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time, having earned more than $1 billion around the globe in less than three weeks of theatrical release. The film also has garnered effusive praise from critics, who've been planting its flag on a variety of critics Top 10 lists (it has earned an impressive 83 score on Rotten Tomatoes). The 3-D trip to Pandora is also viewed as a veritable shoo-in for a best picture Oscar nomination when the academy announces its nominees on Feb. 2.

But amid this avalanche of praise and popularity, guess who hates the movie? America's prickly cadre of political conservatives. 

For years, pundits and bloggers on the right have ceaselessly attacked liberal Hollywood for being out of touch with rank and file moviegoers, complaining that executives and filmmakers continue to make films that have precious little resonance with Middle America. They have reacted with scorn to such high-profile liberal political advocacy films as "Syriana," "Milk," "W.," "Religulous," "Lions for Lambs," "Brokeback Mountain," "In the Valley of Elah," "Rendition" and "Good Night, and Good Luck," saying that the movies' poor performance at the box office was a clear sign of how thoroughly uninterested real people were in the pet causes of showbiz progressives.

Of course, "Avatar" totally turns this theory on its head. As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it clearly evokes the can't-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, so say the right-wing pundits -- and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere, from Mississippi to Manhattan. 

To say that the film has evoked a storm of ire on the right would be an understatement. Big Hollywood's John Nolte, one of my favorite outspoken right-wing film essayists, blasted the film, calling it "a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC cliches that not a single plot turn, large or small, surprises.... Think of 'Avatar' as 'Death Wish' for leftists, a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you freakin' hate the bad guys (America) you're able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all."

John Podhoretz, the Weekly Standard's film critic, called the film "blitheringly stupid; indeed, it's among the dumbest movies I've ever seen." He goes on to say: "You're going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about the movie's politics -- about how it's a Green epic about despoiling the environment, and an attack on the war in Iraq.... The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism -- kind of. The thing is, one would be giving Jim Cameron too much credit to take 'Avatar' -- with 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 cliches in Hollywood have become by now."

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, took Cameron to task on another favorite conservative front, as yet another Hollywood filmmaker who refuses to acknowledge the power of religion. Douthat calls "Avatar" the "Gospel according to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, 'Avatar' is Cameron's long apologia for pantheism -- a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world." Douthat contends that societies close to nature, like the Na'vi in "Avatar," aren't shining Edens at all -- "they're places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short."

There are tons of other grumpy conservative broadsides against the film, but I'll spare you the details, except to say that Cameron's grand cinematic fantasy, with its mixture of social comment, mysticism and transcendent, fanboy-style video game animation, seems to have hit a very raw nerve with political conservatives, who view everything -- foreign affairs, global warming, the White House Christmas tree -- through the prism of partisan sloganeering.

But why is it doing so well with everyday moviegoers if it's so full of supposedly buzz-killing liberal messages?

"It has the politics of the left, but it also has extraordinary spectacle," says Govindini Murty, co-founder of the pioneering conservative blog Libertas and executive producer of the new conservative film "Kalifornistan." "Jim Cameron didn't come out nowhere. He came on the heels of all the left-wing filmmakers who went before him, who knew that someone with their point of view would have the resources to finally make a breakthrough political film. But even though 'Avatar' has an incredibly disturbing anti-human, anti-military, anti-Western world view, it has incredible spectacle and technology and great filmmaking to capture people's attention. The politics are going right over people's heads. Its audience isn't reading the New York Times or the National Review."

I suspect that's a good explanation. But if I were trying to get to the bottom of conservative complaints with "Avatar," I'd offer three more key reasons why the film has set the right's hair on fire:

1) Glorifying  soft-headed environmentalism:

If you hadn't noticed, the conservative movement has become the leading focal point for skepticism about global warming. The Wall Street Journal's ardently right-wing editorial pages have been chock-full of stories ridiculing everything including government sponsorship of alternative energy, nutty Prius enthusiasts and scientists who allegedly suppressed climate change data that called into question their claims about global warming (a flap the WSJ dubbed "Climategate").

Ever since Al Gore took center stage with his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," conservatives have been falling over each other in their attempts to mock liberal planet savers, taking special pleasure in slamming Hollywood environmentalists who fly private jets or live in huge houses. (As soon as Climategate erupted, two Hollywood conservatives surfaced, asking the academy to take back Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" Oscar, even though, inconveniently, the Oscar had actually gone to the film's director, not Gore.)

So Cameron's giddy embrace of a primitive people who live in harmony with their land -- and his scathing portrayal of a soulless corporation willing to do anything, including kill innocent natives, to steal and exploit their planet's valuable natural resources -- is the kind of anti-technology, pro-environment dramaturgy that sets off fire alarms. If "Avatar" had been a western that showed sympathy for the Indians (many have in fact compared its storyline to Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves"), conservatives would probably have been up in arms too.

As it is, they have been content to hoot at Cameron's portrayal of the Na'vi's one-ness with nature, with Podhoretz writing: "Like the Keebler elves, the Blue People all live in a big tree together and they go to church at another big tree, under which we learn lives Mother Earth, only since it isn't earth, she isn't called Mother Earth, but the Great Mother or something like that."

2) Godless Hollywood triumphs again:

Conservatives have complained for years that Hollywood ignores, laughs at or disrespects religion. And to be fair, they are not so wrong. It's almost as rare to see a film with a sympathetic portrayal of an openly religious character as it is to see a film with a leading role for an African American actress. I think it's a stretch to call Hollywood godless, but it would certainly be fair to call it an extremely secular world.

Conservatives are always quick to point out that when someone actually made an openly religious film -- and of course we're talking about Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" --  it made hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course, they usually fail to mention that when Hollywood made 2005's "The Nativity Story," a sweet, very respectful religious drama, it earned $37 million in the U.S., just about what it cost to make. Ross Douthat is probably right. Moviegoers are far more comfortable with a fuzzy, inspirational form of pantheism than they are with an openly biblical message.

3) Hollywood's long history of anti-military sloganeering:

There is no doubt that "Avatar" portrays its military contractor characters as barbarous mercenaries, willing -- even eager -- to wipe out innocent natives in their pursuit of Pandora's precious resources. It almost feels as if Cameron is drawing parallels, not only to the Iraq war, but to Vietnam, where the military found itself in the nihilistic position of destroying villages just to save them. Even the New Yorker's David Denby, hardly a die-hard conservative, found himself in awe of the film's "anti-imperialist spectacle." But while Hollywood often makes antiwar movies, "Avatar" is something different -- a peaceful warrior film, celebrating the newly aroused consciousness of a Marine turned defender of a higher faith.

What's fascinating is that the American people, who have almost always shown strong support for our foreign wars, would happily embrace a film that portrays its military characters in such an unflattering light. My guess is that audiences have seen past the obvious because the film is set in a faraway, interplanetary future, not in present-day America. When Russian political dissidents wanted to criticize their oppressive regimes, they would often write stories or make films that were set in the past, inoculating themselves by using a 15th century czar as a stand-in for the tyrant of the day. Cameron has done the same thing, but by moving forward into the future, creating a safe distance for his veiled (and not-so-thinly veiled) social messages.

"Avatar" has, of course, far more on its mind than its politics. It's a triumph of visual imagination and the world's first great 3-D movie. But it is fascinating to see how today's ideology-obsessed conservatives have managed to walk away from such a crowd-pleasing triumph and only see the film's political subtext, not the groundbreaking artistry that's staring them right in the face.

Photo: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in "Avatar." Credit: 20th Century Fox

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Avatar truly is the greatest movie ever made. Not only are the visuals fantastic, but it portrays a story that has been told over and over again, getter better each time. Just because something has been done before doesn't mean it can't be done again. Avatar's story has been done before, but its done so well in Avatar that it creates a whole new dimension to movies.

I think this is a non-story. I dispute that there is any sort of widespread or non-widespread conservative antagonism to this film. This is just a meme that took off in the media. Why don't you add a question about Avatar to your next demographically representative political survey and get some facts?

There were just a few bloggers and writers who spoke of the politics of the movie, on both sides. For instance, there was the left wing view that it was patronizing to blacks because of the (blue) African American "tribe" that needed the help of the civilized whitey to survive. But that didn't become a meme.

has no one ever seen a western with the indians as the good guys?
quit complaining and enjoy the show.
a great movie in 3D.

From a conservative point of view: Genesis 1: God's original plan had men and women in a lush, green, beautiful world that probably looks nothing like what we can imagine today or currently live in. Humans had no need to decide between good and evil. Humans were to reproduce, grow, expand, explore, learn, train the animals, be responsible for the earth, etc. Humans didn't even have to kill to survive. God told males and females to eat from the plants and seeds. Humans were vegetarians, maybe even vegens. There was no rulership of humans over others until it was stated in Genesis 3 while adam and eve were being kicked out of the Garden. Prior to that there was unity in purpose. In Genesis 1 humans were made godlike.

So as a follower of Christ, I found this picture interesting to see and imagine what life "could" have been like for a society that was still living in the beauty of an Eden, but in this case Pandora. Could our world have been like that? And is that where we are going in the end?

It seems that the whole world wouldn't mind being in an Eden-like place. It may be a basic desire or knowing that we are missing something spectacular, our original, real home.

Why do conservatives even open their mouth to criticize this movie? It's pulling in billions of dollars for the parent company of their mouthpiece, the Fox News network. They should be glad green-lefties are paying hand over fist to subsidize the wages of Glenn Beck and company.

My thought at the end of Avatar was simply 'bloody humans!'

Avatar is not an anti-American story. Anyone who thinks it is is blinkered.

It's an anti-HUMAN story.

It's a wake-up call to recognise the road we're on, and a plea to change track before we become the thing we most hate.

This article is full of pseudo-intellectualism arrogance. Very good, sir.

Attaching politics to everything and grouping people as conservatives, liberals, etc. is ridiculous.

Avatar was all fluff and no substance and I'm not the only one who sees that. The whole plot was rehashed from Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves. Was it pretty? Sure, but prettiness doesn't make a movie good, plot does. As a movie, Avatar simply fizzled. It was a sub-par movie and my political beliefs had nothing to do with that conclusion.

I think the real question here has nothing to do with politics. What I want to know is what does Avatar's success say about the average American movie goer? Directors of remakes get blasted for a so-called "lack of originality", yet Cameron effectively remakes Pocahontas but with multi-million dollar visuals and he's praised up the wall? This implies that most people only care about how pretty a movie is. In my vocabulary, words like "vain" and "materialistic" come to mind describing people who care more about looks than anything else. Usually, a severely low IQ comes along with those traits. And thinking back on it, that could be the sole reason Avatar was so successful: People today are just plain stupid.

The reason I didn't like Avatar was because it was a brainless cliche from beginning to end. I knew EXACTLY what was going to happen to all the main characters. I was able to predict exactly how the story would progress. I knew who would live and who would die. I knew before I went to see Avatar how it would end.

This is greatest film ever made? More like the culmination of a century of bloated Hollywood churning out a hundred movies a year recycling old plots, character types and settings. Not to mention the preachy enviromentalist message was about as subtle as a hammer to the head.

Hence, I don't like Avatar. The movie was visually amazing, but the rest was cliched, and painfully so.

Jake, a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? The world has a lot of faith in its technological advance, and other planets are seen here as peaceful but not as developed in that respect. A spiral light was seen across eastern Australia which was written about as the star of Bethlehem, a UFO, launching the emergence in the US of a world teacher, being explained as the launch of a space rocket at Cape Canaveral. This is very typical. Yet it breaks a taboo about aliens being aggressive.

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