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The politics of 'Avatar:' The moral question James Cameron missed

February 23, 2010 |  5:48 am

Avatarposter

The author is an arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times newspaper who wrote this for The Ticket.

The political pundits who’ve been doing a job on the movie “Avatar” have done their job in at least one case: mine.

Walking out of the movie, I quickly pegged it as three hours of simple diversion -- beasts and battles and a plot that had boiled along in familiar, if splendidly visualized fashion, toward the guaranteed triumphant ending. No need to ponder it further -- I came, I saw, I conquered boredom, and I’d soon forget.

Except that the op-ed types wouldn’t let it go.

Think about “Avatar,” they commanded. Think of it as liberalism’s lovely wish-fulfillment pipe-dream. Think of it as an insult to the U.S. military. Think of it as a 21st century replay of....

...that 19th century racist oldie, the white man’s burden, where the civilized hero has the duty and the privilege of engineering the savage’s salvation. Think of it as a complaint against capitalism. Think of it as a paean to property rights.

Instead, I thought that a lot of folks who scribble for money or ego gratification were jumping on “Avatar” because they wanted a break from their usual fodder of public policy and foreign relations, and saw that they could have some easy fun advancing their usual points of view on the back of a popcorn epic full of elongated blue people. 

And possibly grab some readers who’d normally skip 800 words worth of viewpoint advocacy, but might scan a piece about a Hollywood blockbuster.

I also thought that, if you’re going to write about a movie, or any creative form, you should at least meet it on its own ground, however intellectually spongy that ground might be, rather than forcibly transplanting it onto your own ideological turf. 

Yes, James Cameron did indeed imagine American soldiers having their heads handed to them while trying to steal natural resources on a distant orb in the distant future. (Speaking of heads, see Cameron's in photo below.)

But it’s a mystery to me what meaningful connection might be drawn between the battle for Pandora and the battle for Afghanistan and Iraq.  If any U.S. forces that ever existed were being insulted, it was the ones who fought under George Armstrong Custer, not David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal.
Movie director James Cameron of Avatar
But one thought always leads to another – and all this misplaced punditry set me to wondering. What story could Cameron have told, given the basic premise of “Avatar,” that would justifiably have riled the commenting establishment?

Over-thinking “Avatar” made me realize how badly Cameron under-thought his film’s dramatic stakes. 

In my “Avatar,” the humans aren’t corporate snakes and swaggering pirates who raid Pandora just to get rich ( I’m afraid I missed just what the practical use of the movie’s coveted substance, Unobtanium, was supposed to be, but it seems to have been a luxury or a convenience rather than a necessity). 

In my movie, the soldiers arrive full of anguished determination, on a sacred mission to beg, borrow and if necessary annihilate in order to steal the massive amounts of the stuff needed to guide a weapon being built on Earth to blow up the proverbial asteroid that’s closing in on the Mother Planet. 

I’m sure a seasoned screenwriter could come up with something less trite, but you get the point: The stakes are human survival, and if the Pandorans’ beautiful way of life must be irrevocably altered, or even extinguished, so be it.  It’s us or them.

That, folks, would not be popcorn. It would be sci-fi that poses an ultimate moral question: does the Golden Rule end where the threat of extinction begins? The theme could be developed in back-and-forth scenes flashing between threatened Pandora and threatened Earth.

I suspect that, in our era of drone missile attacks wreaking collateral damage to protect us from Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the pundits might find something to say.

So thanks, I guess, to the commentariat for getting me to return mentally to a movie I was ready to treat as a one-matinee stand. It’s their job to get people to think about things. But the truth is, I liked “Avatar” better when I wasn’t thinking.

-- Mike Boehm

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Photo: Associated Press

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