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


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

Comments () | Archives (15)

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I find it amazing all the criticism of this movie. A movie which I found incredibly gifted in creativity and phenomenal effects. A movie far surpassing the majority of the crab that is out there. Yet, the political viewpoints and comparisons to me are just as trite as the viewpoints of this article. Cameron is a genius and should be lauded not criticized. He has created such a work of art. I will take his movie anyday compared to movies like Wolfman.

Geez..... it's amovie. Diversion. Tecnolgy at it's most entertaining.

But an insult to the US Military? Over the top GI Joe aside, did the critics miss the point that these men where mercenaries, protecting a private Corporation's endouvour?

Did the critic's miss the point that the [very young] Manager overstepped his bounds by taking the cheap route to increase margins? A poor decision making process at best?

Does anybody out there think that the analogy to the Cherokee Indian " Trail of Tears" is inappropriate? [ THAT did happen... read your history]. Does anyone endorse repeating that sort of behaviour today?

The critics need to find something more constructive to do, and perhaps knee jerk reactions indicate guilty consciences??

"Do they protest too much?"


I think looking that deep into "a movie" shows obsession on a disturbing level... It's a movie- a story, made to entertain the world and, in some cases, mark an artists name into culture.
"Avatar"s story was made so the fantasy world will seem a little familiar... familiar fantasy worlds usually lessens the possibility of "complete" obsession.
Then again no matter what you do, there are...obsessive people... who want to be heard and choose to use/abuse other peoples hard work to scamper together a few astray "obsessives-in-need"...

It is what it is, a story-Entertainment...

Inglorious Basterds (IB) was a revenge fantasy. Avatar is a revenge fantasy. But Avatar allows its tormentors to leave alive (I have not seen IB). That sounds more like Indian (Asian) Hindu History to me.

The Mother Tree is of course the knowledge of the fact that we are not just interconnected, but are all also the same substance, which is also the 'substance' of faith itself.

So Avatar deserves more than any Oscar, it deserves accolades for being one of the most artistic reminders of our interconnected and innately connectedness through the substance of existence itself.

Okay, I read a bit deeper, but wish James Cameroon's epic had too.


>Think of it as an insult to the U.S. military.

I believe the military forces depicted in Avatar were actually mercenary, not government sponsored. Avatar was a screed against corporate power, not government power. (Aliens had a similar theme)

I think the point of the movie is to pit life against money, in a scenario that parallels pollution today. If you change that fundamental set up, then you are talking about something entirely different. Whatever it is, it's not Avatar.
Would the natives still refuse to move if it meant saving billions of lives of another people? (given that they value life so much.)
Do the humans have to cut down all the trees on their way to mine out the mineral? (In the movie they did it for convenience, because it was the fastest way.)
And even if ultimately you are put in a situation where you must kill somebody else in order to survive, does that really justify what you do? There are plenty of other movies that put you in that moral dilemma.

You are rude, and have missed the point entirely because you make a living off petty two bit insults and the jargon other people feed you, if you're gonna be a jerk, go do it in a secton of the news that actually needs it.

I'm not necessarily an "Avatard", but I liked the movie enough to see it a few times. I did a little research to find that Unobtanium is actually the building block of earth's space travel. Wether it's fuel or the mineral used for building their technology I don't know, I didn't explore that far, but suffice it to say, it's important enough to wipe out a race of beings to get their hands on it, especially since earth is almost finished in that future. (really long sentence!)So it really does compare to our mission in Iraq/Afghanistan: We're there to secure oil and Natural gas reserves,(a lot like Unobtanium, a crucial resource) not to "Spread Democracy". No it's to secure our spot as a superpower. Whoever retains control of the precious resources of this planet, retains control period.

Another thing I would like to make note of is that at the beginning of the movie, Jake tells us that the soldiers there are not affialiated with the military but are infact Private Mercenaries (a lot like Blackwater)paid by RDA to be there, so this anti-military criticism is nothing but contrived right-wing nonsense.(and I'm a Republican) have accomplished what you sought to do, get an article published in the LA Times, no matter how hard you had to search for a negative perspective. In fact the only reason why this was published because you are one of the only idiots out of the millions of viewers who didn't enjoy this movie and this article was "unique" "out of the norm", i guess people just got tired of seeing amazing reviews so the la times decided to "spice things up"

im sure the author will not allow my last bad

Unobtanium is a room temperature super conductor.

This is why its so valueable, (and the reason why the unobtanium in the office, and those mountains float) and is required for many practical applications on earth... and not on earth. The ISV's engines themselves require unobtanium to contain and direct the plasma.

It is not a power source, but makes things like nuclear fusion much, much much easier, economical, and very efficient.

If we had a room temperature super conductor, it would very quickly become very intergral to our economy... in ways we simply cannot fathom.

At least the movie Avatar gave the author something to write about and for a major newspaper at that. The far fetched story about a marine helping to save planet earth has been done before on the old Twilight episodes. The movie was beautiful with the colorful flying creature and the human interest story of power against the meek. James Cameron did a great job attested by the world wide viewership. Why not comment on the simplistic Valentine's Day. The movie Avatar is too complication to sum the movie up with walking out which the author did not or he would not have his quota article in for a major newspaper and getting paid, no less.

Greg nailed this on eright on the head.

It does appear that Cameron is trying to make a statement in this movie... however me and most of my friends left the theater feeling that we weren't quite sure what he was trying to get across. The visuals were fantastic, unfortunately the story's simplicity fell flat. At the end of the day, I would much rather go and see a play with real actors, holding scripts with substance, than a visual masterpiece with no substance.

This was a cool movie, no question... The colors, sound and effects were brilliant. However, story-wise it is lacking. The story is weak and it relies purely on visual-splendor to see it through.


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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