I confess, I had been looking forward to seeing “Avatar,” more so than any movie since I first learned Hollywood was turning my two, favorite, childhood cartoons – “Spiderman” and “Transformers” – into live-action films.
When James Cameron, the man who bookended my formative years with “Terminator” and “Titanic,” reportedly set out to revolutionize filmmaking with “Avatar,” I got psyched to get into the theater and get to this review.
And from a purely visual entertainment standpoint, “Avatar” did not disappoint the millions who made it this weekend’s No. 1 film at the box office.
Rendered in impressive but surprisingly seamless 3-D technology, “Avatar” is awash in brilliant colors, living creatures and lithe, sensual characters – a believable fantasy planet more wondrous to the eyes than even my richest imagination of Alice’s Wonderland. The images are haunting, mysterious, exciting. In short – very short – “Avatar” blazes across the screen with some serious “wow” factor.
Unfortunately, “Avatar” has also been severely criticized by conservative critics as blazing something else: a bold trail to new heights of anti-capitalist, America-hating, eviro-nazi, pagan, “Mother Earth” propaganda.
Hmm. My expectations for the film took a hit after hearing how politically motivated the movie’s message was purported to be.
As the theater darkened and I donned my 3-D glasses, I remember wondering, Besides being an immensely entertaining, pretty picture, will there be anything in “Avatar’s” worldview that can redeem it from its political agenda?
Answer: Absolutely not.
From a purely moviemaking perspective, “Avatar’s” characters are cartoonish and cliché, its dialogue unimaginative and unmemorable, its plot predictably bland, and its soundtrack – part of the true magic that has made “Terminator” a classic and “Titanic” so incredibly powerful – was completely forgettable.
Americans almost instinctively recognize the haunting piccolo of “My Heart Will Go On” and think “Titanic,” or hear the staccato bum-bum, bum, bum-bum of the “Terminator” theme and swivel their heads to look for red-eyed robots, but “Avatar” … had nothin’.
For movie quality, once you give the technology and special effects their due props, “Avatar” is little more than “FernGully” on steroids.
The message of the film, however, is … well … like “FernGully” on steroids, too. Only not as subtle.
The basic plot of “Avatar” is that in the future, a giant, heartless corporation has sent out well-armed mercenaries from the ecologically destroyed Earth to distant Pandora to rape its valuable mineral deposits from the ground. Standing in the way are the natives, who are perfectly civilized and in tune with the forces of Mother Nature around them.
Now, those greedy capitalists sure would hate to suffer the bad press of slaughtering the noble savages, but … if that’s what it takes to turn a buck, nuke ‘em!
And if you’re detecting the mythos of modern history education theory, which paints America’s founding as “the evil white man destroyed the natives, who were really wiser and more in tune with the earth than us” – like the biased America-bashing of the Zinn Educational Project – then you have a good nose for sniffing out political agendas. But prepare to have your olfactory senses even more odorously offended, because it gets worse.
In fact, “Avatar” offers up heaping helpings of liberal libel, as evidenced by the following sample quotes:
- On the Iraq war: “When people sit on s— you want, you make them your enemy, then you take it.” With “shock and awe,” no less.
- And further, “Our only security is in a preemptive strike,” rants the bloodthirsty, mad general in the movie. “We will fight terror with terror!”
- On capitalism: “Killing the indigenous population looks bad, but if there’s one thing the shareholders hate more than bad press, it’s a bad quarterly statement.”
- On the military: “I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace,” says the remorseful ex-Marine. “Sooner or later, I had to wake up.”
- On the environment: “The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground, it’s in the world all around.”
- On religion: “A network of energy flows through all living things. All energy is borrowed, and one day you have to give it back.”
The pagan, animalist natives are clearly shown to be the “good guys” in this film, communing with Mother Nature, or “Eywa,” as they call her, by literally weaving their hair in with trees, animals and other “energy” sources. They are cast to represent Native Americans, environmentalists, Muslim insurgents (the film even praises becoming a “martyr” to stop the greedy imperialists), Africans and other bemoaned “victims” of the capitalist system.
But before dismissing “Avatar” as just another political agenda film, a strong word of caution is necessary regarding the film’s religious content.
The film not only casts the natives as having a pagan belief system, it takes audiences inside the belief system. Moviegoers are invited to embrace the idea of energy connecting all things, even trained to embrace it, as we follow the protagonist being mentored in the natives’ ways. The movie’s climax scenes involve pagan mass rituals, chanting and praying to “Eywa” to save.
Even the film’s lead scientist, who at one point declares, “I’m a scientist – I don’t believe in fairy tales,” later comes to proclaim the pagan religion, declaring that she is “with Enya, she’s real.”
Finally, I couldn’t conclude without commenting on the film’s one, intriguing play on Christian theology:
After completing his training, the protagonist explains, “The [natives] say every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn your place among the people forever.”
The natives then gather around the initiate and lay hands on him to welcome him into “the people.”
Christ also said that we can be born twice (John 3:3), and Scripture tells us of a great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that welcome us as adopted sons (Ephesians 1:5) into the family of faith (Romans 8:12-17). There is even mention of a ceremony of placing hands on the new member of faith (Acts 8:17-20).
But “Avatar” twists even this concept, by placing the onus on “when you earn your place,” rather than when you repent and receive the gift of God’s grace.
“Avatar” is an amazing spectacle, a triumph of technology for the sci-fi genre, nonetheless ruined by bad filmmaking. Unfortunately, it will also turn millions of ticket sales into big-time bank, while nonetheless proving in worldview terms to be utterly bankrupt.
- “Avatar” is littered with profanity in the attempt to give its military characters a realistic toughness, but fails to do little more than cover up a script lacking both emotion and quality dialogue.
- The film contains an epic battle scene with explosions, gunfire, alien monsters, natives falling to their death, characters being crushed, bodies pierced with arrows and numerous other forms of violence. Blood is mercifully – if unrealistically – absent, though the image of a horse on fire and the sounds of animals having their hearts ripped open with knives are slightly gruesome.
- The film’s abundant, pagan religious themes are discussed above, though there is also talk of communing with dead ancestors, shamans, divination, animal spirits and other pagan religious practices.
- The film’s sexuality includes the lean natives exclusively wearing the skimpiest of clothing, with bare buttocks and the brief glimpse of bare breast. Partial human nudity is also seen. The film includes a vulgar reference to “local tail,” has some kissing and depicts a sensual, but brief and partially obscured, alien sex scene.