Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #17

Re: Avatar (2009)

Steven, love your critique. However, this time I thought that I’d chime in response to this review. Not necessarily to complain but add to the discussion.

A slight disturbance set over me after watching Avatar. There is a whole lot more going backstage here. This is better articulated in Ross Douthat’s New York Times column “Heaven and Nature.”

The cultural impact is grave. The medium of cinema provides a wider platform and this subtle propagation of new-age thinking just romanticizes it further. I see two extreme points of today’s thinking facing head-on, scientism versus pantheism. With latter winning the battle (the rest of the trilogy should portray who wins the final war). There is little or no room for Christianity. And this brings a whole new range of problems.

I see pessimism and hopelessness of atheism in regards to the bleak future of humanity. Transhuman thought and initiatives being one of them. The final scene has the protagonist give up his body for the another. And this demonstration works! Not sure what, how or who makes this decision, but I see problems with this. Being a work of fiction, the specifics are rathery muddy, but I see signs of anti-life propaganda; euthanasia? eugenics? I might be reading extra but what’s up with this “man” chosen for another species?

I quite appreciate and enjoy Ross Douthat, and his brief comments on Avatar are spot on. (His column about Dan Brown circa Angels & Demons was equally insightful.)

I would quibble with only one word: Douthat calls Avatar Cameron’s “apologetic” for “the Gospel According to James.” I’ve worked as an apologist as well as a film critic. I would agree that The Da Vinci Code is an apologetic for what I’ve called the Dan Brown Worldview (which Douthat describes so ably in the column linked above). I would call Million Dollar Baby an apologetic for euthanasia, and Brokeback Mountain an apologetic for ending patriarchal heteronormativity.

I wouldn’t call Avatar an apologetic, though, any more than Star Wars or The Matrix were apologetics. Avatar expresses and embodies Hollywood’s hippy-dippy, West-bashing, New Age, tree-hugging milieu on a mythic level; it is not a defense of that worldview. I think it will resonate with people who embrace that worldview; I doubt whether it will actually affect the worldviews of many people. Many people watching and reading The Da Vinci Code are likely to believe that Brown has actually done his homework and offers a construal of history that is actually reliable or at least plausible in significant part; few people watching Avatar are likely to accept that anything in Avatar is particularly plausible.

Unlike Star Wars and The Matrix, Avatar doesn’t strike me as a film likely to burrow deep into the collective consciousness. It’s too generic, too shallow, too vague. As my friend Jeff Overstreet pointed out, kids growing up with this movie are not likely to care about Jake Sully and Neytiri the way my generation cared about Luke, Han and Leia, or the way a younger generation cared about Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. There are self-proclaimed “Jedis” today who make “the Force” an actual religion; I don’t see a lot of people declaring themselves “Na’vi” or getting passionate about “Eywa.” (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people who see this film even two or three times wouldn’t be able to tell you afterward who “Eywa” was even if you supplied the name.)

Also, unlike The Da Vinci Code, Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain, Cameron isn’t pushing any envelopes. He is a filmmaker profoundly of his cultural moment; he speaks from and to the zeitgeist, which is not an approach particularly likely to change anything.

Perhaps if Avatar began posting box-office numbers comparable to Titanic, or if people began talking about it with the same passion that Star Wars and The Matrix have elicited, I might have to rethink my position. Yet even in the case of those films, can any of them be said to have actually advanced a particular cultural agenda? I can believe that Million Dollar Baby might actually be a factor contributing to shifting cultural attitudes toward euthanasia. Does anyone think that Titanic contributed to shifting cultural attitudes toward e.g. premarital sex?

In the end, what Cameron is really selling here is … Cameron. The big message of Avatar is not “We are all connected” or “Western culture is corrupt and has lost something that noble savages still remember,” etc. The real message of Avatar is: “I’m still the king of the world!”

A friend of mine says, “It is as silly to take this as a ‘message’ film as one of the Star Wars prequels.” I think that’s about right. Hope that helps.

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