With more than a billion dollars in global ticket sales, Avatar can’t be ignored as a cultural chord that is resonating around the planet. And anytime a movie sells more than $350 million worth of domestic tickets, it seems safe to say that a lot of American conservatives are lining up to see it. Are we being tricked into paying to see an ecologically correct story about imperialism, military brutality, and corporate greed? Or should we just shut up and enjoy the film like everyone else? I say the latter, despite the movie’s overtly partisan politics.
Although some liberals deny that director James Cameron has loaded up the left side of the scale, all doubt is expunged when the evil Marine commander (Stephen Lang) commands his troops to “fight terror with terror” (the phrase “shock and awe” is used, too) by attacking the peaceful, innocent blue sweeties, the Na’vi, who ask only to continue living in the tree/goddess/apartment complex they call home. The Marines are tools of a heartless corporation dedicated to mining the invaluable resource under the tree, called “unobtainium.”
The jokey name of that mineral, though, should clue you in: the movie (unlike the much more deeply thought-out The Dark Knight, with its fiercely argued gloss on the Bush years) is not to be taken as an earnest parable for our times. As the Joker might put it to conservatives who don’t like Avatar: why so serious?
Cameron probably felt that he was landing a few swift jabs to the Bush presidency, military contractors, the oil companies, etc. But he has his priorities in order. All of those elements are background. The movie is a thrilling adventure and a fantastically vivid fantasia. Its politics essentially boil down to three cheers for the plucky little guy and a big fat raspberry to the all-powerful system.
There’s a reason why that theme works so well, in so many movies from the Charlie Chaplin era all the way up to Transformers, one of whose hero-bots is named “Bumblebee.” It’s universal and it has equal pull with left and right. Who doesn’t think of himself as a brave, resourceful soul up against daunting odds? From tea partiers fighting the government blob all the way to the head of that blob (President Obama, who during his health care campaign kept portraying himself as the little guy’s defender against evil insurers), everyone wants to be the underdog. Nobody wants to make or see movies about loving the overdog.
So Avatar fits into a long tradition, with a few asides that can safely be ignored. What kind of observer of contemporary geopolitics really supposes that what the U.S. has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan amounts to fighting terror with terror? Only the most juvenile one.
Though the Na’vi in the movie may be meant to have overtones of American Indians (because of their close kinship with nature), the Viet Cong (they live in a jungle and fight the U.S. military), or the shocked-and-awed Iraqi insurgency, they are no more than 21st-century Ewoks. We like them because they’re cute and they’re fun to share adventures with.
Without intending to, moreover, Cameron has provided an important lesson about taking care of our military. Like the Ewoks, who managed to knock over armored imperial stormtroopers by firing tiny wooden arrows not much bigger than fondue forks, the Na’vi in Avatar highlight a weakness in their foes. The Marines’ majestic helicopter-like aircraft have windshields that, in one scene, are impervious to automatic weapons but a few scenes later prove entirely pervious to wooden arrows. Lesson: make sure your military has the correct weapons and defenses for your enemy. Besides, wrongheaded as the Marines in the movie are, Cameron at times seems shocked by his own awe of iron-tough jarheads and their beautiful killing machines. Cameron may be a liberal, but at least he’s no pacifist.
There’s also a property rights issue at stake. The corporation has traversed the galaxy for the sole purpose of harvesting Pandora’s resources and is resolved to take them by force if no agreement can be made. Conservatives who don’t like eminent domain power grabs in Connecticut should be pleased that local property owners are sticking up for their rights a million miles away.
If box office returns mean anything, Avatar is as close as any movie of the decade to holding a place in the popular imagination akin to the one Star Wars held for children of the 1970s. Both movies are, at their core, about the joys of rebellion and justified battle against an oppressor, framed in dazzling technology no one had ever seen before. Cheering on the upstarts of Na’vi shouldn’t be any more troubling to you than cheering on Luke and Han.