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Criticism of 'Avatar' More Interesting Than Film

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Somewhere between "Avatar's" first billion-dollar gross and its subsequent $841 million take lie my 10 bucks. "Avatar" is about blue-skinned beings who confront Earthlings actively strip mining their natural paradise on the moon Pandora.

Many groups, from the Vatican to political conservatives to multiculturalists, have objected to various messages in the film (as they hear them). I'm glad to have seen it, if only to understand the heartfelt critiques of a movie that, for me, went in one ear, out one eye and was promptly forgotten.

The commotion set off by "Avatar" recalls the fuss made over another cultural phenomenon, "Jurassic Park," in 1993. France's cultural guardians were especially upset that Steven Spielberg's blockbuster -- full of expensive rampaging dinosaurs -- had overshadowed thoughtful lower-budget movies made in Europe. For the record, I enjoyed "Jurassic Park."

As for me and "Avatar": After the first half hour of gee-whiz special effects, I found myself taking off the 3-D glasses to check the time. Under all that visual splendor lay a cliched plot, stereotyped characters and humorless dialogue. That left the action -- but how many video games can you watch?

As I said, the criticism is what made the movie interesting. In "Avatar," the Vatican protested, "nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship." Backing that view, conservative columnist Ross Douthat calls "Avatar" a "long apologia for pantheism -- a faith that equates God with nature and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world."

Where Douthat errs is his assumption that director James Cameron was trying to justify anything. He wasn't. He was totally cool with Earth worship.

(My movie companion, who used to teach Baptist Sunday school, said that she detected several Christian messages -- for example, the theme of forgiveness.)

Conservatives have called the movie anti-American, and I agree. References to the Iraq War were especially unfair.

I don't join right-leaners in their pans of "Avatar's" environmental preaching. My problem was not the sermonizing but its simple-mindedness. Disney's 2008 computer-animated movie, "WALL-E," did a better job on the environmental theme by being 10 times more clever.

There are attacks from the left, too. Some objected to the crypto-racist theme of a white man coming to save the indigenous population (see "Dances with Wolves"). Why can't its savior ever be one of them? Good question.

My favorite beef comes from an anti-tobacco group. The Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education grumbles that the scientist Sigourney Weaver happily smokes as she tries to save Pandora from the environmental wrecking crew. As the center sees it, heroes don't smoke.

What made this my favorite gripe was Cameron's response to it. He said, "If it's OK for people to lie, cheat, steal and kill in PG-13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking?"

Hold it right here. Since when has it been immoral to smoke? Bad for one's health, yes, but immoral? It's no more immoral to smoke than it is to worship Gaia. It's nobody's business but one's own.

Now my complaint about the complainers. Many of you refer to the blue beings as "aliens." Technically, they're the natives on Pandora. The humans are the aliens. Just thought I'd point that out.

The Golden Globe Awards have just named "Avatar" the best drama of the year. From my standpoint, "Avatar" wasn't even the best drama of the night. After seeing it, I thought, I've got to see a movie . So later that evening, I viewed the 1944 film noir classic "Laura." It was in black and white, and my eyes were glued.

Guess you can see what planet I'm coming from.

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