Pass the Popcorn: Avatar’s Preachy Foreign Policy

(Spoiler Alert!)

Avatar looks cool.  Really, really cool.  But that can’t make up for a predictable plot with remarkably little emotional connection to the oddly under-developed characters (despite a nearly 3 hour running time).  And worst of all, Avatar is filled with preachy, anti-American foreign policy themes.  If I wanted that I could just read the New York Times.

I’m surprised more reviewers have not picked up on and been irritated by the heavy-handed politics.  It’s right there.  Humans have a colony on the planet Pandora to extract the valuable mineral, unobtainium (yes, that is really its name).  The alien indigenous people (and in this case they really are indigenous) are in the way of greedy corporate profits because their giant tree home sits on top of a huge mineral deposit, so the military slaughters them.  Our hero uses a remote-controlled alien body (his avatar) to spy on the natives but eventually sees their superiority, falls in love, and leads them in fighting against the humans.

Translation for those who are hard of thinking: Greedy oil companies get the military to invade Iraq and kill the native people who are in the way.  It’s subtle with a capital B.

While denying that current foreign policy is the “main point” of Avatar, the director James Cameron told the Times of London that “Americans had a ‘moral responsibility’ to understand the impact that their country’s recent military campaigns had had.  ‘We went down a path that cost several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. I don’t think the American people even know why it was done. So it’s all about opening your eyes.'”  He continued: “We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America. I think there’s a moral responsibility to understand that.”

Um, I think we know how it feels to have planes fly into skyscrapers.  Does that count?

The problem with Avatar is not that it contains a critique of American foreign policy.  Apocalypse Now did that and was superb.  The problem is that the critique is amazingly heavy-handed and simple-minded.  The military leader is so over-the-top evil that they could have put horns and a tail on him if it wouldn’t make him look too much like the purely innocent native people, with their USB port tails and pointy ears.  The corporate representative was such a toady that he should have hopped like a frog.  These people are not real characters, with authentic emotions, complex ideas, and personal strengths and weaknesses.  They are cartoon characters, which I guess some of them really are — at least of the computer-generated variety.

I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll bet that Matt is right that Black Dynamite is a better film.

22 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: Avatar’s Preachy Foreign Policy

  1. allen says:

    “UBS port tails”? Would that be “USB port tails”?

  2. I just corrected the typo. Thanks!

  3. Greg Forster says:

    If I wanted that I could just read the New York Times.

    But if you read the New York Times you wouldn’t be getting the benefit of having hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the elaborate construction of a detailed fantasy world, presented to your senses so convincingly that you can suspend everything you know about real life and escape into a completely unrealistic fantasy.

    Oh wait . . . never mind.

  4. Josh says:

    I agree that this movie looks very heavy handed, but your translation is off. The bulk of the script was written back in the early 90’s. The movie is more about imperialism in general rather than specifically about Iraq. Imperialism is a theme dealt with, almost always heavy handedly, in many epic sci-fi flicks. Why beat Cameron up for using old tricks of the trade when we can celebrate the beauty and detail of the 3D world he created?

  5. You’re right, Josh, that the story could work for any anti-imperialism rant. Iraq is just the latest.

  6. allen says:

    On the other hand, if the editing, writing and “camera” work are good enough the plot can be ignored and the movie enjoyed. When there’s nothing to divert the audience from a heavy-handed political nag-a-thon, audiences stay away in droves.

    On a somewhat related note Micheal Moore’s latest epic “Capitalism: A Love Story” is tanking.

    Over at http://www.rottentomatoes.com where they track this sort of stuff, his gross take has stalled at $14.3 million and his weekly grosses have fallen off a cliff at $21,757 in its eleventh week.

  7. Marcus Winters says:

    I object more to the script’s laziness than its heavy handed message. Along with the lame name, we never learn why “unobtanium” is important — we know it is expensive but not what it does. We hear that the indigenous people are vicious and are fighting off the humans but see no evidence of it, for instance in a diplomatic meeting that fails. The dialogue is miserable and often relies on today’s (or yesterday’s)lingo — the mission to destroy the inhabitants’ home tree is referred to as a “shock and awe campaign”. Couldn’t they have spent some of that $400 million on an editor?

    On top of that, the visual improvements were less than I expected. The 3D was just as good in other recent films. The step forward was with the complete creation of the world via CGI, and that’s not nothing, but I didn’t need 3 hours to appreciate it.

    All in all, I’m a big proponent of the movement toward 3D, but I honestly prefered Journey to the Center of the Earth to Avitar.

  8. All excellent points, Marcus. I would just add that the lame plot and the preachy foreign policy go hand in hand. They have to use the worn phrase “shock and awe” in case we’re too stupid to understand that it is really about US foreign policy.

  9. Greg Forster says:

    Laziness and preachiness don’t just go hand in hand, they’re the same thing.

  10. Mike says:

    I saw the film Avatar last night, and was trying to explain to my brother why I couldn’t decide whether to recommend it or not. I’m just going to direct him to your post Jay. It’s exactly what I was trying to say. The special effects were pretty amazing, but the plot was so simplistic, so childish. The military is so evil that its leader wants to kill even when he knows the battle is lost. And it was disturbing that, in the end, viewers are expected to cheer for the alien Pandorans as the (clearly) American soldiers are killed in battle, even by several of their own.

    It often felt like I was watching some Disney animation movie, until the significant violence snapped me back into the reality that this was not a film for young audiences.

    The visual beauty of the film was ruined by the preachy, condescending theme. What a shame.

  11. I agree, Mike. I was particularly uncomfortable as the humans were joining with the Pandorans to kill their own kind.

  12. concerned says:

    I saw the movie with my son, who plans to join the Marines. He and I both were surprised at the anti-American theme. It did provide an opportunity for us to discuss blind obedience.

  13. Joel Vincent says:

    I saw the film last night. I thought that the entire Pandora universe was an incredibly convenient pedestal for a liberal diatribe: The natives have an incredibly high standard of living (even though they are technologically deficient), the gender roles are interchangeable with authority being shared equally (and harmoniously), and the religion is a pseudo-Buddhism where all life is connected and important (unless of course it is the evil American imperialists, in which case the mother god is justified in bringing on an onslaught of skull crushing hammerhead hippos).

    All this to further a concept that apparently everyone already accepts, that throughout human history perfectly thriving, selfless indigenous groups have been continually decimated by greedy white people.

    I also loved the line thrown in at the end about the humans returning to their “dying” planet. No doubt dying from greenhouse gas emissions.

    The film was absolutely a visual masterpiece, and I really enjoyed all the fantastical creatures. In the end though I just wasn’t sure why I should hate myself: for being human, for being American, or for being white?

  14. Greg Forster says:

    Obviously you should hate yourself for financially rewarding the studio and the filmmakers for producing this crap. What more reason do you need?

  15. Joel Vincent says:

    Good point.

  16. Andrew Guddat says:

    I think the writers of the script wrote a script that somewhat parallels american foreign policy…
    but I really don’t think they were trying to make any sort of point anywhere near as specific as what your saying they were…

    I watched the entire movie and never even thought about the war in Iraq…
    what came to mind for me was the American Indian policy…

    were the writers of Avatar trying to show that America is evil? probably not.
    were the writers of Avatar trying to show the evil of a global interventionist police state mentality that disregards other peoples sovereignty. probably.

    I guess it’s open to interpretation.. I just never took it that specifically…

  17. Go_Green says:

    I can understand why all the americans posting here arent very happy with the film. Apart from the fact that the movie is a visual masterpiece its a critique on America’s policy and no one likes to be told they are wrong. Especially when they have put everything on the line. But I think this movie is not a verdict on the morality of America’s foreign policy, instead it poses a question that maybe America has been wrong all along? Will Americans ever accept that even if their own people tell them that?

    I am glad to see a film that is not senseless and is opening up debate about issues that matter to us. Enough mindless TV!

  18. Joel Vincent says:

    So true Go_Green!

    I never thought ANYONE would make a film critical of American foreign policy. I likewise am glad that someone is finally “opening up debate” on the subject. Why, I never thought I would see the day when someone was intelligent enough to actually question American foreign intervention. I mean, even if it was incredibly formulaic, lacked character development, and had a script that was likely written by James Cameron’s pet rock, it was clearly an intellectual masterpiece.

    Keep up the astute observations Go_Green! Maybe eventually those greedy American louts will catch on.

  19. Greg Forster says:

    I can understand why all the anti-Americans posting here aren’t happy with our comments. Aside from the fact that they’re a verbal masterpiece, they’re critical of anti-American policy and no one likes to be told they are wrong. Especially when they have nothing at stake because they’ve already made a separate peace with the world’s tyrants and America’s refusal to join their appeasement cartel disrupts their comfortable accomodations. But our comments are not a verdict on the morality of empowering and subsidizing tyrants in order to save your own skin, instead it poses a question that maybe people who choose that path should try not to be so colossally vain and insufferably arrogant about it? Will anti-Americans ever accept that it’s the advocates of robust American intervention who (regardless of whether you agree with them or not) are the moral idealists in the debate, and it’s they who (again whether you agree with them or not) are advocating a foreign policy of pure cynicism and selfishness?

  20. warmongeringidiotneocons says:

    I love how you war mongers call everyone who is against imperialism and a warfare state anti-american. Like James Cameron and everyone who believes in staying the hell out of other peoples land and lives is anti-american? haha laughable, ever heard of classical liberalism? you know.. speak softly and carry a big stick? Look how well our foreign adventurism in the middle east is going. We leave iraq, it turns into a quagmire, we’re expanding the wars, and bin laden is successfully bankrupting our country. Good job people, go America! And screw this film, Cameron must be a terrorist sympathizer, what a sick animal, who ever self reflects anyways, we’re Americans. But hold on, I bet if the Chinese were bombing your family while they were sleeping in their beds at night you just might pick up a gun and shoot back. And yes, we attacked the middle east first, (1953 Iran, Lebanon, iraq/iran war, for christ sake we armed osama to fight the soviets and on and on). These wars are and always have been about American power and control, nothing else. Every foreign intervention we’ve taken part of since WWII has been about securing our interests, no matter the cost to human life. I can’t wait until this country goes bankrupt and dies through a currency crisis, then we can all wake up and know what it feels like the be on the receiving end of our own policy, impoverished. This nation lost its way decades ago, all these unconstitutional wars.. avatar just points out how ludicrous our foreign policy has become. Say bah sheeple, stop listening to your corporate news every night.

  21. Warmongeretc and Gogreen, you misunderstand my point. I like movies critical of American foreign policy… if they are well made movies. Like I said in the post, Apocolypse Now was a great movie and highly critical of imperialism in general and US foreign policy in particular. The problem with Avatar is that preachy foreign policy does not substitute for character development and the basic story-telling required of good movies. If I want to listen to preachy foreign policy rants I can read a magazine article (or your comments), but I wouldn’t call it great entertainment.

  22. Phillymozart says:

    While the anti-american people are all cheering, it was very obvious that in this movie (and every other movie of the same plot) that the “great evil” is the idea that MAN does not have to accept sleeping in huts (hammocks), hunting with spears and arrows, and the like. Every convenience enjoyed by humans on this planet has always come with a price. Funny how Cameron can lecture us about our disconnect from nature while the technology that made the movie possible is a part of the very separation he is bellyaching about.

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