The following contains significant plot-spoilers for the film Avatar.
The final year-and-change of the decade was a pretty lousy period for Americans who describe their politics as “conservative,” (or, if you prefer, “right-wing”) particularly those who live their lives in connection to the overwhelmingly “left-wing” entertainment industry. After they bet the farm on framing then-candidate Barack Obama as a Hollywood-style celebrity rather than a serious politician, he won the Presidency rather decisively. TV comedienne Tina Fey turned their would-be doyenne, Sarah Palin, into an international laughingstock with a few well-placed winks and a deft ear for regional affectation. An American Carol – a much-publicized attempt to stake out alternative ground in the mostly-liberal world of cinematic political comedy – was a box office disaster.
And then there was Avatar. James Cameron’s gargantuan decade-capping sci-fi/action epic reads like a checklist of every socio-political element that the American right has consistently complained to have too much presence in Hollywood filmmaking. The story of an ex-Marine who switches teams to help a race of tribal aliens repel human invaders, it’s all at once pro-environment, anti-military, pro-indigenous, anti-corporate and even seems to take sides in the modern debate over the “feminization” of the culture – with brutal, aggression-oriented, “meathead” military types on the “bad guy” team versus a female-led team of intellectually-oriented scientists allied with Goddess-worshipping aliens. It doesn’t get much more explicit, in culture clash terms, than the sight of army gunships being blown out of the sky by bows and arrows.
Given all that, combined with the lukewarm-to-hostile buzz the film had been building since the debut of its trailers over a year ago and the widely joked-about similarity its story had to the poorly-aged 1990s white-guilt epic Dances With Wolves, conservative cultural-commentators in the U.S. and abroad were primed and ready to hold up Avatar as the latest and greatest example of “Liberal Hollywood” injecting its politics into movies and thus alienating half its audience.
Except that now Avatar is a hit.
And not just a hit, but a big hit. A monster hit. A hit that now – with more than $1 billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales – has surpassed Dark Knight financially and even seems poised to challenge Cameron’s last film, a little number you may recall named Titanic.
What’s more, this success doesn’t seem to be happening in spite of, or even in ignorance of, its rather unsubtle liberal political outlook. Lots of people are talking about this, from The Huffington Post to Jeffrey Wells – a usually reliable enemy of all things geeky who’s become the web’s most surprising proponent of Avatar as a Best Picture nominee, after dubbing it “the most flamboyant, costliest, grandest left-liberal super-movie anyone’s ever seen.”
So what, precisely, does this mean? Should conservatives be mourning? Should liberals be celebrating? Did American (to say nothing of the rest of the world) moviegoers suddenly undergo a complete and total ideological reversal in the course of a single year – overnight deciding to exchange Batman and Jack Bauer’s “enhanced-interrogation” designated baddies for a romanticized vision of indigenous rebellion? Has the hypnotic gaze of President Obama psychically reeducated all of Middle America from Hank and Peggy Hill to Steven and Elyse Keaton? Can you really read the political mind of an entire population by a cursory glance at the possible allegorical implications of whatever is the most popular movie at the moment?
Of course not.
The problem with trying to discern the political will of a people from the popular culture is that it’s usually grounded in the erroneous assumption – on behalf of political commentators – that “the people” care and think about politics as constantly and as deeply as they (the commentators) do.
Here in the U.S., our last presidential election was participated in by only around 56% of eligible citizens, and this was considered a good turnout – the highest since 1968 when it went all the way up to 60. Usually, the percentage is down around 35. And keep in mind, it wasn’t as though this was some uninteresting peacetime election between undifferentiated talking heads. Obama versus McCain (or, rather, Obama versus Palin in the eyes of some commentators) was a literal and figurative clash over some of the most divisive issues of all time: race, religion, economic philosophy and the fate of two active shooting wars – and it still only managed to move barely more than half of the country one way or another.
In simple terms, this means that less than half of the country bothers to participate in electing their own government, even though doing so requires nothing more strenuous than leaving the house, walking into the gymnasium of the local high school, and checking one of two boxes on a sheet of paper. Thus, when you hear culture critics talk about this or that movie “alienating half the audience” by having a political message, well, they’re kind of full of it. If barely more than half the country voted, then the “winner” really only had the overt support of about 26 to 30% of “the people,” which means the “alienated” are even less than that and the other full half of “the people”… well, they just don’t care.
Which, from where I sit, is why the same citizenry that made a surprise mega-hit out of an ultra right wing (some would say outright fascist) macho fantasy like 300 can then turn around and embrace something like Avatar, which takes almost fetishistic delight in the defeat of rather Spartan-esque paramilitary muscleheads by tree-hugging bow-hunters and their woodland animal pals. What political commentators (and, to be fair, film critics including yours truly) tend to forget is that most of “the people” – even the smart ones – don’t go through life looking at every movie (or book, or videogame) through the rubric of politics and theory. Enjoying Avatar – even to the extent of empathizing with its downtrodden native heroes – is no more an indicator of innate leftism than losing oneself to the gung-ho militaristic fantasy of Modern Warfare is an indicator of ideological kinship to Ann Coulter.
Never mind the fact that, despite the obvious allegory and message-mongering at work in Avatar, its overriding ideology isn’t anywhere near as clear cut as its politically-oriented fans or detractors would have you believe. The anti-military angle, for example, is skewed more than just a little by the fact that the soldiers in question aren’t the volunteer army of the U.S. or any other specific nation, but rather private contractors under the employ of a corporation. Meanwhile, Jake Sully, the hero, is a Marine – albeit it a disabled one. There’s also, of course, one member of the corporate army that turns “good” as well: A butched-out female hardcase (this is a James Cameron movie, after all) played by Michelle Rodriguez.
Then there’s the matter of the Na’vi themselves, who aren’t precisely the utopian peaceniks they’d need to be for the “Avatar as left-wing wish-dream” reading. In the broad strokes, their toe-to-toe-with-your-dinner bow-hunting shtick is closer to the ramblings of ostensibly right-wing “survivalist” cranks like Ted Nugent than to PETA; a fairly major theme of the story is their acceptance of Sully due to his stature as a Marine, (“warrior of the Jarhead Clan,” as he explains it) which earns him more respect from their intensely martial society than has been afforded the previous Avatars – who’ve all been scientists and/or “intellectuals.” In the second act, Sully makes this conflation of Marine Corps ethos with Na’vi honor-culture explicit when he punctuates a rundown of a grueling test-of-manhood rite with an enthusiastic “Ooh-rah!”
And then there’s the biggest “makes sense until you think about it” canard, the notion that Avatar‘s various political undercurrents – real or imagined – are sufficient to label it as anti-American; a nifty trick considering the film affords no specific national origin to any of its humans, good or bad. Granted, this is little more than an old rhetorical trick of politics – pretending as though a single element of an entity (in this case, a country) is synonymous with the whole in order to mischaracterize an opponent’s arguments: Military = America, Avatar = anti-military, therefore Avatar = anti-American, see how easy that is? You see it all the time, on all sides – Anti-Iraq protesters were called anti-American by the right under Bush, anti-healthcare protesters are now called anti-American by the left under Obama – but even still, it’s almost otherworldly to see it lobbed in the direction of an action movie about blue alien kitty-people.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with analyzing pop culture from a political perspective. After all, if James Cameron didn’t want Avatar to be part of such conversations, the various allegorical undercurrents wouldn’t be in the movie in the first place. Yet, at some point, I think one has to pull their focus back and remember that the reason allegory works in this kind of film is that you don’t have to agree with it or even notice it for the film to be entertaining.
At the end of the day, the majority of Avatar audiences erupting into applause watching Colonel Quaritch take Neytiri’s arrows to the chest probably aren’t doing so in appreciation of the symbolic triumph of the Indigenous Feminine over White Male Western Imperialism, they’re applauding because he’s an evil bastard and he had it coming.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.