(WETA / Twentieth Century…)
It's no secret that "Avatar" has been stunningly successful on nearly every front. The James Cameron-directed sci-fi epic is already the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time, having earned more than $1 billion around the globe in less than three weeks of theatrical release. The film also has garnered effusive praise from critics, who've been planting its flag on a variety of critics Top 10 lists. The 3-D trip to Pandora is also viewed as a veritable shoo-in for a best picture Oscar nomination when the academy announces its nominees on Feb. 2.
But amid this avalanche of praise and popularity, guess who hates the movie? America's prickly cadre of political conservatives.
For years, pundits and bloggers on the right have ceaselessly attacked liberal Hollywood for being out of touch with rank and file moviegoers, complaining that executives and filmmakers continue to make films that have precious little resonance with Middle America. They have reacted with scorn to such high-profile liberal political advocacy films as "Syriana," "Milk," "W.," " Religulous," "Lions for Lambs," "Brokeback Mountain," "In the Valley of Elah," "Rendition" and "Good Night, and Good Luck," saying that the movies' poor performances at the box office were a clear sign of how thoroughly uninterested real people were in the pet causes of showbiz progressives.
Of course, "Avatar" totally turns this theory on its head. As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it clearly evokes the can't-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, so say the right-wing pundits -- and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere, from Mississippi to Manhattan.
To say that the film has evoked a storm of ire on the right would be an understatement. Big Hollywood's John Nolte, one of my favorite outspoken right-wing film essayists, blasted the film, calling it "a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC cliches that not a single plot turn, large or small, surprises. . . . Think of 'Avatar' as 'Death Wish' for leftists, a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you . . . hate the bad guys (America) you're able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all."
John Podhoretz, the Weekly Standard's film critic, called the film "blitheringly stupid; indeed, it's among the dumbest movies I've ever seen." He goes on to say: "You're going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about the movie's politics -- about how it's a Green epic about despoiling the environment, and an attack on the war in Iraq. . . . The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism -- kind of. The thing is, one would be giving Jim Cameron too much credit to take 'Avatar' -- with its . . . hatred of the military and American institutions and the notion that to be human is just way uncool -- at all seriously as a political document. It's more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard issue counterculture cliches in Hollywood have become by now."
Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, took Cameron to task on another favorite conservative front, as yet another Hollywood filmmaker who refuses to acknowledge the power of religion. Douthat calls "Avatar" the "Gospel according to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, 'Avatar' is Cameron's long apologia for pantheism -- a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world." Douthat contends that societies close to nature, like the Na'vi in "Avatar," aren't shining Edens at all -- "they're places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short."
There are tons of other grumpy conservative broadsides against the film, but I'll spare you the details, except to say that Cameron's grand cinematic fantasy, with its mixture of social comment, mysticism and transcendent, fanboy-style video game animation, seems to have hit a very raw nerve with political conservatives, who view everything -- foreign affairs, global warming, the White House Christmas tree -- through the prism of partisan sloganeering.
But why is it doing so well with everyday moviegoers if it's so full of supposedly buzz-killing liberal messages?