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Avatar Theater PosterEvery one of my favorite movies has three things in common: entertainment value, entertainment value, and above all else… entertainment value. Happy endings are always nice, but not a prerequisite (think Braveheart.) Preferred genre depends completely on mood, as do storyline & plot depth.

Watching a movie is like viewing a painting or photograph, reading a novel or listening to music. Their outputs are all art forms. The level of enjoyment one experiences whilst interacting with works of art correlates to not only sensory effects, but also to a purely visceral effect. As a result, I don’t put much credence in the movie review rating system because the visceral aspects of a movie can be difficult to grade. A movie rated by critics with one measly star doesn’t necessarily mean it sucks.

Take the movie ‘Pi’ for example. It got massively panned by industry critics because they couldn’t figure it out. Pi didn’t tell a structured story, have an amazing hero or send any kind of tangible message. For most, reviewing Pi was like trying to summarize the fine line that separates genius from psychosis. There was nothing sexy the critics could touch or sink their teeth into. So they killed it and went on to the next review. But for me the movie was brilliant, a genuine psychological masterpiece.

Which brings me to the 2009 blockbuster movie “Avatar’ by James Cameron. When it first hit the theaters Avatar was panned for its content. Industry critics didn’t appreciate Avatar as a feature film because it relied too much on computer generated graphics for it’s main characters. Yet Avatar’s visual effects achieved record box office stardom. The movie supposedly lacked storytelling, weathering accusations of plageurized plotlines. Yet those same plotlines managed to stir up far reaching moral and political debates on subjects that prompted certain interest groups to publicly go on the defensive.

James Cameron has got to be laughing his ass off all the way to the bank.

Speaking of which, a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars. Avatar was nominated for 9 Academy Awards. It didn’t win best picture, though many believe it should have. I’m theorizing that it didn’t take home the grand prize because of its negative press: the plot’s message was deemed anti-American in political circles, and its religious overtones were publicly lambasted by Western religion fundamentalists. Political and religious sects attacking a movie… who’da thunk it.

The movie’s anti-American sentiment as some critics postulate isn’t anti-American at all. It’s anti-conquest. Sam Worthington’s line right before Hometree gets whacked crescendos the movie’s take on this issue rather succinctly: “This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on shit that you want, you make’em your enemy. Then you’re justified in taking it.” I’ll go out on a limb and wager that every Native American who bought the DVD and still cares about their heritage recites that scene word for word every time it comes up.

Chino strip mineUltimately, why one (or many) would take offense is entirely their own thing. I agree there may be veiled references in Avatar to Yamashita’s Gold, Project Democracy, Halliburton and Blackwater. But the movie’s anti-conquest message became an anti-American sentiment almost overnight courtesy of those who would voluntarily correlate the American military industrial complex with the movie’s antagonists.

I guess where there’s smoke…

Religious Overtones
N.Y. Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote: “It’s fitting that James Cameron’s “Avatar” arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and 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.”

Releasing the film at Christmastime was simply good business accumen, and most definitely not an industry first. Though I am in full harmony with Mr. Douthat’s umbrella sketch of the holiday season becoming a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess. Of note (as we are exploring a fictional storyline here) is how Avatar’s writers made a concerted effort to portray the “religious” Na’vi as people who would have nothing to do with either capitalism or excess. “They’re not going to give up their home. They’re not going to make a deal. Pff… for what? Light beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want.”

But the Gospel According to James being an un-Christian apologia for pantheism? Let us now test my comprehension level… In his diatribe, Ross Douthat sounds somewhat disenchanted with James Cameron’s portrayal of an intrinsic connection between God & Nature. I am confused. If Mr. Cameron did as Mr. Douthat suggests, then how is equating God with Nature a bad thing? And when exactly did a communion of God, Nature and Humanity (think God, a burning bush and Moses) fly against the Christian Gospel?

OutstandingIn his review of Avatar titled ‘Avatar and the Faith Instinct’ Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Online agrees with Douthat and states: ”What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts. Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion.”

Perhaps that’s because we live in an age in which traditional religion obliges its laity to line their church’s coffers with budgeted tithings. Or contribute en mass to a higher purpose – like investing $Millions in the Federal Reserve for political posturing. Neither nature nor spirituality possesses such a coffer. Here’s guessing that Deists, like the fictional Na’vi, hold one’s soul in such reverance that they are above soliciting it as a tax-deductable commodity.

That may have been the film’s most poignant “religious” message.

Why is Avatar’s precept of morally pure spiritualism being dangled so far out of reach by decidedly capitalist religious sects that it’s relegated to enduring a slow death by ritual condescendence? Would using a tabernacle, robed clergy and a choir in place of a Tree of Souls, Tsahik shamans and tribal dancers have made the story more relavent? Hell no! Fundamentalists would have found fault and screamed blasphemy regardless. It’s what they do.

In this day and age of shoot first ask questions later who’s screwing who promiscuity disguised as prime time soap operas and pointless reality TV shows, why should a fictional cinematic work of art be expected to worship revisionist dogma?

To each their own. After all it’s just a movie… and a damn good one at that.

The Politics of ‘Avatar:’ Conservatives Attack Film’s Political Message By HUMA KHAN, ABC News
Heaven and Nature By ROSS DOUTHAT, Published: December 20, 2009
Avatar and the Faith Instinct by Jonah Goldberg, December 30, 2009
Rotten Tomatoes

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