James Cameron’s Avatar has been greeted on the right with the kind of immediate snarling antagonism reserved for Oliver Stone pics. In an article titled “Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy,” Big Hollywood’s John Nolte called it “Deathwish 5 for leftists.” No less an authority than MovieGuide, “the family guide to Christian movie reviews,”awarded the movie“four Marxes and an Obama” for its “abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes Goddess worship and the destruction of the human race”—an unfortunate formulation that also happens to clip most of my favorite Disney movies. Drudge has been providing a daily drip-feed of joy-killing stories: “Vatican says no masterpiece,” “Audiences experience Avatar blues; depression and suicidal thoughts. …” In the words of one right-wing blogger: “This is cinema for the Hate America crowd.”
Once you’ve gotten over your shock at seeing James Cameron pilloried as a typical Hollywood liberal—dude wrote Rambo for heaven’s sake!—the first response to this is: What took them so long? Ever since George Lucas revealed that the real model for his evil empire in the Star Wars movies was not Britain but America, it has been common practice for the makers of summer blockbusters to encode cryptic commentary of American foreign policy into their car chases and fireballs. Last year, The Dark Knight descended into a probing disquisition on the efficacy of torture. This summer, the makers of Star Trek conducted an equally spirited back-and-forth on the merits of diplomacy versus the phasers when dealing with obstreperous Romulans.
None of those movies made a billion dollars in 21 days, however. Not only is this criticism of Avatar the first time the right has dipped its toe into the phosphorescent waters of allegorical science fiction, but it’s also the first time it has mobilized a hate-a-thon against a movie that stands to become the most profitable of all time. Normally when right-wingers come gunning for a movie, it’s meek, well-intentioned granola like Lions for Lambs, Rendition, or Good Night, and Good Luck—movies that can only perform a single one-armed push-up before collapsing facedown into the mud. When Michael Medved published his snit-fit broadside against Hollywood liberals, Hollywood Versus America, in 1993, he reserved the full force of his fury for such muscular Trotskyist tracts as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Total Recall, and The Prince of Tides, thus proving that when it comes to threatening the very fabric of democracy, the only thing that rivals heretical sex and bone-cracking violence is a picture about therapy with Barbra Streisand. Or maybe I am misinterpreting Medved’s thesis. Maybe it was just: Barbra Streisand!
A blockbuster like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, on the other hand, Medved wisely body-swerved, since it would have scrambled his narrative: Liberal elites have forgotten how to make good old-fashioned movies for real America. Cameron’s Avatar therefore puts the right in a bind. Having for years cited the failure of movies like In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs as proof that Hollywood is too liberal-elitist to connect with the real America, they’re now turning on a movie that has done just that. Writing in the London Daily Telegraph, Nile Gardner professed himself astonished by “the roars of approval which greeted the on-screen killing of US military personnel.” They “were a shock to the system, especially at a time when the United States is engaged in a major war in Afghanistan. …” He concludes that Avatar is “one of the most left-wing films in the history of modern American cinema, and perhaps the most commercially successful political movie of our time.”
The last time I looked, American cinema-goers were not well-disposed to reward pictures offering them a sprightly mixture of ecological censure and high treason. And, indeed, those killed Marines are no such thing, but members of a Blackwater-style mercenary operation. Audiences are not stupid. Neither is Cameron. Yes, he included a bunch of tone-deaf references to the Iraq war in his movie—”shock and awe,” “fighting terror with terror,” and so on, every one of which succeeds magnificently in yanking you out of the immersive spectacle as surely as a kick to the shins. But any desire to push the Avatar-is-liberal-propaganda argument further must be met by a principled push-back against the incursion of so grindingly and narrowly ideological a focus into so mercurial and prismatic a medium as motion pictures. In other words: It’s about a bunch of blue people.
Seriously. I haven’t seen this kind of wild mangling of pop culture since the heyday of cultural studies, when you couldn’t cross a campus without accidentally wandering into seminars attended by four people titled “Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future.” But then James Cameron was always going to be a tough nut to crack. His politics are an intriguing salad: dove-ish bromides strapped into the titanium exoskeleton of a hawk. Or as Colonel Quaritch says in Avatar, “A Marine inside a Na’vi body. That’s a potent mix.” It is, especially for a medium as fluid as cinema, which quickly bores of people in perfect agreement with themselves. Remember that Cameron was born in Canada in 1954, which means that he spent his formative teenage years—the years he was getting into guns and trucks and girls—watching the giant that lived next door receive the beating of its life in Vietnam. It left him with an almost forensic fascination for “how the mighty fall,” his enduring theme as a filmmaker, from The Terminator through to Titanic.
Think of the Marines in Aliens, whooping it up in the drop ship as they load their gun clips, only to find that their superior firepower is useless on LV426 for fear of triggering the plant’s nuclear core. Their armor hissing with alien acid, they cannot ditch it fast enough. The film is a study in military hubris. Cameron may have beefed about what happened to his Rambo script—”The action was mine, the politics Stallone’s,” he would later complain—but he needn’t have worried: He’d already shot his Vietnam picture. Or think of the enemy he devised in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Almost any other director would have come up with a Terminator that was bigger than Arnold—heftier, more hi-tech—but Cameron tacked the other way, devising a slim, sinuous shape-shifter, a Porsche to Arnie’s Panzer tank. What makes T2 such eerie viewing now is seeing how accurately it foreshadows the very real threat America would face on 9/11, a cellular, hydra-headed demon who absorbs every punch, its molecules scattering before regrouping again, deploying the sheer might of its attackers against them.
Cameron has an uncanny feel for asymmetrical fights: It’s what gives his films such a vicelike grip on the national unconscious and makes him a useful filmmaker to have around right now. If I were on the right, I’d be celebrating the director for his keen-eyed, conservative critique of Wilsonian foreign adventurism. Yes, it’s regrettable that the pivot point of the final battle hinges on the incursion of a deity, no less, but I also learned some interesting stuff about how to subdue any huge flame-colored dragons I see flying around the skies: You attack from above, where he least expects it. “Tarouk is the biggest, baddest boy in the sky,” Jake Sully informs us. “He never gets attacked.” With yet another airplane bomber in American custody, it would seem we cannot get enough of that lesson.