Avatar: green epic or epically silly?

James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar has irritated some conservative critics with its softheaded environmentalism. Watching conservatives tie themselves in knots over the movie’s moralizing has in turn greatly amused a variety of liberal commentators.

Which is all fine, I suppose, if parsing the political subtext of Hollywood action movies is your cup of tea. I’m just disappointed that anyone takes seriously the notion that the movie carries important environmental themes. What strikes me is how little Avatar has to say of any relevance to politics here on earth.

For the three of you who haven’t yet caught the movie, Avatar renders in astonishing 3D detail the world of the Na’vi, a society of pre-technological beings who literally worship and talk to trees. And the trees talk back! This sort of gaudy nature love has angered movie viewers of a certain ideological bent, who assume that environmentalists must for their part be falling over themselves in appreciation of the film. John Podhoretz writes, “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.”

I have heard a lot about that — from people who argue about politics for a living. I just haven’t heard any actual environmentalists sticking up for this proposition. Yes, the movie deals with issues of resource extraction, in the most obvious way possible. But the environmental issue I care about is finding a way to sustain nine billion wealthy and fulfilled human beings on a planet that hasn’t been completely despoiled. Avatar doesn’t have much to say about that challenge.

Few movies do, in part because it’s not a particularly cinematic topic. At the moment, WALL-E is the only non-documentary movie I can think of that centrally integrates issues of population and resource depletion into its premise. (Of course, a lot of conservatives didn’t like that movie either.) Are there any others that I’m missing?

(P.S. Although this post isn’t meant to be a movie review, I thought I’d add that I heartily recommend Avatar. Although its dialog, plot, and characters are, at best, forgettable, the special effects will make your eyes pop out of your head.)

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  1. Dennis - January 13, 2010

    Soylent Green?

  2. Bill - January 13, 2010

    I don’t agree with the writer about the lack of relevant environmental themes. In an age when so many don’t have a clue about our interdependency with the planet and other planetary residents, this movie invites people to view things differently. The Ultimate Reality in this life is our connection to everything else. Maybe it is too soft a message for some, but I think it is a good beginning point about respect for other beings.

  3. KPS Khalsa - January 13, 2010

    Wait a minute, it’s not a green movie, it’s mostly blue, isn’t it? Cameron is making money, not messages. It’s a feeble fable, even the bad guy is soooo baaaad that he’s just a caricature. It was about as subtle as the glasses you had to wear to view it.

  4. Fred Magyar - January 13, 2010

    “But the environmental issue I care about is finding a way to sustain nine billion wealthy and fulfilled human beings on a planet that hasn

  5. JCO - January 13, 2010

    Lord of the Rings deals with these themes: an inherent struggle between technological exploitation and the environment.

  6. Todd Helmkamp - January 13, 2010

    It always upsets me when conservatives don’t seem to see the need to safeguard and care for our planet. I’m pretty conservative and it seems obvious to me. As far as Avatar goes, I haven’t seen it yet (I’m one of the 3 I guess) but maybe it would be a good movie to introduce children to the idea that we are, whether we like it or not, connected to the planet? Seems an animated movie would work better than a textbook.

  7. John - January 13, 2010

    I am in full agreement with Bill in comment 2. As a radical environmentalist, I love it that the movie makes it so clear that the earth stripmining corporation is backed up by a onetime US military mercenary force to force these indigenous people off their land and sacred place. In the movie humans from Earth are the aliens invading another planet. This must be obvious to anyone who sees the movie, I would think. Which is probably why the right wing of American politics is so upset with the film. A bit like “Dances with Wolves” in space. I will see the film again, in 3D this time, as there are so many layers in the film: action/adventure, sci fi, spiritual, romance, and environmental.

  8. Anonymous - January 13, 2010

    Oh, no. This is not a kid’s movie. For the other 2 who haven’t seen it, I don’t recommend this film for any child under teenage. It is very vivid and very violent…. Not animated. The way I see it, it is just a film, a compliation of points of view of a few Hollywood rich people. People on either side of the environmental coin will interpret it in a fairly pedictable fashion… Like Wall-e.

  9. dave in kentucky - January 13, 2010

    who ever didn’t get some kind of political implications is brain dead. big business, huh
    stomp a race in the way, huh, teach them our language, huh. I missed any talking trees ( and I saw it twice), I did see some kind of empathetic vibes with everything on the planet ( seems like some where in history lots of civilizations had something going with the earth) of course they were big on living within it’s capacities, unlike the current use it and move on to the next. The ceremonial parts didn’t show idolatry as much as appreciation for the abundance and interdependencies. But, heck I just like action and color.

  10. Dimitry - January 13, 2010

    Actually, I think Todd is not far off. It may not be appropriate for young children, but it is appropriate for teenagers, who also need to be introduced to the idea that we are connected to everything on our planet, whether spiritually or ecologically (whichever floats your boat). And what better format than an epic 3D movie? How many teenagers are going to read a book that has lots of accurate details about environmentalism, etc.? Finally, I think rather than a commentary on anything current it instead is just a retelling of the how Western cultures colonized America or Africa – a lesson from our own history.

  11. Ben Stallings - January 13, 2010

    OK, I’ll bite. I’m one of the environmentalists who did fall all over myself for the movie. I do think it has an important environmental message, and James Cameron has said so himself in interviews, and so I can’t understand why people who could be embracing the film’s message are so eager to find excuses to deny it.
    Here’s my two cents about it, largely in rebuttal to the widely publicized red-herring argument that the film is racist, but segueing into (yet another) theory of what the film is really about:
    In a nutshell, the film is teaching through metaphor, people. So we can’t actually talk to trees. Does that mean we should throw out The Lorax, too? It’s a metaphor for being aware of other species, something we desperately need to (re)learn to do. And we can’t actually separate our consciousness from our bodies and put it into other bodies. We also can’t walk a mile in other people’s shoes, see the world through their eyes, etc. etc. It’s a metaphor. Learn from it.
    At least Avatar has a happy ending, unlike so many of the other stories it’s compared to. The good guys win for a change! Celebrate!

  12. Agnes Kite - January 13, 2010

    My boyfriend and I must be the second and third people who haven’t seen this movie yet. However, from the descriptions on here and in other reviews, it really does sound more like history repeating itself (settlers from all over the world invading what is now North America, forcing the Native Americans, a very nature-based society, from their homes and sacred grounds to live in segregation, and swooping across the land with their destructive agricultural practices and technological advances which ruin the very resources they depend on). While it may be a lesson well learned, it hardly seems like an original idea. And not the least bit relevant to the issue nobody ever seems to want to discuss–how to sustain our ever-increasing population on a world with a finite amount of land and resources while maintaining the overall quality of life. I agree, a movie about that might be a bit less interesting, and probably very disturbing for many, but done the right way, could have a bigger impact than expected.
    For anyone interested in reading up on population growth, there is a very interesting viewpoint presented on the subject in a philosophy book disguised as fiction called “The Story of B” by Daniel Quinn. It is the second in a trilogy of books (“Ishmael” and “My Ishmael,” respectively) but, while the other two books are wholly dependent on each other, the second one can be read without the general pretext of the others. Warning: The ideas presented in these books aren’t going to appeal to a lot of people, but I highly recommend reading them if you are open to considering new viewpoints.

  13. Karen - January 13, 2010

    I took my 2 boys to see the movie (their choice), and they both walked away with the message that people need to respect, appreciate and protect nature. While I know all too well that the clock’s ticking and that waiting to act to solve our many environmental issues will only cause more problems, it’s the next generation that really needs to understand it all because the brunt of it will fall upon them. I applaud James Cameron for engaging our youth in a spellbinding manner about the consequences of environmental destruction.

  14. Jeb - January 13, 2010

    Generally, Avatar doesn’t have that much to say. But, there are at least two references to conditions back on Earth. The first is the once scene that takes place on Earth. You see two corporate suits pitch the wheelchair-bound Jake on taking his twin brother’s place in the Avatar project. From the little we see, Earth is a pretty bleak place (i.e. cardboard coffins, brutally functional architecture, limited opportunities). In a later scene, Jake makes a comment to the effect that the Earth has been despoiled, with all of the trees cut down.

  15. Ben Stallings - January 13, 2010

    Thanks for bringing up Daniel Quinn, Agnes. Avatar does share a lot of themes with Quinn’s books. For those who prefer scholarship over empty rhetoric, an author to check out is Derrick Jensen: similar themes to Quinn, but he cites his sources.

  16. Jeremy - January 13, 2010

    I thought the movie at least might force those less environmentally aware to consider certain key issues such as indigenous rights, resource extraction, corporate greed, population etc…
    Then I saw an ad for the McDonald’s BigMac promotion of Avatar.
    James Cameron made a great film using some very interesting and apropos human/environmental themes from our current earthly situation. In the end, that’s as far as it goes, critics, analysts and politicians will be complaining and arguing about the next thing by tomorrow.

  17. ZA - January 13, 2010

    ‘Princess Mononoke’ dealt with environmental themes and the richer grey areas of human morality far better than Avatar.

  18. Watts - January 13, 2010

    This is a very James Cameron movie — high-tech action, an unapologetically old-fashioned romantic sensibility, and an overall storyline that’s neither particularly deep nor surprising but nonetheless has a bit more to say to the audience than “slow motion explosions are pretty.” He may not be David Mamet, but he’s not Michael Bay, either. As a friend put it, he’s not a great writer but he’s a fantastic storyteller.
    Sure, it’s essentially a sci-fi version of “Pocahontas” (albeit one where Pocahontas can kick John Smith’s ass). But y’know, having what’s on track to be one of the highest-grossing films of all time carry an anti-imperialist and pro-environment message to a whole lot of people who would normally flee anything overtly “liberal” is, on the balance, probably a good thing.

  19. Clark - January 13, 2010

    The environmental message, like much of the story, is pretty much a cliche and superficial. It might make an impression on impressional (read teenage) minds, but it is unlikely to change anyone else’s views. If it causes people on both sides of the issues to talk and debate, its a good thing. Its still a fictional depiction of the future meant primarily to entertain (which it does in spades). People aren’t going to the movie multiple times to get a clearer understanding of the message. So lighten up, sit back and enjoy!

  20. Charronne - January 13, 2010

    Having seen Avatar once in 2d, ( 3d was sold out) we are going back to see the 3d version tonight. My husband is Native American, and his art expresses a close affinity to Nature, or Mother Earth, as his people traditionally called it. For him, Avatar hit close to home. Modelled on traditional indigenous cultures, most of whose people have been unceremoniously and often violently removed from their homes and lands, the movie is an emotional experience. The Navi belief that all life is interconnected is elemental to traditional teachings from all over the world. It is just that those of us from so called ‘advanced’ societies have forgotten that fact.
    So those of you out there ‘poo-pooing’ the basic concept, try watching it from the point of view of peoples whose grandparents suffered through similar losses, or who are, like those in some Pacific Nations and South America, and even parts of North America, are still enduring.
    Intended or not, the movie, a fictional story, resonates strongly with many for home it is all to realistic.

  21. Mauricio Torres-Madrid - January 13, 2010

    Thanks for your comment Bill, I haven’t seen the movie but your comment is so clear that I must agree with your perspective of the challenges we are facing, and I will go see the movie asap.
    Mao T.

  22. Mauricio Torres-Madrid - January 13, 2010

    Hi Fred, thank you for your comment. I very much agree with you that the planet is a limited planet with the personal and social relationships we have right now especially considering the overrated dependance on fossil fuels (cheap available energy).
    Technology is catching up but the great thing about living in this time of history, I believe, is that technology alone is not the sole solution but the crisis is so large that it demands a personal commitment to live a better more fullfiling life conected with your neighbor and the planet.
    I truly believe that there are no limits except those we impose to ourselves. We use barely 5% of our mental capacity and I believe the solution is in the other 95%, never lose hope and continue working for a better world.

  23. Stephen - January 13, 2010

    To me a more interesting variant on the question, instead of asking whether it has green themes, is to explore what we can do reinforce what people take away? When a friend posts in facebook that it’s a great movie, what would be a good article to post in the comments, what real-world information/issues can follow? How do we mix in facts and understanding when art shakes feelings up?

  24. John - January 13, 2010

    Well, just a couple days after I saw the movie, I saw a segment on the BBC News about a real life Avatar situation here on Earth. In Malaysia, thousands of acres of rain forrest are being bulldozed and indigenous people forced off their land so that palm oil plantations can be expanded !!! We must all begin to see the connections between our actions–like buying palm oil products–and the resultant consequences on people and lands and ecosystems.

  25. Stephie - January 13, 2010

    First of all I have only seen bits and pieces of the movie. (I don’ go to theaters) I am anticipating the release on DVD or PPV. What I have seen is a beautiful and exciting movie, that may or may not have and ecological or environmental background theme to it. I am looking forward to seeing a movie, with great special effects and an intesting plot. If it helps with a message about the environment also, that is great.
    As far as movies with an environmental theme, Have you all forgotten about “Fern Gully”? Hello, if you are looking for a movie to send the message to kids, try that movie, It is beautifully animated even by todays, standards and has a great message.

  26. Ma'abud - January 13, 2010

    I felt Cameron’s handling of the “message” was heavy handed at best. I agree with the general message but I don’t think he did a service to the movements which focus on the preservation of Earth. He alienates those who disagree and preaches to the choir who agree. There is little subtlety in character development so the main attraction of the movie in my opinion is the visual feast.

  27. David Yao - January 13, 2010

    “There is no way to sustain 9 billion wealthy humans on earth.”
    Absolutely correct. I think the point about redefining the concept of wealth deserves to be explored. We don’t need McMansions – or even big houses – to be happy.
    How about peace and security (income security and guaranteed medical coverage for all), and food security, etc.
    P.S. Sustainability precludes the expansion of America’s meat-and-dairy based diet, but we’re headed in the wrong direction…

  28. Linda - January 14, 2010

    All great stories are told simply, directly and often in mythological terms. It helps us “get” the story on many levels. My family went to see Avatar and ALL loved it and want to see it again to try and glean more of the message. We found it beautiful, connective and sadly at times too accurate of our past and hopefully not too predictive of our future.

  29. Jerry - January 17, 2010

    Thank you! Well put.

  30. Jerry - January 17, 2010

    And if just a few people get the connection to “mountain-top removal” coal mining I’ll be thrilled!

  31. Stephie - January 24, 2010

    I don’t understand, what did I say that I need to back up? Others commented that the movie wasn’t for kids,is that where you are going? What I said was for them. My view is cleary stated, I am looking forward to seeing a beautifully made movie with a good storyline.

  32. Timothy Graffius - January 24, 2010

    I enjoyed the movie and find it’s philosophy about the environment both appealing and refreshing. Open your mind.

  33. Anonymous - January 30, 2010

    Its a terrific film..watch out for the themes of learnkig to see, rebirth, and waking and dreaming. AVATARS straightforward enviromnental message is meant to be a slap in the face of all those who have allowed our crisis to come to pass.

  34. brian - January 30, 2010

    AVATAR has a great deal to say…you may have not been very observant.
    The attack on the Na’vi, the bulldozing of their sacred sites, the tsaheylu…all are making pertinent points,which many criticise as too obvious or not obvious enough…For me the film is well made and its themes well integrated into the story.

  35. Ma'abud - January 30, 2010

    I agree that may be the purpose of the blunt message. Hopefully it will open some eyes to what is going on in the world. That style detracted from my enjoyment of the movie because I don’t need a 2X4. (I still enjoyed the film).