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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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