The Politics of 'Avatar:' Conservatives Attack Film's Political Message

PHOTO The human forces on Pandora unleash tremendous firepower in an epic battle against the Navi, the indigenous population of Pandora.ILM/2009 Twentieth Century Fox
The human forces on Pandora unleash tremendous firepower in an epic battle against the Na'vi, the indigenous population of Pandora.

James Cameron's "Avatar" may have smashed box-office records, but it's receiving less-than-stellar reviews from some conservative writers who have panned the movie's blunt political messaging.

"I call it the 'liberal tell,' where the early and obvious politics of the film gives away the entire story before the second act begins, and 'Avatar' might be the sorriest example of this yet," wrote conservative movie critic John Nolte.

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Filmmaker Cameron does little to hide the political nuances in his $230 million hit, which has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and is on its way to becoming one of the top 10 highest domestic grossing movies of all time.

From its portrayal of the corporation that wants to take over the natural resources on the planet Pandora -- a not-so-subtle allusion to the likes of Halliburton and defense contractor Blackwater -- to distinct religious, anti-war and pro-environment themes, the film's political messaging has rubbed many conservatives the wrong way.

"I wasn't infuriated by 'Avatar.' I was infuriated by the way it framed the culture-war debate... as if there are no secular people on the right," Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of the National Review, told ABC News.

Some conservatives have panned the movie not just for its overt political tones, but its criticism of American actions.

"'Avatar' is a thinly disguised, heavy-handed and simplistic sci-fi fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War," wrote Nolte. "It looks like a big-budget animated film with a garish color palette right off a hippie's tie dye shirt."

The inhabitants of the planet Pandora in the film, the Na'vi, live in harmony with their natural surroundings and have strong faith in the powers of their goddess Eywa. But the RDA corporation, run by humans, sets up shop on Pandora to exploit its mineral resources. It will do anything to obtain Pandora's "nobtainium," even if that means destroying the Na'vi, their habitat and their faith.

Some conservative writers say they are outraged by strong religious undertones in the movie.

"Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message," Conservative writer and blogger Ross Douthat wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times. "'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."

Avatar's Political Message Irks Conservatives

Other themes in the movie have also been the subject of conservatives' ire. Travis Kavulla, an African Studies scholar, argues that the movie's depiction of Na'vi as helpless victims gives a false sense that natives are always in harmony with nature.

"When you have this complete alien species presented as a kind of the Hollywood ethics embodiment, I don't find it credible," Kavulla told ABC News. "There's this romantic notion of nature. ... It's just ridiculous to think that most indigenous people are kind of hunter gatherers who don't impact their environment."

The movie also takes takes a swipe at the Bush administration's war in Iraq, even drawing parallels to the Vietnam war, a move that Goldberg dubbed a cliche.

"There are dozens of movies that have taken shots at Bush, starting with 'Star Wars' movies," Goldberg told ABC News. "What's offensive about this is not that it's carrying an ideological agenda. It's that it's so lame. The guy is not even president anymore. ... It's bravery at the cheapest for Cameron to think, if he thinks that, this took courage on his part to make."

John Podhoretz, writing a critique for the Weekly Standard, goes so far as to call the movie "anti-American."

"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," Podhoretz writes.

Conservatives Pan Liberal Bias in Avatar

This is certainly not the first time a Hollywood movie has been accused of liberal bias, or criticized for its political undertones.

Some critics such as Kavulla say the movie, which is mainly about the 3D special effects, should not be taken seriously. But at the same time, some conservatives say they cannot discount its impact on pop culture.

"I think conservatives understand how influential pop culture can be," Kavulla said. "I talk to people who have not seen a movie in theaters in years. Nonetheless they are talking about their excitement ... It is a reinvented way of watching a movie."

Those on the political right don't see the movie as controversial -- in fact it may be the opposite, Goldberg said -- but there is a certain amount of sensitivity about these issues among conservatives.

"The special effects really look awesome but the story, regardless of the politic stuff, is salient. ... It's incredibly trite and cliched," said Goldberg said.

For his part, Cameron has been unabashedly open about his political intentions.

The movie is about how greed and imperialism tend to destroy the environment, in this case the "pristine" environs of Pandora, Cameron said in an interview with NBC's Today show. "It's a way of looking back at ourselves from this other world, seeing what we're doing here."