'Avatar': Backlash Builds Against Film and Filmmaker James Cameron

Russians, conservatives, blacks, disabled swipe at "Avatar," James Cameron.

January 17, 2010, 6:14 PM

Jan. 19, 2010— -- When you have the second-highest grossing movie of all time, you can expect a few potshots.

These days, folks are standing in line to take a swipe at James Cameron and his movie "Avatar."

While the film was busy breaking box-office records -- passing $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide in 17 days, putting it just behind Cameron's other blockbuster, "Titanic" -- a backlash aimed at the writer-director and the film has been building. The criticism comes from every corner: conservatives, people of color, paraplegics and atheists.

"I don't think it's a need to take the movie down," Greg Kilday, the Hollywood Reporter's film editor, said. "At this point, there's not much anyone can do to stop its success."

At Sunday's Golden Globes, the film took home two of the biggest prizes, best picture and best director for Cameron. And it's poised to win big at the Academy Awards in March.

Indeed, it's the film's success on which, Kilday says, different interest groups are hoping to capitalize. "'Avatar is a big mother whale," he said, "and a lot of smaller fish are swimming along in its wake hoping to pick up some of its momentum."

Neither Cameron nor Fox, the film's distributor, responded to multiple requests for comment from ABCNews.com.

Kilday says he believes Cameron is unfazed by all the back talk. "This time around he has the luxury of perspective," he said. "He went through the whole ramp up of to the release of 'Titanic' and people saying it was going to be an enormous flop. He came out on other side the most successful commercial film director."

The latest complaint lodged against the director is that he ripped off a series of Soviet sci-fi novels.

A Russian journalist wrote that Cameron copied elements in "Avatar" from brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's 10-book "Noon Universe" series. Most notably, the name of the lush, green planet where the film takes place, Pandora, is the same name of the utopian setting that the Strugatskys wrote about.

Both "Avatar" and "Noon Universe" take place in the 22nd century. Then, there's the name of the humanoids inhabiting Pandora: in "Avatar," they're the Na'vi; in "Noon Universe," the Nave.

"Cameron steals from the Strugatskys generously, using not only the planet Pandora which was invented by them," author and journalist Dmitry Bykov wrote in Russia's independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper. "The Na'vi are unequivocally reminiscent of the Nave."

Cameron Denied Plagiarizing

Arkady Strugatsky passed away in 1991 but his brother has denied quotes attributed to him accusing Cameron of stealing ideas from their bestselling books.

"I did not accuse the creators of the film 'Avatar' of plagiarism," Strugatsky wrote on his Web site, adding, however, that he has not seen the movie. All he knows, Strugatsky says, is that it involves "monsters on Pandora."

Cameron denied plagiarizing the books, according to the U.K.'s Telegraph.

Nearly every successful movie attracts charges of plagiarism and 99 percent of the time such charges go nowhere, film editor Kilday said

Lately, the filmmaker has also had to defend his film against charges of racism and overt political messaging.

The Associated Press reported last week on how hundreds of people have responded to what they see as racist themes in "Avatar," accusing the film of being everything from "a fantasy about race, told from the point of view of white people" to "the white Messiah fable."

Robinne Lee, a black actress who appeared opposite Will Smith in the film "Seven Pounds," likened "Avatar" to Pocahontas.

"The Indian woman leads the white man into the wilderness, and he learns the way of the people and becomes the savior," she said. "It's really upsetting in many ways. It would be nice if we could save ourselves."

Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in The New York Times: "Avatar is a racial fantasy par excellence. ... It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that non-whites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades.

"It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism," he wrote. "Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration."

Conservatives Blast 'Avatar'

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 Hollywood ethics embodiment, I don't find it credible," Kavulla said. "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."

Cameron strongly denied any racist intent and said in an e-mail to the AP that his film "asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different, in the hope that we may find a way to prevent conflict and live more harmoniously on this world. I hardly think that is a racist message."

Meanwhile, conservatives are also finding fault with the film.

"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 Goldbert, editor-at-large of the National Review, said.

Another conservative writer called it anti-war.

"'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," conservative movie critic John Nolte wrote. "It looks like a big-budget animated film with a garish color palette right off a hippie's tie-dye shirt."

John Podhoretz, writing a critique for the Weekly Standard, went 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," he wrote. "So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism -- kind of."

Cameron defended the movie's point of view. In an interview with NBC's "Today Show," he said "Avatar" shows how greed and imperialism tend to destroy the environment, in this case the "pristine" environs of Pandora. "It's a way of looking back at ourselves from this other world, seeing what we're doing here," he said.

Disabled Uncomfortable With 'Avatar'

Even viewers who use wheelchairs had something to say about "Avatar." Most applauded the film's main character, Jake Sully, a Marine who is injured and becomes paraplegic. But some pointed out inaccuracies between the film and real life.

"As a person with a spinal cord injury, you kind of notice a few things that are out of whack," said Phil Klebine, a tetraplegic who has paralysis in his arms and legs but is able to use a wheelchair.

Many wheelchair users said Sully's legs looked skinny, and wondered if Cameron had digitally altered them to make them appear atrophied.

They also noticed a detail others might miss; that Sully didn't have a specialized cushion.

"Even for people in manual wheelchairs, they use some sort of cushion to prevent pressure sores," Klebine said

Santina Muha, who suffered a spinal cord injury at age 5 in a car accident, said Sully labored too much when he got in and out of his wheelchair.

"There was one scene when he was doing a transfer and he had to pull his legs over. I thought he struggled too much with the weight of his legs," Muha said. "I'm a little girl, and he was a big strong guy. It should take much less effort for him to transfer."

ABC News' Lauren Cox, Huma Khan and Alexander Marquardt contributed to this report.

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