Saturday, December 19, 2009

Is Avatar the new Olympia?

In reading reviews of Avatar, I can’t help making mental comparisons with another couple of films from a different war era–Olympia and Triumph of the Will. Although Goebbels was the official minister of propaganda, he was no match for the artistic genius and popular appeal of Riefenstahl. Such is the surpassing power of great art as an instrument of great evil.

I have no inherent problem with moviegoers who can bracket the political allegory and simply enjoy Avatar at a purely aesthetic or mythopoetic level.

But reading about moviegoers who give it a standing ovation when it celebrates the defeat of the American armed forces–not to mention when it glorifies an American soldier who turns against his own comrades, what are we to think?

At the intended, allegorical level, that represents an American soldier who becomes a jihadist. Is that what moviegoers are applauding? The triumph of militant Islam?

Therein lies the power and peril of great art. It disarms the critical sense. The unwary and undiscerning viewer is swept away in the heat of the moment–just like the malleable German masses in Riefenstahl’s insidious masterpieces.


  1. But this beloved American armed-forces were going in to destroy a tribe of people in order to acquire something which did not belong to them in the first place. I hardly think that that is something to be admired. The American-soldier-turned-"jihadist," as you put it, was defending the weak and oppressed.

    The movie mirrored what the English did in coming to America, when it was occupied by Native Americans. I certainly wasn't cheering for the oppressive and destructive Americans in this movie. And who would? Destroying the homes and lives of people for sordid gain is hardly something to defend.

  2. Steve,

    I saw the movie on Friday night.

    In the movie, the military are occupying a foreign planet for the purposes of mining a priceless mineral. They are the aggressor force simply because the local aliens happen to be sitting on the greatest deposit of the mineral.

    There is no threat from the local aliens apart from them perhaps trying to defend themselves from the military aggressors when they get too close.

    The main character deserts his side because they are seeking to displace the locals - violently killing them - just because they happen to be on this mineral deposit.

    I haven't seen any James Cameron interviews about the movie and I'm an Australian (so away from American politics, in any event) but I did not pick up from the movie any of the snide sub-text you are suggesting.

  3. Avatar is basically a rehash of Dances with Wolves, and it's more likely, as one reviewer noted, a movie about American guilt towards its treatment of native peoples.

  4. [Quote]

    However, it [Avatar] also contains heavy implicit criticism of America’s conduct in the War on Terror…Cameron said yesterday the theme was not the main point of Avatar, but added that Americans had a “moral responsibility” to understand the impact that their country’s recent military campaigns had had.

    “We went down a path that cost several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. I don’t think the American people even know why it was done. So it’s all about opening your eyes.”

    This is where the politics comes in. The hero is with the Na’vi when the humans attack their homes. The fusillade of gas, incendiary bombs and guided missiles that wreck their ancient habitat is described as “shock and awe”, the term popularised by the US military assault on Baghdad that opened the Iraq war in 2003.

    The humans’ military commander declares: “Our survival relies on pre-emptive action. We will fight terror, with terror.” One of the more sympathetic characters preparing to resist the human invasion bemoans the need for “martyrdom”.

    After the Na’vi homes collapse in flames the landscape is coated in ash and floating embers in scenes reminiscent of Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks.
    Cameron, who was born in Canada, said he had been “surprised at how much it did look like September 11. I didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing”.

    Referring to the “shock and awe” sequence, he said: “We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America. I think there’s a moral responsibility to understand that."

  5. I thought the big thing was 3-D?

    I may go see this movie for the 3-D. How was that aspect of the film? If you don't mind me asking.

  6. Don Sands said:

    I thought the big thing was 3-D?

    I may go see this movie for the 3-D. How was that aspect of the film? If you don't mind me asking.

    Hi Don,

    FWIW, if anything, here's my opinion:

    I didn't see the 3D version but the regular version. Visually, the regular version was gorgeous. But I've heard the 3D version is (surprisingly) even more visually stunning than the regular version. Apparently Cameron is able to do with 3D what others haven't been able to do before.

    So it might be worth checking out the 3D version of Avatar.

    Of course, this is if you can ignore or stomach the movie's other problems.

    Just my two cents' worth, which is probably all it's worth.


  7. The ultra-libertarians at the von Mises Institute think it's a great film, although the comments following the article are mixed.