The Hypocritical Message of Avatar?

By | December 19, 2009

UPDATE: The movie Avatar is absolutely gorgeous. I was stunned at the technological leap I was seeing on the screen. The uncanny valley has been crossed. There is nothing unsettling about the digital characters in this film. They are as real and as expressive as any actor I’ve ever seen on the screen. The creatures and plant life are realized in incredible detail.

James Cameron is an technical and artistic genius.

But I’m not sure how often I’m going to watch this film in the future. Its filled with self-loathing for humanity and our technological advancement. The military is portrayed, with a couple of notable exceptions, as a bunch of trigger-happy sadists. Corporations and capitalism are shown to be the engines of environmental destruction both on Earth and on Pandora.

This is not a happy message. Its also wrong.

I can’t wait to see the incredible tools that Cameron has developed in service of better stories.

ORIGINAL POST (2009-12-17 13:02:39):

I’ve had a sinking feeling for a few weeks that Avatar might turn out to be “Captain Planet” for the big screen. This review at Popular Science doesn’t reassure me:

Avatar is every militant global warming supporter’s dream come true as the invading, technology-worshiping, environment-ravaging humans are set upon by an angry planet and its noble inhabitants. But the film’s message suffers mightily under the weight of mind-boggling hypocrisy. Cameron’s story clearly curses the proliferation of human technology. In Avatar, the science and machinery of humankind leads to soulless violence and destruction. It only serves to pollute the primitive but pristine paradise of Pandora.

Of course, without centuries of development in science and technology, the film putting forth this simple-minded, self-loathing worldview wouldn’t exist. You’d imagine Cameron himself would be bored to tears on the planet he created.

  • Simon Dufour

    It’s only a fantasy flick. A modern day Pocahontas. Any message it deliver will probably be flawed, yet, it doesn’t mean the movie is bad.

    Yet, me too I’m becoming sick of this recurrent message.

  • Will Brown

    Just because James Cameron has a quick grasp of the technology advancement involved doesn’t mean he also has the ability to sell a non-formula storyline to investors at the same time. That said, I marvel at the technical accomplishment while declining to actually watch the present example.

    I forget who’s scifi story I read it in (lo, these many years ago now), but the idea put forth was that technology had developed to the point that it allowed then-living actors to emulate long dead performers (who already had an established marquee value) in new on-screen entertainment productions. For the life of me, I can’t see how the technology behind Avatar wouldn’t allow this to actually occur now. Mind you, I’m not looking forward to watching “John Wayne” and a 13 y/o “Brooke Shields” as they star in the new production Rio Blue Lagoon, but I don’t doubt someone in Hollywierd will try that very thing some day too soon. Or worse.

    The possibilities are a bit frightening actually, given the degree to which people’s experience has trained them to associate a broadcast image with the person being depicted. If someone used the Avatar technology to film an actor killing a person, and the crime was actually committed, what with all the physical evidence of a murder having occured, could you prove that wasn’t actually you in the video of the killing posted on You Tube? Or the President or the Pope, as the case may be? The possibilities are … interesting, aren’t they?

  • Phil Bowermaster

    So let’s see – Cameron won the Oscar for Titanic, a story often touted as a cautionary tale about putting too much stock in technology and about the hard fall that hubris inevitably leads to. Earlier, he made his name with the Terminator series — the premise of which is that our technology rises up and sets out to destroy us.

    He’s only ever made one movie (that I can think of) that’s okay with technology — Aliens. But with a juicy corporate bad guy, and incompetent officer in an otherwise sound military outfit, and a planet overflowing with demonic killer aliens (especially their queen) he just didn’t have time to work in an anti-technology screed.

    Anyhow, if he’s a hypocrite it’s not a new development. I think the real problem might be intellectual and artistic laziness.

    I don’t know when I’ll get around to seeing Avatar but I bet I’ll eventually see it. I try not to let heavy-handed (even brain-dead) politics ruin an otherwise enjoyable genre flick. Heck, I even liked The Day After Tomorrow!

  • Stephen Gordon


    Yeah, I’ll be seeing this today too. The kids are making sure of that.

    I’ll post my own review tomorrow.

  • Sally Morem

    I believe it was Larry Niven who came up with the idea of a “hand,” a famous actor who licensed his or her own face and body for use by digital movie makers.

    The message of Avatar is clear. The thinly disguised American military is to be loathed; the innocent, low tech aliens admired.

    If we humans ever discovered a planet with life and intelligent life at that, that discovery would be the most valuable thing we’ve ever found.

    The “unobtainium”? Chickenfeed by comparison.

    Depicting humans doing these evil things to the aliens is just insane.

    I suspect that Cameron is not only a PC leftist, but also one who read a lot of thud and blunder 40s and 50s SF and took it way too seriously.

  • Dave

    hmmm – I think Cameron is in the business to sell movie tickets. Something he does as well as anyone in history. He sells what people want to buy. Smart man. Rich man.

    Oh – I saw the movie tonight and loved it and decided not to overthink it.

  • MDarling

    Took some kids- 10 & 11 .
    We all thought it was great fun.
    Overthink it in the current political environment?

    Nahh… but Giavanni Ribisi did look a little like Paul Reiser.

    I loved the blue people. Esp. the blue hotties. Flight scenes were a blast.

    And definitely wins the category for best use of exoskeleton in dramatic film from an original screenplay.

  • Sergey

    For some reason many people think that the message of Avatar is somehow pointed against human technology. The humans are on the new planet with their technology…but only a part of them (big business and military) wants to use this technology to destroy in order to gain an expensive resource which the planet posses. In the mean time the other humans (the scientists) are using their technologies to get to know the inhabitants of the planet and sincerely understand their way of life.

    The inhabitants of the planet are creatures that care about life, each other, their ancestors, the beauty that is around them, and their future. They are always happy from within.

    The scientists on the other hand are different and need time in order to understand and ultimately become like the natives. The reason it takes them time to adapt is because they are not used to such pure life. Back on earth too many manmade obstacles have clouded their minds and feelings, and until they let loose of these obstacles and spend time on this planet with the natives, they are not themselves. When, however, they finally do adapt their true selves are revealed and the character development completed.

  • Jonathan

    I also saw movie tonight and loved it. Yes there are anti-technology themes but it really was quite entertaining. Tried not to overthink it to much as well.

  • Sally Morem

    The story would’ve been much more cool if the humans were desperately fighting to SAVE the aliens from some fearful outside danger threatening both humans and aliens.

  • S. Cruz

    Dances With Avatars!

    Gorgeous movie, dull script. In Hollywood, breakthroughs only seem to happen in technology and never in story development.

    A metaphor for the movie itself? Yep, it sure is.

  • Brian

    The movies not anti technology, it is for understanding the power and beauty already in life, that we tend to dominate for shortsighted gains. Again, the wise see the greater value of biodiversity, the childish squander it.

  • john

    “as a bunch of trigger-happy sadists”

    Yes, and the movie is correct.

    “Corporations and capitalism are shown to be the engines of environmental destruction”

    wow, yeah, it describes how we have lived the past 100 years.

    The movie exactly describe how we are, and only the selfish cant see it.

  • Phil Bowermaster

    At last, Stephen, we understand what your problem is — you’re selfish! If you were a good person, you would see things exactly as John does.

    Remember everyone — good people think like John, bad people don’t. If you don’t agree with John about something, you’re bad.

  • Knights of Ni

    The people on this forum defending western culture are overreacting. It struck a nerve and they know it. Did anyone get so pissed over Star Wars or Lord of the Rings? Are you actually trying to defend the Sith Lords and Saurons of Avatar? Seriously?

    The lead character is white? ZOMG!!! If he were Middle Eastern born everyone would freak out too. It makes sense that someone in the U.S. marines (proportionately Caucasian dominated) would have the Intel needed to fight off the superior capacity for war of the U.S. Refer to common sense.

    This movie undoubtedly parallels real and reoccurring human evils. Those arguing in defense of western culture come off sounding very nationalistic. Anyone maintaining this nationalistic point of view in light of the American Indian Wars is a blabbering idiot or a national socialist.

  • Phil Bowermaster

    UPDATE: Not only is Stephen selfish, he is a Nazi. Thank you, Knights of Ni, for fulfilling Godwin’s Law and letting us all now get on with our lives.

  • Mary

    You guys don’t get it…..Avatar has many messages on multiple levels….some you mention above….I believe the most important is the following: The Aliens are representative of the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens that have died to date due to the so called ‘war on terror’ implemented by Bush/Cheney and their cronies…invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 but had everything to do with obtaining the one precious resource that Bush/Cheney and big oil companies wanted: OIL.

  • Schnoodle

    It is interesting that Cameron presents an anti-capitalistic message but has capitalized on the movies success to net him millions in profit. Has anyone checked the EPA reports to see how much natural resources this movie cost our planet? I guess he really is not that “green” after all. Why didn’t he create this film in another country that does not allow for freedom of speech and expression? You know those freedoms that the marines have purchased with their lives. The logical inconsistencies and intellectual dishonesty never cease to amaze me.

  • Feyd

    No new story, you say? Well, new stories haven’t really occurred in thousands of years. I think the last “new story” I read was Dune – but even that draws on the same archetypes!