‘Avatar’ is now more than movie — it’s a Pandora’s box of pop culture

Jan. 23, 2010 | 12:16 a.m.

James Cameron pencil

Remember when "Avatar" was just a movie?

There have been breathless reports that "Avatar" is so vivid and so powerful that moviegoers walk out feeling let down by the gray world here on boring old Terra. "Movie-goers feel depressed and even suicidal at not being able to visit utopian alien planet" may sound like a headline from The Onion but, nope, there it was in the Daily Mail of London and, a day earlier, on CNN, which quoted a forum post by someone named Mike who glumly said that the majesty of the movie has left him feeling, um, blue. "I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in 'Avatar.' "

That's got to be a joke, right? Well, it's hard to say. "Avatar" is becoming something more than a projected popcorn experience as it echoes through the world. Forget entertainment, this is now a topic of debate in religious, political, economic and cultural circles. James Cameron's jungle-moon epic is climbing toward $2 billion in worldwide box office receipts and after a victorious night at the Golden Globes, the film about blue cat-people has to be considered the favorite at the Oscars. How seriously is Hollywood taking the sci-fi film? Well consider the fact that nobody at the Globes banquet laughed out loud when Cameron gave part of his acceptance speech in the nutty alien language spoken by his (literally) tree-hugging aliens.

Avatar faces


You thought the movie was big on the IMAX screen? It's become far larger in the marketplace of ideas. Some people see the film as anti-American propaganda from lefty Tinseltown (On Big Hollywood the movie was carpet-bombed: "Think of 'Avatar' as 'Death Wish 5' for leftists … a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy") but others view it as white-male fantasy that is in fact the essence of American oppression (Greta Hagen-Richardson fumes in the Daily Iowan that "Avatar" is insidious in its messaging: "Being part of the dominant ideology doesn’t automatically give you super powers of intellect, strength and comprehension.")

James Cameron at golden globes

Intergalactic setting aside, some moviegoers watched the film and felt it hit to close to home; Essence Magazine, for instance, polled its readers on whether they thought the green movie about blue people was in fact anti-black. The Vatican, just so you know, sees a different problem with the film: The fact that it puts Mother Nature ahead of the Heavenly Father. "Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship," was the encoded message of the movie, according to a frosty review from Vatican Radio.

Some people thought it was demeaning to women, others thought it was demeaning to people who use wheelchairs. And, of course, where there's smoke, there's fire: The Smoke Free Movies campaign says that the screen time given to Sigourney Weaver's cigarette-loving botanist  was the equivalent of $50 million in free advertising for the tobacco industry, but who can say if those numbers are puffed up? There were also reports that a 42-year-old Taiwanese man with a history of high-blood pressure and hypertension died after seeing "Avatar," possibly because of a stroke; that chain of events normally would not make the local newspaper but, well, because it was "Avatar" the report zoomed  down the information superhighway and hit way too many journalistic potholes; OK Magazine, for instance, went with the headline: "Man's excitement over 'Avatar' may have caused his death," which is true, just like it's true to report that gunshot victims collapse after loud noises. 

The latest headline: The decision by the Chinese government to yank "Avatar" from theaters and replace it with a homegrown film, a movie either made for pure business reasons or maybe, just maybe, to prevent possible citizen incitement from all those weird off-world concepts about environmental responsibility. Cameron must be dazed and amused by all these new dimensions added to his 3-D epic. On Oscars night, if he wins the big trophy, let's hope he doesn't repeat his hubris from the "Titanic" triumph ("I'm the king of two worlds!") and instead looks out on all the competing opinions of "Avatar" and acknowledges them with seven words. "I see you … and I hear you."

— Geoff Boucher



Beyond Pandora? Jim Cameron talks about an 'Avatar' sequel

You don't look so good: "Avatar" and the science of queasy

James Cameron on 'Avatar': Like 'Matrix,' it opens doorways

Don't tell Stephen Lang he's the villain in 'Avatar'

LAT REVIEW: 'Avatar' restores a sense of wonder to moviegoing

James Cameron vs. Robert Zemeckis? The inside scoop

Sigourney, queen of sci-fi: 'Outer space has been good to me'

Meet the USC professor who created an entire language for Avatar

'Avatar' designer on Jim Cameron, banshees and 'Delgo' comparisons

Michelle Rodriguez says 'Avatar' was like making 'Star Wars'

'Avatar' star Zoe Saldana says movie will match the hype: 'This is big'

Jim Cameron, cinema prophet? 'Moving a mountain is nothing'

Sam Worthington looks for humanity: 'I don't want to be a cartoon'

Credits: “James Cameron, kind of blue” a portrait by Kevin Lingenfelser, used by permission of the artist. Middle, Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana from “Avatar” (Fox). Bottom, James Cameron at the Golden Globes (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)


17 Responses to ‘Avatar’ is now more than movie — it’s a Pandora’s box of pop culture

  1. John Harris says:

    How terrific that story-telling and film making can incite such rhetoric.

  2. renantech says:

    Avatar now a global block buster office and almost become the number movie of all time that gain millions of dollars. Sikat ang Pinoy

  3. Ally says:

    Never seen it, never will.

  4. Axe says:

    Approved by what author? This "author" is the whole problem and the so-called editor.

  5. Steve says:

    It's about time that some one took art and used it in a way so as to show what is truly beautiful and what is truly ugly, to paint a picture to convey the ballance of everything, and how we effect absolutly everything. Art is what all of our anciant ancesters used to convey to people things of the utmost importance. They can't understand when we ask them, how it is that they understood such things in great detail. Instead they wonder why we can't why it we can't see those very same things. After all art is the beginning of how we see all types of academic diciplines. Bravo! Well done!

  6. burningmouth says:

    People who ingest entheogenic plants like salvia divinorum already understand the liberating experience of leaving one world for another.

  7. Patrick says:

    I don't understand what people see in this movie. It's really not very good.

  8. David Jaggers says:

    I think it's a good article, but holy smokes, guys! Who is going to step out next? The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Inanimate Objects? Give the movie a break already! It's just a freaking movie! It's there to entertain people. And, it doesn a very good job of that. Sure, it has a Green message, but thank God for it. We needed it.

  9. Naviblue.com says:

    It is a pop culture. Just check out the Naviblue.com website and you will see.

  10. Dante says:

    This is a pretty egregious rip-off of a story that appeared earlier this week in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/movies/20avatar
    Your reporter uses many of the same examples and even the same "Pandora's box" metaphor as the NY Times writer.

  11. sophie says:

    It seems the media is overblowing this highly expensive, overrated piece of 3-D "magic" to see if it can overtake Star Wars as some sort of cultural landmark in a fraction of the time that it took THAT film to do so. George Lucas didn't spend enough $ to fund several underdeveloped countries to make his seminal A New Hope. For me, THAT is what makes the technological wonders of that epic 70s film nothing any other work can touch. So Avatar's technology is more realistic 3-D? Oh, joy. Why must Avatar be compared to A New Hope? There is absolutely no comparison. Avatar's story is crap.

  12. Joanne says:

    One more controversy it's stirred up: did Cameron swipe his ideas from Russian sci-fi greats Arkady and Boris Strugatsky? Possibly… although he also owes a debt to Stanislaw Lem, Ursula LeGuin and many others. I'm glad to see a little borrowing from writers who transcend the usual brainless cowboy adventurism of Hollywood sci-fi. I hope you guys will do a column on the Strugatsky connection.
    Sure, Avatar's got its limits… kind of silly how the hotshot young ex-marine ends up being a better Navi than the greatest and wisest of the Navi themselves. But at bottom, the story is about ideas that matter. No wonder it's kicking up such a discussion. And I think it's the most forthright antiwar film that Hollywood has made thus far. Can't recall another film that took us onto the ground to experience the "shock and awe" of an imperialist military invasion from the point of view of those on the receiving end. None of the movies about Iraq or Vietnam have dared to do that. Good for Cameron.

  13. Inorder to enchance the 3d graphics, Camroon made the story very simple and concentration of visual effects

  14. Markì says:

    Check out http://www.learnnavi.org for the largest website on the net devoted to the Na'vi language. There are learning materials and information on Na'vi in many languages including French, German, Polish, Russian, Italian and many others. The language's creator, Dr. Paul Frommer, references LearnNavi.org many times in his blog at http://naviteri.org.

  15. John Edward Moore says:

    I am a conservative sort of fellow. Avatar is among my half a dozen all tim favorite movies.
    it sings hymns to my heart and soul. it is a beautiful piece of work.

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