‘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

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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)

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