PANDORA’S SOAP BOX: Is AVATAR too preachy?
Not too terribly long ago, we published a review of Avatar basically praising it for being a perfect film – “perfect” being defined as a film that succeeds in being exactly what it was meant to be. Since then the film has gone on to become the highest grossing film of all time – natch – because we at the Armchair know what we’re talking about.
I’ve been in several discussions about the flick with many people over the last few weeks and discovered that while things have finally calmed down on Pandora, there is still some unrest among the natives back here on Earth. It seems some people are bound and determined to cut Hometree down to size and most of the criticism comes down to the film’s message-y-ness.
It’d be one thing if people said they didn’t AGREE with the film’s message. That’s absolutely fine. But when people have a problem with a film having a massage at all, well that’s a message I have a problem with.
I mean, don’t ALL films have a message? Isn’t that what we usually WANT from a story? Some kind of point? Some reason we just sat through an hour and a half, two hours, THREE hours of speeches, special effects, visual gags and music? Don’t we want to see the protagonist either shift his point of view or have his original point of view validated? Isn’t that the point of telling a story in the first place?
Sure, occasionally you want what sound bite critics call “pure, escapist fun” – but just like talk shows, reality TV, casual sexual flings and the Tomb Raider movies – that kind of pastime never lasts. It’s not usually something you come back to and it ultimately means nothing. At the end of the day, the movies we love the most are the ones with a solid point of view. A message.
Movies with a message resonate with audiences. The message gives meaning to the story, gives you something to relate to and helps you expand your awareness of the word around you…and just like the story’s protagonist, it can either validate your point of view or lead you to question it – which is always a good thing.
I feel like someone said something about that once…something about the unexamined life being not worth living…hmm, I think it may have been Lindsay Lohan. I’ll have to Bing that to confirm.*
Let’s look at my personal favorite example of good storytelling: Sure, Star Wars seems like it’s about laser swords, spaceships and aliens, but isn’t it really a story about raging against the status quo? Isn’t the message of the rebels vs. the empire really about the individual vs. the establishment? That a lowly powerless class of people has just as much right to life as the powerful, ruling class? Isn’t that also the message of Titanic, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter? And, including Avatar, doesn’t this group of films comprise 9 of the top 10 grossing films of all time? (okay, top 11 – there’s no longer a Star Wars movie in the top 10 – whoa!)
So if we can agree that the message itself isn’t really the issue, what is?
As always, the Armchair has the answer. It’s not the bearer of the news…it’s the person receiving it. After all, THAT’S the guy who kills the messenger, right? Watch out for that guy, I say!
Anyone who has a problem with Avatar‘s environment-friendly message shouldn’t blame the film. It’s the filmmaker’s prerogative to say whatever they want to say. After all, it’s not like the film was JCam with a pointer stick and a set of polar ice cap slides for 3 hours. There was plenty of bang for your buck to offset the message. Instead, blame your own insistence on identifying with the film’s villains. We saw the same thing happen with Pixar’s brilliant film Wall-E. It’s incredible how many people were offended because they thought the filmmakers behind Wall-E were calling them fat.
(Seriously. That happened. Nevermind the fact that the cartoon people in question lived in the atrophy-inducing environs of outer-space and had their EVERY need attended to by machines. Nevermind that those elements worked perfectly in concert with every other element in the film to lead the protagonist smoothly to a satisfying conclusion. Nope. People were just angry that someone may or may not have suggested in a cartoon about robots that inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle leads to obesity.)
So here’s a message for all the Avatar message-haters: No one is saying you’re the bad guy. No one is saying you have to go out and buy a Prius. There’s no reason you can’t just enjoy the movie for its slick storytelling and game-changing CGI.
When you watch Star Wars, you don’t feel bad for living in the most powerful nation in the world, right? When you see Jack Sparrow running for his life, you don’t identify with the pursuing British even though that’s the class to which you mostly closely belong, right? And you don’t suddenly find yourself calling anyone of mixed heritage a mud-blood after a good Harry Potter flick, right? Of course not! Because it’s in our nature to always associate ourselves with the good guys. So why, all the sudden, are you feeling like a villain?
In closing, let me just say that I saw Dreamworks How to Train Your Dragon today – another film that is obviously really resonating with audiences. And I was struck by how many themes Dragon and Avatar have in common. So much so that thematically, I think they may be the exact same movie. There’s a strong anti-establishment theme in both, both have a backstory that includes an established faction of people invading a territory already populated by natives. Both have protagonists that discover new dimensions to the native faction which shifts both his and the audiences’ perceptions of who to root for. And in the end, both films have the protagonist rally together components from both sides to defeat a common enemy. Both have the exact same message.
Also everyone rides dragons.
The fact that I haven’t heard anyone complaining that HTTYD is too message-y can only lead me to believe that these anti-message critics aren’t reacting to Avatar itself, but rather outside forces that may be affecting their objectivity – whether it be political, social or media inundation. Even I’m not immune to it. I hate the term “going green” as much as the next guy but it’s the audience’s part of the bargain to leave their baggage at the theatre door and just judge a film by its merits.
But if you can’t do that, if the message is just hitting so close to home that you can’t help but be irritated by it…maybe…just maybe…there’s a reason for that. And instead of criticizing the film for having something to say about the world we live in, maybe you should take a closer look at why you have a problem with what the film’s trying to say.
Or just go watch Tomb Raider again.
UPDATE: I Bing’d the quote and found out who said it: “the unexamined life is not worth living” – Snookie, Jersy Shore.** Thanks, Bing! You’re the new Google.***
*Just kidding. No one uses Bing.
**Seriously. No one. Not even Snookie.
***Bing is actually the new Dogpile.