Armchair Mogul
The (backseat) driving force behind Hollywood. Way behind.

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.

However…

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.

–DPoe

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.

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12 Responses to “PANDORA’S SOAP BOX: Is AVATAR too preachy?”

  1. First let me start by saying “first let me start by saying,” as I always do. Next, I shall say this, I have not yet seen Avatar. I DID seen Fern Gully…in the 4th grade…with a friend…at a drive-in theater…where the speakers were broken…and my friend’s parents made us kids sit on the roof while I’m pretty sure they made out. Gross. Okay, back to Avatar. I have not seen the film yet, but I intend to in approximately 6 months when it is available for viewing on Netflix, the worst $10/month I ever spend.

    Okay, so I have not heard a huge negative outcry by conservatives against the film’s environmental message (though I live with 2 young children, which is pretty much as close to living in a cave as one can get), but since almost all my friends and family are pretty much conservatives–you know, those folks who hate the environment?– I have heard about the film’s very poignant theme.

    Before I talk about why I think this is an important post, let me just say that I did NOT like Wall-e. There, I said it. I’m sorry. I know you did. I tried. I watched it with an open mind–in fact, I BOUGHT it for my kids before I even saw it, sure that Pixar would come through for me once again. I fell asleep before the movie was a quarter over. I blamed it on fatigue–being a new parent. I tried it again. Again I fell asleep. Surely it was just the hushed volume, the lack of action in the beginning, the fact that I was sleep-deprived. I finally forced myself to watch the movie from beginning to end. My thoughts: “Meh? I’ve seen better.” Even though there was a strong environmental message in that movie, I felt it failed not because of the “See kids? We might destroy the earth one day” message some people might have seen it for, but because it was BORING, and hard to relate to, and…it was just so boring. Okay, back to Avatar.

    I’ll agree with you that films should be able to have a message. I once took a children’s literature class in college which basically preached the woes of choosing books for children that have a moral, or try to tell children through a fictional story what is right or wrong. Poppycock. The writer is telling a story. I may not like the moral, but he certainly has the right to tell it. I read the Bible to my kids, and I read books like “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” They watch Veggie Tales and they watch Spongebob. I think there’s room for both escapism and lesson-learning. What I DO have a problem with is when I feel the author has a hidden motive or an agenda. I don’t want to buy a book I think is about flying kites and learn that it is, in fact, an allegory on how to avoid contracting STD’s…and definitely not that the author has a herpes vaccine business on the side…and the last page is an 800 number.

    When I was a kid, there were a ton of movies that I really loved. Movies with meanings that I never really understood until I watched them as an adult. I identfied with the good guy, and hated the bad guy. Now when I watch those same movies, I have a different perspective. First of all, I have the ability and maturity to be able to identify with the movie’s “villain”. I oftentimes find that I don’t root for the protagonist anymore. And sometimes I like the protagonist to be just as flawed as the villain. As a kid, I hated Rhett for leaving Scarlet. As an adult, I see Scarlet as a selfish, conniving vixan–and I still root for her.

    There’s something else I began noticing as I grew up. The fact that oh-so-many villains seem to wear the label “Christian.” (Don’t agree? Think of every court-room drama you’ve ever seen. Now picture the evil, greedy, manipulative attorney. You’ll know him because he’ll be fat and have a southern accent, and, of course, he’ll be quoting Scripture like a son of a gun. Okay, we all on the same page now? Good.) Now that I’m older and can see the motives of a lot of Hollywood filmmakers, it sometimes urks me. It’s become a joke at our house…if you watch a tv show or movie, and one character mentions God or the Bible, look out–they’re either going to be the nutjob or the villain…no doubt…every time. As a kid, this didn’t bother me at all–those Bible-toting, lying, hypocritical, judgmental versions of Christians were not like the ones I knew, so I had no reason to be insulted. But it does annoy me sometimes. Do Hollywood writers/directors/whoever have the right to stereotype groups of people? Sure, it’s their perrogative to do whatever they want. And I’m not saying every John Grisham movie wasn’t entertaining, but I also think I, as a paying movie-watcher, reserve the right to be annoyed when I see a motive, even if hidden behind great special effects or an edge-of-your-seat thriller. I think people don’t like the feeling that a movie disguised as one thing (a fun fantasy) turns out to be another (perhaps something politically-driven), whether that’s a true perception or not.

    And I think the difference between this type of “message” movie and something like “Pirates of the Carribean” or “StarWars” is that no one FEELS those messages…because they seem universal. This one seems poignant, controversial and perhaps pushy. Again, I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t form an opinion about it’s premise, I can only tell you how I’ve felt in other movies of a similar nature. And, as a disclaimer, I will also say that although I think Al Gore puts the “mental” in “environmental,” I totally use reusable grocery bags, so don’t judge me.

    “So,” you say, “I agree.” (Thank you.) “But the issue is not the environmental message, but the issue of there being a message at all.” Ahhh, good point. Bringin’ it back to home base, I like that. Okay…you know those people who say they don’t mind the message, just that a movie has a message at all…?

    Well…they’re LYING. Seriously. Their pants are full-on flamin’. People ONLY say that because they don’t like the issue and they don’t want to say it. It’s like people who say they’re atheists, and fight so hard against God being included in everything. Rubbish. There are no such things as proactive atheists, just people who are angry at God and at Christians. I’m not saying they don’t have good reason to be angry, but that’s what they are. So, instead of saying “I don’t like that Avatar is a movie about a politically-charged issue and pits people against each other, some as good and others as evil,” people say “Movies just shouldn’t have messages at all,” and then they sound ignorant instead of sounding politically neutral like they intended to. (Sorry, wasn’t trying to hate on those who claim to be atheists–love you, Aunt Vivian!)

    Lastly, maybe the movie watcher finds it difficult NOT to identify with the villain in this instance. I often find it hard not to identify with the people portrayed as Christians in movies and tv, even when they are portrayed as ignorant, hypocritical, dirty, judgmental goons…why? Because I don’t think the stories are created BY Christians…so I feel judged, and I feel like someone’s trying to make their point. If I thought real Christians were the ones creating movies with evil Christian villains, I’d be fine with it. So…maybe people who aren’t convinced the world is going to fall off into the ocean felt the makers of the movie they paid to see, were not only convinced of this very thing, but were also ready to make villains of them for not being convinced. Does that make any sense at all? It’s about trust, I guess.

    Maybe I’ll write more (dear Lord, as if that’s possible) once I see the movie. 🙂 Thanks, dpoe, for bringing up what I think is an important subject, and one I often think about.

    PS-Is BING paying you to advertise? 🙂

  2. You don’t need me for this conversation, do you : )

    First let ME start by saying yeah, Wall-E isn’t for everyone but I don’t think that makes it any less brilliant. In fact, I think it might make it more so. Now, I’ve only seen it once compared to your 1 2/3 times, but I didn’t find it boring at all…I was mesmerized. Though I do remember thinking, “Oh man, I can’t believe they’re taking so many risks…people are gonna hate this.” But I figured it would be about the silent movie treatment, the musical aspects, the live action humans and the cockroach sidekick. I never thought people would have a problem with an over-littered planet and baby-like humans. I think that like with “Avatar”, people may have been reacting to forces outside of the film when they disliked those things. Because really, as messages go, ” litter less” and “exercise more” aren’t exactly scathing indictments of anyone’s personal lifestyles. It’s kinda just common knowledge in terms of basic health and common courtesy, isn’t it?

    Now I agree with you that people don’t like to feel deceived by their entertainment, lured in by the promise of a good story only to realize they’ve been duped into learning a lesson about morality…but isn’t that what parables were? I’m sure there were one or two people in Jesus’ crowd who were like “Hey, waitaminute…this isn’t one of those hidden-message type stories is it??” But I think that’s just par for the course. It used to be that when you sat down for a story you EXPECTED some kind of message and were disappointed when you didn’t get one.

    Here’s what people forget, “Wall-E” and “Avatar” are both straight up science fiction…and the roots of science fiction are planted firmly in the tradition of the cautionary tale. Every great science fiction story is about man’s folly and what could happen if he fell prey to his own ambitions and vices. Every episode of Star Trek is a morality tale…a planet where they don’t discipline their kids, a planet torn apart by racial tension, a planet where the war of the sexes has spun completely out of control…Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, William Gibson, Rod Serling…all the greats built their work upon the predication that the folly of man can best be illustrated by showing what would happen if those tendencies were left unchecked and allowed to run wild. Sci-fi storytellers have always been the whistleblowers. And whistleblowers will always feel a bit controversial.

    The reason you don’t feel the messages in “Pirates” or “Star Wars” as strongly is because the issues they’re addressing are outdated. We’re not under oppression of a government dictatorship – so the threat of a galactic empire means no more to us than the threat of a measles outbreak. If those movies came out when America was a group of colonies under English rule, I think they’d be outlawed. When you don’t feel the sting of a message movie, that’s a good thing – that means we’ve moved past it – it also means the filmmakers may not exactly have anything relevant to say. When it stings a little, that means there’s still some ground to cover.

    I think of it as a Rorschach test: If someone calls me fat, stupid and lazy, I go home and think “I can’t believe someone called me fat.” It’s not that I think I’m stupid or lazy, it’s that I KNOW I’m not those things so it doesn’t bother me – like if someone called me purple. What bothers me is I know I need to eat fewer Meximelts and work out more but I can’t believe someone dared point it out.

    What you have to watch out for is when the message of a story goes beyond what passes for controversial these days (since when is respecting nature controversial??) and actually become WRONG. Like in 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” when the bad guys conspire to allow mixed-race marriages and the good guys (the KKK) restore order and defend their Aryan birthright. It was the highest grossing film of its time.

    All that being said, we should definitely revisit this after you’ve seen “Avatar.” I think you’ll be surprised just how much some people are reading into this.

    As for your observations of Christians as bad guys in film…I attribute that more to lazy writing/casting/directing than an atheist conspiracy or anti-Christian agenda. It’s so much easier to exploit people’s fears and misconceptions than to construct a complex, believable bad guy. It’s not that I don’t believe that a southern, Baptist, Bible-toter is incorruptible, but I think using that stereotype is as lazy and trite as using a Nazi, a KKK member, a Middle Eastern suicide bomber, a corrupt general, a greedy businessman or a super-powered villain bent on word domination. It’s just easier cuz that image already exists in people’s minds, so it can be used as a shortcut. And don’t forget, regardless of what the media says, Christianity is still the most dominant religion of the land – and human nature dictates that whoever’s in charge is to blame – for everything. So expect a little backlash. That’s the price for being on top. You basically have 2 choices…be on top and have to deal with dissenting voices, or let someone else be in charge and feel free to complain all you want.

    Oh, and I totally agree that you have the right to be annoyed and even insulted when someone from your affiliation shows up as a bad guy in movies – especially when it comes to something as personal as religion or race. But what I don’t get is when someone sees an “evil corporation” in a movie and says “Hey! Is that about me?! Not cool, man!” Since when do we sympathize with mega-conglomerates? When did they become an endangered minority? Why is it when someone sees them they think “Hey, that’s AMERICA you’re talking about, buddy!!” IT IS?? I don’t see us that way. To me, that says waaay more about the critic than the thing being critiqued.

    PS BING, like all major companies, should pay me to NOT mention them.

  3. You obviously know much more about movies than I do. I’ll let you know what I think once I’ve seen Avatar. What I meant when I called it a controversial issue was that it’s something that’s seen as a political issue. Most left-wing liberals put more emphasis and focus on saving the planet than on, say, abortion, which is more of an emphasis for right-wing conservatives. I think it makes people feel like they’re choosing (because in our political system, you usually DO have to choose one or the other), or like someone is trying to rally support for one side. I’m not saying it’s valid, I’m just saying, as an average Joe movie-watcher, why people might be made to feel that way. Plus, I think a lot of people don’t believe humans are going to destroy an earth they had no part in creating in the first place. Not that I want to see it made ugly or mistreated. Just saying. Anyway, hope I didn’t strike a nerve with my Wall-e rant. I loved the music in it. My kids LOVE it. I just thought it was slow. And I can handle a slow film with real people, but a slow cartoon is difficult to sit through…for me, at least. Again, you’re the movie expert, so I’m sure it was totally brilliant from that perspective. I have other thoughts on these topics, but I can only speak from my feelings and not from expertise on the subject, so maybe I’ll wait until I have stuff to back it up before I attempt to wax eloquent. I really like this post, bee tee dubs. 🙂 Like I said before, very timely and something I think people should be talking/thinking about. It’s something I think about a lot when listening to/reading media too…how our perception of the author, our perception of ourselves, and how we feel other people view us–all affect how we receive the information given us. Nice points.

  4. LOL I know nothing about anything. I’ve only got opinions and only about things that barely matter in the grand scheme of things : )

    I agree that it’s a shame people seem forced to choose between two things that aren’t in any kind of opposition. That’s why I generally hate allying myself with any organization. There’s always one or two items in the value meal that I just don’t care for. It’s a false choice and I think people need to reject the notion of “in for a penny, in for a pound” when it comes to political affiliations or causes. After all, it’s not as if for every tree saved, one baby must die, right?

    No nerves struck with Wall-E. I didn’t make it, after all : ) Not everything’s for everybody. Wuthering Heights is brilliant but I hated every second of reading it. But that’s the fun of art. It’s supposed to evoke a response, whether intellectual or emotional…so please, you always make great points – feel free to wax on even if – especially if – it’s emotional!

    As an aside, I don’t believe humans are going to destroy the planet either, but I do believe that people with the ability to split an atom could destroy anything they put their mind to, whether they created it or not. Besides, that’s a really great starting point for a movie, don’t ya think?

  5. You know what’s funny? I just rewatched the movie Phenomenon the other day starring The John Travolta. First of all, the movie is better now than it was, weirdly. Aside from that, he mentions in that movie “Do you know what the largest living organism on this palnet is? The largest living organism is a grove of Aspen trees. The Aspen tree forms large strands of genetically identical trees connected by a single underground root system.
    I thought “Wow like Pandora” so I Wikipediaed it. Turns out in Utah, there’s a grove so large they named it a long time ago “Pando” which means “I spread”

  6. We’ve been Cameroned!!

  7. I loved the movie Phenomenon…that’s all. 🙂

  8. […] we pressed on. We’ve commented on blockbusters, praised our favorite creators, cast upcoming movies, slammed overused gimmicks and even made some […]

  9. “No one is saying you’re a bad guy” Yes they are. “They killed their mother.” All the Mercs being american marines. All of the bad guys being american corporate entities. Humans r dum kind of misanthropy subsists on making us the bad guys.

    • Anon, I feel like you’re going out of your way to make my point with the way you skipped the message of the post and saw what you wanted to see – so thanks for that!

      I’m not saying there aren’t bad guys in the film – I’m saying that I’m perplexed as to why people assume it’s them. You may be right about it being an American corporation, but I’ve seen the movie a few times and other than the fact that Giovanni Ribisi is an American actor, I’ve seen no evidence of this in the film itself. Did you catch something about the political state of future Earth that I didn’t?

      And as for the “humans r dum” bit, I’m sure you’re aware that science fiction, as a genre, has ALWAYS been used as a form of cautionary tale that points out the shortcomings of human nature. It’s meant to make us question the direction that society is headed and give us a moment to course-correct as necessary.

      But if you feel your head is in the right place, then the message shouldn’t bother you at all. Where there is no infection, there is no sting. I don’t think you can hurt Stephen Hawking’s feelings by calling him “stupid”. Because he knows he isn’t.

      If someone is offended by a movie about aliens fighting a mining corporation, then I would argue that it may be the receiver, not the transmission, that needs maintenance.

  10. In August 2005, Family Guy ran a chapter poking
    fun with a man with AIDS. Famous cartoons were exposed to life about the big
    screen. Principal Amzy is actually Yzmy.

  11. […] we pressed on. We’ve commented on blockbusters, praised our favorite creators, cast upcoming movies, slammed overused gimmicks and even made some […]


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