January 06, 2010

The politics of "Avatar"

No, I haven't seen it ... and won't see it until it comes on On Demand, so yeah -- keep what I write in that context (as I may alter my view after seeing it). However, Patrick Goldstein's article title in the Chicago Tribune ("Conservatives' Attack on 'Avatar' Falls Short") doesn't always quite match his actual words and, to him it seems the film's only critics are "America's prickly cadre of political conservatives."

While that may be true, consider this sentence:

They (conservatives) have reacted with scorn to such high-profile liberal political advocacy films as "Syriana," "Milk," "W.," "Religulous," and "Good Night, and Good Luck," saying that the movies' poor performances at the box office were clear signs of how thoroughly uninterested real people are in the pet causes of showbiz progressives.

"Avatar" turns this theory on its head. As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it evokes the can't-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, according to the right-wing pundits -- and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere.

Um, maybe it's because, unlike the films noted above, "Avatar" is a science fiction movie that possesses some of the most spectacular special effects ever seen (and has been so hyped)? And Cameron's rep -- "The Terminator," "Aliens" and "Titanic" -- sure helps, don't'cha think? [Lefty] science fiction is much easier to get the benefit of the doubt, for lack of a better term, than modern-day "real-life" liberal films. Heck, Cameron's "Aliens" had as its baddy not so much the deadly insect-like horrors that were killing off the Colonial Marines, but the dastardly "Company" which would stop at nothing to get an Alien specimen back to Earth. Virtually every Dark Horse Comics "Aliens" series deals with some conniving, evil Company-paid scientist who will kill/experiment on/torture whomever to cull the Aliens to humans' will. But again, it's the science fiction aspect that causes viewers/readers to gloss over any lib ambience the story may have. If the story is good, people will tend to overlook the politics. (Personally, with me, I can't stomach comics writer Mark Millar's politics; however, his writing is usually top-notch, and some of his more blatant anti-American/progressive tales are just too good to ignore. One of these is the phenomenal "Superman: Red Son" in which he imagines the Man of Steel landing in the old Soviet Union instead of the United States.)

Some other scifi stories off the top of my head (and there are many) that are distinctly anti-America/anti-Western and/or anti-capitalist/corporation are as follows:

  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. This novel from the early 70s (winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, scifi's most prestigious) features an entire planet Earth on a war footing because -- supposedly -- an alien race called the Taurans destroyed some of our spacecraft. Towards the end of the story (and about a thousand years later, hence the title) we learn that Earth's generals really didn't know what had happened to our vessels -- they just "needed a war." The premise is understandable given the year of the book's publication and the fact that Haldeman is a Vietnam Veteran.

    Interestingly, Haldeman later wrote Forever Peace (bears no plot relation to The Forever War) which seems a bit similar to "Avatar." In this future Earth, "First World" (industrialized) nations have access to "nanoforges" which can create virtually anything given the raw materials. Third World countries are denied this technology, hence the globe is in a somewhat perpetual guerrilla war with the two "worlds" battling one another (the latter obviously wanting nanoforge technology, while the former exploits the latter for its resources). But the technological countries do not fight directly -- they use "soldierboys," a fighting machine used by real soldiers who are "jacked in" to their systems "Matrix"-style.

  • Soylent Green. In the early 21st century, what Al Gore has warned about has come true -- a runaway greenhouse effect has destroyed much of the planet's food supply, hence the Soylent Corporation has clandestinely turned to people to alleviate the hunger problem, all the while euthanasia is encouraged. Charlton Heston's protests at film's end say it all: "Soylent Green is made of PEOPLE!!" (Saturday Night Live's Phil Hartman once did a hilarious parody of that segment, by the way.)

  • The Day After Tomorrow. While certainly not as "worthy" as those noted above, the film is a bigger wet dream for Al Gore than "Soylent Green." Global warming results in planetwide catastrophic events, including the ultra-rapid freezing of numerous areas, including New York City. Barely disguised Bush administration analogues are portrayed as borderline mentally handicapped, and the flick even gets a lick in on those who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration: As the freezing wave moves south, Americans begin entering Mexico illegally, and the US government even has to move south.

  • Capricorn One. Where else can you find a flick about the US government assassinating three of its own astronauts (well, actually two; the third, James Brolin, escapes) because 1) there's not enough money to actually fund a manned flight to Mars, and 2) they know there's no way the astronauts will go along with the fake staged landing they've prepared for them! Even less believable is Elliot Gould managing to piece together the conspiracy! Bonus points for having a pre-Bronco ride OJ Simpson as one of the astronauts, and for an unexpected ending. This is the flick that helps give moon landing-was-a-fake conspiracy buffs ammunition.

  • Total Recall. Ronnie Cox plays -- again -- a ruthless corporate/government baddie (also see: RoboCop) who'll stop at nothing to maintain control over Mars' resources, especially its air supply. Ahnuld Schwarzenegger plays Cox's inside agent who turns on him to "liberate" the Mars inhabitants from their despicable leader.

  • The book Timescape by Gregory Benford won the Nebula Award in 1980 and features an Earth on the brink of environmental collapse. (Yet another Al Gore dream book.) If memory serves a local [Delaware] company, DuPont, is specifically named (albeit very briefly) in the novel as an unknowing culprit of the disaster; various chemicals have had unforseen consequences, especially in the oceans and water supply. Though there's never an apparent "evil" corporate motive behind the bad happenings, private enterprise is responsible for them.

But even stories that are overtly pro-American etc. have been perverted by Hollywood. Probably the biggest that comes to mind is Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. The original novel, written in 1959, was unabashedly pro-military -- to the point that in this Heinlein futureverse only military veterans are permitted to vote. The philosophy and explanation behind it all were quite reasonable and logical (if not actually plausible); however, Paul Verhoeven didn't care about any of that in his dreadful screen adaptation of the book. To him, Heinlein's book wasn't about duty, responsibility and commitment to the common good ... it was merely a fascist's fantasy. The philosophy was virtually 100% excised from the movie; in its place were boffo F/X, Terran Federation officers dressed like Nazis, and military tactics that made about as much sense as those exhibited by six year-olds playing "army" in the backyard.

And come to think of it, Troopers SHOULD appeal to the Left. Why? Because the common, collective good was the major theme of the novel (and of its Earth society). Ah, but y'see, if it's a common good based on personal responsibility and sense of duty, well, now we see why leftists are turned off by the book. Instead of a [supposed] intellectual elite or well-connected party apparatchiks who lead from the "top down" because they think they know so much more than everybody else, Heinlein's society cultivates its sense of collective good by mandating that people do a term of military service before they are permitted to earn the franchise (right to vote). In the Terran Federation's military, everyone fights -- there are no colonels, generals or admirals who sit idly by while the grunts do all the hard work. Only by willing to put one's life on the line for those of his buddies and his nation does one demonstrate the morality -- and sense of duty -- necessary for civic participation. (All non-veterans in Troopers enjoy all the freedoms we possess today in modern America; the only right denied them is voting. Heinlein doesn't believe this a very big deal as he notes the franchise has always been restricted in one way or another.)

A more recent dreadful "reimagining" is "The Day the Earth Stood Still." In the 1951 original, a benevolent alien comes to Earth to warn humanity not to bring its [newly nuclear] warring ways to outer space or it will face annihilation. Straightforward, concise, sensible message. However, in 2008, Keanu Reeves' Klaatu warns us of -- you guessed it -- humanity destroying Earth's environment. Yeesh.

To get at some of the better pro-American/Western/corporate scifi, it probably serves one to seek out stories from two of the more conservative eras of the last century: The 1950s and 1980s. Aside from Starship Troopers, novels like Philip Wylie's incredible Tomorrow and Triumph, C.M. Kornbluth's Not This August, and Robert Shafer's The Conquered Place may seem like anachronisms today, but they convey American optimism and fighting spirit (in the midst of tragedy) intertwined in terrific stories. (Although some may argue that these books' genre falls under "alternate history" and not "science fiction," but in my opinion the former is a subset of the latter.) Then there are the films like "Red Dawn," "2010," "When Worlds Collide," "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers," "War of the Worlds (1953)," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and "Firefox." (All off the top of my head, again, by the way.)

All is not bleak for the modern generation, either. One very "hot" author that doesn't attempt to hide his pro-West/America views is Aussie John Birmingham. His "Axis of Time" trilogy envisions an alternate World War II (based on the appearance of a future Western naval battle group in 1942) where those from the future (2021) are busy battling Islamic jihadists around the world. They have various "sanctions" that dispense justice on the battlefield quite promptly, if you know what I mean. No civilian trials for murderous terrorists in Birmingham's "back to the future" world!

More recently, the first novel of his latest trilogy, Without Warning, details a world in which the United States is all but decimated by a mysterious energy wave. Think planet Earth'd be better off without those arrogant Yanks? Think again. The second novel in the series, After America, comes out in August.

Lastly, back to the subject which started this whole post: The Chinese have their own take on "Avatar."

Posted by Hube at January 6, 2010 09:03 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

You make an exceptionally good point regarding both written and movie SF, Hube. If the story is good I really don't give a crap about the politics. Robert Sawyer is a case in point; to me he almost comes across as a "leftie" Heinlein in his narrative style.

Although I cannot resist pointing out to readers (I know you know this) that Harry Harrison's "Make Room! Make Room!" was as far superior to Soylent Green as Dick's "We can remember it for you--wholesale" is to "Total Recall."

I'll probably end up being dragged to Avatar by my teenagers, and I will enjoy it for the effects if not the story.

Here's my obscure of the obscure pick for a low-budget made-for-TV SF flick that haunts me forty years later: Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson in the first season of "Movie of the Week" in a piece called "The Love War." Ever see it?

... a thoroughly B-class movie redeemed only at the end when Angie proves that the winning aliens cheat and there is this neat camera shot showing her real alien form through some dropped 3-D glasses....

Posted by: steve Newton at January 6, 2010 10:59 PM

Soylent Typing Paper is people! It's people!

Posted by: Jeff the Baptist at January 7, 2010 08:27 AM


the link is to a 12 min CGI video (no blue people) it is amazing how "real" it looks.

The rendering of mundain objects is incredible.

Posted by: anonni at January 10, 2010 01:18 AM

You have it all wrong. The aliens are the Palestinians and the Humans are the Israelis. At least according to Code Pink, Free Gaza, and most of Europe.

Posted by: Katie at January 14, 2010 12:55 AM

I never brought myself to see the Starship Troopers movie, but that was more based on a scene I did catch showing what the "bugs" did to one group of humans. (I think it was a "behind the scenes" of how they made the dead bodies.)

I did however, enjoy the Roughnecks CGI series. What few episodes they actually got out so it could air around here. They didn't really get that show finished on time, and you can only watch the same episodes over and over so many times. (Hear that, CW 4 Kids?)

Posted by: ShadowWing Tronix at January 16, 2010 05:54 PM