Avatar, Hollywood, and Warring Worldviews

In my previous post I commented on Hollywood's lack of public recognition of the significance of films of the fantastic as demonstrated through the Academy Awards. Although three such genre films were nominated, including District Nine, Star Trek, and Avatar, predictably none of them won in major categories, and Avatar did not win Best Picture. As commentators struggle with the reasons why, in the case of Avatar the lack of critical support may come from a clash of worldviews. At least that's what Bron Taylor argues in a recent article in Religion Dispatches. Despite the film's popular success, in large measure because of the growing affinity between audience members and nature, Taylor argues in "War of the Worldviews: Why Avatar Lost" that this message was too unsettling to permit Avatar's selection for Best Picture:

This affinity for nature may explain the global appeal of Avatar but not why it ran second in the Oscar competition. Ironically, in the battle between these cinematic epics, The Hurt Locker was portrayed as countercultural, when it actually pandered to patriotic convention. Meanwhile, Avatar was cast as technologically radical while few commented on its radical critique of a militarized technological civilization, or on its countercultural religious vision. These are things some Academy voters, little doubt, found too radical to support.

Given the likelihood that many Academy members may be progressive rather than conservative, and thus are more likely to embrace a sacralized view of nature and a critique of America's current war efforts, I don't know that I find Taylor's argument persuasive. I find it more likely that drama wins out over science fiction as the genre for "serious" film making and social commentary, but Taylor's thesis is worth considering.

Related post:

"Avatar's Success: Romantic Narratives and Dark Green Religion"

Comment Pages

There are 11 Comments to "Avatar, Hollywood, and Warring Worldviews"

  • Steve Hayes says:

    I was meaning to see Avatar to see how it compared with District 9 when I heard both were nominated for Oscars, but now I probably won''t. I'd never heard of The hurt locker until it won, and wondered what a film with such an incomprehensible title could be about.

  • Alice says:

    I had certainly heard of Avatar but not The Hurt Locker, that is until it won. It's said to be the lowest grossing film of all time to win the Best Picture Award. And true, Avatar was all sorts of awesome, but it lacked in regards to story. Not sure how much better The Hurt Locker was.

    What I found funny was that The Hurt Locker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who from about '89 to '91 was married to James Cameron, director of Avatar.

    And apparently the academy is not a fan of Cameron, so to speak, apparently he has a bit of an ego. So maybe that is another factor which may also have something to do with why Avatar did not get Best Picture.

  • Cory Gross says:

    My impression was that, between the two, The Hurt Locker was nominated because it was good and Avatar was nominated because it was expensive. Short of yourself, I never heard anyone say good things about Avatar as a film rather than as an exercise in the ability of computers to compile data. In fact, the best criticisms I read not only panned the story (like everyone else, pretty much), but also pointed out that in the way Avatar portrays nature it actually has a diametrically anti-environment message.

  • Iamtheeggman says:

    Saw Avatar. Definitely will be what defines 3D entertainment from now on. Missed Hurt Locker. Seems there is always talk about why the Academy does not pick certain movies. Like why did they wait until the third LOTR movie? Whatev. One won because a panel of white movie execs thought one was better than the other. In the meantime, Cameron will be taking it to the bank.

    I will say that this makes the second of the last two movies he has made that while decent, I never would have picked as blockbusters. Guess I am just no movie critic material. Did find it curious though that similarly during the release of Titanic there was a kerfuffle over his crumbling marriage to Linda Hamilton. Guess the guy can't get a break.

    As to the substance of John's post, i think that it behooves movie makers, or storytellers in general, to pull examples from cultures and experiences that we can all relate to. when James Cameron uses examples from our own national heritage it does not have to reflect some effort on his part to recast history in some different light. It could be that as a good storyteller he is pulling from emotionally charged historical and cultural events to make us feel more about the characters and plot. The story is only what you take away from it.

    That's all I have to say about that.

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Cory. I've heard both positive and negative comments about Avatar. For an example of the former see Craig Detweiler. Where I would seriously disagree is the characterization of Avatar's message on nature as anti-environmental. It is anything but, as Cameron, environmentalists, and Deep Ecology proponents have clearly articulated.

  • Cory Gross says:

    I think I might have mentioned some of the criticism of its environmental message to you before, but as I recall, there were a few smirking sort of "if you really wanted that much of a connection to nature maybe you should get out into it" comments. Some picked up on post-Avatar depression, but that may be a case of the fans not getting it. The main ones were on this whole business of tapping into nature like it's the Internet... Plugging into the Great World Tree/Net with your USB-hair.

    The problems with that were multiple. Some criticized the whole idea that we're separate from nature and that it's something we have to "connect to" (we are a part of nature, for good or ill). Some dismissed it as a techno-fetishist computer geek interpretation of nature, bordering on transhumanist ideology that is antithetical to environmentalism. One I read objected to this techno-fetishist interpretation especially on the grounds that this idea of connecting to nature via the Internet made it SCIENCE! and not "some woo-woo spiritual thing". Others still suggested that it's just more white, male, Western colonialism masquerading as post-colonial environmentalism, from the white man saving the day to the whole idea that you can control nature (by inserting your shaft into it no less). The more charitable ones suggested that if Avatar can be said to have any kind of environmental message, it's a message coming from a society so alienated from the environment that they can't even write intelligibly about it.

  • Thanks for your further comments, Cory. Whoever criticized your past comments on the environmental message of Avatar in a negative way, it was not me. I don't mind good, honest disagreement here. You are certainly right that the environmentalism of Avatar represents Western re-enchantment, with all of the baggage that goes with it. I think this tells us something not only about cinematic interpretation, but cultural and social interpretation as well. My main point has that we should at least be aware of such things, and be willing to engage it, including in self-critical ways when appropriate, particularly when much of the criticism is pointed not only toward the West in general, but also toward the Judeo-Christian tradition in terms of its influence on the West's environmental legacy.

  • Jason Winslade says:

    I think the notion that the Academy are progressive liberals is one of those exaggerated notions put out there by conservative media. I think, on the whole, the Academy is rather mainstream and conservative (or at least more than people think), despite the outliers who nominate progressive films or independent films. Of course, independent doesn't always equal progressive. I think Hurt Locker was a mostly, independent film with a fairly traditional message, whereas Avatar with all the power of Cameron and the corporate studio budget, was a pretty subversive film, despite its Dances with Wolves tendencies.

  • Jason, thank you for your feedback. I haven't seen the conservative media present the idea that the Academy is composed primarily of progressive liberals. In my post I suggested that it is likely that members of the Academy may resonate with progressive ideas, but I am not a part of the conservative media, just a blogger and film critique sharing my views on such issues. I don't think it's a stretch or an "exaggerated notion" to suggest that folks connected to Hollywood are progressive, as progressive statements at Academy Award ceremonies and the few conservatives willing to make public statements about their conservatism seem to support. We'll just have to disagree on the makeup of the Academy in terms of conservatism or progressivisim. We are in agreement, however, as to the characerizations of Hurt Locker and Avatar.

  • nic paton says:

    Hi John
    For me, the captivating aspect of Avatar was its cosmic spirituality. I only realised after it ended that it was a "war movie", because I was so deeply taken by its aesthetic of connectedness. In fact I could only respond in a flow of phrases rather than anything more discursive:

  • John says:

    Hi, I am from Australia.

    To start with the film was about the anti-"culture" of death versus the life affirming inherently magical culture of life.

    It is therefore quite interesting as to which world-view ALL of those on the so called conservative side of the culture wars divide, (including those that make much of their own religious beliefs) lined up to defend in their entirely predictable group-think critical responses to this film.

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