Does 'Avatar' Contain Hidden Messages?

Since it opened last week, James Cameron's much-anticipated film "Avatar" has won praise from movie critics and been a juggernaut at the box office. But some who have seen the film say that it contains hidden messages that are anti-war, pro-environment, and perhaps even racist.

For the benefit of those who haven't seen the film, a little nonspoiler background might be useful. The story is set in the year 2154 when Earth's inhabitants, having used up most of their natural resources through decades of living in excess, plan to use military force to conquer Pandora, a moon roughly the same size as Earth. Pandora, inhabited by a wise, peaceful, and nature-respecting people with blue skin called the Na'vi, is rich in a resource that the people of Earth desperately need.

The earthlings send in a crew of special-forces mercenaries armed with guns, bombs, and other sophisticated weaponry to attack and conquer the Na'vi (who some think resemble American Indians and Africans), despite the fact that they represent no direct threat to the inhabitants of Earth. Since humans can't breathe in Pandora's atmosphere, the military employs mind-controlled avatars that resemble the Na'vi in every way to venture out from their landing craft and explore the landscape. Sympathizing with the Na'vi after becoming acquainted with them and their customs, one of the human-controlled avatars becomes a turncoat and helps lead the people of Pandora in the defense of their homeland.

Are you beginning to get a sense of why some viewers noticed what they believe are underlying messages in the film?

Some prominent members of the media who screened the film certainly took note. In a glowing review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert noted that "Avatar" "has a flat-out Green and anti-war message" that is "predestined to launch a cult." Meanwhile Ben Hoyle, writing in the Times of London, noted that the film "contains heavy implicit criticism of America's conduct in the War on Terror." Further, Will Heaven of the Daily Telegraph said that the plot line involving people of color who wear "tribal" jewelry while sporting dreadlocked hair, being saved by a noble white man gave the film a "racist subtext" that he found "nauseatingly patronising."

But are these hidden messages really all that hidden? James Cameron himself hasn't been shy in publicly proclaiming the fact that he's an environmental activist who believes that humans and "industrial society" are "causing a global climate change" and "destroying species faster than we can classify them." In a recent interview with PBS' Tavis Smiley, Cameron admitted that he made "obvious" references in the film to Iraq, Vietnam and the American colonial period to emphasize the fact that humans have a "terrible history" of "entitlement" in which we "take what we need" from nature and indigenous peoples "and don't give back."

Further, one of the film's stars Stephen Lang told CNN that he is "not surprised at all" that some people have taken note of the film's political messages, mainly because the central theme of humans "destroying" a "pristine world" out of "blindness and greed" is so "overt."

Despite the obvious political undertones in "Avatar," at least one right-leaning critic doesn't think people who disagree with the film's ideology should totally dismiss it. In his review on the website Hot Air, Ed Morrissey writes, "Conservatives have more or less primed themselves to hate this film because of the presumed anti-war politics of the movie. It's there -- in fact, it's unmistakable -- but it's not as bad as one might presume." He goes on to note that "Avatar" is "entertaining" though "hardly a deep intellectual exercise." (12.23.2009, Brett Michael Dykes)

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