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‘Avatar’: Red-state politics + blue aliens = box-office green

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Steven Zeitchik is back on the Hero Complex today with a look at the politics of ‘Avatar. Does the film prove that moviegoers don’t mind political messages in their movies -- or that they don’t just notice them when giant blue aliens start running around the screen?

Conservative blogger Joshua Huffman devotes at least several hours a day to right-leaning media and blogs, which have offered him plenty of rhetoric about the wrongheaded politics of James Cameron’s ‘Avatar.’

Yet when it came time to pick a movie this holiday season, Huffman, who also runs his own blog, The Virgina Conservative, knew there was only one film that would top his list. So Huffman braved a snowstorm to see ‘Avatar’ on opening weekend. ‘It’s a movie I really enjoyed, even if I didn’t agree with a lot of the underlying messages,’ he said, adding that he probably would see ‘Avatar’ again and has recommended it to many friends.

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Huffman isn’t alone. ‘Avatar’ has gone north of $1 billion at the worldwide box office, and domestically the blue-alien movie is a sensation in both red states as well as blue states despite some fierce conservative criticism of the movie and its perceived political messages.

Big-budget studio movies usually mute their ideology as they seek a wide audience. But ‘Avatar’ has inflamed the passions of right-wing bloggers and pundits. Cameron incensed many voices on the right by acknowledging of-the-moment messages about imperialism, greed, ecological disregard and corporate irresponsibility in his movie about the 22nd-century plundering of a distant moon called Pandora. The film (contrary to plenty of blog posts out there) does not show American military units in action -- the aggressors on Pandora are mercenaries in services of a corporation -- but that distinction was missed or deemed unimportant by many commentators; one reason may be the use of terms such as ‘shock and awe’ and ‘war on terror’ in some of the most heated parts of the movie. Cameron may have deployed mercenaries of the future but it’s clear that he drafted contemporary issues for his cinematic campaign.

There was plenty of return fire. Writing in the Weekly Standard, conservative commentator John Podhoretz called the movie’s clash between heavily armed humans and an indigenous tribe of aliens as ‘anti-American, anti-human.’ In an upcoming piece in Commentary magazine, Stephen Hunter writes that ‘the movie essentially decodes into a 1960s pseudo-intellectual’s power-trip dream.’ A headline on a piece by John Nolte, editor of Andrew Breitbart’s conservative Big Hollywood site, declared the movie wasn’t for Heartland America: ''Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy.’ On the Drudge Report, the headlines made clear the film was viewed as a misguided stealth missile of liberal rhetoric, not a popcorn entertainment.

On the eve of ‘Avatar’s’ release there were more than a few predictions that the film would suffer because of its out-of-touch-with-America message from the Hollywood left. But it was the rage of the right that was out of touch with the moviegoing populace. The movie about tree-hugging aliens just enjoyed the most lucrative third week of release in Hollywood history (it carried the movie to a domestic total of $352 million), suggesting strong word-of-mouth and a considerable number of multiple viewings by some fans.

And although specific audience breakdowns are hard to come by, moviegoers gave ‘Avatar’ a CinemaScore of ‘A’ on its opening weekend, suggesting that nearly anyone with blogger-fueled doubts coming in had them wiped away once they saw the film.

One reason for the disconnect between the bloggers and the box office may be the simple fact that the movie about big blue aliens didn’t feel all that connected to modern-day politics once the spears and dragons started flying. ‘A lot of people see ‘Avatar’ as a 22nd-century story and they don’t analogize it,’ Podhoretz said in an interview. ‘They see that the guy turns into a 10-foot-tall blue guy. Whatever political message in it sails over their heads...If [average] people come out and say this is really vile and disgusting and defames our military and defames our country, that would have a different effect. But no one’s really saying that.’

Sometimes politics sit right next to moviegoers when they visit a darkened theater. Six years ago, two mega-hits brought out distinctly different audiences, as liberals turned out by the millions for Michael Moore’s anti-Bush screed ‘Fahrenheit 9/11' and a Christian base drove ‘The Passion of the Christ’ to a major success that morphed at times into a polarizing debate on religion in American.

‘Avatar,’ though, is a film about pure adventure and otherworldly escape and, in terms of spectacle, the sci-fi epic is being hailed by many as a must-see masterpiece -- the politics don’t seem to matter much. ‘People watch Fox News or listen to NPR because of what it says, and what it says about them,’ says Syracuse University professor Bob Thompson. ‘What ‘Avatar’ shows is that people don’t make decisions about blockbusters that way.’

Perhaps the closest parallel is ‘Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,’ another blockbuster with some political subtext amid its space travels -- but that movie drew people in with its built-in history, not its word-of-mouth and certainly not its reviews. ‘Avatar’ is rolling along strongly thanks to its visual successes and, in a wry twist, the marketing and advertising by 20th Century Fox. ‘People are receptive to this message of anti-corporate imperialism,’ Thompson says. ‘But they’re receptive to it precisely because of a big corporation’s brilliant marketing machine.’

-- Steven Zeitchik

Top photo: James Cameron. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times. Middle and bottom photos: Scenes from the movie ‘Avatar.’ Credit: 20th Century Fox

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