Beauty in the Beast

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jan 01, 2010 12:01 AM
Beauty in the Beast

The Academy Awards have expanded the number of best picture nominations to 10, and the buzz on Planet Earth is all about "Avatar."

Conservatives are enraged at the movie's anti-American, anti-military, pro-primitive themes, but they should understand that most spectators won't care what the movie has to say. They'll just enjoy the 3-D spectacle, fun in spite of politics. Adults ought to see it with a teenager. It's an expensive ticket that will be appreciated, and you can shape the discussion afterward.

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I watched it with a precocious 14-year-old who has managed to escape the politically correct didacticism of education today. He said he liked the "spectacle" and told me not to worry about the message: The political cliches are condescending and racist but easy to tune out. I asked him to explain. "The movie portrays a superior disabled white man who joins blue Native Americans who wear primitive decorations, worship a tree, and who aren't very smart. Would you rather think about that or enjoy watching dragons fly?"

Most of the reviewers haven't seen it quite that way, but this kid got closer to the mark than the reviewers who imagine that David Cameron, the director, is Barack Obama's rival for the role of Messiah. Still, there are reasons to see the movie despite its goofy plot and the ludicrous oxymoron-like criticism of the American corporations whose technological inventiveness makes movies like this possible.

It's breathtakingly beautiful. The color is magical, the flora and fauna blossom in a gorgeous electrified Eden where superstar pterodactyls fly through the air with the greatest of ease at the speed of whoosh. Luscious dragons and death-defying monsters are more backdrop scenery than story intensive. The new technology is a marvel, and the 3-D glasses have improved since the 1950s.

A dated anti-Vietnam attitude lies at the root of the thematic sensibility, but such palaver is ancient history to the young -- and you can discount it as an anachronism, like a musty something in a museum. "Avatar" is more "Wizard of Oz" than "Apocalypse Now." It's entertainment first. As the Marine drill sergeant who barks at young recruits arriving on the Planet Pandora observes, "You know you're not in Kansas anymore."

Conservatives who complain about the message should look beyond the Hollywood cliches and adolescent counterculture sensibility and instead engage the kids with lively ideas. For starters, you could ask them why the name of the planet that's the focus of the adventure is called Pandora. If anyone's forgotten the Greek myth of Pandora's Box, give Google a click and you can offer a bag of Gummy Bears to anyone who can say what remained at the bottom of Pandora's Box after all the evils of the world flew out.

For those youngsters who leave the theater believing that Americans have no respect for nature, remind them that our national parks were first preserved by Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president. We have more than 230 million acres of land devoted to national parks, forests, and game and bird preserves, and that's not counting the zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens set aside for education and pleasure. There's an American Indian museum on the National Mall in the nation's capital.

While the movie dramatizes human greed and avarice and its director has given fatuous speeches about his feelings over the war in Iraq, nobody I talked to at the theater was there for the commentary. Once you see all the players as cartoon characters (3-D flattened to 2-D) in a predictable, unoriginal plot, you can pick apart the cliched specifics. But the technology is groundbreaking and will be a landmark in the memory of the young who see it today. The grown-ups shaping the conversation for the next generation can learn from them how new digital special effects visually transform the images of real actors into 10 feet tall skinny blue people with pointy ears and versatile tails.

Aristotle was right, spectacle is the lowest element in drama, but we live in a time when the image is triumphant and the medium is the literal message. The guiding force and deity of the Planet Pandora is Eywa, and it's impossible to believe that there but for the grace of Eywa go I. Words, characters, narratives, the rich humor of comedy and the serious conflicts of tragedy are not the innovative creative achievements of our age.

"Avatar" is an adventure story made to appeal to young men without providing a genuine hero. There's another movie up for an Academy Award, a fine war epic of American courage under fire. It's called "The Hurt Locker," and you should take a teenager to that one, too.