We all love a success story.
For a couple of days, anyway. Then we can't wait to tear it apart.
That's what has been happening to "Avatar," James Cameron's 3-D sci-fi epic. Evidently the film is making lots of moviegoers happy. It's raking in the cash and awards — Golden Globes last Sunday for best picture and director.
But it also has detractors nipping at its heels like overzealous Chihuahuas protecting their turf from the mailman.
What's interesting is that the harping is coming from all over. Critics on the right object to "Avatar" on several points.
First, they find its attitude toward the environment naive and anti-progress.
The movie unfolds on the jungle moon Pandora, which is undergoing an ecological disaster (think today's Amazon basin) thanks to visitors from Earth who are employing the intergalactic version of strip mining to get at a precious mineral. Earth itself is a burned-out hulk, thanks to centuries of human abuse. Now humans covet this so-called Unobtainium as a powerful energy source.
Second, conservatives hate the film's depiction of a ravenous multiplanetary corporation that invades Pandora, bringing with it a rapacious profit motive and an army of mercenaries to enforce its will against the blue-skinned natives, the Na'vi. It is argued that this depiction puts capitalism in a bad light.
Third, "Avatar" may be viewed as a not-so-subtle parody of real-life corporations like Haliburton and the private security firm Blackwater. Thanks to their behavior during the Iraq occupation, the names of these two outfits have become synonymous in many minds with ruthless imperialism, rampant cronyism, unrestrained greed and unprovoked brutality.
Enter the Roman Catholic Church. A Vatican newspaper and radio station have condemned "Avatar" for becoming "bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature."
They're referring, of course, to the beliefs of the Na'vi, who regard everything in their world — animals, plants, rocks — as having spirits that must be honored. This sort of animism is hardly new, having preceded Christianity by 30,000 or so years, and it continues to be practiced today by some American Indians and by various ethnicities around the world.
This is the sort of "primitive" thinking that more recent religions (those only a few millennia old) have sought to supplant.
"Avatar" also is taking heat from the left, with some objecting to one of the film's essential narratives: A human comes to live among the Na'vi, is initiated into their society and at a crucial moment leads the tribe in an uprising against its oppressors.
To these critics this is just a variation on the old "white man's burden" thinking, in which the poor benighted savages — people of color, of course — require the leadership of a white male to carry their cause. The assumption is that they certainly couldn't do it without a "racially superior" individual in charge.
I find all this huffing entertaining, especially since it is based on the dubious theory that movies can change people's minds.
If you're a committed capitalist, do you really think "Avatar" is going to alter your thinking? If you cannot abide tree-huggers, will watching this movie make you want to embrace nature? And is this movie going to entice you to change religions and start praying for the soul of every fly you swat?
Heck, no. If you already have a political and religious viewpoint, this movie isn't going to change anything.
No matter what Cameron may say in his award acceptance speeches, his movie is not cause for switching religions, joining the Sierra Club or becoming a socialist.
As far as I can tell, most moviegoers have only limited interest in politics, environmentalism or matters of faith. They're going to "Avatar" to oooh and aaah at the fantastic visuals and to get off on epic escapism.
To most of the audience — and to me, frankly —"Avatar" is just a great time at the movies.