Critics in awe but film raises hackles on right, left

In its first two weeks or so of release, “Avatar” has definitely become part of the national conversation.

That portends big box office and also a lot of noise.

Here’s the way “Avatar” is resonating on talk radio and in the blogosphere:

To the hard right, Cameron is exposing naive sci-fi film buffs to onerous lefty propaganda about the environment and climate change and portraying American soldiers in a dark light.

To women, Cameron, the reputed misogynist, has delivered a pro-feminist tract in which women are characterized as the spiritual tutors, or, as a Vanity Fair blog put it, “Pandora, even God, is a she and her name is Eywa.”

To the left, Cameron is now instantly a liberal folk hero for effectively allocating half a billion dollars of Rupert Murdoch’s resources to create a film that would be ideologically repellent to the media mogul.

There’s wide confusion among the noisemakers about the basic facts of the movie itself. To those on the right side of the political spectrum, the combatants assaulting the natives of Pandora are U.S. Marines, who are depicted as being unnecessarily brutal. To those on the left, they are independent contractors who are correctly portrayed as being mindless mercenaries.

Instead of discussing mindless mercenaries, however, the mindless reviewers by and large are focusing on the film’s special effects and the impact of performance capture and 3D. The reviews mostly have been exemplary on those levels — indeed, in some cases downright orgasmic.

To some reviewers, movies will never be the same and, indeed, on some levels, they are right: James Cameron has raised the stakes both visually and financially. The care and feeding of tentpoles will now be even pricier and more precarious as rival filmmakers try to match Cameron and raise him one.

There were dissenters in the critical community, to be sure. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B.” But what can you expect from a critic who considers “Far From Heaven” the best movie of the decade?

The Wall Street Journal’s normally astute Joe Morgenstern liked “Avatar” but, as though defensively, also called it “a lumbering parable of colonial aggression.” Was he seeing an old John Huston movie by mistake?

As for my opinion, “Avatar” would surely decorate my year’s top 10 list … except that I’m not a listmaker. In fact, I think top 10 lists are useless when it comes to film.

Movies are there to be enjoyed on several different levels — as aesthetic achievements or as guilty pleasures. When critics formulate their top 10 lists, they almost always want to make themselves look smart by giving weight to intellectual content. Hence Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune rated “There Will Be Blood” as the best film of the decade when that film is about as moving as a root canal. Honoring “Blood” makes Phillips look very intelligent, however.

A.O. (Tony) Scott of The New York Times hands his best-of-the-decade honor to “Wall-E,” when another Pixar film, “Up,” was vastly more compelling, though it lacked the environmental message.

The trouble with listmaking is that you subconsciously want to make yourself look good. When I’m asked about my favorite magazine, I prefer to list Cahiers du Cinema rather than People. I got more dopey fun this year out of “Pirate Radio” than, say, “Invictus,” but the latter would inevitably make my 10-best list.

There’s another issue: How much weight do you give to “social importance?” Perversely, “Deep Throat” was probably a more important movie than “Godfather” the same year, but I wouldn’t want to put that one on a list.

That’s why I don’t do lists, I suppose. They’re downright embarrassing.

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