Smoking in "Avatar": Necessary to "Reflect Reality"?

James Cameron's new blockbuster movie Avatar won a "black lung" rating for gratuitous smoking from the Web site, which rates motion pictures according to the amount of smoking they show. Avatar is a futuristic fantasy that takes place sometime in the 22nd century. In it, Sigourney Weaver plays an environmental scientist who puffs on cigarettes as she tries to save the moon Pandora. Cameron responded to the accusation of gratuitous smoking in Avatar by saying that smoking is a "filthy habit" that he does not support, but that smoking in movies is necessary to portray reality:

...[S]peaking as an artist, I don't believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality.

Stanton Glantz, director of the University of California San Francisco's Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, says the smoking scenes in Avatar hand millions of dollars' worth of free advertising to cigarette makers, and points out that the very idea of a chain-smoking environmental scientist is in itself a gratuitous bit of fantasy.


The smoking was so out of character and out of time it raises the question of whether someone was paid for her character to smoke.

Forget the smoking--how did her character go from battery acid to saccharine in one scene?

Question? I see no question here. Someone was paid to advertise--plain and simple. The smoking is clearly an advertisement. I'll be that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of impressionable teen females were "pushed" in the direction of smoking is sexy if you want to be tough, powerful, buff, smart...and so on. Pushed as in drug pusher.

Thousands or tens of thousands of young woman will "try tobacco" for the "image" conveyed by Weaver, most will become addicted smoking for the next 40 years on average. Simply do the math. 40 x 364 x $4.50--assuming a 25% net profit that equates to $16,000 per person addicted! If 100,000 are "pushed in the direction of smoking" that equals 1.6 BILLION in profits. I'd bet $100 to a doughnut someone was paid a million or two for what appears to be a blatant an inexcusable AD.

Not to break anyone's heart, but not only am I a regular reader (and money contributor) here and somewhat progressive, but... gads...I also smoke! And it just so happens that I know an environmental scientist that smokes.

Can you imagine? Shocking!

Personally, although I am not a big fan of smoking in general (and wish I didn't), I agree with Ms. Weaver wholeheartedly, not to mention that just because the act of smoking is not a "progressive thing to do" it does not necessarily meant that it is a "conspiracy" or that someone was "paid off".

Curiously (because I am a hard-working contra-tabaconista), I found the Sigourney Weaver character's smoking in 'Avatar' to have been 'appropriate', although, like most of the rest of the film, it didn't work and there were surely more interesting and effective alternatives that could have been employed.

I think the smoking was meant to show the character as a a 'dedicated scientist' equally oblivious to her effects on others as on herself. (Her first response to discovering the tree of souls was, 'Gee, I'd like to get samples of that'.) Even when she is acting to get Jake out of the clutches of the evil Marine Colonel, the viewer is meant to understand this as dead-cold, dedicated-to-science behaviour, or at least as having that primary dimension. When she begins to show genuine concern for Na'vi not just as study objects, we are intended, therefore, to 'discover' another aspect of the character and therefore care about her death and her incorporation into the soul-net.

Apart from the thoughtless and harmful use of smoking to characterize a role, the real problem was, that like every other 'point' in the film, Cameron chose to make it with a bludgeon. His film-making philosophy seems to be, 'If I can't make that led-to-water-horse drink, I can damn well drown the bugger.'

For me, the saddest thing was how low Sigourney Weaver has sunken. Having her fail to translate into a disgustingly cute alien (am I the only person whom the Na'vi remind of Jo Jo Binks?) is far worse than having her fight evil ones. This an actor, after all, who played in 'The Year of Living Dangerously'. Aweel, Mel Gibson has fallen even further.

At the end of the film, my companion said: 'It was good. It was good. No it wasn't, it was crap.'

A fellow in the row in front of us fell asleep and didn't waken even as the theatre emptied. I would encapsulate his review as: 'Soporific!'

The main objection to Sigourney Weaver's smoking in Avatar is that it takes the viewer out of the world Cameron's trying to create. The audience is suddenly going "WT--? Smoking 150 years from now? And in a lab?? What's up with that?" It takes people out of the movie. Not worth it for such a cliche anachronism.

A second objection is that Cameron/Weaver go 150 years into the future to spout 80-year-old tobacco propaganda.

In the 1920s, American Tobacco Co. hired Freud's nephew Edward Bernays to get women smoking. His solution: promote smoking as freedom and independence. Bernays hired debutantes to walk down 5th Ave during the 1929 Easter Parade dressed as the Statue of Liberty, holding their cigarettes aloft as "torches of freedom."

Bernays later deeply regretted his work for tobacco companies.

Independence/rebellion is an ad theme Cameron falls for and promotes with Rose's character in "Titanic," too.

Weaver's stress-relief is another tobacco advertising mantra, used since the 30s at least, with lots of jet pilots, sports stars, etc., "calming their nerves" with cigarettes.

Cameron's unconscious swallowing of tobacco propaganda shows he really doesn't understand the issue; his rationale is specious. He is fooling only himself.

"Cameron's unconscious swallowing of tobacco propaganda shows he really doesn't understand the issue..."

What makes you so blithely sure it was an "unconscious swallowing" and not a conscious acceptance for consideration? Everything you see in a movie is there on purpose, especially a sore-thumb stick-out like this. In 3D, no less.

>>Everything you see in a movie is there on purpose

True, I was giving Cameron the benefit of the doubt. But Weaver's smoking seems increasingly aberrant the more you examine it.

Cameron claims the smoking was to present Weaver initially as unsympathetic, and to show Weaver's character didn't care about her human body. Huh? As Sigourney herself will tell you, keeping a 60-year-old body that buff is not easy. Her character obviously takes VERY good care of her body. To follow Cameron's supposed rationale, Grace Augustine should have been fat and slovenly (a more interesting choice; she could have awoken shouting, "WHERE'S MY TWINKIE?").

And crying "realism" really doesn't make it.

1. In 150 years, apparently no one smokes--EXCEPT Sigourney Weaver. Not even the military. She's the only one in the movie who smokes.

2. It's certainly unrealistic to expect nicotine addiciton to take _exactly_ the same form as it does today. 150 years ago, it was snuff, or smokeless, or cigars. NOT cigarettes, which, when used, were laboriously hand-rolled. 150 years from now, it'll be orbs, or snus, or e-cigs, or inhalers, or patches, or --you get the point. Something _else_.

3. This would be a seriously atypical scientist. 44% of cigarettes are sold to the mentally ill; most smokers are poor and uneducated.

4. Smoking in the tightly-controlled-atmosphere of a lab is unrealistic in so many ways. The tars and nicotine in tobacco smoke get _everywhere_, including sensitive electornic equipment. Tobacco mosaic virus is common on cigarette tobacco and can easily be transmitted from a smoker's hands to biological samples, contaminating them. Let alone space-flight weight restrictions, SHS regulations and coworkers' objections.

So why IS there smoking in Avatar?

You're right--considering Cameron's Titanic also, it's hard to excuse this event as "unconscious."

It's propaganda, pure and simple.

Avatar is an ad for smoking: strong, tough, healthy, independent, smart, moral, buff, heroic women smoke.

And, judging from the number of kids in the theatre, the stacks of booster seats(!) outside Avatar screenings in the multiplexes, all the reported repeat viewings, and all the prime-time TV exposure in the future--millions upon millions of kids around the world will be getting the message for decades to come.