The Motion Picture Academy may have sent Avatar down in flames, but my guess is that it’s not going to quiet the ideological squabbling over the movie. This blog doesn’t get a lot of comments, but there have been more, over a longer period, on my little post on Avatar’s Christian theme than on any other post I’ve written. The smartest thing I’ve seen on the movie is Daniel Mendelsohn’s piece, “The Wizard,” in the current New York Review. Mendelsohn loves the aesthetics, but is pretty dyspeptic about the message. For him, the movie represents the ultimate realization of James Cameron’s perpetual theme of looking for escape from the merely human.
Heretofore, the escape has always been via technology, and Mendelsohn tries to make out a case that the Na’vi, notwithstanding their appearance of tribal primitiveness, are actually technological wonders. That, it seems to me, misses the point. What Avatar demonstrates is the triumph of natural technology, so to speak, over the hardware that has beguiled Cameron in his earlier films. What the movie offers is spiritual transcendence–for the Sullied Jake, for Grace Augustine, for the bemused 3-D audiences…for flawed humanity. Whether you think this is a deep message or a shallow and derivative one, Christian idealism or manipulative Hollywood paganism, it has shown an impressive ability to get under peoples’ skin.