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In this week’s column, Ross Douthat ascends the pulpit to lambaste “The Gospel According to James.” (I think he means James Cameron.) Douthat’s beef? That Avatar, Cameron’s decade-in-the-making opus, is merely a “long apologia for pantheism,” 161 minutes of New-Agey sermonizing about the perils of preemptive strikes, imperial genocide, Manifest Destiny, carbon emissions, and, presumably, reality television and trans-fats.
Amid predictable, David Brooks-worthy references to Alexis de Tocqueville on the one hand and Richard Dawkins on the other, Douthat argues that “pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now” because wishy-washy Hollywood types (I think he means George Clooney) find comfort in the innocuous platitudes of Eywa, the Colors of the Wind, &c.
Douthat would disabuse us of that tendency. “Nature,” he regrets to report:
is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.
Whether Cameron’s hard-won vision is naïve, pernicious, or merely overly typed (a fellow audience-member questioned the film’s broad West-Other dualism), Douthat’s approach to the film is confusing. Cameron is no Mel Gibson, and The Passion of the Na’Vi this ain’t. Avatar—which Douthat elsewhere calls a “gorgeous disappointment“—is, for better or worse, a world unto itself. A wannabe epic, perhaps. But not a treatise, nor an “apologia.” And it’s fatuous to get preoccupied with vague underpinnings when the real substance of the film is so patently its surface.
My colleague Mike Riggs might dismiss such tin-eared criticism as a product of Douthat’s political leanings (yes, Douthat writes on film for The National Review). And indeed, Douthat comes out of the column sounding like a mix between Giovanni Ribisi’s character (who asks the pro-native human researchers, “What the hell have you people been smoking?”) and the culture police of the early aughts who urged a boycott of Harry Potter. But anyone who dons those hipster 3-D specs and hunkers down for a long winter’s afternoon (those 161 minutes don’t exactly fly by) will likely be less concerned with imagined polemics and more interested in the great hulking spectacle of it all—a fairy tale, and a gorgeously realized one at that.