Americans may soon be, if they aren’t already, sick of hearing about the blockbuster film Avatar. The quality of the script is sufficiently thin to justify impatience with extended engagement. And yet, responses to the film are revealing enough to extend the lease on the discussion—not to understand Avatar as much as to understand the state of American conservatism. “Right-wing attacks on Avatar,” explains Ann Marlowe at Forbes, “show a frightening tone-deafness to what most Americans find inspiring…” As a Rorschach test by which to investigate the concerns of its conservative reviewers, Avatar rewards reflection.
When considered a précis against the lack of theological imagination known as Pantheism, Ross Douthat’s piece in the New York Times (which he expands in an interview) is characteristically brilliant. Douthat's actual film criticism, however, is somewhat overdrawn. To call Avatar a "long apologia for pantheism" is to give it too much credit. The scriptwriters, perhaps despite themselves, couldn't help but allow some classical theism to seep in. When the film’s main character, Jake Sully, implores divine assistance, he does not pray to a tree. He prays, almost sacramentally, through a tree to the deity whom he addresses personally, not without the help, I should add, of a sort of communion of saints departed. Douthat explains (rightly) that Pantheism is a religion for people who wish to avoid an "Almighty who interferes in human affairs." But, in response to said prayer, the film's deity does indeed—contrary to the native wisdom of the Na’vi—interfere in human affairs. Needless to say, Director James Cameron is no Andrei Tarkovsky, and “Eywa” (the native deity) is no Aslan - but fictional scenarios can be provided more theological leeway than Douthat permits.
While Douthat uses the movie to critique Pantheism, John Podhoretz uses it to critique a base brand of Hollywood anti-Americanism. Avatar, claims Podhoretz, asks the audience to “root for the defeat of American soldiers.” Based on this perceived connection, Podhoretz names Avatar “among the dumbest films [he has] ever seen.” As a caricature of corporate greed, Avatar is, unfortunately, as bad as Podhoretz claims. But I’m not so sure about its depiction of the military. In fact, the scriptwriters seem to have gone to considerable trouble to distance the soldiers in the film from the U.S. military. Colonel Miles Quaritch, played brilliantly by Stephen Lang, is not an enlisted U.S. soldier, but the head of a hired security force comprised of ex-soldiers. Furthermore, while the American army is notably (some would say notoriously) religious, God of any kind means nothing to Colonel Quaritch’s mercenaries. When he refers to the deity of the natives, his soldiers scoff. There is only one theistic option in this movie, and Quaritch’s army is utterly against it. This film depicts a military-for-hire that is blatantly irreligious, only then to hinge the plot upon one soldier and a pilot who resist their corrupted leadership. Notably, Stephen Lang succeeded in depicting the full range of military behavior—from self-sacrificial heroism to an addiction to violence—last year in a staggering one-man off-Broadway show, Beyond Glory. Granted Avatar does not approach this level of complexity, but as a depiction of military life, Hollywood can get much worse.
Then there is Caleb Stegall, a Front Porch Conservative who has long been a gadfly to more prominent conservatives such as Richard John Neuhaus, a role he describes as “loyal opposition,” and which he advances by articulating localist, agrarian ideals. Stegall assumed this posture as editor of the satirical journal The New Pantagruel, and he has kept it up more recently by lobbing challenges at First Things from the Front Porch. In a post subtitled “Reviewing the Reviewers,” Stegall claims that conservative reactions to Avatar are a rehearsal of the debate sparked years ago by Rod Dreher's book Crunchy Cons (a book Stegall defended at National Review). For Stegall, Avatar is (as it is in this article), "a prism through which one can read the motives, cares, and commitments of its decidedly political reviewers on the right." Stegall challenges the conservative reviews of Ross Douthat and John Podhoretz, leveling critiques similar to my own. He then adds his own favorable perspective on the film, one also subject to review.
Stegall paints Avatar as Front Porch Republic: The Movie. He identifies themes in the film such as culture and membership, and links them with posts at the Porch. That it takes a quarter of a billion dollar blockbuster to best articulate small-town, localist ideals is, to say the least, odd—but not untrue. Stegall is absolutely right: The blue people do it better. Harmony with nature, respect for food sources, sensitivity to the earth, liturgical vitality, rites of passage, lifelong marriage commitments, horse whispering—all the key ingredients to a harmonious agrarian society. How could one not be attracted to the ideals so beautifully presented in this film? The problem is, Avatar is not describing how the world might be if Wendell Berry were president; it's describing a world without a Fall.
It is odd that amidst the innumerable citations the reviewers have noticed in the unoriginal script of Avatar, there has been (to my knowledge) no mention of C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, which ushered the Christian imagination into space long before the emergence of Star Wars or Star Trek. Lewis paints a picture of space—better termed the heavens—as an “empyrean ocean of radiance.” A dazzling variety of planets singing to their Creator, one of which—our own—is tempted by “The Bent One,” in turn losing this music to become “The Silent Planet.” When visitors from our Silent Planet visit planets that have not experienced a similar rebellion, the scenario is very much like the earthlings visiting Pandora in Avatar. Fallen humans, in comparison to the inhabitants of Lewis’ distant, unfallen planets, are inevitably corrupted. When further demented by “The Bent One,” they become hyper-Hegelian monsters. One professor describes his chilling ideal of an ideal future of pure Mind, which is far too close to modern reality:
We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life... all sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must get rid of it. By little and little of course. Slowly we learn how. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body: learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation.
And yet, there is a resistance in Lewis’ Space Trilogy from those who believe in Maleldil, who, like Aslan, corresponds to the Christian God. Long before the indigenous Ewoks fought the mechanized Empire in Return of the Jedi, C.S. Lewis painted a picture of an organic, traditionally religious resistance to a tree-killing evil machine that looks much like the military/corporate alliance in Avatar. In fact, Avatar's "unobtanium"—the element that justifies earth’s mission on Pandora—can perhaps be understood as a version of that fruit that one of Lewis’ characters discovers on the unfallen planet Perelandra: "For one draught of this on earth,” remarks Ransom, “wars would be fought and nations betrayed." Indeed, one of the lessons of Lewis’ Space Trilogy is that the pleasures of unfallen worlds are impossible for a fallen race (humans) to handle. Seen not only through 3-D glasses, but through the lens of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Avatar emerges not as a defense of Pantheism, an anti-American screed or as a vision of ideals realizable on this planet: Instead, it’s a depiction of Eden.
And this brings us back to Stegall, who is right to suggest, alongside Ann Marlowe, that conservatives have overlooked things of value in Avatar. But those things of value, a perfect fusion of inhabitants and habitation, are impossibly far from being real alternatives on the planet that we inhabit. When one sees Avatar with Lewisian eyes, Stegall’s brief article highlights a criticism that Postmodern Conservatives at First Things have made of Front Porchers: some of their ideals seem suited for a world without a Fall, if not the primordial one, at least one without the second Fall of the Enlightenment. This is not to say that such ideals should not be promoted. One primary appeal of the Front Porch Republic is that it uplifts such principles, hence increasing their appeal, and their probability for real market success.
These localist principles, however, are best realized (and admittedly diluted) not despite of, but within the democratic capitalist arrangement we’ve been bequeathed. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), for example, succeeds not as an anarchic cog in the market system but as a more appealing alternative that competes with supermarket chains and—because CSA tastes better and costs less—prevails. Walkable urbanism need not be billed as a Molotov cocktail tossed angrily at suburbia, but as a more alluring alternative that, as one recent book has argued, can naturally evolve from sprawl in response to consumer demand. The ideals of the Front Porch Republic are essential to the rehabilitation of conservatism, but the real work is in transposing them into the key of reality. Between the purest of such principles and modern life stands a somewhat formidable obstacle: “a cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”
Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com.