You probably don't need a long synopsis of James Cameron's half-billion-dollar epic "Avatar," in part because even if you haven't seen it, you've seen it. As many reviewers have noted, Cameron rips off Hollywood cliches to the point you could cut and paste dialogue from "Pocahontas" or "Dances With Wolves" into "Avatar" without appreciably changing the story.
In short, "Avatar" tells the tale of a disabled Marine, Jake Sully, who occupies the body of a 10-foot-tall alien so he can live among the mystical forest denizens of the moon world Pandora. Sully is sent in mufti, like a futuristic Lawrence of Arabia, to further the schemes of the evil corporate nature-rapists desperate to obtain the precious mineral "unobtainium" (no, really). Jake inevitably goes native, embraces the eco-faith of Pandora's Na'Vi inhabitants and their tree goddess, the "all mother," and rallies the Pandoran aborigines (not to mention the Pandoran ecosystem itself) against the evil forces of a thinly veiled 22nd-century combine of Blackwater and Halliburton.
The film has been subjected to a sustained assault from many on the right, most notably by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, as an "apologia for pantheism." Douthat's criticisms hit the mark, but the most relevant point was raised by John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard. Cameron wrote "Avatar," says Podhoretz, "not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people."
What would have been controversial is if -- somehow -- Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.
Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that's the point, isn't it? We live in an age in which it's the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na'Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.
I'm certainly one of those cranky right-wingers, though I probably enjoyed the movie as cinematic escapism as much as the next guy.
But what I find interesting about the film is how what is "pleasing to the most people" is so unapologetically religious.