To say that James Cameron’s Avatar appeared to us amid hoopla and trumpet blasts would be like saying that John the Baptist had once mentioned Jesus. Generations of small children have been taught the calendar by ticking off the years until Avatar‘s release. Geeks prepared for the revelation by draping themselves in garlands of e-mails, lauding the vastness that would lie between Avatar‘s technology and anything they had known before. Even the most earthbound souls, pent in counting houses, cast their eyes heavenward and watched for the shower of gold. By the time of the film’s advent, at the only appropriate season, nothing but a miracle would have sufficed–and sure enough, Cameron delivered one right at the beginning of the story, when he raised up his crippled protagonist and made him walk. Healing and transfiguration you got immediately. The crowning miracle, like Jesus’, would wait till the end.
Do you think I’m being sarcastic? Then you have not traveled in 3-D through Avatar‘s extraterrestrial paradise, or watched its Eve remove the clothes and shame from its Adam, or noted that the name of the film’s prelapsarian forest tribe, Na’vi, is Hebrew for "prophet." As suffused with intimations of the divine as a Hudson River School landscape, and very much a product of that pictorial tradition, Avatar offers you nothing less than transcendence, in both the Lisztian meaning of the word, as virtuosic execution, and in the commonly accepted religious sense. Whether the film makes good on these twin promises (I’ll plunge in and say it does) is perhaps less interesting than its having explicitly united them. Avatar proposes that the Great Chain of Being really exists and is accessible simultaneously to the characters on the screen and the audience in the seats by means of a neuromotor plug-in.
By now, even if you have not seen Avatar, you will know that the excuse for this connection–the plot–is familiar cowboys-and-Indians fare, remarkable only for having combined titanic marketing power with a worldview congenial to readers of The Nation. Well, worse things could come along than an anti-imperialist, pro-Gaea sci-fi blockbuster, which pits the nature-loving wisdom of an indigenous people against a mining company’s clanking, murderous machinery. That Cameron has sided with the tree huggers (literally) but used sophisticated technology to do so is a readily spotted irony and may be readily dismissed as a criticism, if you consider that his own factory does nothing worse than keep hundreds of people peacefully employed making pictures. Besides, Avatar insists that spiritual truths are not only compatible with science but are demonstrably rooted in biophysics–a position that becomes all but irrefutable when asserted by a ten-foot-tall, blue, tiger-striped Sigourney Weaver.
Actually, Weaver is in her human guise, as a scientist with the incense-and-bells name of Grace Augustine, when she makes this argument; but it’s her character’s ability to incarnate as a Na’vi, and even more so the ability of the film’s protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), to take on Na’vi flesh, that completes the circuit between viewer and film. Equipment in the movie theater (and on your nose, in the form of 3-D glasses) projects you into an encompassing illusion of Jake’s world, where Jake in turn climbs into a piece of equipment–a metallic chamber, suggestive of both a casket and a tanning bed–and is projected into his Na’vi self. To complete the wiring, the Na’vi Jake then takes part of his body–the ponytail–and mates its hairy electric tendrils with any number of similar outlets lying about the forest, allowing him to project himself into the Great Shebang.
Note the powering up from one order of existence to another; note the well-marked steps, which to the impressionable might seem almost empirical, that elevate you to each higher level. And note how the essence of the progression, for you in your theater seat as for the crippled Jake Sully in his box, is a release into greater and greater freedom of movement. This is what makes Avatar‘s techno-mysticism too thrilling to doubt. Giddy with an ability you could have enjoyed in no other way, you and Jake run, leap, dive and soar through a landscape of sufficient beauty and terror to make your flight itself seem sublime.