Avatar: Will Academy reward what Pope denounces?

Every so often, the Pope makes a decree about some pop culture phenomenon, assuming that A) we can't already guess what the Pope would say and that B) it matters not just to Catholics but to the rest of the world. Personally, I am more interested in what the Pope thinks we should do to deter rampant sexual abuse than his opinion on Avatar, but since it's Oscar night, let's consider the Pontiff's latest media commentary relevant for the time being.

The Vatican's newspaper and radio station denounced Avatar because they say it elevates nature to the status of the divine. (A good account from the Huffington Post here.) While director James Cameron has latched onto the pro-environmental interpretation, he has also been able to sit back from the debate and watch gleefully as different theories over the film's thesis have driven his 3-D spectacle to the highest grossing movie of all time. Others have pointed out, as in this NY Times article, that the movie is just generic enough to appeal to widely diverse audiences who apply it to their own circumstances and political beliefs.

Essentially, Avatar is what you make of it, and I find it doubtful that any practicing Catholics have converted to animism as a direct result of watching it. If a fun night out at the movies makes people less likely to use paper plates or think twice about carpooling, how is that bad for Catholicism, God or the world at large?

What the Vatican forgets is how lazy we are as a society. Avatar is a fantasy, a what-if movie that alleviates our mild "what have we done to the planet/native populations" guilt with roller-coaster like frolics through the skies on winged dinosaurs and a win for the wronged people of Pandora. Even in the face of actual documentaries showing precisely what harm we're doing to the planet and one another, few people are stirred to real action. So if The Inconvenient Truth didn't eradicate fossil fuels and make us worship at solar panels, it's unlikely that Avatar will induce love fests with trees.

That's not to say that the Vatican has no place for movie reviews. On the contrary, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a Film and Television department, which rates movies according to content and in relation to Catholic morals. My first reaction to this was to rail against censorship, but then I realized that it's not censorship, just a website offering suggestions and its own clearly defined rating system:

Movies have been evaluated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting according to artistic merit and moral suitability. The reviews include the USCCB rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.

The classifications are as follows:

* A-I -- general patronage;
* A-II -- adults and adolescents;
* A-III -- adults;
* A-IV**
* L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
* O -- morally offensive.


The rating for Avatar is A-III - adults, and the review (read it here) warns of the "implied sexual encounter" and the nature-worship. What it does not do, refreshingly, is tell Catholics whether they should see the movie.

The entire website, in fact, offers coherent, thoughtful reviews with specific points about what some viewers might consider problematic. I would actually use the site, which goes into much more detail and nuance than the Motion Picture Association, to determine suitable movies for young kids. The fact that it rates a particular film, such as The Crazies, as Morally Offensive, won't deter me from seeing it, but the accompanying review might:

"A potentially thought-provoking parable about ecological irresponsibility and military excess in an emergency is lost amid the bloodletting in director Breck Eisner's relatively lavish updating of George A. Romero's low-budget 1973 horror exercise."


Tonight we'll find out what the Academy thinks we should value, and we may or may not let their recommendations sway our box office dollars and NetFlix queues. I'm happy to let the US Conference of Bishops weigh in as well, and I'll give them just as much persuasive power as the Oscar voters. But beyond that, I'd be happiest to have the Pope working on more important matters. You know, like updating the Vatican's Facebook page.

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