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by Kathi Maio

Blockbuster as Religious Experience

CRITICS, philosophers, and theologians (with much greater intellectual chops than your humble servant) have long identified the link between popular culture—notably fantasy fiction and film—and the human hunger for mythology, and even spirituality. The modern superhero clearly plays the mythic role of the demigod, even when the plotline isn't as ham-fisted as in February's Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. And numerous dissertations (of the Ph.D. variety) have been written on the Christian meanings and messages of the Lord of the Rings cycle and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Times have greatly changed since the Inklings of Oxford purposefully wove their grand tales with theology. But it is good to know that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even filmic fantasies of the twenty-first century display a healthy (if sometimes partially hidden) dose of religious symbolism and spiritual yearning. This includes two of the biggest blockbusters of this past winter.

New Moon, the second adaptation from the Twilight series of novels by Stephenie Meyer, entered theaters in November and was still playing in January. Building on the previous success of the first Twilight movie, the new installment became an immediate hit, based on the ferocious devotion of "Twi-Hards" and those of us who were just trying to figure out what all the fuss is about.

However, if you were not a previous devotee of Ms. Meyer's inelegant Harlequin- cum-horror prose, and especially if you had not previously seen the far superior 2008 Twilight film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, you would likely not be able to fathom the Twilight phenomenon as either a cinematic hit factory or as a worldwide cultural obsession.

For those few of you who might have spent the last four years under a mossy rock in the Hoh Rain Forest of Washington, perhaps I should say a brief word about the storyline, so far. In the first film, a young teen named Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) moves from Arizona to a damp small town in Washington State to take up residence with her father. Entering the local high school, she starts making friends, but also appears to repel her new biology lab partner, a pretty, pale, tousle-haired lad named Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).

Turns out the repulsion is anything but. Edward, a member of a "vegetarian" vampire clan who nobly feast on animal blood instead of that of their human neighbors, actually feels an overwhelming attraction to Bella and her corpuscles. And Bella's teenaged carnal desires are soon directed back at Edward, even after she discovers his dark secret.

Since sexual abandon might well lead to Bella's death or undead transformation, Edward craves but doesn't consume his sweetheart, showing a courtly devotion equaled only by his simmering sexual restraint. It was all enough to make teeny-boppers swoon and sigh. But it is not just young girls who flocked to see Twilight. While the audience was predominately female, mothers, too, caught the fever—attracted not only by the high romance but also by the abstinence-only message of the movie.

Many have seen a correlate between Ms. Meyer's Mormon religion and the semiotics of her stories and the subsequent films. But this goes beyond Twilight being a shill for the "True Love Waits" Movement. (After all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn't exactly the only religion that considers premarital sexual congress to be a sin.) Many pivotal scenes in the Twilight stories take place in meadows—Is this an allusion to the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Do the Cullens (the good, moral vampires) represent Mormonism while the Volturi (the murderous, powerful governing coven) in Italy signify Roman Catholicism and the old Christianity that seeks to destroy the LDS?

I have to admit that the theological analysis of the Twilight saga interests me less than retrograde gender roles and politics of the series. Although certain Mormon sects are content to give child brides to older men, there is undeniably something creepy about the eternally youthful-looking Edward (who is actually a centenarian) wooing a high-schooler. For all his celibacy, courtliness, and I-like-to-watch-you-sleep devotion, there is a controlling undertow to the Edward persona that makes him something less than an ideal man (or ghoul). He is the one who dictates the expression and limitation of the couple's sexual relations. And even when he leaves his inamorata—for her own good, of course—he keeps appearing to her in vaporous clouds to tell her not to do this or that, making him seem less like a astral exemplar than one of those emotionally abusive boyfriends they do television PSAs about.

Beyond the theological underpinnings and the sexual politics of New Moon is, of course, the real question for the film critic: Does it work as a movie? The female fan base would squeal a resounding "Yes!" But this female critic would have to offer an equally emphatic negative.

In the first movie, Twilight, the heroine Bella has a more interesting character arc as she moves to her estranged father as an act of love and support for her newly remarried mother. We see her attempting to build a relationship with her father, acclimate to school and new friends, and figure out what the story is with the mysterious Edward and his clan. It's a recognizable coming of age story with a fiendish twist. Director Catherine Hardwicke showed her understanding of teen girl angst in her early film, Thirteen (2003), and she was able to bring a similar energy and authenticity to the first book's adaptation, along with screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg.

The second movie, New Moon, suffers from one crucial challenge. That is, undead heartthrob Edward Cullen, in a misguided attempt to protect the girl he loves, moves away from Washington, leaving young Bella to a heartbroken senior year of high school. That makes the story an inherently frustrating one for both return scripter Rosenberg and new director Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass)—not to mention the viewer.

Kristen Stewart's Bella descends into a catatonic mopeyness that your average fourteen-year-old girl might find quite relatable, but which is less than entertaining to watch; especially through Mr. Weitz's rather unimaginative lens. When he circles the stony-faced Ms. Stewart several times to symbolize the passage of time in her disconsolate funk, I felt no sympathy. I only wanted to give her a shake and tell her to get over herself or get to a psychologist for some counseling and pharmaceuticals.

Even when Bella finally gets out of her bedroom, she remains a sullen and boring movie hero. Eventually, she decides to take up reckless activities like helmetless motorcycle riding, because risky behaviors briefly bring Edward to her as a deus-ex-fog-cloud telling her to stop whatever she is doing. Nebulous chastisements do not make for a very satisfying relationship, however. So Bella finds herself increasingly drawn to a muscular Native American family friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner).

But, wouldn't you know, Forks is a town where all the eligible young men seem to have a secret. In this case, Jacob and several other young male members of his Quileute tribe are shape-shifting werewolves pledged to hunt vampires.

Although the werewolf transformations and associated action CGI are serviceable enough, they don't really add much interest to the lackluster plot. The proceedings are amazingly dull, except for a couple of scenes like the one in which Bella's gal pal, Jessica (Anna Kendrick), babbles on about the questionable symbolism of vampire movies and then denounces the erratic Bella as an adrenaline junkie. It is a moment of modest fun in two hours of clumsy cinema.

While much of the weakness in New Moon can be blamed on Stephenie Meyer's original source material, I can't help but think that Catherine Hardwicke would have invested the proceedings with a greater vitality. Heck, even the CW series The Vampire Diaries is more lively and engaging than New Moon. But lackluster or not, any Twilight movie (like any Harry Potter film) is likely to do boffo box office. Devotees will delight in any moribund memento of their cultural obsession. Those of us who haven't been bitten by the Twilight mania should give this movie a pass.

I found another box office smash of the winter easier to enjoy. Although far from original in its story or narrative style, at least it wasn't a franchiseÖyet. Moreover, it was designed to be a big (and I mean 3-D GIGANTIC) dazzling conveyor of movie magic. And, by gum, that is exactly what it was.

Of course, I am referring to Avatar, the long-awaited new movie by James Cameron, noted helmer of sf and fantasy film as well as the King of the World responsible for the ultimate in big cheese disaster romances, Titanic.

Years in the making, more expensive than any previous movie and more successful than any flick you can name—consider the rest of the superlatives uttered—Avatar aims to be a memorable spectacle. Its heady mix of state of the art CGI, finely meshed motion capture animation and live action performance, along with IMAX (or Real) 3D elements that emphasize enchantment just as much as violent action, really do let even the most jaundiced critic understand why this movie was a worldwide megahit.

Is the film overripe and overlong? Yes. Does it shortchange the more expository aspects of its story? Indeed. Cameron can't be bothered to explain properly how the GMO human-alien avatars really work. And you quickly get the feeling that "Unobtainium," the substance Earthly invaders hope to mine on the planet of Pandora, is a Hitchcockian MacGuffin of the first degree.

The plot is hodge-podge of New-Agey spirituality and vaguely progressive politics. The hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a disabled Earthling Marine and veteran of the "Venezuela" conflict—look out descendents of Hugo!—who seems at first to be firmly aligned with the military-industrial complex exemplified by the mining corporation and their Blackwater-ish mercenary enforcers. But Jake is born again in his Na'vi alien persona. Experiencing the wonder of the primitive paradise in the Pandoran rainforest, and further enchanted by the noble nature-honoring culture of the Na'vi population, our jarhead starts to transform into a tree-hugger. And when he falls for the brave and beautiful Omaticaya "princess," Neytiri (ZoŽ Saldana), heart, head, and brawn all switch sides, causing Jake to, in the words of the G.I. Joeish Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), "betray [his] race."

White boy as warrior-savior of a threatened indigenous people isn't exactly a novel storyline. (Just call Jake Dances With Pterosaurs or A Man Called Direhorse.) But Cameron undeniably keeps his eye-popping saga feeling fresh and new. You easily set aside the racist aspect of the plot—especially since Jake seeks not only to assimilate but actually to become genetically a member of the clan. And the neo-paganism of the story's underpinnings is easy to embrace in a CGI landscape this filled with wonder and enchantment.

James Cameron, more than any other director today, knows how to integrate spectacular effects into an affecting movie experience. Nonetheless, he is kidding himself (and his cast) when he says that his "Volume" motion capture system doesn't seek to replace actors but "empower them." Avatar is filled with superlative computer animation, but Neytiri is a gorgeous, bewitching cartoon. She is not a physical performance by ZoŽ Saldana, no matter how often the lovely actress says that the character is "all me."

If I were a member of SAG, I'd be worried. But as a member of the audience, I am happy enough to spend an afternoon communing with a society of blue creatures that look nothing like me.

And if I were an environmentalist or an aboriginal rights activist I'd be relatively pleased with the slightly preachy messages in Avatar, as well. As for the theologians in the audience; well, their comfort level with the movie will likely be dependent on how open-minded they are. Many would prefer the New Chastity/early marriage model of the Twilight movies. Others may favor the kind of end times extravaganza that 2012 offers. (That thing was enough to send anybody racing for the pews!) And then there is the post-apocalyptic fable about a bible-carrying, machete-wielding prophet we find in The Book of Eli. (Give us that old time religion, but protect us from the heathenish hordes!)

As for me, I'll take the pagan delights of Avatar. Now, if I could only find that Tree of Souls.

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