I am about to offer a jaundiced vision of James Cameron’s Avatar, and I feel a bit like the guest who kicks the magician at a children’s party. I will certainly see Avatar again, if only to revel in the hallucinatory flora and fauna, the waterfalls tumbling from mid-air mountains, the leonine beauty of the Na’vi’s faces. I am more than excited by the possibilities of the technology that had to be invented to make this movie, technology so dazzling that had it been used to make a movie about talking squirrels colonizing Neptune I would have been equally impressed. In a strange way, the breathtaking CGI of Avatar serves the same purpose as the use of black and white in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List: it is an index of the film’s moral seriousness. After all, if we are to narrate the moral fairy tale of how an edenic world is protected from evil, it is desirable that the audience be drawn as deeply into that world as possible, and it is the job of technology to draw the viewer in. It is the particular mode of this drawing-in that gives me a moment of hesitation. Like the film to which it is often compared — Dances with Wolves — Avatar is a film that stands and falls on its moral message about our relationship with the cultural “other,” the fellow being who irresistibly demands a kind of moral responsibility of me. In the case of Avatar, this moral responsibility extends beyond the Na’vi to mother nature herself, as threatened by the incursion of the human mechanisms of death and destruction as the beings who dwell in her embrace. Avatar, in short, offers a moral message about what is owed in way of respect, protection, even love to the racial and cultural other. The problem is that in order to present this racial and natural other as worthy of our love it must be eroticized to the nth degree. Nature in Avatar is a bright and irresistible candy store of desires. It is nature that you want to run your tongue over. Much the same can be said for the blue temptresses of the Na’vi. Outside of pornography I don’t remember ever having seen camera work that took such delight in the spectacle of perfect bodies. What Marlene Dietrich’s face was for Sternberg, Na’vi buttocks are for James Cameron. Don’t misunderstand me: I am in favor of eroticizing anything from sunsets to iphones to pudding. It becomes a problem when the imperatives of moral duty become entangled with the libidinal pleasures of erotic fantasy, because then the cultural and racial other (the immigrant, the aboriginal, the stranger) becomes worthy of my care and concern only insofar as he awakens my fantasy. The nature we want to save in Avatar is not the nature of viruses, dirt, and predation but a creamy, fruit-flavored, perfectly consumable product. In the same way, there is nothing of the Na’vi that might make us uncomfortable, that might challenge us to see beyond ourselves because the Na’vi are pure reflections of our own unattainable desires: taller, stronger, healthier, more beautiful. It is as if Cameron could not trust our ethics to awaken unless it was prodded by our lust. And is this not the challenge of any multiculturalism that aspires to ethical seriousness? It is not to the degree that the other dazzles me, makes my pulse beat faster, awakens in me desire and longing, that I should attempt to build a peaceable world with him, just as it is not only a tarted-up version of nature that deserves protection. The other whose presence disturbs my equilibrium, the stranger, the sojourner, calls for an ethical response that is decidedly not titillating. It is made up of small accommodations, legal debates, everyday decisions to thwart one’s own fearful hostility. This work is hard enough without also demanding of the other that he arouse my desires. As I said, I will certainly see Avatar again. However questionable, a thing of beauty is a thing of beauty quite apart from its truth value. Besides, with the pace of technological evolution, I’m sure by this summer Avatar will be old hat and we will all be dazzled by the adventures of the talking squirrels colonizing Neptune.