There are many times I walk into a movie theater uncertain whether or not the film before me will be enjoyable, cause meditation of gospel and human themes and be worth the time to hear the story be told. There are other times when I simply know I will like the movie ahead of time. Avatar was one such movie. I knew the combination of consciousness transfer, technologically animated bodies, strange creatures on strange worlds and a huge SciFi mega battle would be right in the range of awesome for me. What I did not expect was the visual spectacle that is Avatar. What follows is not a formal film review, but simply some thoughts which left the theater with me on opening night. Yes, I saw it opening night, it is what I wanted to do for my birthday. :)
From the outset let me say this. Movie theaters are one of the venues that our culture does its story telling and many times heavy doses of proselytizing and preaching ideas. I participate not as a convert who lives his life through the movies or worships the next creation of an established or up and coming film making. I participate to learn, enjoy and think about who we are and what we are saying to ourselves today as a people. My definition and narrative that I live is the one lived out on earth, inspired by the creator God, culminating in Jesus the unique God incarnate and the savior of the human race. It is precisely because I find the gospel true that I care about modern pulpits like the movies; there are other gospels being compellingly preached all the time to those in stadium seating across our country. Just as any person bringing the gospel to a people with a different religion and world view should care to understand the beliefs of a people, so we should care about the stories our friends live by…many times at the movies. With that said, I really enjoyed Avatar and had some deep questions about its message. Let me share why.
Loved the Spectacle that is Avatar
I cannot say this enough, Avatar is a stunningly visual movie. The world created by the Cameron and his cohorts cannot even be described fully; it must be seen. The makers of Avatar crafted an entire alien world that seamlessly blends together creatures, deadly monsters, a unique natural world, humans, some mind blowing technology and machines of war. The film is a constant blend of CGI and human performances presented in a wonderful display of real 3D technology. From the beginning until the end I was riveted by the creative imagination being displayed floating before us. To be honest, I will likely see Avatar again (maybe in IMAX) as it reflects much of what I enjoy in the science fiction genre.
The storyline and screenplay are not award worthy, but it is a story that moves, draws you in and culminates simply. The plot is easy to predict but this does not detract from the story. It is definitely not as thoughtful/cerebral as I would like as it doesn’t require much wrestling with ideas. There is of course some techo nature worshiping, goddess centered pantheism (more on this in a bit) but it was assumed with tribal simplicity and not wrestled with seriously. For those new to the Avatar world, here is a synopsis from 20th Century Fox:
Avatar is the story of an ex-Marine who finds himself thrust into hostilities on an alien planet filled with exotic life forms. As an Avatar, a human mind in an alien body, he finds himself torn between two worlds, in a desperate fight for his own survival and that of the indigenous people. More than ten years in the making, Avatar marks Cameron’s return to feature directing since helming 1997’s Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time and winner of eleven Oscars® including Best Picture. WETA Digital, renowned for its work in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and King Kong, will incorporate new intuitive CGI technologies to transform the environments and characters into photorealistic 3D imagery that will transport the audience into the alien world rich with imaginative vistas, creatures and characters. —© 20th Century Fox
For a more thorough summary of the plot let imdb be your friend.
The film is longish but certainly does not feel so. There was not one part in the movie when I felt the story or the action was dragging. Granted, it is not simply a techno shoot em up as there is some character development along the way. The performance turned in by Zoe Saldana as the princess of the Na’vi is excellent and in my opinion overshadows everyone else. Of course, a hat tip to the computer animators as they made the 10 foot tall blue chick to go along with Saldana’s performance.
In summary, I really liked Avatar. It was fun, had the most mind blowing worlds on screen and hits basic themes that human beings like. The underdog wins, the oppressor is vanquished, there is the hero/redeemer that is selected by some sort of divinity, there is a love story, a coming of age story, belonging to a family, betrayal, redemption and the like. Come to think of it Avatar is one big cliche dressed up all fancy in another fantastical world; a masterfully created spectacle of a world at that.
My Questions with Avatar
Though I really enjoyed Avatar some of its content was a bit sophomoric when you think about it for more than a few seconds. Though it is not a film that I would mock in any way, there are some preachy moments that came off a bit silly to me. Some of are themes deeply woven into the plot, others were lines of dialog that were so transparently jabs at certain points of view that it was hard to take serious. I wish I had more to interact with philosophically from Avatar, but here are a few thoughts I did take away from the messages being proclaimed.
Is Technology Good or Bad?
One thing I liked about Avatar was some thought about the virtues and use of technology. Though it was not as nuanced a discussion as one might want, the film does cause some reflection about the importance and centrality of technology. First, the humans are using sophisticated technology while the native Na’vi are much more simple people tied to their natural world. Of course, the humans think that they are primitive savages but what you learn in the film is that a harmonious relationship with nature exists with the Na’vi while the humans are just raping the land for a valuable mineral using technology. The way of life of the Na’vi is seen as spiritual, respectful of nature and they are just a perfect happy Utopian sort of people (more on this late).
Though the human technology is superior it is used for destruction and shows no respect for “mother” nature. To be honest, it is all a bit preachy and you get the feeling that we would be better off if we were all running around in a perfect forest like the natives of Pandora. Of course, this world is not real. Ironically, it is a human, using sophisticated technology who saves the people but afterwards he is converted to be one of the Na’vi (called “The People”) in both body and consciousness. The message seems to be nature over the creations of men, which is being presented to humans watching the creation of high tech film makers wearing 3D glasses in indoor theaters. Irony.
Now the Na’vi also have some interesting spiritual biotechnology in that the trees and animals all can interface/network with one another through interfaces akin to a biological USB cable. In fact, the Navi’s long hair serves as a sort of USB dongle so that they can control six legged horses, flying reptiles and the like. Who created this network and interrelationship is unclear, but one thing is. This “nature” is the goddess mother in Avatar. So rather than a pro science, con spirituality view, Avatar provides a naturotechnological mystical science that is so much better than you.
Nature Worship, Gaia and the Goddess Mother
Avatar is also a movie steeped in religion and it is an exercise in preaching. The message is not even subtle or hidden but couched in the spirit of the age in such a way that audiences will likely not mind too much. Western culture stands at an interesting epoch of its history. It evolved from a people who were primarily farmers who believed in one creator God to a industrial people building all matter of stuff all over the planet in the name of “science and progress.” Humans, through engineering and industry would create a Utopian existence and we would all sing to ourselves of our greatness. Sadly, this did not occur. Many today have grown skeptical about our ability to transform the world through building things and have realized how separated we have become from the natural environment which God created. So today we have those who think industry and technology simple destroy the planet, pollute the world and ruin our lives. The human creations that were reveled in during the 19th and 20th century have now become green house gas creating enemies for the green avant garde to rail against. Bad humans. This is undercurrent for the worldview of Avatar.
In addition to this, a simple people, dependent upon and in harmony with mother earth (or Mom Pandora) are seen as an almost perfect people. Every time they kill a deer they snuggle up to it, thank it and almost regretfully eat it. They are mystics that consult Eywa, their God which is pretty much everything that exists and encompasses all. For those unaware of what pantheism is, God is all and all is God, go see Avatar, it is preached everywhere.
The Na’vi certainly are presented in the way some historians love to present native Americans. They are peaceful, nature loving folks just being oppressed by the Europeans or the “sky people” in the case of Avatar. Never mind, the warrior culture, warring clans, territorial battles and all that - the message you should get is “technological sky people = always bad” and “nature worship environmental loving people = good.” No need for any sort of contoured reality, just fundamentalist and ideological proclamation. Those who have commented that Avatar is like “Dances With Wolves” in a galaxy far, far away seem pretty accurate in this observation.
I could get into some of the pantheistic philosophy of the movie but that would be a bit of a long journey. I will mention I found it silly how Eywa is said not pick sides in wars, she just keeps “balance” of all things. Whatever balance happens to mean. I guess pantheists like having a balance of evil around to keep your honest or something. Or we could then ask why this non side taking deity actually takes sides like a medieval deity and to win the war for those who hug her trees.
The religion of Avatar is a rehashing of the Gaia hypothesis mingled with pantheism. A whole world is divine and one big symbiotic organism. The philosophical problem of individuation (or the one and the many) is obliterated with such views, where all are seen as one whole organism rather than individual beings in harmony with a creator that is not creation.
In my mind, a more balanced view of nature is needed in our day, particularly in the West. We need a view that advocates neither raping creation nor worshiping it as a goddess. Rather, we need to see ourselves as responsible for caring for creation and utilizing our world for good. Such responsibility has been uniquely given to human beings for the creation. We are made in the image of God and called to cultivate and care for the world. However, we are to worship the Creator, not the creation, and so use all things that have been made for the glory of God and the good of others.
I always find it odd that those who think we are just specified apes and then think we have a moral duty to the environment in a way that is “different” than other animals. Don’t get me wrong, I believe we do have a different responsibility than the beasts of the fields, I just don’t find such a duty deriving from naturalistic worldviews. In theism, we have this moral responsibility and duty to God…we call it stewardship.
Surprisingly Human Story, which does not contain any of us
As mentioned earlier, there are so many human aspects that we love in a story contained in Avatar that are almost cliche. Yet one of the things I found a little frustrating with Avatar is how hard it is to find a real, contoured human character in the movie. The characters are either clearly wrong headed and wicked (see the white guys running both the corporation and the military) or they are simply the good team who seems to lack any tragic flaws. Grace, Sigourney Weaver’s scientist character, is just learning…just learning away and would never harm a fly. Well, maybe she would harm those evil white guys running things. Jake Sully, the paralyzed marine and future hero/redeemer of the Na’vi, could be more interesting, but he goes from being seen as innocent to being Pandora’s Jesus Christ. Perhaps his dual loyalties to the sky people and the Na’vi could have revealed a human Sully, but you never believe in the movie that he is going to stay a marine, he is Na’vi from the time he puts on his 10 foot tall blue man suit. I suppose when a movie just wants to preach, it does not need characters that are like us; simply characters that we wish we could be.
I think you are left with the feeling from Avatar that we should all be like the Na’vi, especially if we could have cool technology that somehow mother earth just gave to us. My problem is that the Na’vi are not real, they do not exist. I do not mean to say that 10 foot tall blue people on Pandor do not exist, that is a given. What I do mean is that people are truly innocent, untainted by sin, are not real. We need redemption because we are deeply flawed, not because we just need to learn to be more like some phantasm of our minds. Utopian visions of peoples or societies always let us down when we realize that we are human. We know we belong in the clouds but yet are so much a part of earth. This is precisely why I love the views of Jesus. He taught us that we are both more valuable than we can imagine, very much like God. Yet he taught us that we are deeply wicked and in need of forgiveness and change that comes from outside of ourselves.
So I find Avatar to have deep human themes in the story, but had very few humans living them out. The story was incomplete in that sin lived only in “certain types” of people while others are presented as righteous altogether. This is actually troubling to me as self-righteous people may watch this film and feel very good about themselves. We are good, tree and nature loving people. We are not like those warring people who like “terror against terror” and “shock and awe” (yes, there are clear and silly statements like this in the dialogue). The ideologues of Hollywood love to declare their ideas and views to be good and those of others (usually libertarians or conservatives) to be eeeevil. Avatar certainly, and in sophomoric fashion, goes after this shtick. I was surprised their was not a call for government provided universal health care for the forest trees and some evil person saying NO! so he could be rich.
Overall, I loved the grandeur and visual spectacle of Avatar. As a fan of sci fi movies I was thrilled to go, came out with sense of wonder at what I just watched. It is a movie unlike any I have ever seen and simply must be watched in 3D. I will likely see it again because it was a pleasure to watch and experience and the story does have its redemptive elements. The fact that some hero must indeed come and save us is a truth about the universe that we can never escape. Yet, in the midst of the spectacle there was so much preaching that I recommend people watch with a discerning mind. Avatar represents the ideas of our age and not the truth about ourselves or about God. Avatar contains false teaching and religion hidding behind every fluorescent Pandoran tree; be not deceived as it seems the makers of Avatar would like to remake you into their image.
One final warning: if you see Avatar with a anti-war, tree hugging, mother goddess worshipping, hate George Bush, shock and awe hater, the terrorists are just misunderstood, I hate Obama now too for sending more troops, America is the evil empire type friend…beware, they are going to feel really good about themselves and will likely be ready to preach when you pass out beneath the exit signs. It is probably a good time to go get coffee or a beer and chat a bit about Jesus. If you see it with a Canadian…just kidding, we all love Canadians.