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Thinking about "Avatar"

My son Andrew and I saw James Cameron’s new film “Avatar” on Tuesday night, and watched Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” on DVD the following afternoon.  Both are great films, but seeing them back-to-back made me acutely aware of why I felt a lingering discomfort about “Avatar”.  Some of this has to do with the weak intellectual fiber of Cameron’s story, particularly when put on the scales with the magnificently learned and scholarly achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  But at a deeper level, it was the radically different spiritual visions of the two films that created my ill ease about “Avatar”. 

The back-story of “Avatar” is quite simple.  It’s the year 2154 and the planet Earth is perishing.  The only thing that will allow life to continue is a mineral called Unobtainium (seriously, this is a real joke term used by scientists for any nonexistent material that would transform failure into success).  Unobtainium is plentiful on Pandora, a moon in the alien Alpha Centuri system.  A private corporation, with its own military wing, has established a secure mining operation on Pandora called Hell’s Gate, from   which it must deal with the native Na’Vi in order to maximize its profits in extracting the precious ore.  The Na’Vi, ten-feet tall, blue-skinned and cat-eyed, live in such harmony with their environment, they can’t help but bring to mind other indigenous peoples who have been exploited by greedy white capitalists.  Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) leads a team of scientists who have mixed human and Na’Vi DNA in order to create avatars, whom it is hoped will enter Pandora, win over the natives and negotiate for the peaceful mining of Unobtainium.  If they fail, the military arm of the corporation, led by the fierce Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Land, and whose name may be drawn from an H. Rider Haggard story), is more than prepared to “fight terror with terror” to instill “shock and awe”.  Believe it or not, those actual quotes from Donald Rumsfeld are in the script.

In the story itself, a paraplegic former Marine corporal named Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) arrives on Pandora to become an avatar.  He ingratiates himself with the Na’Vi and wins their trust, while he is secretly spying for Colonel Quaritch.  But he falls for Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the indigenous ruler, who has been assigned to tutor him in the ways of Na’Vi.  He slowly begins to embrace the astonishing physical wonder of Pandora and the ethos of the Na’Vi, who maintain a nearly perfect balance with their environment, while worshipping the earth mother energy Eaia (so, so close in name to the Greek goddess Gaia).  So when the ultimate crunch comes, and the humans launch a military attack that will destroy the Na’Vi, Jake must choose sides.   The natives’ initial reaction is that he is a traitor.   But when after generations of failure only he can ride the great winged beast Leonopteryx, he is acclaimed to be the chosen one destined to lead the Na’Vi to victory.   

If you thought this sounds a bit like “Dances with Aliens”, you’re on the mark, as Cameron has strip-mined the writer Michael Blake’s major themes from Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves”.  And if for you, Neytiri resonates a bit like Pocahontas instructing Jake’s mercenary John Smith, you’re also on track.  For Cameron is interested in far more than just entertainment for entertainment’s sake.  “Avatar” raises serious issues about environmental responsibility, corporate greed, racism, and war as an extension of political and economic policy.  Yet in the end, “Avatar” still must leave the Politically Correct with a bone stuck in their collective craws.  Because in spite of all its liberal posturing, the savior is a white male, albeit one morphed into a ten-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-eyed alien. 

But there’s another aspect of “Avatar”.   In the words of the New York Times’ Ross Douthat,

It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and Gospel According to James.  But not the Christian Gospel.  Instead ‘Avatar’ is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism – a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.” (New York Times, Op Ed Page, 12/20/09)

This view of reality has permeated other massively popular films, such as George Lukas’ “Star Wars” epic.  With pantheism, or the more appropriate term “monism”, there is an essential unity between all things in the universe.  Physical reality itself is simply an emanation of the basic consciousness, energy or life force at the heart of existence.  Ultimately, this energy or consciousness is impersonal, even when it is personified as a god or goddess.  It also transcends any normal sense of morality.  Remember the “dark side of the Force”?  Or as Neytiri responds when Jake Sully asks if Eaia will intervene to save the Na’Vi, “She only acts to restore balance.”  Sounds just like the imperative of karma.  With monism, there is no real hope for personal immortality.  A person’s energy is simply reabsorbed into the cosmic flow, or as the Na’Vi believe, “all energy is only borrowed; at some point you have to return it.” 

This is a far cry from the biblical understanding of reality, in which the universe has been created by a holy, personal God who is utterly unique and distinct from creation.  This God, who is the source of goodness and righteousness, so loves humanity he became human in order to redeem it from sin and death.  Biblical redemption is not a blissful re-absorption into cosmic consciousness or energy, but rather an intimate personal relationship with the one who is God.  Goodness, righteousness and love are not equivocal or ambivalent, but at the very heart of the personal being of God.  Creation is good in and of itself, but to worship it as God is nothing short of idolatry.  It is this biblical understanding that permeates Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. 

But… regardless of Cameron’s ideological predilections, the genius of “Avatar” is in his astonishing, mind-boggling, never-before-seen aesthetic vision.  He has created a film that is so starkly beautiful and breathtaking, with such groundbreaking technological achievement, it completely transforms what cinema can do.  “Avatar” is the closest thing to the “Feelies” of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” that has ever been manifested.  So just see the film and expect to be transported.  Should one be concerned about the film’s spiritual assumptions?  In thinking about that, I’m reminded of a moment in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary Concert.  Bono is pontificating about the power of rock and roll to be politically and sexually liberating.  Before his sermon can get too far, he is cut off by Bruce Springsteen, who leans into the microphone to declare, “Just have fun with it, man.”   So be conscious of the political and spiritual implications of “Avatar”, and just have fun.

 

Comments

  • Patrick Kitchell 4 years ago

    Interesting article while I am yet to see the movie(and thanks for ruining it for me.), I know Tolkien wrote the books LOTR with a deep sense and understanding of the Christian religion so if we can't recognize Christ or the spiritual in it then we are ignorant. However Star Wars like Avatar has no "real story" it isn't the story that drew us to Star Wars it was the at the time ground breaking technology and scenery that dazzled movies goers. Lucas was onced asked by a group that wanted to make "The Force" into a religion to come and endorse their new found beliefs and he told them "to get a life".

    I have enjoyed reading all three of your articles so keep up the good work.

    Patrick

  • Deborah 4 years ago

    The universal energy that runs through everything and connects us all is very real for me... And I have a deep personal relationship with God. Both are true all at the same time...

  • Lee 4 years ago

    I agree with Deborah, that to ignore either one is to separate yourself from an essential truth.

  • John Thatamanil 4 years ago

    A thoughtful piece as always Ken. Still, I find it too simple.

    You know well that there are a great variety of Christian theological positions, both classical and contemporary, that are panentheistic. We do after all confess a God "in whom, we move and live and have our being." Likewise, I know of no outright pantheisms or monisms, not even Advaita Vedanta which I study.

    Moreover, it is not clear that the Gaia-like being is entirely impersonal. Apparently, she does answer prayer (I shall say no more for those who care about plot and who haven't seen the movie). The idea that the Christian God is a "person" and that the word "person" means pretty much what it means when used with reference to us is not theologically viable either.

    So, I wish we would enter a more complex and subtle habit of mind that registers gradations of difference rather than stark oppositions. Still, what a thoughtful and provocative piece--the best I've read on the movie thus far!

  • Ken Swanson 4 years ago

    To John: Thanks for your very thoughtful response. I don't want to parse the theology too closely, for of course no one is saved by correct dogma. However I do think its important for people of faith to think clearly about the spiritual and theological implications of artistic statements. Over the past few months I done a close reading of some Christian theologians often labelled as monistic, such as Origen and Eckhardt. When pressed, they both end with a biblical understanding. The key, for me, is what happens in an encounter with God? Is there dissolution of self, as in "Atman is Brahman" or "Tat tvan asi", or is there a heightened sense of individual identity in an intimate relationship? And I grant, these lines are a bit blurred in Avatar. Perhaps the good Dr. Augustine (the audacity!) maintained her identity when she became one with Eaia. Perhaps not. Still, when it comes to this movie I ultimately agree with Bruce: Have fun.

  • Christopher Murrey 4 years ago

    John,

    I haven't seen the movie but your response makes me wonder how you would articulate or explain "relationship" with God. I am intrigued with your "gradations" qualifier with respect to the personhood of God - would you assert that there is some universal foundation common to revelation of the divine?

  • KP 4 years ago

    Ken:

    I am grateful for your essay, although I am not encouraged to see "Avatar" all the same. We're doomed, I suppose, in our time to seeing great technical displays of artistic license without meaning or spiritual significance. The trick is to keep the onslaught to the bare minimum that our individual tolerances will permit.

    In that vein, then, your review has certainly served a useful purpose. It is also gracefully done. Many thanks! Happy New Year.

    Ken P.

  • Lance 4 years ago

    Well you're all getting way beyond me, theological depth-wise, but I've always enjoyed seeing a good Christian lesson at the end of Star Wars (Return of the Jedi). Luke has to give up his own sense of importance, his own fears, desires, his need to make things happen, and trust to something greater than himself. That was the only way he could finally succeed.

    Perhaps that's a shallow interpretation, but I'm sticking with it.

  • Deborah 4 years ago

    I'm with you Lance... may the force be with you!

  • Joy 4 years ago

    While I can find it easy to see what's wrong with artistic expressions, I instead choose to see the truth beyond what is presented. It is said that even Satan uses truth within his lies. I consider it a bit of a game to locate God's truth in man made creations, however inadvertent it may be.

    After watching Avatar, I was reminded of our charge to be stewards of God's creation and what we have done instead with it. The struggle to "go green" for me is an effort to glean what we need from the environment without causing real harm to what God has wrought. I also think that scientific study of the environment can have greater implications than the empty secular version taught in schools, to use science as a means of worship, finding true awe in the details of creation without idolizing creation itself.

    Still, a movie like this can be distracting, blurring truth and falsehood for those who don't know enough to see the difference.

    Good article.

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    As a Buddhist my take on Avatar is the inverse of the Christian analysis of the author of this article.
    In my view, Avatar has a definite monotheistic element - albeit a nameless, less reified version that is more connected to ecology. Nevertheless, there is still an external force that saves the day for the good and righteous. This deviates from the Buddhist understanding, which is that no such force or being out-there, or individual self in here that can be located separately - that the universe is empty of such independent entities but exists instead as continually evolving interdependent events of consciousness. However, within this universe actions that align with a correct understanding of reality, in particular faith, love and compassion, eventually produce happiness and enlightenment regardless of external circumstances while greed, ignorance and anger only generate suffering for ourselves and others. From this perspective the main thing that matters in Avatar is that the natives did not take vengeance on the humans and that some mutual respect became possible. And it is this mutual focus on love and compassion that allow for Buddhists and Christians to truly admire each others religions.