(Spoiler alert: If you are one of the few moviegoers who hasn’t seen Avatar you may want to wait to read this until after you’ve seen it, as it gives away plot lines.)
James Cameron’s Avatar is quite literally spectacular, and if you are a film buff, you will want to see it just because it is quite unlike anything that has gone before, and it will no doubt put its stamp on the way Hollywood movies are made for years to come.
I see very few movies at the theater, since I find them too stimulating for my brain, but I wanted to see this one in 3D, and I hadn’t been to Pittsfield’s new Beacon Theater, so off we went on a date last night.
I’d seen 3D films before, like the 1986 Michael Jackson movie, Captain Eo, at Disney World, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But the 3D films I’d seen before always used the 3D as an obvious gimmick that you just couldn’t forget was there, with things flying around the room and jumping out at you. Not true this time: I forgot about the 3D very quickly while watching Avatar. It is part of what makes the film so visually stunning, of course, but Cameron deftly uses it to advance the look of the film and not just to show off.
As has been noted by critics the plot doesn’t measure up to the film’s amazing visual effects, and it is true. You keep getting the feeling you may have seen this film before, maybe multiple times. It has been compared to Ferngully, Pocohontas, and, especially to Dances with Wolves, where a protagonist goes among noble aliens and is captivated by their ways, unsuccessfully trying to intercede on their behalf to stay the disaster approaching them. The young clerk at my local Blockbuster told me I should definitely see it, but called it “Dancing with Smurfs,” since the local folks on Pandora, the earth-like moon where it all takes place, the Na’vi (hmm, awfully close to the Hebrew word for prophet) are a race of ten-foot blue skinned humanoids (but in a good way.)
What struck me most about the film were the numerous religious motifs running through it. There is a powerful scene of laying on of hands, which evoked my own ordination, when the celebrant invited the whole congregation to come join the gathered clergy to lay hands on me (we’re Congregationalists.) There is a faith healing scene that would have done Oral Roberts proud, with an incantation that sounded very much like glossalalia, although I don’t speak the Na’vi’s tongue, so the priestess could have been reciting Luther’s Small Catechism for all I know.
But I doubt it, for the Na’vi’s God is Eywa, a mother goddess who seems to be the aggregate of all living things on Pandora. This essentially pantheistic deity later seems to undergo a decidedly Western monotheistic personality change when she takes sides and helps the Na’vi repel the nasty humans that are trying to despoil her turf, with the aid of the human protagonist Jake Sully, a former marine, now in a Na’vi body (it’s complicated).
Jake prays to Eywa to help him stop the humans, whom he has come to see as the enemy. Netiri, Jake’s fetching Na’vi love interest, tells him that Eywa doesn’t take sides, just seeks the balance of all things in nature. Well, apparently this time is different, since the out-gunned Na’vi defeat the human military with the help of everything on Pandora that crawls, runs, swims, or flies, with Jake banding together the scattered tribes in solidarity against the rapacious humans.
Jake becomes the unifying leader, a sort of Messiah figure to the Na’vi, only instead of an atoning sacrifice, he just blows everybody out of the water like Rambo or a blue Clint Eastwood. One of the morals of the film is don’t mess with a blue Marine!
There are deaths, but not atoning ones, to some of the main characters, mostly women I noted, as the head scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine, head of the Avatar program, (played nicely by Ripley, I mean Sigourney Weaver) and Trudy, a spunky pilot (played by Michelle Rodriguez, and arguable the most interesting character in the movie) don’t live to see the closing credits roll. Trudy does get the best line in the movie, “I was hoping for a mission that doesn’t involve martyrdom.” She doesn’t get one.
To be fair, this is James Cameron and not Karl Barth, and a Hollywood movie is not required to uphold standards of religious orthodoxy, unless it’s by Mel Gibson, but that opens up another whole set of sticky issues. But by any measure the faith here is not remotely Christian, or Jewish for that matter. For one thing, the whole idea of the Avatar project hinges on a mind/body separation that is more Neo-Platonic dualism than biblical. As one of my Old Testament teachers like to say, “You don’t have a body, you are a body.” But Jake Sully has two! And although Christians and Jews share an affinity with the whole created order by virtue of our shared Creator, and are given responsibility to be good stewards of creation, we transcend creation as well as being part of it. We may enjoy the rocks and trees, but we are not at one with them the way the Na’vi are, and we certainly don’t worship the creation, but the Creator who made them as well as us.
But hey, it’s only a movie, although at times it slips into propaganda, and so deserves some scrutiny. It is also extremely violent, which underminds the whole “respect for all life” beliefs of the Na’vi, who turn out in the end to be pretty badass in a fight, even if they only have bows and arrows against gunships. Of course in the real world the aboriginal people never beat the invaders who have better technology, but Pandora is most dramatically portrayed as anything but the real world. Perhaps it gives us some comfort to imagine a world where such turnabouts could happen.
Cameron throws everything but the kitchen sink in here, but some themes emerge. The scientists, like anthropologist Grace Augustine (who smokes to show her humanity), are good, if wooly-headed and overly idealistic. The military (basically paid mercenaries) are bad. But the most evil is the boss of the corporation RDA, which is basically there to make money from mining unobtanium (apparently named that because it is unobtainable without despoiling the Na’vi’s world.)
The noble savages are, well, noble, and their way of life is very attractive, and above all green. Cameron has admitted an implicit critique of the war in Iraq (fair enough) and there is mention of “shock and awe” as the humans get ready to wipe out the locals.
So imperialism, colonialism, militarism, capitalism, corporations, and environmental irresponsibility all get sent up, giving us lots to cheer about. But it has not been lost on the critics that it is a “white guy” who has to come along to save the wise but backward Na’vi. The action takes place in 2154, and apparently earth is a dying, lifeless, and very non-green dystopia, whereas Pandora is teeming with biodiversity. Eden in 3D.
And the religious faith of Avatar? It is a hodgpodge to be sure, but essentially it is the old pagan mother-earth goddess worship, as old as Ishtar in ancient Assyria and Babylonia. Ross Douthat of The New York Times wrote that Avatar is “Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism . . . Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.” I think he’s spot on.
Nevertheless, go see Avatar, wear the silly 3D glasses, and enjoy the spectacle. But don’t buy the half-baked faith that is proffered. For the real deal get yourself into a pew.