Feb 16, 2010

At The Box Office - AVATAR

Disabled ex-Marine Jake Sully is recruited to aid a mining expedition on the distant jungle moon of Pandora when his twn brother is killed, as only his DNA will allow him to utilise the alien body (known as an Avatar) that allows human beings to breathe the poisonous air. He is ordered to infiltrate the Na’vi and to provide information for his superiors. However, along the way, he falls in love with a Na’vi girl, with the Na’vi people and with their culture, and so difficulties follow, resulting in a climactic confrontation between the Na’vi and the heavily armed mercenary Earth forces…

Unlike Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, which is a loud and overblown special effects extravanganza with a nonsensical plot and virtually no substance (I hated it) there is more depth here. True, the tale is a simple one; this is Pocahontas meets District 9, Dances with Wolves at the edge of the universe – but simple stories well told win us over time and time again.

I can understand how this concept of an avatar fascinates people today. In Hindu mythology, a god would descend to earth from heaven in physical form, an ‘avatar’ (from the Sanskrit avatāra ‘a passing down’). In present day usage, a computer user would create a graphic image as an alter ego, a representation of him or herself or alter ego (which is usually far cuter than it’s actual user). Whether in computer games or internet forums, it allows people to ‘be’ someone else – the essence of fantasy. This ability to fabricate our human identities is a powerful draw – from kids who are unhappy at home but long to be special like Harry Potter, to the intimacy sought in chat-rooms, the ability to ‘be someone else’ is a craving of so many today. Jake Sully can leave behind his human body with its ineffective legs and enter the 12 foot body of a Na’vi male, squishing mud between his toes and leaping from branch to branch – and eventually leading the Na’vi against the destructive human forces that brought him to Pandora. Imagine what it would be like for us – no longer uncoordinated, no excess weight, able to reach that tin on the top shelf… The concept taps into the fantasy world of humans with ease.

What about the visuals? Well, what can I say? In 3-D, the film is absolutely mind-blowing. It is the most visually astonishing film I have seen. As Chris Hewitt wrote in his review for Empire, once you put on those 3-D glasses it “becomes a transcendent, full-on five-star experience that's the closest we’ll ever come to setting foot on a strange new world.” (1) The 3-D effects add depth to a spectacular and unfamiliar world, and it’s as though you are there as Jake Sully explores the alien environs in his new form, with its six-legged beasts, iridescent foliage, massive stone arches 300 metres in height and 500 metres across, and floating mountains with waterfalls that plunge into nothingness. Cameron creates a whole new world, a moon almost ten times the size of Earth (I know that because I bought Wilhelm and Mathison’s Avatar: A Confidnetial Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandaora (2) – okay, I’m a geek, but I know it and I’m proud). The 3-D technique enhances the experience of exploring the undiscovered wonders of this Eden-like world, unsullied by the rapacious greed and the countless ravages of war and pestilence of our own planet.

Phrases such as “preemptive strikes,” “shock and awe” and the need to fight “terror with terror” have led a number of critics to see the film as anti-American, or anti Bush/Republican. However, while using such recent terminology, I think Cameron’s view is a bit bigger. At the London Premiere of Avatar Cameron shared the following thoughts on the human proclivity for conquest and the insatiable need for more:

“I think there’s this long wonderful history of the human race written in blood going back as far as we can remember... where we have this tendency to just take what we want without asking. That’s how we treat the natural world as well - there's a sense of entitlement. We’re here, we’re big, we’re got the guns, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the brains. We are therefore entitled to every damn thing on this planet.

And that’s not how it works - and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don't wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural world [and] the natural cycles of life on Earth.” (3)

Sounds all right to me… For too many Western Christians, Christianity and capitalism go hand in hand, and to Gordon Gecko’s mantra “Greed is good” would shout a hearty ‘Here here!” Some critics point the finger at Christianity as the primary source for the present ecological crisis, with the divine mandate to exercise “dominion” over the earth used to justify ruthless treatment of the natural world (4), and the mission movement charged with being used as a vehicle to pave the way for colonization. While simplistic and harsh, the challenge cannot be dismissed out of hand. Cameron’s commentary on the first world’s lack of respect for the culture and values of indigenous peoples of the majority world is hard to ignore, and in a world where global warming, rising oil prices, oil slicks and deforestation are hot issues, Cameron’s vision calls for a respect for the planet that should be at the forefront of any global Christian agenda.

The Na’vi themselves are impressive also. The Na’vi are three metres tall, and move with the otherworldly grace of the Elves in Lord of the Rings. With their azure skin and feline grace, they are a sight to behold. They are a Neolithic society, a highly developed culture based on the spiritual connection of all living things. This connection is emphasized through the use of the queue, a long braid that houses neural tendrils that allows the Na’vi to connect to other living creatures, like connecting your i-pod to a laptop. This allows the Na’vi to be in harmony with plants and animals. It kind of reminds me of Neo in The first Matrix film where, after being jacked in, he wakes up and says, “I know kung fu.” Wouldn’t that be cool – with such intimate connections among our leading rugby players, perhaps we could bring home the Rugby World Cup in 2011… but I digress…

Regarding its religious outlook – the humans in the film show no interest in religion at all. Their interests are scientific, technological and financial, as they seek the precious element unobtainium. Obviously they didn’t take a chaplain. I think it is interesting that film prefers the simpler and more spiritual outlook of the Na’vi to the soul-less technology and voracious materialism of the human forces.

The Na’vi, on the other hand, are very spiritual. There religion is a mystical form of nature worship. The Na’vi worship Eywa (which sounds like a switched-around version of Yahweh, the name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, usually translated as “the LORD” in capitals in our modern translations). Eywa is the guiding force and deity of Pandora. The Na’vi believe that Eywa acts to keep the ecosystems of Pandora in perfect balance. The scene where the Na’vi corporately call on Eywa while writhing from side to side had me thinking of the hideous rave scene in The Matrix: Reloaded, or the hippie 60s musical Hair. The Na’vi are in touch with this maternal, organic energy that runs through the entire planet.

This ‘mystical force that unites all things’ is the religion that the prophets Hollywood find acceptable. Consider the similarity to the spirituality of the Star Wars universe, with its mystical force is a mystical energy that permeates the universe and runs through all living things and unites all living things in the universe. Remember Yoda talking to Luke in the swamps of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back? (No – oh man, I am a geek!). “My ally is the force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us, binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the force around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere…” The religion of the Na’vi is very similar, although, unlike the force, they can pray to Eywa.

There’s been a resurgence in the beliefs and practices of neo-paganism – ‘new paganism’, influenced by pre-Christian European beliefs - and the desire within New Age spirituality to return to indigenous forms of spirituality, which seem to many ‘untainted’ by the spiritual lack and materialistic views of western life. Howe describes modern neo-pagan witchcraft in the following way:

The ideal in most neo-Pagan practice is to become as one with the natural world-to live in harmony with nature… Witches are people who revere both the God and the goddess. They seek a more friendly relationship with their natural environment, endeavoring to recognize the sacredness of all of nature. (5)

While the respect for nature is a positive response to poor stewardship over the last century or so, the spiritual view is clearly not a Biblical one. It can be described as a pantheistic view of God (‘pan’ – all; ‘theo’ – god; lit. “all is god”) where nature and ‘god’ are identical, and, as much as Hollywood advocates this idea, it is a far cry from the personal God of the Bible. God is not merely the energy that runs through all things. Rather, God spoke creation into being. God – Creation; Different.

Yes, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), and so creation can reflect the glory of God. However, the personal God of the Bible speaks and grieves and loves, and we can live before him in majesty and mystery, love and acceptance…

So, go put the glasses on and enjoy the visual feast of Avatar, but be wary of the spirituality that Tinseltown’s evangelists seek to preach from their cinematic soapboxes…

written by Ps Simon 


(1) Chris Hewitt, “Review: Avatar”, Empire; available online at: http://www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=133552 [accessed 3 Feb 2010].

(2) Maria Wilhem & Dirk Matheson, James Cameron’s Avatar: an Activist Survival Guide (HarperCollinsPublishers: London, 2009), 6.

(3) “James Cameron's Avatar Premieres in London” BBC News 11 Dec 2009; available online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8406868.stm.

(4) Cf. Lynn White Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-7.

(5) Richard G. Howe, “Modern Witchcraft: It May Not Be What You Think”, Christian Research Journal Vol 28, No 1, 2005, 15, 18.

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