I recently went to watch Avatar with a friend of mine. The excursion included popcorn, soda, and stylish 3D glasses to fulfill the movie’s maximum potential. My expectations were high, admittedly. I’d seen the promos, and watched a small clip on James Cameron’s making of Avatar. With Titanic and others, he’s proved to be a block-buster fountain of enormous cinema. And then there’s the money. For half of a billion dollars (yes, $500 million, the most ever for a flick) you should be able to put together a GREAT movie. And I was not disappointed. Avatar presses us to the boundaries of visible experience and then drops us off the water-racked cliff on the back of a winged dragon. We see spectacular vine-covered mountains hang in the air, large and small alien creatures dance or rumble, and luminescent jelly-fish-like flower pods drift through the screen in front of our eyes. 3D adds an extra element of punch. The alien Na’vi women, the native race of Pandora, fit and still human-like, move lithly in bead-covered near nakedness. Wow. No doubt about it. Avatar is visually stunning. No wonder it is already the fourth highest grossing movie of all time.
The plot of Avatar also pulls at us. It is a lost-then-found immersion epic like The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, or Disney’s Pocahontas. A broken hero, Avatar’s Jake Sully, has lost the use of his legs and his purpose as a Marine. Still, his genes allow him to replace his brother in a large science experiment, wherein he becomes a Na’vi through mind linking to the virile body of an “Avatar.” Jake, in Avatar Na’vi form, has been hired by a pseudo-military mining corporation to help bring technological renewal and modern life into the world of the natives, so that the planet can be mined. An ambassador for modernism of sorts, the problems arise when Jake discovers that the natives have what really matters without any modern additions. In their native purity, they have the “real” and better life. Even more so, it is the way of the modern world which threatens the pristine purity and spiritual “rightness” of the native culture. Like gentry firing long guns from trains to decimate the buffalo herds of the Native American plains, on Pandora in 2154 a confluence of military and corporate power seek to strip mine the forests of this sci-fi planet for a precious substance, unobtainium. Jake, immersed in the Na’vi culture as an intermediary, grows wise. He overcomes evil, falls in love, finds full over-the-top health, and discovers the real meaning of life. His spirituality blossoms, and he becomes–through faith–one of the Na’vi forever. Purpose, meaning, love and super powers. Oh, and a dragon of sorts to ride into the two-mooned sky. Not bad. This is a powerful draw for anyone who has a heart bigger than a Grinch. Avatar is both well made and powerful. As a sci-fi junky, I really enjoyed it.
So here’s where the rub comes. Too often, we go to a movie to escape or “just enjoy ourselves.” In so doing, we unintentionally turn off our minds. We absorb the plot and the effects, we feel the character’s struggles and redemption, but we don’t really THINK about what we are watching. We don’t ask hard questions of the film. We just experience it.
Stop. Lest we forget, science and religion both affirm that our thoughts and beliefs about life are critically shaped by what we experience. Our childhood, our friends, our loves all come in the package of experiences. We unconsciously ask over and over again, what do my experiences teach me is right and safe and good? The more real the experience, the more powerful the touch, the more we are influenced. When we turn our minds off and just experience things, we allow ourselves to be shaped deep within, without really getting it. The bottom line: Avatar is a good movie but it is also the most expensive political-religious commercial ever made. Miss this? Let me help illuminate with some simple questions we should ask every time we immerse ourselves in the experience of a movie:
From the point of the movie, who is the hero? For Avatar, it is the Na’vi people and the re-born-as-breech-cloth native Jake. While one must admit that much unjust violence has been perpetrated on natives from many countries, does this mean that indigenous groups are always good? Who are the bad guys? In Avatar it is clear: big corporations and the military are completely out of control, and full of violence. They must be stopped. Is this true in our world? Or is it a political perspective? What is the highest good shown? In this movie, good equals saving the planet Pandora, and its collective, all-life-containing spirit, the ancient spirit called by the Na’vi, “Eywa.” Whatever one must do to save the planet is allowed. What is the perspective of God, redemption, or eternality in this movie? Eywa is the Source on Pandora, connecting all life-forms together. Per Cameron, Eywa gives life and blessing. It is Eywa, flowing in the weeping branches of a tree, who contains all the spirits of the ancestors and all other life. This is God on Pandora, and the ecstatic worship scenes are unhidden. Wrapped in shapely blue skin, the Na’vi sway before the One Tree. Sadly, this is not a future place of peace, but a vividly repainted picture of paganism, where God is in all things and is all things. This, to me, is more than a bit of nature worship. As pantheism, it is a well-made kaleidoscope journey away from the Christian Truth as I know it.
I liked the movie, on the surface. I really liked the creative thinking, the moving story line, the character development, and the 3D effects. But with my brain on and my spirit engaged, Avatar is so much more than a cool sci-fi movie. It is a glorious, half-billion dollar presentation for a political-religious way of thinking. It redefines a world view, from one seeking a Creator, to one worshiping that which is created. Sadly, I’m not allowed to just turn off my mind and coast anymore. No matter how spectacular the special effects, or in part because of them, this movie makes my soul uneasy.