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.
This is a beautifully written post. Thank you for sharing it.
I did love this movie. Absolutely loved it. And I can understand your final conclusion, your uneasy soul. Yet I must share something with you.
My spiritual journey in the past few years has been very, very painful. I’ve gone from a solid Christian faith to a place of doubt and unrest. (Paradoxically, I owe this shift to my seminary graduate school!)
Avatar is a significant mark in my spiritual journey. It has shifted me from near-agnosticism back to a place of deep faith.
I agree that the good guy/bad guy part of this movie was way too cut and dried, and was not very Christian.
And, it is the belief that we are all connected, and that love trumps all, that moved me deeply along in my faith.
I am not sure why I am even commenting here…other than to say that this movie moved me closer to God, not further away. I believe we are all connected…and that the love of Jesus reflects that.
Just one girl’s opinion….
Peace to you, Brad-
Great thoughts, Dani. And from the heart. Thank you. I’d love to hear more!
Avatar does touch deep places in us. Me, too. It is a story of love and redemption and restoration. It asks many of the right questions, like: What is really valuable? How far will we go in pursuit of profit? Should we protect the earth? What makes life worth living? Are we not our brothers keeper? As a shepherd of souls and an environmentalist, I love these questions! How can we not be drawn to such a story? I just don’t completely buy all the answers Avatar offers.
I am thankful you shared about your spiritual journey, and I would love to hear more. I am so sorry for the pain you’ve suffered. Really sorry. I also have been through dark roads of doubt and unrest. On the other side, in my own mystical Christian world-view, I now see how necessary doubt and uncertainty are for faith. We cannot hold to real faith until we question its very nature and Source. Ancient Christians called this the “Dark Night of the Soul.” I know it well on my journey. Much immature Christianity has little room for this doubt and skepticism, but I find it refreshing. It doesn’t worry me. For God has remained faithful to the seed he has planted in each of us. “While we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” Thanks for letting me into your world a bit.
Why can’t people just watch a movie & be taken by the story instead of just trying to relate it to Christianity.That bothers me as a christian myself. The story showed their belief system.Why are you so uneasy? It didn’t agree with your faith?
I appreciate your reminder. I am not trying to take the fun out of a movie, or to dis what others believe. I appreciate that we are free as humans to wrestle issues of faith on our own, and in our own ways. This is as it should be. I really enjoy movies, too. But I want to engage my brain for two reasons. First, the movie producer and director are intentionally shaping a movie to communicate a point of view. Every second of every scene is reviewed and reviewed and reviewed–does it add to our goal for the movie, or is it extra? since they are working so hard to influence us, I want to be prepared with my mind on. I don’t mind being influenced, but I hate to be manipulated. Awareness helps me in this. Secondly, I enjoy using my mind, and I can still do it (for now.) Until old age or mental incontinence wins, God has given you and me brains for a purpose. To not analyze and discuss the thoughts, perspectives, or faith slant of someone’s world seems to me, well, too childish. I can love everyone. I can listen to and value everyone. But I want to find meaning in the world as an adult who engages with life, even argues kindly about it, as I enjoy and respect the people I meet.
Brad, I have just stumbled across your blog now. It’s been some time since this movie came out and I can’t help but agree with your one comment: “It is a glorious, half-billion dollar presentation for a political-religious way of thinking. It redefines a world view” and not necessarily for the better.
In fact I believe Avatar it is one of many infotainment projects that are being used to set the stage for, as you call it “a redefined world view”.
Two cases in point:
A journalist friend recently went to an Asian/EU top business leaders conference. The only topic on the agenda: “how to get the rabble to swallow extreme austerity?”
According to him, “It’s the future. Extreme austerity – Hollow states. The anti-terrorism budgets are refocused on internal/domestic threats. It’s everywhere.”
What he did not mention is how monotheistic faiths are also being attacked. Perhaps I do not need to point out how Christianity is under threat in politically correct Europe, but so too, again, is Judaism:
An interesting point of view from the Rabbi of Cologne (from an interview on the city’s banning of circumcision for reasons other than medical:
“The meaning of religion is being devaluated in general. Even the church stands behind circumcisions and expressed harsh criticism, although the issue doesn’t touch it personally — because it’s about the big topic of freedom of religion. That’s the key point: In a secularized and rationalist-thinking world, religion doesn’t hold the same importance it used to do. That’s what’s driving the courts (in Cologne), not some sort of targeted anti-Semitism. From this viewpoint I would add that it’s not a German problem but one of the secular world at large. It could definitely also come to Israel.
I agree with you, Brad. The whole idea of Avatar bothered me, and reminded me of something C.S. Lewis said in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: “…when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.”
Love this quote!
I love watching Avatar as well. Very interesting take on a very old people problem; “might makes right.” In this movie, the underdogs won – hooray! However, the old “New Age” religious theme which is just the same old lie repackaged once again for human consumption is very much in the forefront of this movie. So Brad, I agree. Ok to enjoy the movie, but keep our brains (& our souls engaged) & stay firmly grounded in the truth of God’s word.
Thanks so much.