I will have to admit from the outset two things:
1) I usually go to the movies for the entertainment and escapism it offers. So shoot me. I don’t want to see a film that rubs my nose in the dirt and says “This is your dull stupid life, get used to it.” (For this reason, I cannot imagine ever wanting to see “Precious”). But this doesn’t mean I don’t want the films I see to challenge or inspire me. I don’t mind a film that shows me how “dull and stupid” my life is, as long as it then goes on to uplift me in some way and to encourage me to exercise heroic human virtue – especially the virtue of hope.
2) I also believe that most films which fit this “inspiring and challenging” bill will, almost of necessity, have something of a “gospel” to offer. In fact, I am always on the lookout for how “redemption” takes place, for who the “Christ-figure” is. Almost without fail, there is such redemption and such a figure – even though they may not always be in accord with my own beliefs.
So, Avatar. Yes, it is an inspiring and challenging film. And yes it also has a gospel to offer. But is that “gospel” as opposed to the Gospel which we preach as some commentators make out? That’s my question. Of course, all sorts of people project all sorts of ideas and mis-ideas onto this movie (see this article in the NYTimes for an example). As a foil, I could have chosen the L’Osservatore Romano piece by Gaetano Vallini – in which he commented that it “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature” – but I don’t have an English version of that article to hand. What I do have is the latest edition of a much more modest church newspaper, the March 2010 edition of “The Lutheran”, in which Mark Hadley writes a comment under the title “Take me away from all this…me”. His comments are so predictable, that I thought I would use them.
First of all, he tells us that this is the biggest movie since James Cameron’s Titanic. That’s for sure. No argument there. I felt much the same when I came out of the cinema. Big, long, epic, WOW! Totally gripping, etc. etc. Then, after a paragraph synopsis, he gets to business:
Avatar mirrors the pro-environment mindset that has globally energised Generation Y. …Young viewers have learnt so to loathe the behaviour of merciless multinationals that identifying with aliens over their own species was an easy ask. Furthermore, the resemblance of the story to current oil politics in Iraq and Afghanistan swells their support for a marine who would abandon his comrades to fulfil a ‘higher duty’. And what is that duty? Nature worship.
Okay, we’ll get to the “nature worship” in a minute. Just note, however, that the NY Times article I linked to above says that this film is a virtual “Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties”. Some see the environmental movement, some the peace movement, some say its antifeminist, some that it is pro-smoking… etc. etc again. Let’s just hold off on that for a bit, eh?
But now to the “nature worship”.
Avatar ushers neo-paganism into the new millennium. Because Pandora’s environment is interconnected at every level, the Na’vi can truthfully call the animals and the trees their brothers. The eco-theology that emerges is straight out of the 1980s’ New Age movement. This worldview connects the current generation’s environmental concerns with its growing spiritual awareness. When Sully inhabits his Na’vi body he is happier and freer than he has ever been, without having to count himself more important than anything. His final peace rests not on retaining his rights as an individual but on humbly trusting himself to the all-knowing Pandora.
What do we see in this movie? We see some sort of religion, yes. We see another bunch of guys (and a couple of gals) who laugh at even the notion of religion as primitive and superstitious. They could be US soldiers laughing at Muslims. They could be Australian mining companies laughing at the Sacred Sites of the Aborigines. BUT they could also be the secular media laughing at the simple minded Catholics. They could be. After all, we are presented with a religion and a bunch of gung-ho anti-religionists as determined as Richard Dawkins with a missile launcher to rid the simple minded of their impractical and unscientific superstitions. So, the religion presented is a nature religion. Granted there are probably a million differences between the sort of “religion” in this film and the sort of “religion” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but there’s a lot of similarity too, isn’t there? Think of the way in which Tolkien represents the good guys as nature lovers and in tune with nature (Lady Galedriel and the elves – the “home tree” in Avatar is straight out of Tolkien – or the Ents) whereas the forces of evil are destructive of nature: the Scouring of the Shire, or what Saruman does to the forest, etc. This aversion to Avatar’s “nature religion” may be just a little more due to neo-conservative political ideology than Christian theology.
A pause here for a moment to consider the plot. There have been many criticisms of the plot weaknesses of this film. Okay, it ain’t Shakespeare. But it is a damned good story telling. It doesn’t rush things, it doesn’t push you too fast, it takes you with it up to the very end. It is all classic story telling – and I didn’t find as many plot holes in the story as I was made to expect. It is also very simplistic – granted. The Company guys are about as one dimensional as you can get. And yes, the Na’vi are all perfect in every way (though not quite in the Mary Poppins sense). But as one of my friends says, look at it as a comic book movie like Batman or – better still – the Phantom!, and you are on the right track. It isn’t meant to be complicated. The best stories never are.
Okay, back to Mark’s article:
However, I believe that modern audiences also crave Jake’s transcendence for a wholly new reason. In another sphere of life we have all become aware of the self-loathing that advertising has encouraged in first the female and now the male mind. Films like Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas have encouraged audiences to mentally switch sides; Avatar encourages them to reject their bodies altogether. Its humans are sweaty, scarred and, in Jake’s case, shattered. The Na’vi are nine-foot supermodels with Olympian agility. Of course Cameron would be unlikely to create hideous exteriors for characters he wants us to identify with. Yet Avatar may have unwittingly tapped into the profound discomfort many of us feel within our bodies.
Well, there could be something here. There is a certain Cartesian division between mind and body, most evident in the attempted and then successful scenes in which the “person” of the human is attempted to be permanently transferred from the human body to the Na’vi body. And yet, have there not been times when we have preached exactly what Jake is looking for? Have you never heard this text used at a funeral?
“But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.”
Yes, Jake’s body is shattered, and he longs for…oh, what’s the word for it?…RESURRECTION! You see, the Na’vi avatar bodies are not completely discontinuous with their human bodies. They are made from the same DNA, they even look recognisably the same. There is continuity here. You could watch the movie and see the whole of Pandora as a kind of picture of Paradise. That is, after all, what Cameron wants us to think, isn’t it? Isn’t the lure of the movie the idea that we could indeed one day inhabit such an existence? Where our God will be all in all, and where “the leaves of the Tree of Life will be for the healing of the nations”? Where we will share fully in the divine nature? Where we will not be disembodied spirits, but will inhabit bodies of the new creation, bodies that are-and-are-not-yet these very bodies we inhabit now? When we see Jake kneeling and “talking to a tree” in his prayer scene, can we not recognise our own stumbling prayers and hopes? I think we can, if we don’t immediately write this all off as “new age nature worship”.
As for Dances with Wolves, yes, I know that a lot of people have made the comparison. A less common comparison (because it doesn’t have the “nature worship”) is District 9 – with which this film has a lot in common. But why has no one compared it to the 1986 Roland Joffe movie, “The Mission”? [HT to my wife Cathy for making this connection.] The plot is very similar and is actually more or less historical. The natives are the South American Indians in the jungle, the “unobtanium” is gold, the Company are the Spaniards, and (lo and behold!) the “religion” is the Catholic religion and the hero is a Catholic priest who “goes native” and joins the Indians. The final desperate ending of “The Mission” has none of the happy ending that Avatar does – but there are deep similarities between the scene of the destruction of the Home Tree and the Spaniards shooting down the Indians as the priest carries the Blessed Sacrament through their village.
Imagine, though, if you could tell viewers that their fantasy could be reality in far less than a century. That they could look forward to a new, beautiful body that would respond to, rather than resist, the world around them. That there was a way to finally do away with those things they loathed that went deeper than their skin. And that this transcendence was the gift of an all-surrounding being who could guarantee their peace for eternity. That would be great news – gospel news – wouldn’t it!
Yes, I agree, Mark. I think you are spot on in the fact that what Avatar taps into is a deep longing for Paradise, a deep longing for Resurrection, and a deep longing for God. With Jake, I almost felt the sense of disappointment when we returned to the “waking world” of the militarised and industrialised company. I wanted to be back with the Na’vi in that Paradise. This was what I had come to the movies to see and to experience. Because in my heart – as in your heart, dear reader, and in the heart of every human being – there is a longing for the New Creation, a longing to be one with the Creator, a longing for redemption, which, as Augustine said, we will always feel until we rest in God.