At the Academy Awards on March 7, James Cameron’s block buster film Avatar was pipped at the post for best film 2009 by his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigalow’s small scale Iraq war film The Hurt Locker. Last December I went to see Avatar 3D. To be honest, when it first came out it didn’t really grab me as a “must-see” movie but then a couple of friends started raving about it and we ended up going to see it. While I was curious about the 3D aspect, I was cautious also from early experiences with that medium.
It didn’t take long to be totally drawn into the movies and I was just blown away. The sheer visual beauty of Pandora enhanced by the three dimensional presentation, as well as a gripping, emotional, challenging and moving story all sweep me off my feet. There was plenty of action to keep the story moving but neither the action nor the innovative and spectacular special effects got in the way of the story. Indeed, unlike many spectacular special effect sci-fi movies, this one had three dimensional characters and believable plot development. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this movie was nominated for best picture at the Oscars (Academy Awards).
(In a re-enactment of recent earth history) Pandora is an alien moon rich with a earth saving resource much coveted by humans 150 years in the future who have almost completely depleted and spoiled their own planet. A big corporation (RDA) has moved in with the help of ex-military mercenaries to harvest the rich rewards. There is only one problem; the area with the richest resources is inhabited by 10 feet tall, blue, intelligent, humanoid aliens. The Na’vi live as hunter gatherers and in tune with their (for humans) wild and deadly environment. And the Na’vi have no intention of moving away from the area where the giant home tree grows. In an effort to move the indigenous population, scientist Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her team have been enlisted to befriend the Na’vi and persuade them to move. Grace overcomes the hostile environment to live among the people by growing genetically altered Na’vi-human hybrids which can be mentally “inhabited” by the scientists through the use of a coffin like machine. Initially this approach had been promising but recently the chief of the people had banned the “dream walkers” (Na’vi-human hybrids) from living among his people.
It is into this world of conflict that former marine, now paraplegic Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) is thrown. His more erudite, scientifically inclined identical twin brother had been part of the program. However, he was tragically killed just before he was to link with his avatar. Jake, with no scientific credentials to his name, is persuaded to take his place. On his first expedition in his (or rather his brother’s) avatar, Jake is separated from the party and is lost. No human or avatar has ever survived staying outside over night before, but Jake manages it. He meets up with Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldana), a young Na’vi woman. She introduces him to the tribe and is charged with teaching him the ways of the people.
As the only person allowed to live among the tribe, Jake becomes the nexus of the various conflicts, both internal and external, of the film. With his former experience and loyalty to the army, his growing relationships with the scientists including the acerbic Grace, and especially his immersion into Na’vi life and culture and attraction to the beautiful, firey, strong Ney’tiri Jake increasingly feels the conflict between loyalty to the earth powers that seek to exploit Pandora at almost any cost and growing attraction of the communal and spiritual values of the people of Pandora. Moreover, he increasingly feels the joy and tension of not only being able to walk but to do physical feats of great daring within his powerful , deft avatar body. Each return to his broken human body becomes more difficult. As events rush to a climax Jake and his scientific colleagues are forced to choose sides.
In some ways, this movie is Matrix meets Dances With Wolves with dashes of Wall-E thrown in. It’s unmistakable theme is the clash of modern, cooperate, profit-driven life that reduces all values to the monetary and whose cooperate imperialism has little regard to the destruction of the natural environment and or the way of life, and even lives, of the indigenous people who live there. The movie celebrates love, relationship, community, selfless sacrifice, living in harmony with the environment and spirituality that looks for help and comfort from past generations as well as trans-human mystical powers. Thus, Ney’tiri takes Jake to the Tree of Souls and explains that here the people can hear the voices of past Na’vi for they have been taken up into the tree on their deaths. Indeed, the people, the animals and the plants of Pandora are connected through some kind of neural-like fibres. And the people believe that guiding and protecting all is Eywa. RDA Cooperate boss Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and head of military operations Colonel Miles Quaritch (Steven Lang) dismiss this as mere native superstition – to their cost.
The spirituality of Avatar is popular modern spirituality that draws heavily on eastern and indigenous spirituality. The emphasis on communal relationship and identity, of the strong identification and unity with the natural world, apparent worship of nature, a feminine “deity” who appears to be more a manifestation and personification of the natural world all seem to point this way.
Yet, I can read much that is in harmony with the great biblical story at the heart of Christian belief. Though Pandora is not a world without violence and internal conflict, the Na’vi are largely presented as an unfallen people living in harmony with their environment, each other and Eywa. This is in many ways a picture of Eden in which Yahweh creates a world of unsurpassing loveliness and in which the first humans live in harmony with their environment, each other and their creator. Yahweh pronounces his creation as good and appoints the first human pair as caretakers of this beautiful world. Thus in Hebrew thought the natural world as God’s creation has value and is to be celebrated, unlike most eastern (and indeed ancient Greek thought) in which the physical world is often seen as a deceptive illusion so that true spirituality entails a distancing from the world.
The entry of evil into this unfallen world in both Pandora and the biblical Earth causes conflict, manipulation, the desire for power and possession with a wake of mistrust, broken relationships, destruction, death and conflict on a grand world-shattering scale. And in both stories the struggle of good against evil requires great courage, boldness, the willingness to do what is right despite the cost and indeed the laying down of life to win new life. Just as Jake Sulley, the pivotal person in the story, enters into the world of Pandora by taking on the a Na’vi body and becoming one of the people, so also in the central Christian story God himself becomes embodied as a living, breathing human to win the world back from the forces of evil. Jake gains a more powerful and whole body while for God to become human requires a relinquishment of power and freedom . In Hinduism gods such as Vishnu, Rama and Krishna may take on the semblance of human form (an avatar). In the Christian story God is enfleshed – taking on all that it means to be human even mortality.
In interviews, Cameron has admittedstrong links with Hinduism in the use of avatar (a Hindu term), echoes of Hindu mythology and even in the skin color of the Na’vi (Hindu deities are often depicted with blue skin). Nevertheless, whether intentional or not, this movies alludes to the central great themes of the Bible – of creation, incarnation and sacrifice. In my opinion, in its celebration of the natural world and its beauty, in the taking on of the bodily form of the Na’vi to communicate with them and in the themes of sacrifice and hope, it actually draws more heavily from Christian themes than traditional themes from the Hindu spirituality.
Despite the verdict of the Academy, for me this was the best film of 2009, in fact one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver all give strong performances yet it is the film as a whole that grabbed me. It was visually stunning, dramatically gripping, emotionally moving, never boring and definitely thought provoking. Its strong anti-war, pro-environmental message is obvious but it has many other evocative themes. Set entirely in an imaginary world in an imaginary future it alludes to realities often ignored or dismissed in a modern and indeed post-modern world.
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