Well, if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. I’m talking about James Cameron’s Avatar.
I think the work was amazing partially because of the stunning way in which Cameron uses cliche masterfully. Innovation isn’t always a good thing, and in this case I think it paid off to use cliches. THe characters are a not just predictable they’re near paper thin at times. The doctor standing in the way of progress for science, and study, the rough and tough female pilot, the nerd, and the princess from another culture are standard story devices in today’s narrative currency. But, just because something is used often doesn’t mean it’s used rightly. I for one think that Cameron’s use of cliches served him well, and the box office certainly does not lie.
Avatar(2009) is visually stunning, it left me wanting to enter Pandora, and walk around, it was a world i felt i was in at times. Of course, watching it in 3D did a lot to make that happen. But, all in all Pandora was a visual treat with amazing sound and colors. I think Cameron’s use of bioluminescence was a great way to convey his message of the spiritual dimension of nature in a way that was not overtly pointed, cheap or imposing, like Final Fantasy the Spirits Within (). Cameron’s visuals are diegetic and masterfully appropriate. I never felt as though he violated the rules of the nature he’d seen fit to create, nor did he violate my sensibilities as a viewer by overtly pointing fingers and being crude about his use of beauty on Pandora.
The sounds were captivating, in fact, my only lament was that the theatre i saw it in was not a bit louder, so that the immersion might have been a bit more complete. The music was well crafted as well, and I appreciated a score that just seemed to fit the film like a glove. James Cameron’s work in Avatar is no different from his other movies in that he holds up a mirror to show us what me might be. Some have called it an alien ‘Dances with Wolves,’ and I think they’re right to do so. This movie is in so many ways about our world, our society, and our bankrupt idea of reality. One cannot watch certain scenes without thinking of manifest destiny, and the trail of tears. Its message is one we hear often, but not nearly often enough, i suppose. I think that Cameron’s use of a hero that exiles himself from his own to help another people, while echoing Christian themes is not to be equated as such. However, I think Cameron’s use of a hero from among our own who defects is a cry for what we might be. I have read some reviews that saw the redeemed Jarhead as a condescending continued imperialism, that the Navi would need one of us to save them is seen as a racial and imperial discrepancy.
However, I’d like to disagree, in part. I see the point being made in those reviews and I think they’re partially right. I think we tend to think of ourselves as entitled saviors, who can often reach into the other cultures to save them, and even in our joining them, and taking on their ways, we’ve made them better. I think that the critics are right to point that out, but at the same time I think it’s a matter of hope. Hope that not everything human is totally disparaged and that there is some shred of us that is still human despite the society we find ourselves in. Yes, we as story tellers put ourselves in a position where we want to be good, but i don’t think this serves entitlement if we take it seriously.
If we take this seriously, it is about our hope that we might rediscover something that we have lost, that we might be redeemable too. I see Jake Sully (the main character) becoming a Navi as a message of the redemption of humanity, not the redemption of the Navi. Sure the narrative puts him in the hero position, but not before he undergoes a transformation that consumes him. Sully does not save the Navi from anything they could not have saved themselves from. Ultimately, Cameron’s message is that we require change, we need to get outside what we are in order to rightly be what we could have and should have been. Cameron is right to raise these important questions, and while some will disparage it as shallow, and too political, these questions need to be raised, in the popular imagination. I think Cameron is trying to ask us what humanity means if we lose nature and our connection to it. What happens to humanity if we shed our skin for metal skeletons. I think it’s funny in many ways that the avatars are ironic in that the whole project is one that asks us to escape society and return to nature, but the only way to do so is to enter a different type of metal suit.
I don’t think Cameron meant for the technology of the avatar system to be scrutinized, but it hit me about halfway through the film that without the military base the main character would not be able to “dance among the wolves.” Technology is an important question for our society and i don’t think Cameron means for us to think about the avatar technology too much. But cloned bodies and remote operation do raise important questions about how much Jake Sully is really a part of the story.
I think Pandora’s inhospitable air serves as a mirror for how many of us implicitly see our own world. The forests and jungles terrify us, their creatures scare us and their vastness makes us feel smaller than we already are. We often feel powerless before the immense power of nature. Yet Cameron’s idealization of the noble savage creates a few more problems than it solves. The Navi are so impeccably righteous that we implicitly side with them, but a more realistic view of another world might have made for a deeper movie that would not have cost Cameron his message, merely reformulated it into something that might have been easier to relate to. The lithe and beautiful Navi are too easily the best of us, without any of the flaws that make for powerful heroes. Ultimately Pandora’s characters are lamentably forgettable, both human and Navi. They are well used for the show, but once it’s over, so are they.
The theological dimensions will upset some evangelicals who will see the positive presentation of another religion as opposed to the gospel, but I say, let’s not be so petty. The Navi religion is a bit idealistic, but beautiful, and i think it does a decent job at highlighting the power of humanity’s ability to relate to the world around them, and how this disparagement of the created world is a theological as well as moral problem. The loss of nature is a problem that has its origins in our concept of God, and our speech about God, which has in turn created moral problems for us. I think Cameron is right to combine ethics, ecology and religion because they all form a part of the same web of questions about embodiment. Our theology of the body will reflect to us the type of ethics and ecology we have towards the outside world.
I think Cameron raises an important contour about what it means to live as a creature, and that creaturely existence has a spiritual dimension that perhaps Karl Barth went too far in opposing. I think Avatar helps us see that the veil between this world and the spiritual is thin, and that there is beauty in our world, power in our world to show us the spiritual everywhere. The ideas of deity are obviously foreign to us, the Navi are panentheists, but this is relatively unimportant. Anyone taking the film seriously will see this as a narrative device, and not as a theological conundrum.
I think for us as Christians, Nature is a symbol of the divine in that, we hope all reality will someday be sacramental. The Christian hope is that the lory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, and its beauty will shine forth as never before in and through everything. As eschatologically minded Christians we can remember that even nature can be read, but it has to be read from a certain vantage point that will justify itself in the eschaton. That vantage point is not by looking at God as the ground of being, we begin with Christ, and he defines explicitly our theology, everything else we can say is mediated through Christ, the concrete bodily symbol of God. If nature is a symbol, it is always secondary to the controlling biblical symbol for divine glory which is housed in the flesh of Jesus Himself.
I know the above will slightly contradict a previous post on natural theology, but deal with it. Life is about growth and change, and i’m not committed to anything beyond the bounds of being taught a better way.
Watch the movie, watch it in 3D. it’s beautiful.