Saturday, August 14, 2010

Film + Theology - Avatar

Orientation to the film
Avatar is a 2009 epic science fiction fantasy film written, directed and co-produced by James Cameron. It has been hailed both as “sensational entertainment” and a “technological breakthrough” (Ebert). Many have compared the film to the likes of Star Wars. Roger Ebert’s testimony is characteristic: “Watching Avatar, I felt sort of the same as when I saw Star Wars in 1977”.

The film is set in the future, 2154 to be exact, although the date is never stated in the movie. Humans, Americans really, are mining a precious mineral called un-ob-tan-ium on Pandora, a lush moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system, wherever that is. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe of Na’vi—a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora.

The film’s title “Avatar” is a word that derives from Hindu mythology. It describes the descent of a deity to earth in an incarnate form. The term is also used in a less theological way to describe an embodiment or personification of a principle or attitude.

In the film “Avatar” refers to the genetically engineered Na’vi-human hybrid bodies used by a team of researchers to interact with the natives of Pandora.

By the way, Avatar will be re-released later this month in 3-D and IMAX theaters with an additional 8 minutes of footage.

Spiritual Themes
Avatar is not simply a movie it has become a phenomenon. This surely has to do with the fact that this film engages the person perhaps more than any other film in the history of filmmaking. While criticized for its cliché story and weak script, Avatar’s popularity is not localized. It has received global acclaim. Its national and international box office receipts are over 2 billion dollars making it the highest grossing film of all time eclipsing James Cameron’s last film Titanic. And nearly 73% of the gross is in international markets.

Let these figures settle in for a moment. James Cameron is influencing a global audience with the message of this film. He enhanced the vehicle for the delivery of a message that reaches trans-culturally. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Cameron admitted that the primary motivation for making a technologically groundbreaking movie was to “engage people in different languages [with a message] because I’m speaking in cinema not English or French”. Such an interesting phrase “speaking in cinema”.

What’s the message? Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

But allow me say two things.

First, this film is unique in the sense that it is the product largely of one person’s mind. Unlike most Hollywood movies, which are the result of a cooperative effort and represent “multiple authorship”, Avatar was written, directed, and produced by Cameron alone. His clout in Hollywood allowed him a tremendous amount of control, although he admits to having to make some concessions to the studio.

As such Avatar is one man’s view of the world. When you think critically about Avatar you are thinking critically about Cameron’s perspective.

Second, an obscured albeit foundational point in thinking considering the film theologically is Avatar’s science fiction genre.

In articulating the usefulness of the genre Cameron, in an interview with Charlie Rose, commented on the power that science fiction has to change the perception of the audience through the course of the story. When done well science fiction allows for the audience to see itself from a vantage point 180-degrees around.

Viewers can leave a science fiction film looking at themselves from the outside. In the case of Avatar the audience emerges by the end on the side of the Na’vi and against the humans, or better Americans.

As one film critic sarcastically stated “If you can get a theater full of people in Kentucky to stand and applaud the defeat of their country in war, then you’ve got some amazing special effects” (R.D. Moore, at Christian Post).

Cameron believes that Avatar allows us to “ourselves, human culture, human civilization, as nature sees us, as the intruder, as the invader, as that which is threatening” (Interview Charlie Rose).

So what we have in the film is James Cameron’s view of nature looking at James Cameron’s view of human culture.

1. Nature and Humanity. At least one of the fundamental questions of the film then is: What are James Cameron’s views of nature and humanity as presented in the cinematic language of the film? Do we agree with his perspective? Does any of it line up with the Bible’s view?

2. Relationship between political and religious themes. Another is whether there is a relationship between the political and religious themes in the film? Does one form the basis of the other? Is it possible that Cameron has not simply dumped into this film “every liberal idea ever thought up”? Do the themes have some kind of coherence?

3. Deep critique of religious foundations. Having watched the film a couple of times and read numerous reviews and a number of interviews of Cameron I wondering: Are Cameron’s overt political messages in the film (environmentalism, colonialism, racism, militarism, corporate greed, etc) the result of a deep criticism of the historic religious foundations on which the present western, and particularly American, culture is built? What do think? Do you see such a criticism in the film? Would such a criticism be warranted? Why or why not? While every evangelical likely would be able to commend the truthfulness of most, or at least much, of Judeo-Christian foundations of American cultural, is the worldview open to critical assessment?


Danny Zacharias said...

good post. Have you heard Mark Driscoll's rant on Avatar? What a spaz!

Joel Willitts said...

Thanks Danny.No, but I can imagine it.

Mike W said...

another question: is teaching the peaceful to kill/fight back the best way to further non violence.

i feel like the navi win in the end because they have been taught how to be americans

Danilo Sergio Pallar Lemos said...

The avatar? another movie where the mythology comes into Consona? ncia with eschatology, this? dangerous and unrealistic.

Stephen said...

It's only a movie

Jason B. Hood said...

Joel, I am loving these series of posts. I'm not sure Mike's taste in movies runs any deeper than appreciating Gallipoli and Princess Bride. It's a nice balance!

Tomorrow I'm teaching on Eph 2:1-10. I love contrasting grace in 2:8-9 with this line from Avatar: "you've earned it," she says to him as he finally gets to go up to the Tree after "proving himself".

幸平平平平杰 said...


scoots said...

Hi, I just stumbled across the blog. (Sorry this is a long comment.)

My biggest problem with Avatar is that Jake gets to avoid the obvious inevitable consequences for his mistakes, not because it makes sense or because someone decides to forgive his mistakes, but simply because Cameron writes it into the script.

Jake's avatar should have been ruined when it got crushed in the woods, and he shouldn't have been able to run away with the control trailer for it. He shouldn't have been able to tame the Toruk, and he shouldn't have been able to go to the Navi in triumph. He certainly shouldn't have gotten to become an actual Navi at the end. All that is just fantasy, a huge deus ex machina that Cameron uses to give us a happy ending. Perhaps Neytiri would have indeed forgiven him, but all the rest of those practical matters would have kept him from getting to enjoy his new life.

Imagine the alternative, if Cameron had taken the situation at the end seriously. Imagine that Jake puts on his oxygen mask, and that his friends drag him through the woods to the Navi. They set him on a rock, and he says this to Neytiri and her tribe:

“This is me. This is who I really am--not a Navi, not a great physical specimen who can conquer every challenge, but a man whose legs don't work, who can't even breathe on your planet without a mask, and who helped the humans destroy your way of life.

I can't come in as an outsider to save the day, and I can't lead you into battle anymore, because to be a warrior in the first place, I was relying on technology that the humans funded *precisely* to take away your way of life.

I'm not on their side anymore, so all I have is me: my heart, the things I know about the humans to help you plan your fight, and my loyalty to you. If my oxygen mask breaks, I'll probably die. This is who I am, so please tell me how I can help.”

For me, that would have rang true, and it would have taught us things about life that are both practical and Christian:

(1) There's only one messiah, and it's not me; (2) we can't solve everyone else's problems just because we're educated and wealthy; (3) our limitations (especially the physical ones, but also others) are part of who we are, and they don't suddenly and magically disappear when we need them to; (4) you can't defy the powers of the world and still get to enjoy all their benefits; and (5) most importantly, the consequences of our sins affect our lives, and don't go away just because we learn our lesson and realize what we should have done all along.

Thanks for the post.