Avatar: Movie Review
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Watching Avatar, it’s easy to see why it is probably the most expensive movie ever made. That may be an unusual way to start off a review, but the sheer visual magnitude of the new movie from James Cameron makes everything else—plot, character development, dialogue, message—seem secondary. Though it’s being billed as a “3-D” film, our idea of 3-D movies don’t do it justice. Forget the headache-inducing paper glasses and gimmicky scenes of stuff popping out of the screen at you; this is a completely new kind of movie experience.
There are rumors that Avatar took almost 15 years to make—this is only sort of true. In actuality, the technology necessary to make the film reality is what has been years in the making. Cameron and his technical team actually helped develop a completely new kind of camera, one with two lenses, that mimics the way the human eye interprets spatial dimension. While watching the movie, you feel as though fictional world of Pandora (the distant planet the movie takes place on) is actually in the same room—not just an image being projected onto a movie screen.
The movie tells the story of a disabled former Marine named Jake Sully who has been recruited to take part in the very expensive “Avatar” project on Pandora. Along with being the destination to find the most valuable natural resource in the universe, Pandora is also home to a native population of humanoid creatures called the Na’vi. (They’re the 10-foot-tall, scantily clad blue aliens you’ve seen in all the commercials and posters). In order to help a massive corporation’s mining operations go smoothly, they’ve recruited scientist to develop “Avatars” to help them learn, and eventually negotiate with, the Na’vi. Essentially, Avatars are the bioengineered bodies of Na’vi that can be controlled by humans when they are connected into computer-operated brain-scan devices that look like high-tech tanning beds.
Jake, who goes between the world of the Na’vi in his avatar and the corporate outpost of the mining company in his own body, is being convinced to serve the heavy-handed political desires of the security firm used to protect it by the evil Colonel Miles Quaritch. Despite promises of fortune by the Colonel in exchange for military intelligence, Jake soon becomes immersed in Na’vi culture. It’s here where the story begins to mirror a Pocahontas-tale of love and colonization: he becomes close to the princesses (after being saved by here), begins to sympathize with the native population, and starts to question his own values in light of the community he meets in the new world.
The Na’vi are an intensely spiritual community. They believe that all of nature is connected through an unseen deity called Eywa. To the Na’vi, all life is valuable, and by connecting with life in the natural world, they can know their god in a deeper way. (And I mean “connecting” literally. They each have a ponytail-like spiritual appendage that allows them to tie into the “tree of souls” to pray).
Though the Na’vi practice a completely fictional religion, it’s clear that Cameron took cues from real-life faith ideas (including some from Christianity). There are constant references to being “re-born” and born again. There’s a scene where small, glowing seeds from the tree of souls descend upon and encompass Jake that seems like a reference to the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The idea of the Na’vi’s ability to connect to the spiritual world physically is also an interesting metaphor about the reality of prayer. But, there’s also plenty of other worldviews mixed in. Transcendentalism, a new ageish reliance on nature and energy, and even shaman-led chanting all make up elements of the Na’vi religion.
But while Jake and the audience start to understand the delicate way of Na’vi life, the conflict becomes clear as humans begin to destroy parts of the planet to mine in search of resources. Here is where Cameron’s metaphor for pre-emptive war and colonialism get a little heavy-handed.
Yes, a look at Western history reveals a startling reality about the horrible violence and depravation of rights that greedy societies are capable of. (And this is a subject that there is value in looking at further—if for no other reason than to prevent evils of the past from being repeated.) But, obvious references to current military conflicts come off as preachy, stereotypical and cheapen an interesting storyline. Taking a political stand isn’t always a bad thing, but because Avatar lacks any attempt at nuance or moral-conflict, it over-simplifies its message to the point where it discredits itself.
Unfortunately, this distracts from the broader story—one that could be more compelling if it allowed the audience think for itself. The larger metaphor could be seen an allegory for conflicts within the context of Western history, and is one that is worth exploring (and is done more effectively in films like Dances with Wolves and Terence Mallick’s New World). As Focus on the Family’s Plugged Online put it, “Cameron’s message in Avatar is something like this: Genocidal plunderers are devoid of spiritual enlightenment and driven by their compulsive lust for another people’s resources.”
Overall, Avatar is visual masterpiece with lots spiritual, social, and political undertones that though, they come across somewhat heavy-handed, do offer some interesting consequences for Christians.
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