James Cameron’s new film, Avatar, tells a story we’ve all heard before; as I commented on Twitter last night, it is Dances with Wolves meets Star Trek: Insurrection, with elements of The Matrix and Whale Rider thrown in. But Avatar is grander and more epic than any of these films, and of course, it’s a stunning achievement of CGI artistry. For its sheer beauty, go see it. But critics are whining that the story is “weak” or “boring” and I think they’re rather justified in their gripes. Nevertheless, I think it raises enough questions for someone like me, interested as I am in the interface between Christianity and indigenous culture, that it’s worth commenting on.
Warning: plot spoilers abound in the rest of this review. Read at your own risk.
On the surface, Avatar looks like a Neopagan’s dream. The bad guys are the consumerist, anti-ecological, greedy acquisitive earthlings, who have come to the gorgeously beautiful (but unremittingly hostile to humankind) world called Pandora. If your knowledge of Greek mythology is rusty, let me remind you that Pandora was the “Eve” of the pagan Greeks; the first woman, created by the gods and bestowed with many gifts, including a jar which contained both evil and hope. Of course, Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her, she opened the jar (or box), and that’s why the world is as screwed up as it is… but it’s also why we have hope even in the midst of our suffering.
Living on this idyllic-if-dangerous world are the Na’vi (the “naive visionaries”?), a sexy blue-skinned race of hippie types, who basically play the same role as the Lakota did in Dances with Wolves or the Ba’ku people in Star Trek: Insurrection. In other words, the Na’vi are a peaceful, spiritual, tribal, pre-industrial band of warriors and shamans who live in close psychic harmony with their environment (epitomized by their really cool pony-tails with exposed nerve tendrils that can link up and synch up with animals that they can then bond with and ride). While humans cannot breathe the Pandoran atmosphere, the science team from earth has figured out a way to create hybrid bodies using both Na’vi and human genetics; these bodies are the titular avatars, for they have to be “operated” psychically by an unconscious human being. Our hero, Jake, is one of these avatar-drivers, although for him it is an accidental career: his avatar had been created for use by his identical twin brother, who had been killed; he, meanwhile, is a Marine who suffered a disabling wound and is now confined to a wheelchair. The avatar represents for Jake not only a new career path, but also a new chance to walk and run again, even if only via a form of remote viewing.
Much of the humor (and political correctness) in the first hour of the film revolves around how Jake is a “stupid jarhead,” especially as viewed by the scientists in charge of the avatar project. Sure enough, he refuses to follow orders and gets himself in deep trouble on his first mission out in the Pandoran wild, soon separated from his companions. Alone and endangered, he is discovered by Neytiri, a Na’vi woman who doesn’t kill him because she receives a sign from Eywa — the great mother goddess of Pandora. Jake is one lucky dude, for when his avatar is dragged before a tribal council, the Na’vi, who understand that he is one of “sky people” in a mutant body, nevertheless offer to teach him their ways. Neytiri is assigned to be his mentor, and much action, visual splendor and a budding romance ensues. And Jake, just like Lt. Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, begins to identify more with the indigenous tribe that has adopted him than with his own rapacious race. And this sets us up for the last hour of the film, which basically involves an apocalyptic battle as the humans attempt to force the Na’vi to relocate — and in which spears and bows and arrows (with a little help from our hero and Eywa) manage to seriously kick human butt.
Okay, so there’s the story. If you have any shred of love for nature, or for the plight of indigenous peoples here on earth whose way of life has been destroyed or is being destroyed by the “American Way,” then this film will push all your emotional buttons. It did mine. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. But I think it’s interesting to breathe through the obvious contours of this story and consider it as a parable of the intersection between sky-god and earth-goddess spiritualities.
Here’s the key: one of the main characters is named Grace Augustine. Can you get any more heavy-handed than that? Grace is a scientist, and heads the avatar research team. She is one of three key figures among the human colony on Pandora, the others being Col. Miles Quaritch (a caricature of a Marine if there ever were one), and the snivelling “company man” Parker Selfridge, who is in charge of the business end of the operations: mining for a rare mineral that happens to be largely concentrated directly beneath the Na’vi’s ancestral home. With these three characters, you have the three functions of primal Indo-European society: the wisdomkeepers, the warriors, and the wealth-builders. In Irish mythology, for example, society was divided among the farmers and merchants (symbolized by the great god Dagda, who is the creator of abundance), the warriors (symbolized by the solar deity Lugh, who excelled at every skill), and the druids, keepers of the wisdom (symbolized by the goddess Brigid). I remember reading a comment by the Neopagan druid Isaac Bonewits (I can’t remember where I saw this) that, in the ancient world, one of the key challenges for the druid caste was managing to keep the warrior caste in line. If the warriors got too much power, excessive conflict and destruction would ensue. As much as ancient societies struggled to find a way to submit strength to wisdom, it’s a problem that, alas, remains with us today.
So on Pandora’s earth colony, Grace is the “chief druid” while Quaritch is the “chief warrior” and Selfridge the top money-man. We quickly learn that both Quaritch and Selfridge have no respect for Grace. Quaritch secretly instructs Jake to keep him informed, since it will be his job to move the Na’vi by force if they refuse to relocate willingly. And while Selfridge, as the chief executive of the business operation is theoretically in charge, when matters get chaotic Quaritch simply takes control. So on one level, Avatar is a grand metaphor about the danger of unrestrained force and the problems that ensue when wisdom is marginalized.
But back to our wisdom-keeper and her obviously Christian name. Grace is a tough boss in her own domain, even if she is ignored by her peers; she is also a flawed character, as symbolized by her chain-smoking. At first contemptuous of Jake, she grows to admire his boyish enthusiasm and natural charm, which opens doors for him with the Na’vi. Eventually she is felled by a gunshot wound when she and several members of her team decide to help the Na’vi to fight against the earthlings. The Na’vi try to save her by appealing to Eywa to permanently transfer her soul to her avatar. This does not happen, but her last words are filled with wonder as she describes her soul being taken up into the very consciousness of the goddess herself.
So is this a metaphor for the best elements of Christianity (“grace”) being subsumed into the best elements of Neopaganism (the all-encompassing goddess)? Perhaps it can be seen that way. But it’s not just a one-way trip, where grace submits to the goddess. For we learn that grace changes the goddess. Before the final battle, Jake prays to Eywa for help in defeating the humans, appealing to Eywa to search Grace’s mind to understand what they were up against. Overhearing him, Neytiri scornfully remarks that Eywa takes no sides, for she is only committed to maintaining the balance of life. She may be the all-encompassing goddess, but the Na’vi do not have any sense of her as the dispenser of justice — only as the maintainer of ultimate harmony and equilibrium.
But then, when the battle seems to be at the most desperate point for the Na’vi, the animals of the jungle stampede and the creatures of the air swarm over the humans. Neytiri, watching it all in wonder, realizes that Eywa has in fact come to the aid of her children. The goddess has become a bestower of grace, at the hour of their greatest need.
So in the end, wisdom proves greater than either might or avarice — and the “Christian” wisdom of grace and justice joins together with the “Pagan” wisdom of the goddess-as-the-web-of-life. And this integrated wisdom proves to be too much for the “sky people.” Quaritch dies at the hand of Neytiri, felled by the very arrows he laughed at throughout the story. Selfridge, meanwhile, is marched ingloriously onto a ship that is sent packing. Only Grace’s team is allowed to remain on Pandora, and the movie ends with Jake finally solving the problem of his paraplegic body.
Indeed, I think the fact that Jake is disabled is as central to understanding Avatar as is the symbolism of Grace Augustine (“grace pre-destined”?). Jake comes from a disabled planet. As he mournfully tells Eywa, “our home has no green on it; we’ve killed it all.” Both he and Grace experience a death-and-resurrection; but where hers is more classically Christian in tone: she, the sinner (smoker) is felled by sin (a gunshot wound) and dies, only to find new life in the post-corporeal, beatific vision of Eywa — whose name seems to be a möbius-strip inversion of “Yahweh” suggesting that she encompasses both earth goddess and sky god. Jake, on the other hand, undergoes a more explicitly Pagan death-and-rebirth, reincarnating in the healthy body of his avatar.
So in the end, Avatar is probably the most satisfying integration of Christian and Pagan spirituality since The Lord of the Rings, even if its story is a bit well-worn. Bringing Christian and Pagan values together in a way that respects both is no easy feat: think of the mess that a writer as gifted as Neil Gaiman made of Beowulf a few years back. George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, are the masters here, with C.S. Lewis their charming if somewhat overzealous acolyte. But those three were all Christians who extended hospitality to Pagan imagery in their primarily-Christian writings. Avatar works the other way around. It is special because its home field is the indigenous spirituality of harmony with nature, but it manages to embrace the most hopeful dimension of Christianity within its primarily goddess-centric story. And that makes even an old and familiar story seem fresh and new.