I loved Avatar. I read that film critic Roger Ebert compared it to seeing Star Wars for the first time in 1977, and I know what he means. You really get the impression that you are seeing something new, something big, something important. I went into this film a little skeptical. I am no fan of James Cameron, regarding Titanic as one of the most awful movies ever made (an exploitation of tragedy if ever I’ve seen it). And, quite frankly, I find the obsession with bigger, badder, special effects more than a little tedious – the target audience seems to be teenage boys, and they seem to like big guns, big explosions, and lots of violence. Truth be told, Avatar has these elements. And yet I liked it, a lot. For the canvass painted by Cameron is breathtaking, the imagination is soaring, and the sub-creation is layered and magnificent.
The plot-line itself is rather unoriginal. In 2154, a mining company discovered a highly precious metal on a distant moon named Pandora, a moon with a dazzling array of animal and plant life. This world is inhabited by the Na’vi, a shamanist culture worshipping an all-encompassing mother goddess. Echoing Dances with Wolves (and many other tales in this genre), the leading protagonist takes sides with the Na’vi against the American military might (and it is very much the American military – there is not even the slightest nod toward a multicultural future). In this future world, it is a kind of privatized imperialism, as the military takes orders from the mining company. The most evil character is not the brutal macho military man, but the cold and calculating company executive calling the shots. Unfortunately for the Na’vi, the densest concentration of the precious mineral is right beneath their home, and the corporation has no qualms about forcing them out with overwhelming military might, in a campaign of “shock and awe” (yes, that term is employed). The Na’vi face this onslaught with bows and arrows. Still, the ending is entirely predictable, and that’s exactly how we want it.
I was curious to see that Ross Douthat’s take on the movie is receiving some cache around the internet. Douthat basically criticizes the movie for a kind of naive pantheism, which he sees as the established religion of modern Hollywood. Of course, there is something to this. Douthat traces this to something in the American psyche foreseen by de Tocqueville. Ultimately, it goes back to Rousseau, a major Enlightenment-era figure, when he idealized a pure state of nature. But I don’t think this fully explains it. Running through it all is the theme strangely missed by Douthat – the dominant Gnostic sensibilities of modern Americans, sensibilities that cut across political and cultural divides. Hollywood knows what it is doing.But Douthat’s thesis misses something crucial. This is not just another Gnostic fable of good and evil and cosmic life forces. This is a fable about the dangers of modern technology, especially when mis-used and ordered toward destruction – destruction of people and the environment. It warns against a profound disrespect for creation, and by implication, the Creator. This is a recurring theme in the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. It is also a key theme of J.R.R. Tolkien. For when I see the obliteration of nature by technology, by military machines, by “shock and awe”, I do not think pantheism, I think Saruman. And when the “earth force” in the movie summons the forces of nature to rail against the invaders, I think of Gandalf summoning the eagles, or the Ents marching from Fangorn forest to Isengard. Indeed, the human scientists in the story are amazed by a complicated “neural net” running between the trees and all life on Pandora – is this naive pantheism or does it have strong antecedents in the world of Tolkien? And yes, while the shamanistic Na’vi have nature-worshipping traits, does not their harmonious relationship with the natural world and their shepherding of nature mirror – to at least some degree – Tolkien’s elves?
So, yes, there is Gnosticism there. This is almost unavoidable in modern popular culture. But there is much more too, much that can be missed if we simply put this down to predictable pantheism. Ultimately, this movie is criticizing some core features of modern American culture – the insatiable desire of material wealth and the glorification of a macho military culture. The privatized imperialism of Avatar combines these two sins, and the outcome is carnage and destruction. The lessons are clear – respect life, respect creation, put social harmony above individualist greed. These are deeply conservative lessons, but these lessons will be ignored by those who have twisted the definition of conservatism into something utterly unrecognizable.