Vox Nova at the Movies – Avatar

Vox Nova at the Movies – Avatar December 27, 2009

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.

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  • Andy

    Good review

  • David Raber

    Seems to me the really effective art went into the promotion of this movie–and that’s a snide comment but I mean it literally too.

    I was all geeked up to see this movie, at least partly because I am something of an art nerd, and then found the actual viewing of it to be a huge letdown. It was Cowboys and Indians with the good-guy and bad-guy roles exactly reversed, with some new-agey philosophy thrown in for gravitas, and that was about it for me.

    Maybe I need to see this movie again to discover in it some of the merit you see in it, MM. Right now I just feel sort of used and abused–one among millions of ticket-buyers lured into the dark by a great advertising campaign.

  • I don’t know, David – clearly the advertizing campaign didn’t work on me (then again, I never ever watch commercials on TV and try to avoid them in general). When I first heard the title, I thought it would be yet another teenage boy video-game-meets-movie hocus pocus. And when I heard it was Cameron – let’s just say it did not urge me to go. But when I went, I found it incredibly imaginative and visually stunning. Sure, the plot is not that sophisticated, and the turns predictable, but I thought the message was important.

    • I have to say, Avatar doesn’t really appeal to me. In part it is because I think the theme has been done in one of my favorite films, and in a way which I think has more depth than Avatar — in Princess Mononoke. The reason why I love PM so much is that it really shows the good and the bad in all groups, making it that you can even honor those who you initially think will be the villian.

  • “is this naive pantheism or does it have strong antecedents in the world of Tolkien?”

    Does Avatar take place on Earth, or is it some other universe, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth?

    • Tolkien’s Middle Earth is NOT “some other universe.” It is our earth in a previous age. Tolkien makes that clear in so many of his writings.

  • David Raber

    MM, I agree that the anti-militarism of the movie, if you will, is an important message, and even in a real sense countercultural.

    So perhaps this movie will end up doing a lot of good in the world, even though Dave didn’t happen to like it. But how could this be?

  • I haven’t seen Princess Mononoke. Perhaps I should.

    • Princess Mononoke is an animated gem; it’s beautiful as a story but also as a piece of art. It takes a bit to get into the story and to know what is going on, but when the whole story is told, I really appreciate what it did.


  • digbydolben

    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.

    Those who “twisted the definition of conservatism into something utterly unrecognizable” [to traditional Christian theologians like Newman and philosophers like Burke] were the Founding Fathers of America and their intellectual forebears like Locke, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau. It is the American definition of “conservatism”–rooted in the perverse mix of Protestant “salvation by faith alone” theology and the Enlightenment philosophers’ denial of what a person is–that is “transvaluating all values” everywhere on earth (“commodifying life,” as the papal encyclicals would have it), and it is what is really making the world unreceptive to, and, indeed, unsafe for Catholicism. It will take you right-wing American Catholics who gather here a century to figure it out, though.

  • Steve

    I saw the movie and enjoyed it as well. But my son who saw it with me described it as “Dances With Wolves meets Star Trek on Fern Gully.” I couldn’t disagree.

  • Phillip