Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series, Significant Films of the 2000s, of articles about the cultural significance of films that were released between 2000 and 2009.
While not one of the best films of 2009, Avatar was the most significant film of 2009. The first film from writer-director James Cameron since Titanic, which was the highest-grossing film of all time, premiered twelve years ago, Avatar has already surpassed Titanic to become the new highest-grossing film. Roger Ebert called Avatar “an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.”
Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus represents the critical consensus when he writes, “Deep down, Avatar is bone-headed, but it’s also beautiful.” I disagree with the consensus. Although undeniably an example of technical mastery, the artwork feels cold and impersonal. The human imagination is messy and chaotic, but Pandora is bland and sterile. There is hardly any color except for the occasional splash of blue. Avatar has been hailed as a breakthrough in computer graphics, but The Fall, which contained absolutely no computer-generated graphics, is much more visually engaging.
Cameron’s attempts to explore religion and race are similarly sterile. And for as beautiful as the Na’vi are, they are strangely asexual. Instead of probing provocative issues, he offers a bland mix of New Age and folk religious practices seemingly calculated to offend the least amount of people. Conservative commentator John Podhoretz (one of the movie’s more outspoken critics) wrote in the Weekly Standard (in a review titled “Avatarocious”), “[Avatar is] more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”
Why are the special effects, religion, race, and sensuality of Avatar important? To answer that question, we must enter into the world of Avatar. As Jake Sully explored Pandora through his avatar, when you go to movies, for two hours (or in this case, two hours and forty-two minutes) you live vicariously through the characters on the screen. Are you Jake Sully?
Am I Jake Sully?
There have already been pages of magazines and newspapers filled—not to mention countless blog posts—about Avatar. And it’s not just the film critics who are chiming in; political commentators—both conservative and liberal—theologians, and journalists have all been offering their thoughts on the movie. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips aptly described it as “the season’s ideological Rorschach blot.”
One sentiment is that it doesn’t matter what the movie is about—just enjoy the pretty pictures. New Yorker film critic David Denby wrote, “[T]here [is not] much point in lingering over the irony that this anti-technology message is delivered by an example of advanced technology that cost nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce; or that this anti-imperialist spectacle will invade every available theatre in the world. Relish, instead, the pterodactyls, or the flying velociraptors, or whatever they are—large beaky beasts, green with yellow reptile patches—and the bright-red flying monster with jaws that could snap an oak.”
Is Avatar escapism? Yes. Is it just escapism? For some reason “escapism” has become an insult, but all fiction—high literature as well as blockbusters—is escapism. But escapism can be used to explore serious issues. New York Times columnist David Brooks observed, “It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind—even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.”
Some commentators think Avatar is pantheistic; some think it is racist. Further on I will ask “Are the Na’vi pantheists?” and “Is Avatar racist?” My answers to those questions say more about me than they do about the movie. I could dismiss it as escapism and not allow it to affect my life, or I can engage with the themes.
An alternative view is that Avatar is not really a narrative at all. Film blogger Tim Bray conceded there are stereotypical characters, wooden dialogue, and a derivative plot, but “that’s not what Avatar ‘is’—that’s all just sort of the dressing that they used to make it a narrative feature, on account of studios don’t spend $350 million on experimental landscape pictures.” He continued, “Applying the rules of plot and narrative structure to something that is so viscerally visual seems horribly wrong-headed.”
162 minutes is long for an “experimental landscape picture.” There is a tendency in Hollywood to treat all big-budget pictures as epics. But Avatar is not an epic; there is barely enough narrative material for a television episode. It felt liked an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Stargate SG-1 stretched out to almost three hours. In fact Stargate dealt with a number of similar themes in a much more nuanced fashion.
Pandora has a carefully thought out mythology. Cameron even hired a linguist to create the Na’vi language. Mythology is no substitute for story though.
Many critics argue that the flimsy narrative structure of Avatar is just an excuse for Cameron to use pretty pictures to make a political point. Sam Adams of the A.V. Club argued, “Rather than a clunky work of agitprop the movie can—and, I think, ought to—be seen as a polemic, which makes criticism of its obviousness beside the point.”
When I preach, I occasionally use object lessons. But you can also teach with stories. Jesus did. He used parables to get his message across. There is no story in Avatar. It is a sermon—one with plenty of pretty sermon illustrations. Cameron would have been more effective getting his message across though if he had developed a strong story that illustrated his point.
In her review of the movie on sci-fi blog io9, Charlie Jane Anders pointed out, “The whole exercise is a metaphor for the experience of watching any movie, with Cameron’s camera lens represented by the beds that transfer people’s minds into alien bodies.” Avatar is more effective at being a metaphor for watching movies than it is at narrative or sermonizing. She continued, “It’s hard to imagine a movie where medium and story are so closely married. Even as Jake Sully climbs into a coffin and abandons his human body for a spry alien one, Cameron is hoping to pull you into his alien world to a much greater degree than the usual movie immersion.” Tim Bray observed that Sully is a “poor character” but an “extremely good audience surrogate.”
Sully experiences a role reversal within the movie. At the beginning he is an alien to the Na’vi, but by the end he is an alien to the humans. On his blog Christianity Today film critic Peter Chattaway contrasted Avatar with Cameron’s earlier films: In Aliens Ripley fought the Alien Queen with the help of a “load-lifting mechanism.” In Avatar the humans employ “walking battle machines,” but we are rooting for the aliens. In True Lies an Arab hangs from a missile. In Avatar an American is again piloting the plane and a representative of the “other” is hanging from a missile. But the “other” in this case is Jake Sully, the audience surrogate. In Terminator 2 the cyborg becomes increasingly humanized. In Avatar the protagonist starts out as human and increasingly becomes “other.” He is unhumanized or alienized.
One possibility is that Cameron wants us to associate with the “other”—to know what it feels like to be an outcast and alienated. On the other hand, Cameron could be saying that our (over)reliance on technology is causing us to lose touch with our humanity. The Na’vi are not representative of the “other” but of what it means to be truly human—what Sully had strayed away from and the Na’vi helped him reconnect to.
Are the Special Effects Game Changing?
While definitely an incremental improvement of motion capture since Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, it is not a monumental leap forward. The real accomplishment is not the (computer) graphics but the (human) performance. Zoe Saldana (Neytiri) may supplant Andy Serkis (Gollum) for best motion capture performance.
Some have accused Avatar of “style over substance.” I have no problem with stylistic films. The Fall had more style than substance. But Avatar’s style falls flat. The visuals are more of a technical achievement than an artistic one. The trailer for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland that preceded the film looked more visually engaging than anything in Avatar itself (too bad the story of that film fell flat too). And when it comes to battle scenes, this movie has nothing on Lord of the Rings. According to ScreenIt.com, “While the effects are quite good, they’re not groundbreaking as was the case with ‘The Abyss’ and then ‘T2,’ and only raise the overall bar a notch at most.”
Are the Na’vi Pantheists?
If there is any single theistic worldview Avatar is representative of, it is Hollywoodism, the folk religion of Hollywood. Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus wrote, “James Cameron’s Avatar is a virtual apotheosis of Hollywood mythopoeia. It is the whole worldview and memory of contemporary Hollywood, given shape in a narrative and pictorial form that is stunning in its finality and grandeur.” Spirituality in Avatar is a synthesis of a number of Native American, African, and Aboriginal worldviews. Greydanus declared, “Cameron’s mythopoeic gift…is precisely a knack for synthesis.”
Pantheism, Panentheism, and the Gaia Hypothesis
One part of the stew is undeniably pantheism. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (and also film critic for the conservative bi-weekly news magazine National Review) called Avatar the “Gospel According to James.” He describes the movie as an apologetic for pantheism, which “has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.” Greydanus disagreed with Douthat’s column and wrote that he would not call Avatar an apologetic. “Avatar expresses and embodies Hollywood’s hippy-dippy, West-bashing, New Age, tree-hugging milieu on a mythic level; it is not a defense of that worldview.”
Wheaton College Associate Professor of Theology Jeffrey W. Barbeau, in a guest post on the Christianity Today Movies & TV blog, thinks Avatar’s “near-pantheism” is better described as panentheism since their deity is a personal being named Eywa. In pantheism god is nature; in panentheism, nature is a part of god, but god also extends beyond nature. In other words, for pantheists all of nature is god and all of god is nature while for panentheists all of nature is god but not all of god is nature. Panentheism leaves room for a deity who is a personal being whereas pantheism does not. Neither pantheism nor panentheism is compatible with traditional Christian theism, but some modern Christian theologies such as process theology and open theism are panentheistic or have panentheistic elements.
Some commentators think Avatar is more representative of the Gaia hypothesis than pantheism or panentheism. According to the Gaia hypothesis, the biosphere of Earth is itself a kind of living entity. While at first glance this might just sound like another spin on Mother Nature, the Gaia hypothesis differentiates itself from pantheism by claiming to be a scientific theory rather than a spiritual practice. The ecosystems of Earth are interdependent and interact. Damage to one ecosystem affects the whole Earth like damage to one organ would affect the whole body.
There are many interesting elements to pantheism and panentheism that would have been worthy to explore, but Cameron dismisses all of them in acquiescence to modernism. One of the reasons all the talk of spirituality in Avatar feels sterile to me is because Cameron had no interest in exploring spirituality but rather in rationalizing spirituality.
ScreenIt.com observed, “While it’s interesting to see Cameron…tout spirituality over technology in a film that’s been obviously created in full force with the latter, there’s little if anything that emotionally connects.” The problem is he does not tout spirituality over technology. He makes it clear that there is a scientific explanation for the Na’vi’s spirituality. In accordance with modernism’s love affair with rationalism, he rationalizes the Na’vi’s spirituality.
Avatar could have been a great space fantasy had it not been shackled by modernism. Although the Pandoran animals join in the fight at the end as the Narnian animals do at the end of Prince Caspian, this movie is almost the opposite of Prince Caspian, which was C.S. Lewis’ great treatise against Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism. Had Avatar been a fantasy with dragons and magic like Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia set on Pandora instead of Middle-earth or Narnia, it would have been much more engaging than this sterile tale sanitized by science and technology.
Christianity Today film critic Todd Hertz cautioned, “Some Christians will be bothered by the worship of the Na’vi’s unseen female deity—there are scenes of worship, rituals, and prayer to her. But vagueness about this entity makes it possible to view her not as a New Age goddess but as just one more strange piece of fantasy in this alien world. In fact, there’s suggestion that this entity is Pandora itself: one big, living alien.” It’s more than a suggestion. Cameron does not have the subtlety necessary to suggest anything—the ore the humans are after is called unobtainium after all. He makes quite explicit that the Na’vi’s conception of their deity comes from the trees and plant life being able to communicate via electric impulses across a planetwide network of sorts. Even Hertz points out that “One human character [Dr. Augustine] says, ‘We’re not talking about pagan voodoo but something that is real biologically: a global network of neurons.’”
Greydanus saw Cameron as a myth maker. He is more akin to twentieth-century existential German theologian Rudloph Bultmann and his task of demythologizing the New Testament. Cameron has set out to demythologize spirituality as a whole. Christians should be more bothered by that than that the Na’vi worship a panentheistic female deity.
Is Avatar Racist?
Many people will respond to this question, “Why can’t you just enjoy the movie? It’s just good old fashioned fun.” It’s important to be aware of the issues. I’m a white male. There is a temptation in American culture to assume my experience is normative. In fact, the character everybody’s supposed to be able to identify with, Jake Sully, is a white male. How I respond to this question says more about me than Cameron.
The Victors Write History
Like Inglourious Basterds, Avatar is an experiment in historical revisionism. Cameron has rewritten history with the Native Americans sending the colonizing Europeans back to Europe. But also like Inglourious Basterds, it is the victors who (re)write history. Occidental College Assistant Professor of Sociology Lisa Wade explains that although Avatar is the history of colonization rewritten, it is rewritten by “white people living with a heavy dose of liberal guilt.” She continues, “[U]ltimately, [it] marginalizes indigenous peoples and affirms white supremacy.” She explains, “If it were a fantasy for, say, the American Indian population in the U.S., the story might go a little differently. In that fantasy there would be no Sully character.”
When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?
Many critics have pointed out that Avatar is not original. It is basically Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, or The Last Samurai…in space. Like in those films, “a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member,” summarizes Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9 in a post titled “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?”
Newitz bemoaned that this is “a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white.” PopMatters columnist Rob Horning chimed in that “[Avatar] reaffirmed my sense of belonging to a group of wise and morally pure Westerners who would have done colonizing right—that is, it played to the ingrained sense of superiority that being white and middle class in America provides.”
All the Blue Aliens Look the Same
New Zealand theologian Eric Repphun, who called Avatar “one of the worst Orientalist fantasies in recent memory,” wrote:
[T]he Na’vi are evidently supposed to represent a smattering of oppressed indigenous peoples on Earth, from New Zealand Maori to the Navajo of the American southwest, but in blending all of these cultures into one, the film is guilty of doing exactly what it thinks it is condemning. That each of the cultures that Cameron borrows from [to] create the Na’vi are vibrant and complete in their own right simply does not matter. What matters is that they aren’t European and thus are an open resource to plunder when trying to define Europe over and against what it is not.
The Na’vi never really stood a chance of being all that interesting. Avatar is not about the Na’vi. The Na’vi are simply stand-ins for Native Americans and other oppressed peoples. Had Cameron taken the time to craft a unique society, we might have actually cared about the Na’vi. Cameron’s sharing with us the fantasy world he’s been dreaming about for decades. Why did the catalyst for a story in this fantasy world have to be humans? Plenty of interesting stories could have been set on Pandora without humans having ever reached the planet yet.
Repphun pointed out that though computer-generated, most of the Na’vi are portrayed by non-white actors. Although central to Cameron’s telling of it, this story could also have been told without the avatars. The humans could have interacted directly with the Na’vi. While using the avatar, Sully looks just like the Na’vi. Had the humans not been using avatars, the movie could have seriously dealt with the issue of learning to accept and love somebody who looks different than you. The mythology would have probably had to have been rewritten to reduce the size difference between humans and Na’vi, but it is a fictional mythology to begin with.
Joyriding on the Mars Exploration Rover
Have we learned nothing from our past experiences with colonialism? I would argue that we have or else we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If this was my fantasy about how first contact with an alien species in the future might go, it would be very different from Avatar. I think humanity has learned enough that we could live in harmony with the Na’vi. This seemingly ignorant refusal to even acknowledge that humanity’s more honorable instincts might prevail makes Avatar ineffective at critiquing colonialism. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies was a much better critique of colonialism. Blogger Jake Seliger wrote:
Avatar is really a Western about the perils of modernity, but it gets contemporary politics utterly wrong—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that contemporary politics are utterly absent. There is no intergalactic criminal court or committee for the protection of indigenous peoples, which seems like a probable development for a race nursed on Star Trek and post-colonialism and that is advanced enough to travel the stars. In the contemporary United States, a bewildering array of regulations govern activities that might have an environmental impact on communities. Such regulations are growing, rather than shrinking.
Avatar is also rife with contradictions. Todd Hertz summarized, “[A]ny Cameron fan expects certain modus operandi: using violence to preach anti-violence (Terminator 2 and to a degree, The Abyss) and spending millions of dollars to warn of corporate greed (Aliens).” Black film critic Armond White of the New York Press declared, “Cameron fashionably denounces the same economic and military system that make his technological extravaganza possible. It’s like condemning NASA—yet joyriding on the Mars Exploration Rover.” (Coincidentally, Cameron is designing a 3D camera for the next Mars rover and may make a documentary about Mars from the footage.) In the end, Avatar doesn’t seem so much racist as ignorant of its own contradictions.
Do Jake and Neytiri Have Sex?
Only on the DVD.
According to io9, there was a sex scene filmed for Avatar that ended up getting cut. Cameron assured, “We had it in and we cut it out. So that will be something for the special edition DVD, if you want to see how they have sex.” One might wonder if it was cut to preserve Avatar’s PG-13 rating, but it sounds like the scene was pretty tame. Zoe Saldana, who played Neytiri via motion capture, shared, “Because Jim [Cameron] was shooting for a PG-13 rating, we couldn’t move in certain directions. So it was really funny for Sam [Worthington] and me. We had a lot of giggles there.” She further speculated, “If you sync to your banshee and you’re syncing to a tree, why not sync into a person? I almost feel like you’ll have the most amazing orgasm, I guess.” io9 extrapolated from her remarks and wondered, “[S]he’s not revealing a ton, but is she implying that there’s something under those little brown loincloths?”
The Na’vi were strangely asexual. Technology blog Ars Technica complained, “The PG-13 rating allows for a decent amount of violence and salty language, but a major misstep is keeping the Na’vi ambiguously nude. There is always a bit of hair or a strand of beads placed strategically. An actual flash of nipple—or whatever organs the Na’vi have—would have been less distracting.” With all the running and jumping they do, the Na’vi’s skimpy loincloths couldn’t have kept everything covered up 100% of the time. It wouldn’t have had to be anything titillating—just a recognition that the Na’vi do have gender.
Instead of the clichéd, liberal themes Cameron does explore, he could have explored uncomfortable questions about sex with aliens and the very definition of humanity. I would have settled for a more fleshed out relationship between Neytiri and Sully. A playful, more antagonistic relationship between them would have been refreshing. Greydanus remarked, “[The Na’vi] are spiritual, peaceful, feminist, practice sustainable living and have negligible carbon footprints. Intriguingly, they take sex seriously and mate for life; free love and hooking up is the one element of the flower-child heritage that doesn’t seem to have been adopted by the Na’vi.”
I have a hard time imagining why Neytiri fell in love with Sully—not because he’s an unlikable person but because we are never shown them getting to know each other. I would have loved to see a scene where Neytiri reacts to the fact that Jake’s real body is paralyzed. The movie really should have been about these two instead of battles and becoming “king of the Na’vi.”
Now I can understand why Sully fell in love with Neytiri. She’s hot! Maybe it’s the big eyes. I like big eyes—Audrey Tautou, Zooey Deschanel, Angelina Jolie. According to Joe Letteri, FX supervisor for WETA Digital on Avatar, “[The Na’vi] eyes are almost 3 times as big proportionate as human eyes.” Roger Ebert commented, “Cameron and his artists succeed at the difficult challenge of making Neytiri a blue-skinned giantess with golden eyes and a long, supple tail, and yet—I’ll be damned. Sexy.” Eric Repphun stated, “Zoe Saldana as a nine-foot tall Smurf? Still hot as all hell.”
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