The National Catholic Review
The wonders of James Cameron's "Avatar"
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First, a confession: this will not be a review, much less a critique, as much as a personal reaction to a film that has already taken its place in the history of film aesthetics (and economics) and is sure to earn numerous awards. I cannot write an adequate review for two reasons: first, I am rather unfamiliar with digital technology; and second, I am not a professional theologian. But I do have a relevant qualification: since childhood, I have been in love with movies, and “Avatar” is most definitely a “movie.”  Enormously entertaining and visually overwhelming, it transports us to another world while occasionally reminding us of the wonders of the world we actually inhabit.

After watching the film, I was grateful for the 25-minute walk home and a chance to calm down. The film is visually stunning, James Horner’s gorgeous musical score music intensifies the emotional impact of each scene and the use of 3-D and digital animation is thrilling. As Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a science writer and author of Naming Nature, wrote in the New York Times, “The director James Cameron. . .has somehow managed to do what no other film has done. It has recreated what is at the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world.”

Many reviewers have complained that the plot of the film is formulaic, no different from countless Westerns or, worse, the hoary “White Messiah” story featured in “A Man Called Horse,” “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” “Dances with Wolves” and even Disney’s “Pocahontas,” wherein an adventurous white man goes into the wilderness, is awestruck by of the noble beauty of the native people, falls in love with one of the natives, and emerges as their leader in a battle against his own people.  

But I am grateful for the familiar story. Ever since the first “Star Wars” more than 30 years ago, I get lost roughly halfway through any science-fiction film and cannot understand who is fighting whom and precisely why. Even “Wall-E” left me in total confusion once the hero left earth. So I appreciated the clearly presented narrative in “Avatar,” which was not only easy to follow but gripping.   

The story, set in the year 2154, is centered on Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), who is selected to travel to Pandora, the moon of a planet more than four light years from earth populated by a tribe of blue-skinned, golden-eyed creatures call the Nav’i. Humans cannot breathe Pandora’s atmosphere, so the human body is placed inside a tube-shaped device (akin to an M.R.I. machine) and his body is linked to his own “avatar,” a genetically created human-Nav’i hybrid being. 

While his avatar acts and interacts on Pandora, the human Jake, in a semi-comatose state inside the tube, feels the emotions of his avatar. The scientists involved in this venture want to learn more about Pandora and the Nav’i, while the industrialists financing the project are eager to get hold of Pandora’s valuable natural resource, the mineral Unobtainium, which can save earth from an energy crisis. While the Nav’i are constantly in danger from the predatory animals that live in their forest, they also see the natural world as their link to the divine mother, Eywa. Eventually, the earthly military forces travel to Pandora to destroy its people and capture the Unobtainium, and a mighty battle ensues.

Some have seen the film as a parable of our mistreatment of the environment, others as a critique of the disastrous link between industry, technology and militarism, (particularly as found in the Bush Doctrine of the pre-emptive strike) and U.S. imperialism in general. I am partial to the latter interpretation, but (spoiler alert!) I differ with the feminist critics who find that the Nav’i heroine and love interest Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) is presented stereotypically as less muscular than the male avatar and therefore weaker. Without providing an exegesis on the body types of, say, Serena Williams vs. Peyton Manning, I found it refreshing that Neytiri is presented as a fierce warrior, that she is the expert who teaches Jake necessary survival skills and battle maneuvers, that her dying father passes on the leadership of the tribe to her, and that eventually she saves the life not only of Jake’s avatar but also the human Jake as well. The frequent villains of science-fiction literature and film, the scientists themselves, are also presented positively in the person of the lead scientist, Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who eventually shares Jake’s admiration for the ways of the Nav’i and attempts to protect them.

Such is the current cultural prominence of “Avatar” that even the Vatican has weighed in with observations. Gaetano Vallini, a film reviewer for the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, praised the film’s “stupefying, enchanting technology.” However, he termed the screenplay unoriginal and “standardized” and felt that the film’s sentimentality diverts viewers from “more thoughtful observations on militarism, imperialism, and environmentalism.” What has drawn considerably more attention is his comment that the film “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” 

But, in my opinion, the religious beliefs and practices of the Nav’i are not genuinely pantheistic; they are closer to the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, and their Catholic contemporary, Orestes Brownson, who saw nature as a powerful link to the divine—for Emerson that would be the Christian God; for the Nav’i, it is the compassionate Mother Goddess, Eywa, to whom they pray for victory, for healing and even for resuscitation from death. 

“Avatar” is a glorious cinematic achievement. Vallini put it mildly when he said in one interview, “The show is worth the price of the ticket.” Yes, and then some. It illustrates what Emerson, at the conclusion of his essay “Nature,” proclaimed as one of the goals of Transcendentalism: “We shall look at the world with new eyes.”

Michael V. Tueth, S.J., is associate chairperson of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York.

Comments

CHARLES KINNAIRD | 2/6/2010 - 10:59pm

I went to see “Avatar” with my daughter on New Year's Eve when she was home on holiday from college. We both thoroughly enjoyed it. I went not expecting much more than impressive state-of-the-art special effects. What I saw was a most important message for our time. Yes, there were some very impressive 3D special effects, there was a lot of action and some shooting and bombing. But the message of the story was the importance of respect for indigenous people and care for the environment (as opposed to displacing people and mowing down nature just to extract needed resources. I was very much reminded of  an earlier film,“The Mission,” as I watched “Avatar.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                              With the success of “Avatar” I have a new hope that a humanitarian message of caring and compassion is being welcomed by the public.
                                                                                                                                                                                                    One thing I missed that I'm glad Mr. Tueth brought out was Grace's full name, Grace Augustine. I am one who loves to look for literary symbolism in characters. I thought "Grace" held reference that was worthy of further exploration. "Grace Augustine" lends even more possibilities in imagining underlying meanings withing the film.

7893476 | 2/6/2010 - 10:14pm

I am neither a film critic nor a theologian, but I love movies as effective trajectory of my efforts of evangelization to the young.  I was deeply moved by the film to the extent of considering my sentiments to have soared into the realm of spiritual reflection.  Multiple images have evoked in me the reality of 'redemption' that defies the ravages of "dualistic" approach to holiness and spirituality which is still so prevalent among our faithful.  Way beyond its technical or technological sophistication, I was brought back to 'stories' so vivid and etched in our history and our faith.  These stories, including myths and legends were embraced by and enriched human civilization that longs, yearns and struggles for eternal peace and endless love.  These stories were en-fleshed and made visible in rituals of worship and prayer so 'rooted' in community's voices of ancestors and children alike.  'Resonating' with mother nature who favors no one but for a much sought balance in life needs and requires Jake to make a choice between reality and fantasy in order to be born again.  The 'tree of life' is indeed accessible only for those who risk their lives so that others might live, over and against the forces of violence, human greed and power that underestimate the promise of incarnation.  "Are you one of us?," asked the female Nav'i, echoing the assurance of the One sent to us not to fear the unknown, the uncertain and the unpredictability of our God of surprises.   

Jay Cuasay | 2/5/2010 - 4:26pm
AVATAR, for me, did for Sci-Fi what the LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY did for Fantasy. Without getting into specifics of what are the defining characteristics of each genre, I would simply say that each provided epic-length cinema where I was willing to be surrounded, seduced, and enveloped in the extra hours of being in each story.

I do have two critical comments to make about Michael Tueth's article.
1) I do not recall the use of Unbotainium actually being specified in the film. I only recall Tiblisi's character saying that the small chunk of it on his desk was worth $millions and that there was an enormous quantity of it on Pandora.

2) As for the spirituality of the N'Avi, I wasn't particularly troubled by it. I disagree with Mr. Tueth though, that the Nav'i prayed to Eywa for victory. In fact, the opposite happened. Jake asked Eywa for help and Neyteri told him that Eywa didn't work like that.

(**Spoiler Alert**)
My only lingering reservations had to do with the "transference" from a dying human body to live exclusively in that person's AVATAR. This was attempted unsuccessfully with Grace and then later successfully with Jake. It didn't matter so much to me whether IT worked or not, but made me wonder what IT was and the essential identity/uniqueness of body and soul. This hooking up to Eywa and "downloading" as it were from one body host to the next is part Hindu and part the cylons of Battlestar Galactica.

To confuse this state of being even more, at the end of the film when most of the humans being marched off the planet, we see Jake's colleague, Norm, the better educated Nav'i scientist who was injured during the final battle. We see Norm BOTH in his human form (wearing a gas mask) AND his avatar.
Bill Collier | 2/3/2010 - 2:29pm

I went to see "Avatar" somewhat begrudgingly. I'm not much of a James Cameron fan, and I thought the almost three-hour span of the movie would become interminable. I was wrong, however. Cameron's created a visually stunning and imaginative world, made more so by the high quality 3-D and digital imaging filming. I also agree with Fr. Tueth that the score was quite good. If the storyline was "familiar," it was nevertheless punctuated with moments of real emotion-e.g., when the avatar of the quadriplegic Marine is activated for the first time, and he feels the use of legs again, I was surprised how moved I was watching him experience the sensation of size 20 blue feet wriggling in soil. 

I've read a few articles about how Cameron purposely introduced pantheism-"the religion of Hollywood"-into the movie. Perhaps that was his intention, I don't know. But I agree with Fr. Tueth that the religious beliefs of the Na'vi are closer to Emerson/Thoreau Transcendentalism than to pantheism. I wasn't offended by the lack of a more defined theology. Not to press the point too far, but it would be presumptuous, and perhaps preposterous, to have expected a well-defined monotheism among the inhabitants of a celestial body that hadn't been visited by Christ or Mohammed, for example. On the other hand, I thought the movie was quite effective in emphasizing the web of all life, both flora and fauna. And if it was somewhat heavy-handed to paint Earth as a desperate planet dying from human-induced ecological degradation 140+ years from now, then I didn't mind the warning from the future about what we are doing to our planet in the early 21st century.

I still think "The Hurt Locker" was the best picture of the year, but I'm glad I didn't let my misconceptions about "Avatar" sway me from seeing a unique and visually spectacular movie.      

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