Avatar's sappy, 'dumbed down' spirituality

  • February 19, 2010
Hardly a week into its inaugural run, Hollywood’s big Christmas release, Avatar, evolved from just another holiday blockbuster into a full-scale cultural phenomenon. It skipped past $1 billion in box office receipts faster than any film in history and by the end of January it had become the first movie ever to gross more than $2 billion.

Millions have seen Avatar, critics have heaped praise on it and it’s currently up for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (James Cameron.)

Though I didn’t like Avatar — I’ll explain my reasons in a moment — I can understand its immense appeal to its target demographic, young men 14 to 24. Cameron has used the most advanced computer-imaging technology now available to create a fantastic tropical world (actually a remote moon in another solar system, called Pandora) in which good and evil are clearly defined, as in video games, and inexorably pitted against one another. One young fan reportedly wrote a web posting in which he declared his willingness to commit suicide here and now, if only he could be assured of rebirth on Pandora. Growing up into the morally muddled present-day world, it appears, makes many admire the ethical simplicity of Cameron’s film.

The good is represented by the Na’vi, the race of blue humanoid giants who comprise the native population of Pandora. The Na’vi are everything we Faustian Westerners are not: gentle Stone Age hunters living in harmony with each other and with the lush nature around them, New Age worshippers of an all-wise, benevolent mother goddess. The evil is represented by an American mining company and its military security force, both bent on ravaging Pandora for its rare mineral resources and, if need be, destroying the Na’vi, whom they regard as savages and nuisances.

In order to understand the Na’vi, the better to subject them, the mining company has genetically engineered replicas of the aborigines, who are then sent out into the jungle among the real Na’vi. These replicas, called avatars, are telepathically controlled by human masters back at the mining company’s base camp.

The enterprise begins to go wrong (from the company’s perspective, anyway) when one of the masters, a disabled ex-Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), discovers the beauty of Na’vi life, and goes native with a Na’vi princess named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). The film climaxes with an armed uprising and rebellion by the Na’vi warriors, led by Jake, against their human oppressors. In the end, good triumphs over evil, and Jake, his human mind now wholly united with his Na’vi body by the mother goddess, settles down into life with Neytiri and the tribe. (At least two sequels of Avatar are in the works.)

The roots of this narrative are, of course, very old and deep in Western culture. Our complex civilization has long given rise to optimistic tales about the victims and survivors of its technological over-reach and industrial expansionism — fantasies such as the South Seas erotic and sensuous paradise celebrated in the paintings of Gauguin, the idealization of the American Indian in movies and novels without number, the belief that somewhere a stable, ancient culture, a Shangri La, has endured despite the global onslaught of Western modernization. Updated by contemporary ecological anxiety and New Age spirituality, this old story provides the mythic underpinnings of Avatar.

I didn’t like Cameron’s film for the same reasons that many millions of young people seem to adore it: the dumbed-down representation of modernity as a merely malevolent force, the hippie-style, uncritical recycling of the myth of the Noble Savage, the sappy “spirituality.” Pandora, or Shangri-La, or Tahiti, however strong their hold on our imaginations, all too easily become escapist distractions from what we should be attending to, which is building up the earthly city we’ve inherited from the past. Christianity calls us to this engagement with the problems of the here and now, and in that summons lies its profoundly attractive realism.


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