Avatar (2009)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5 ; L- 40; S/N-4. Running time: 2 hours 42 min.

Listen, you that are deaf;
and you that are blind, look up and see! Isaiah 42:18

The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly; Psalm 37:14

Na Vi Neytiri befriends the human Jake in his avatar body.

2009 20th Century Fox Pictures

Writer-director James Cameron’s long and expensive campaign to bring to the screen his 3-D science fiction film has paid off handsomely, both in terms of financial and in artistic success. Millions of viewers have willingly donned the necessary glasses (and shelled out an extra premium) to enter the world of Pandora, the large satellite circling a planet far, far from Earth. What a world Cameron’s army of artists and technicians has created—lush green jungles filled with exotic plants and dangerous animals, floating mountains, and at night filled with luminosity from various plants and creatures!

The story is a Pocahontas-Dances With Wolves affair, with maybe a touch of Terence Malik’s The Thin Red Line. Wheelchair-bound Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) stands in for Kevin Kostner’s Lt. John Dunbar, and Amazonian Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) for Pocahontas—instead of “Indian” she is a blue-skinned ten-foot tall member of the Na’Vi. Jake is an ex-Marine who lost the use of his legs in battle, now hired by a mining conglomerate to take the place of his recently killed brother because of their shared DNA. The company has come to the planet to mine an extremely valuable mineral called unobtanium vital to Earth’s economy (the name is an old science fiction joke).

Unfortunately the coveted substance is located beneath a tree held sacred by the Na’Vi who live close by, and as happened a few hundred years earlier on Earth, relations between the newcomers and the natives have gone sour. Because humans cannot breathe the atmosphere of the planet, under the direction of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her team of scientists the company has developed avatars that include DNA from humans and that of the Na’Vi.

Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the grizzled crew cut head of security forces would just as soon use force to obtain the precious substance, but the company out of concern for public relations has decided to try negotiation with the natives first. He takes a liking for Jake, telling him to report everything about the Na’Vi that he observes. Jake has not gone through the rigorous language and cultural studies program that his late brother had completed, so he has a lot of catching up to do. Grace is upset that he has been assigned to her. He gives her good cause when upon the first immersion of his mind into the avatar he rises up too soon and, gleefully discovering that he can walk again, runs out of the laboratory on his still-shaky legs, the worried scientists in hot pursuit. Later, he, in his avatar body, goes out on a mission to explore a region of Pandora’s jungle. And what a beautiful jungle it is, filled with colorful fauna and flora, some of the latter glowing when touched. But it is also dangerous, as Jake discovers when an accident separates him from his companion and he is lost to the craft that had brought them. Unable to locate him as darkness falls, the helicopter heads back to base, a crewmember observing, “He won’t make it through the night.

He wouldn’t have, with dozens of ferocious beasts barely kept at bay by his puny torch, but for Neytiri, a very capable hunter/warrior with the bow and spear. Even though she rescues him, she wants no further contact, sensing his alienness. He follows her despite her attempts to discourage him, and when they reach her village and he is seized by the warriors, intercedes for him with her father, who spares the captive’s life. Then follows the long period when Jake moves back and forth between his life in his avatar, growing fond of the Na’Vi and their culture (and of Neytiri in particular), and his life aboard his ship dealing with the impatient Col. Miles.

The culture and religion of the Na’Vi are well worked out. The Na’Vi feel connected with all of life, and indeed, they possess a collection of small tentacles at the end of what looks like a long braided tail that connects with the flying creatures that serve as their mode of transportation. Their New Age-like religion centers on a female deity worshipped as the source of life. Thus as in the revisionist Western films that replaced the image of Native Americans as vicious savages with that of the noble, in-harmony-with nature beings, so writer-director Cameron conceives of the future as being a conflict between the greedy colonialists exploiting a planet versus those who want to live in harmony with it. His giant machines that ruthlessly crush trees and foliage in their quest for the mineral are extrapolations of the ones that are now stripping away the tops of West Virginian mountains.

Although I am impressed with the film, I felt a sense of disappointment while watching the audience-pleasing climatic battle between the Na’Vi warriors astride their winged dragon-like steeds and the machine-gun armed helicopters. Part of this was due to the unlikely outcome, but more so because at one point Jake/avatar said something that led me to believe that he and the Na’Vi might come up with an unconventional means of opposing the inhumane humans’ juggernaut. Perhaps a Gandhian style massive resistance—remember the powerful sequence in Gandhi wherein wave after wave of followers trained in non-violent resistance marched against the British and Indian constabulary and willingly submitted to their beatings without flinching? I realize that I probably read too much into whatever Jake said, and thereby hoped too much for a departure from the usual Hollywood conclusion.

I must not close, however, without calling your attention to a helpful article in the Opinion Section of the December 26 issue of the New York TIMES, in which writer Adam Cohn offers some insightful comments on how integral the film’s 3-D technique is to Avatar. It is not just to enhance the realism of the story, but also to call us viewers to a new way of “seeing.” “It is important to show Pandora and its Na’Vi natives in 3-D because Avatar is fundamentally about the moral necessity of seeing other beings fully.” Mr. Cohen writes of the old colonialist approach to exploiting natives and points out that at the beginning of the big battle a human, upon sighting the Na’Vi calls them “roaches.” This is what we do in order to exploit or kill the enemy, take away any semblance of their humanness or similarity to ourselves. The soldiers have not seen the Na’Vi up close as have Jake and Grace, who, because by means of their avatars they have lived with the tribe, have gone through—and Mr. Cohn uses the religious term— “conversion” , and thus they see through new eyes. I am reminded of the apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 5:16-17 “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Mr. Cohen goes on to say, “All of this draws on a well-known principle of totalitarianism and genocide — that it is easiest to oppress those we cannot see. This is one reason the Nazis pushed Jews into ghettos, and one reason that the worst Soviet abuses occurred in far-off gulags.” Thus, in spite of my disappointment, mentioned in the previous paragraph, I can wholeheartedly recommend this film to those of you who preach and teach
the movies. In fact, in the “Top Ten Films” article that I just sent in for use in the March issue of Presbyterians Today, I listed the film as almost making the cut. Thanks to Mr. Cohn, I think I will include it in VP’s “Top Ten” list in the next issue.

For Reflection/Discussion

There could be some spoilers in the following, especially toward the end.

1. How did you feel that 3-D was used in this film? Different from its predecessors? What do you think of Adam Cohn’s statement that the film uses 3-D not just for the usual goal of achieving realism but as a means of seeing life itself in a different way—as when Jake learns to see the Na’Vi not as obstacles in the path of human progress, but as individuals valuable in their own right. What do you think of this? This article is so good that I am including its Internet address so that you can read the whole article—it’s that good: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/26/opinion/26sat4.html 2. I also recall hearing on NPR someone saying that Cameron has created Pandora as an alternate world to atone for the past five centuries of European colonialism in general, and of Americans’ treatment of Native Americans in particular. What do you think of this?

3. In what ways is Mr. Cameron’s viewpoint similar to those who made District 9? The settings are different, but what happens to that film’s protagonist Wikus that enables him to see the aliens in a new way? It is not through the device of an avatar, but the contamination from the fluid does change him and his perspective, doesn’t it?

4. The soldier’s calling the approaching Na’Vi “roaches” reminds me of Hotel Rwanda. In that film the hero Paul Rusesabagina hears a Hutu-controlled government spokesman on the radio deliver a vicious diatribe against the Tutsis in which he calls them “cockroaches” that must be “stamped out.” How might some Americans be in danger of regarding Muslims and/or Arabs, or “illegal immigrants” in the same way? (Remember the scene set in a pawnshop in Crash?)

5, How is the religion of the Na’Vi similar to that of Native Americans? In what ways does its vision of the connectedness of all life forms fit in with a Christian view? How has the environmental movement led theologians to reflect more upon this?

6. At one point something that Jake said made me think that he was going to try to persuade the Na’Vi to resist in some form of Gandhian mass resistance, but this did not happen. What do you think of the exciting climactic battle? Giving in to the desire of the audience for an exciting finale?

7. How realistic do you think the outcome is—of the possessors of major technology being defeated by the Na’Vi with their primitive weapons? Compare this finale with that of the film The Mission. Note how in the latter two methods of resisting oppressive colonialism are presented: did either prevail against the Spaniards with their canons and muskets? How does Gandhi, as in the scene in which his satyagrahi (as he calls his “soldiers” trained in nonviolent techniques) march on a British salt works to protest the salt tax, offer a third way to the two shown in The Mission?

8. And that final question that we often ask, “Where do you see God at work in this film?”