(1) There are spoilers ahead.
(2) I am neither a well-read theologian nor a seasoned film critic, so take all of this with a grain of salt (or, as they do on Pandora, with a grain of unobtainium).
There are few movies that haunt me, that move beyond entertaining, even beyond immersive, to create an experience that lingers. In these rare encounters, I walk away moved, sometimes even provoked.
In a masterful stroke of filmmaking, James Cameron’s Avatar left me both moved and provoked.
Let me first talk about provocation. Although many Avatar reviews focus on the innovative filmmaking and technologies used in the making of Avatar, I want to spend my time concentrating on the story line, which provides some provocative themes, politics, and even theology.
At its heart, Avatar is a story of colonial confrontation. Humans have made their way to the distant moon planet of Pandora, where they have established a mining station on the surface to extract a precious element from the ground. Unfortunately, this precious resource just happens to be underneath a verdant, fruitful paradise, which is also the home of the Na’vi, the native humanoids of Pandora. Imperial exploitation ensues, and it doesn’t take the viewer long to recognize the history of European imperial enterprises in both Africa and North America haunting the script. Even the Na’vi, in their hairstyles, dress, and culture, quickly elicit stereotypical images of African and Native American tribal culture, particularly the male warrior haircut, which closely resembles the scalp-lock style of the Iroquois, Mohawks, and Mohicans.
But problems with this historical connection begin almost immediately. The colonial encounters between European countries and populations in both Africa and North America were certainly full of atrocities, but the historical truth of these cultural conflicts is much messier than the story found in Avatar. And although European violence, in the end, far surpassed the violence committed by native Africans and North Americans, both sides in these confrontations were responsible for horrendous massacres. More importantly, military commanders, entrepreneurial traders, and even the religious leaders sent to baptize their violent exploitation often wrestled with the moral implications of their actions and decisions. They were not one-dimensional characters, but complex ethical creatures who found creative ways to rationalize their unethical behavior. One moment could find them vigorously participating in colonial exploitation, while the next would find them ravaged by their guilt.
Unfortunately, Colonel Quaritch and mining manager Parker Selfridge, the film’s main antagonists, fall into this one-dimensional trap. Besides a few fleeting moments of ethical doubt painted across Selfridge’s face, the two antagonists show few signs of moral angst. They are completely driven by their desire for money and their lust for destruction. And here is the central problem with the film: evil in the movie is too one-dimensional, too simple. Cameron had an opportunity to show the immense ethical complexity of culture clashes, especially culture clashes that involve limited resources. Instead, the humans in the film can be sorted into three groups: corporate employees motivated by corporate profits, security personnel motivated by military conquest, and research scientists motivated by a desire to protect the native life of Pandora. Here, scientists are good, whereas capitalists and militarists are bad. It’s not that this scenario is never true in our world—surely it is—but that our moral situations are never this simple. Rarely can such a clean-cut binary of good and evil be mapped onto three simple categories of vocation.
The politics involved in such a categorization become clear. Cameron makes a strong push for the environmentalist cause and provides a critique of the military-industrial complex that pervades American foreign policy. And certainly, he provokes us to consider the ramifications of military violence and economic exploitation in our history, even our recent history. The destruction of the Na’vi “home-tree” provides an inside-look at what it’s like to be on the receiving end of modern military firepower. The devastation and ensuing misery is a poignant moment in the film, one that recalls the shock and awe tactics used in Iraq, the falling of the twin towers on 9/11, and I would even argue, elicits the horror and devastation experienced by the Israelites in the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans.
My allusion here to religious history really isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Indeed, the environmentalist message of Avatar also contains strong theological convictions. On Pandora, all biological life is connected through the deity known as Eywa. The Na’vi worship Eywa, and commune with the god by connecting their “neural queue”—an extension of their nervous system that resembles long, braided hair—to the branches of the “Tree of Souls,” a sacred tree that serves as a medium of communication between the Na’vi and Eywa. Though Eywa is intermittently referred to anthropomorphically in the movie (the god is occasionally gendered as “mother”), Eywa seems to be more of a life force of the planet, the culminating spirit of all life on Pandora. Here Eywa loosely resembles Gaia, the mother earth goddess of Greek myth. The plot of the movie moves on the assumption that damage to Pandora’s ecosystem means damage to the god Eywa. Consequently, when it seems as though all hope has been lost, Eywa moves to save Pandora from the brink of ecological and spiritual destruction. At one point in the movie, Neytiri, the Na’vi female protagonist, notes that Eywa does not take sides on matters of individual life and death. Instead, as the mother earth figure of Pandora, Eywa protects the ecological vitality of the planet, and thus maintains the “balance of life.”
So what can we, as Christians, take away from the theology found in Avatar? With careful discernment, I think we can be moved and inspired by this movie. We can certainly agree that God cares about his creation and that he desires humanity to care for it as he has willed. The Na’vi are very careful to remain in harmony with creation, to give thanks for what they need from nature, and to not take more than their necessary share. As Christians, we can celebrate this as an example of godly stewardship, and even as an example of godly dominion over God’s creation. The Na’vi do not allow nature to control them, but instead they subdue creation for their benefit. However, this is always done in a caring, servant-like way. They kill only when they need meat; they subdue and command only when they need mounts to ride or fly on; and they mold and carve great trees only when they need a place to live in. In each example, they are careful to maintain and care for creation as stewards, not as conquistadors.
Fortunately, our God does not simply care about the balance of nature, but about each individual life. And it’s here that we need to separate Eywa from Yahweh. God is more than the spiritual life force of our planet. He is distinct from his creation and is not bound to its fate. Yet he cares deeply for it, so deeply that he knows the number of hairs on each of our heads. Unlike Eywa, our god is personal. He knows, guides, and sustains each moment of our lives. In fact, he is personal to the point of scandal. The great God that transcends our material reality—earth, universe, space, and time—decided to forever bind himself to humanity by becoming human in Jesus Christ. God is not only Lord of the cosmos. God is human.
The word avatar comes from the Sanskrit word “avat?ra,” which literally means “descent” or “crossing down.” This translates into English as “incarnation.” Vishnu, a Hindu god, had several avatars, or incarnations, as described in the Garuda Purana and the Bhagavata Purana, two sacred texts of Hinduism. In the film, Jake Sully and others are “incarnated” into their Na’vi avatars. But the film culminates not with a reference to Vishnu’s several avatars, but instead reveals a mysterious ritual that binds Jake’s soul with the body of his avatar. Here we get a glimpse of Christ’s incarnation into the world. Throughout the movie, Jake was two persons, two natures. If his avatar had died, Jake would still live to see another day, and in all possible worlds, live to inhabit another Na’vi avatar or several more, like Vishnu. But in the end, by the miracle of Eywa, Jake’s human nature (his soul) is fused with his Na’vi nature (his Na’vi body). Jake becomes fully incarnated into the Na’vi world. For sure, Jake is no complete Christ figure. He neither lives as a morally pure hero nor does dies a sacrificial death to pay for the sins of the world. But in the end, we don’t get a glimpse of Vishnu, safe to retreat from his current avatar and come again in another one. Instead, we get a glimpse of Christ, as Jake takes on the risk of fully embracing the Na’vi by becoming one of them, forever.
In the end, even with its one-dimensional antagonists, binary morality, and Gaia-like theology, I believe Avatar is a film worth seeing, in spite of its intentions and messages. But why?
Perhaps the most interesting testament to God comes not from the incarnational or creation-care theology found in the film, but simply from the film’s own incarnation. As I left the theater, I was blown away by the shear creativity that came forth from Cameron and company’s imagination. That creativity of imagination and storytelling, as J. R. R. Tolkien put it, is a form of “sub-creation” and a mark of the Imago Dei. As creatures created in the image of God, we get to partake in sub-creating in order to reflect glory back to our Creator. Whether it’s a novel, a painting, a musical piece, or even the film Avatar, the creativity that we exude can be celebrated as a glimmer (just a speck!) of the magnificent creativity that the Lord wields simply with the Word of his mouth. We were created to imagine, to sub-create, and on many levels, even in spite of its own theology, Avatar bears witness to that.
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1. See Garuda Purana 1.13, 1.86.10-11 and Bhagavata Purana 1.3.6-25. For more information on the comparison between the concepts of avat?ra and incarnation, see Noel Sheth’s “Hindu Avat?ra and Christian Incarnation: A Comparison,” Philosophy East and West 52, no. 1 (2002): 98-125.
2. For Tolkien’s explication of the art of sub-creation, see his essay “On Fairy-stories,” which is most recently found in Tales from the Perilous Realm (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2008), 313-400. For a more in-depth theological treatment of this Tolkien concept, see Alison Milbank’s fantastic work, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians (London, UK: T & T Clark, 2007).