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.”