Avatar, the Mystical Gaze, and the Fate of Flesh

Richard Leonard’s essay 'The Mystical Gaze’ and the DVD release of Avatar, provide an opportunity to revisit the film.  

Leonard helpfully points to the level on which the film works.  Endless reviews of its clichéd story line simply miss the point.  It’s not a text.  It’s a film.  Cameron is a master of powerful scenes.  Terminator II had Sarah Connor’s nightmare vision of the playground nuclear explosion.   Her unheard scream of warning as children fall to ashes before her eyes likewise was cliché from start to finish.  It was also one of the most powerful anti-nuke images of a generation.  Avatar’s scene of the destruction of the tree village provides a similarly indelible scene of vulgar rapacious militarized capitalist destruction.

On this level Avatar succeeds.  With a soundtrack that comes perilously close to the “Circle of life” in the background, it conveys in scene after scene the contrasts between a militarized corporate mining outpost and a planet where life is deeply intertwined; where species communicate between their own kind and among all others.  It is a world where there is nothing the human interlopers can offer the Na’vi, who live among monumental trees, in literal, bodily communion with the other beings in their world.  It conveys in blue skin tones just how radically different our lives might need to be to return our own world to balance.  Here fantasy works its magic, just enough difference for us to think into another way of being. 

Leonard’s account of the mystical gaze helps us see that its immersive 3D technology is not just a gimmick, but central to its workings.  Those who have seen the film frequently recount the enchantment of the floating seeds from the Tree of Life.   The 3D experience contributes to our ability to share what Leonard terms Sully’s “initiation” into an “eco-spiritual community.”

There is another level to the meaning and effect of the film that is, however, much more ambiguous.  It signals the moment when we can create compelling worlds from nothing more than imagination, hard work, and thousands of hours of computer time.  What is happening on this level is less clear.  Leonard compares the theater space with liturgical church space.  But the cinema can be escape as much as transformation; a shutting out of the world and the body.  Avatar might be contradiction that enacts a violent isolation from the body and the material world with a fantasy of connection.

Cameron’s Terminator series was equally fascinated with flesh, but those films were almost perfectly docetic.  Flesh was but appearance, veiling a technological will to power.  Avitar, uses the now common trope of the mind jacked into another world.  Unlike Neuromancer or the Matrix trilogy, here the avitars are not virtual, but flesh.

On this front, Avatar is curiously ambiguous and perhaps undecided.  On the one hand, there is the profound scene of Neytiri saving her lover Sully’s human body.  Flesh touching flesh.  Tears crossing the divide between worlds.  But like the Matrix before it, in the end, the film opts against weak and paralyzed human flesh.  Ambiguity remains, in that Sully enters completely into his Na’vi body, not through the human technology of the computer “jack” but through the living, organic power of the Tree of Souls.

As in other films, such as the Matrix (and in a surprisingly similar way The Constant Gardener), we can see the problems but not solve them here.  It is shocking to see the paucity of our imagination even at our most stunning moments of creativity.  This, a work of a cadre of geniuses, and we just cannot imagine our own redemption. 

In the Matrix, Neo takes off into the virtual sky.  In The Constant Gardener, Justin shoots himself to be with Tessa rather than confront the injustice she opposed.   Avatar ultimately chooses for the fantasy flesh of the Na’vi.

Perhaps in the end, the film falls into a heresy Christians know all too well: that we and the world are beyond redemption.  Sully’s broken, paraplegic body is left behind, gently dead among the roots of the Tree of Souls.  His soul lives now as Na’vi to watch the humans perp-walked out of paradise under heavily armed guard.

Just as we can’t undo the flaming sword guarding paradise, so, in the end, we don’t seem to be able to imagine a redeemed human existence in our own.    Directors with titanic egos and the poets of virtual reality aren’t the only ones to succumb to this temptation.  There is a deep apocalyptic mood abroad.  We are endlessly able to write stories of fall and brokenness, corruption and cultural decline; unable to see the positive possibilities of history around us.

As a fulsome glimpse of a virtual world now within reach, Avatar announces that we near escape velocity from flesh.  Soon, little will hold us back from our apocalyptic desires for escape.  Weary of history, we come to the moment when we must take seriously its redemption more than ever before.

But look: the valleys shine with promises,

And every burning morning is a prophecy of Christ

coming to raise and vindicate

Even our sorry flesh”  

 

“The Trappist Cemetery—Gethsemani”

Thomas Merton

 

Vincent J. Miller

 

Stanley Kopacz
7 years 2 months ago
The movie was very heavyhanded. It would have been better if it showed how the humans make excuses for what they were doing, the same way they do when filling their needs for money or sex. The best one is that they are doing a favor for their victims. Or show the way an individual's moral nature is neutralized when they become part of a corporation.

Best part of the movie for me was in the beginning narration. The ex-Marine is a paraplegic. I thought, "This is ridiculous. It's 2150. Surely by this time they can repair a severed spinal cord." But then the explanation: his medical insurance didn't cover it. I guess the Republicans are still running the show in the next century.

Sorry, Repubs, I just couldn't resist.
7 years 2 months ago
While the movie wasn't perfect, I did like it.   I found the part about the paralyzed Sully getting a second chance with another body to be fairly compelling.  Is the reason the writer thought this was a weak point based on the Thomas Aquinas idea that each soul is connected to a unique body?  I may be a neo-platonist, but I think if a disabled person had a chance to have a non-disabled body, they would not be abondoning their true self but finding it.
lLetha Chamberlain
7 years 2 months ago
I don't go to movies or watch TV... my response is to comment #3...
When we as humans can put aside our temptations to limit Christ's healing power... (thinking we are so "in control" and "know so much" through inadequate understanding of science... in this case, neuroplasticity-as well as through our lack of faith), realizing the amazing abilities of self-healing in the body and brain...  limiting the healing found in the Sacraments (all of them)... we limit our Church, our Church's collective wisdoms of the ages, and have erased our "ancient memory banks".  There ARE miracles going on in the modern world-and now we have the scientific research backup into some of the "why's" of them... but we have not yet found how to replicate them reliably or easily... without going back to these ancient wisdoms.
The disconnect in Protestantism to the "depository of faith" and collective memory (all the time thinking they were "going back to the early Church"...) shows the same kind of phenomena.  That is the reason only Holy Mother Church is the "true Church" of Christ.  Protestants simply cannot go "back to the early Church" and revive what was going on within.
Disabled people can well recover from even "severed spinal cords" if people now having "massive strokes" are going mountain-climbing unaided.  The "incurable" major psychiatric "disorders" so-called by "pseudoscience of the 1970's" most certainly CAN be transcended.  Do not limit the Lord, your God!  Do not limit yourself or anyone else!
"the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf un-stopped; the lame will leap with joy!"
Peace and the abundance of God's Providence be with you!

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