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”
Vincent J. Miller