Emerson and Avatar

As part of our promise to furnish ample coverage of films in our online Culture section, here is a new review of the blockbuster "Avatar," from a slightly different perspective.  Michael V. Tueth, S.J., of the Fordham University's Communication and Media Studies department admits he is no great technophile, nor is he a professional theologian.   But he loves movies, knows a great deal about them, and loved "Avatar."  In fact, it took him 25 minutes to "calm down" after the film.  And he disagrees--politely--with the Vatican's (or at least L'Osservatore Romano's) partial condemnation of the film: 

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.”

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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.

Read the rest of his appreciation here.

James Martin, SJ

 

 
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Bill Collier
8 years 2 months ago
I went to see "Avatar" somewhat begrudgingly. I'm not much of a James Cameron fan, and I thought the almost three-hour span of the movie would become interminable. I was wrong, however. Cameron's created a visually stunning and imaginative world, made more so by the high quality 3-D and digital imaging filming. I also agree with Fr. Tueth that the score was quite good. If the storyline was "familiar," it was nevertheless punctuated with moments of real emotion-e.g., when the avatar of the quadriplegic Marine is activated for the first time, and he feels the use of legs again, I was surprised how moved I was watching him experience the sensation of size 20 blue feet wriggling in soil.

I've read a few articles about how Cameron purposely introduced pantheism-"the religion of Hollywood"-into the movie. Perhaps that was his intention, I don't know. But I agree with Fr. Tueth that the religious beliefs of the Na'vi are closer to Emerson/Thoreau Transcendentalism than to pantheism. I wasn't offended by the lack of a more defined theology. Not to press the point too far, but it would be presumptuous, and perhaps preposterous, to have expected a well-defined monotheism among the inhabitants of a celestial body that hadn't been visited by Christ or Mohammed, for example. On the other hand, I thought the movie was quite effective in emphasizing the web of all life, both flora and fauna. And if it was somewhat heavy-handed to paint Earth as a desperate planet dying from human-induced ecological degradation 140+ years from now, then I didn't mind the warning from the future about what we are doing to our planet in the early 21st century.

I still think "The Hurt Locker" was the best picture of the year, but I'm glad I didn't let my misconceptions about "Avatar" sway me from seeing a unique and visually spectacular movie.

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