Avatar and the ‘new’ evolutionary religion
Published: 5 January 2010 (GMT+10)
A movie review
Warning! This review is a spoiler if you have not seen the movie and intend to do so.
Movies, no less than painting, literature, and other expressions of popular culture, both reflect and influence the worldview of the age and society that produces them. Films in particular (especially box-office hits, as Avatar will doubtless be) can have considerable power to further shape a society’s worldview—a set of beliefs and assumptions that are widely held as ‘givens’, even if subliminally so. To be most effective at this, a film should not depart too far from what is already held, but rather build on the foundations already laid, reinforcing, deepening and extending the ruling paradigm—to further embed the vision of what their makers think the world ought to be like.
The story of Avatar unfolds in a future age when scientists and soldiers are involved in a mission from Earth to the fictional Earth-like moon Pandora. Their task is to obtain supplies of an immensely valuable mineral. The substance’s name brings one of the few corny touches to this cutting-edge computer graphics techno-spectacle—Unobtainium. Presumably it’s, um, not readily available back home.
The progress of this mission is being frustrated by the local ‘savages’, which in this case are lithe blue-skinned humanoids, about 3 metres (10 feet) tall with long semi-rigid tails. All are fine physical specimens, too, with nary a spare tire, drooping jowl or buttock between them regardless of age—perhaps it’s all that exercise leaping around in the forest canopy.
Can’t lick ‘em? Join ‘em …
Part of the strategy to subdue the natives, so that the resources they live atop can be more easily exploited, is an old one—infiltration. Simply sending humans to infiltrate the Na’vi is not likely to work, though, given the physical differences between the exploiter and the exploited.1 But hey, this is the future, so it’s no big deal for the corporate bigwigs to hire a few scientists and be able to upload the consciousness of selected humans into Na’vi ‘avatars’. In computer gamespeak, an avatar is a virtual alter ego, a new identity that is controlled by you but does not even have to look or be like the real you.2 The avatars in this case are biological entities which, though they contain some human DNA, are basically Na’vi bodies. When the person whose DNA a particular avatar contains is cocooned inside the appropriate machine, they lose consciousness, and their mind inhabits and controls their Na’vi avatar instead. When the avatar goes to sleep, the human wakes up, and vice versa.
Corporal Jake Sully is a paraplegic ex-marine, the identical twin of a now-dead scientist who was transporting his persona in and out of one of these Na’vi bio-avatars. Because he has the same DNA, Jake is chosen to continue his brother’s mission, despite being untrained for it.
He meets team member Grace Augustine (played by Alien’s Sigourney Weaver), a tough-talking, chain-smoking scientist who herself slips in and out of the brain of a Na’vi double, and has begun to master the language.3
Avatar’s bad guys
We’re introduced early on to the film’s chief villain, Colonel Quoritch—a tough, heavily muscled military-type head of security. The colonel is itching to use force to impose upon (or dispose of) the locals. His swaggering John-Wayne-shoot-‘em-up approach, (coupled with blond crewcut and square jaw) presents a crudely stereotypical caricature of what is allegedly wrong with US militarism. Later in the film, Vietnam echoes become obvious—right down to the sounds and images of futuristic versions of Huey choppers flying low above the jungle and carrying gun-toting grunts. The Pandora equivalents of the ‘gooks’4 within that jungle, the Na’vi, also have massive napalm-reminding flames rained upon them by the invader.
Other ‘villain themes’ unfold; for one, the greedy multinational corporation driving the operation, in league with the military. The tie-in with Iraq (a more recent US military venture where the boundaries between army and private commercial interests were said to be sometimes blurred) seems intentional, with mention of “shock and awe” and even daisycutter bombs (the colonel tries to use them to punish the locals for resisting).
The deeper theme is of course the historical tendency of technologically advanced societies, in their drive for resources, to use force to impose their will on indigenous cultures, as symbolized by the Na’vi. Such cultures are, in the current version of Rousseau’s5 ‘noble savage’ myth, held to be in a wonderful ecological harmony with nature. Their peoples are supposed to be more innocent and pure than the rapacious greedy inhabitants of western civilization (like the earthlings that come to Pandora having ravaged and destroyed their own planet).6
In tune with nature
The moral of the story seems to be that if the citizens of modern hi-tech cultures were to repent from our wicked ways, we might not only be able to avoid further destroying our own natural world, we would also enjoy spiritual wholeness, including a oneness with nature. It seems we are supposed to get the anti-technology vibes of this deep green religious message while sitting in heavily air-conditioned theatres enjoying the most high-tech movie computer graphics to date. To add to the irony, the Avatar marketing machine has no qualms about teaming up with McDonalds. This multinational is a favourite target of environmentalist claims that it causes developing nations to grow more beef by razing, er, forests inhabited by, ah, indigenous people. But back to the film …
In contrast to the military-industrial axis and its blundering plundering, scientist Grace and her team are meant to be the more enlightened, progressive thinkers of their time. They urge more nuanced ways of overcoming native resistance to mining—including allowing more time to let the avatar program attain its goals of engagement and persuasion. Through their science, they have begun to understand the value of Na’vi culture—particularly, the way these forest people relate to the natural world.
The film’s implication is that the Na’vi (the undisputed ‘good guys’ throughout) understand the truth about life, namely that everything has a spirit, and all living things are interconnected into one big whole, which is essentially their ‘mother earth goddess’, Eywa.7 (Grace has even discovered that each tree of Pandora’s forest has electro-chemical connections to many other trees, which together form a massive network, like the synapses of a huge brain. Prince Charles would have loved that part of Avatar.)
Avatar promotes a (not-so-) new evolutionary religion
This blatant push for a return to neo-pagan animism/pantheism in Avatar is a common component of the ‘new religion’ of our evolutionized times. Most people today unfortunately believe that we are an offspring of nature, an effervescence of the universe, not the creation of a miracle-working, prayer-answering, truth-revealing personal God. The logical conclusion to draw from this, if it were true, is to be an outright atheist/materialist like Richard Dawkins. Notions of ‘spirituality’ just arise from evolved mechanisms within our brain. But those like Dawkins, though very much on the rise, are still relatively uncommon. This is probably because most people do not like to face the meaninglessness of this viewpoint. So to retain a sense of the spiritual, once the Bible has been rejected, the creation itself (nature, the universe) has to be imbued with a sense of the ‘divine’. This has triggered a major return to Eastern monistic thinking in the West—mostly in the form of New Age beliefs, even if only at the ‘Oprah’ level of sophistication.8 Such beliefs marry naturally with today’s hyper-environmentalism, and Avatar successfully blends them into a very alluring package. Like other sci-fi ET flicks, it will also, unfortunately, tend to reinforce the belief that ‘aliens’ could have evolved on other worlds, and thus the New Age deception that they are visiting us with messages of peace and salvation.9
Being ‘one’ with nature, Na’vi style
Incidentally, the Na’vi’s ability to commune with nature is greatly helped by a special anatomical device they all possess, in common with many other creatures of their world. It’s sure to make any New Ager envious—a sort of biological USB cable with which to literally ‘connect’ to those other creatures at will and so share their spirits, as it were. It also comes in handy for controlling the beast you happen to be riding. When they are not bounding through the treetops at dizzying heights, or swaying while chanting to their nature-goddess, the Na’vi are either flying astride pterosaur-like creatures, or riding what are meant to remind us of horses (even though these animals live by sucking great slurps of nectar from giant flowers).
At first, Jake sympathizes with the colonel, but not for long. Cut off from his scouting party while in his avatar body, he encounters the world of Pandora’s biology—at once amazing, fascinating and dangerous. The not-so-subtle message is that evolution has generated a whole new array of creatures in response to the different environment of this other world.
He encounters a Na’vi girl, Princess Neytiri, who saves his life and then gradually introduces him to the ways of her kind. He progressively falls in love with her and her ‘people’. Changing sides, avatar-Jake, joined by the progressive scientists, eventually leads the Na’vi in rebellion against the Earth invaders in a final climactic battle. It ends with the nasty earthlings dispatched back to their ecologically ruined home planet minus the (now definitely unavailable) Unobtainium.
Avatar: a rollicking good story
The graphics effects of Avatar are truly stunning; the unearthly biology of Pandora is convincingly real. Regardless of what one might think of the film’s underlying themes, Avatar has all the elements to make a story work, and the way director James Cameron (of Titanic fame) weaves them together, it does work.
Timeless themes abound: evil, in the form of injustice and oppression of the weak by the strong, is triumphed over in the end; romance blossoms despite initial opposition; fantastic discoveries are made; and dangers are met and overcome by the hero and heroine. And of course there’s the final apocalyptic, future-deciding battle of the forces of light and darkness, with ‘good’ finally triumphing. As usual, the battle becomes narrowly focused on a decisive, personal clash between the leaders of the opposing sides. In this case, that means the Colonel and Jake. The former inhabits a giant robot controlled by his movements; the latter inhabits his avatar body that also moves as he wills it to.10
Almost as interesting and diverse as the film itself will be the blogospheric reaction to it, including in the Christian corners of the net. The real world is, of course, far more complex than a struggle between earth-destroying capitalists and tree-hugging pantheists. Christians divide along socio-political lines, too, and where one Christian review will tend to condemn the film for its obvious glorification of paganism, another will seek to defend it by focusing on other aspects more in tune with the Gospel. One can even find those who see deliberate evangelical messages in it (the same happened with Star Wars and Superman); these will attach great significance to such things as the head scientist being called Grace Augustine, and more (see later).
However, any great storyteller will seek to tap into a whole range of motifs and evoke images familiar to the audience, whether biblical or otherwise—and director Cameron does just that. Here’s a quick list, with expanded comments, of the ones I could find and jotted down just after exiting the theatre (I’ve likely missed several). It starts with the biblical ones:
- Garden of Eden
The lush jungle-forest of Pandora. The name of this moon-planet comes from the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, which, like the Genesis account from which it may even be derived, is about the entrance of evil into an originally innocent, trouble-free world. As he explores this biological wonderland with the innocence of a child, Jake’s long blue avatar makes us think of Adam in Eden, especially when he samples an attractive piece of fruit offered to him by his ‘Eve’. The forest even has its own special tree of spiritual significance, the Tree of Souls. The Eden parallels have limits—things here eat each other, and the Na’vi hunt animals. (OK, they feel sorry for them when they kill them, but it’s probably not much consolation for the prey.)
- Christ figure
Jake11 is chosen instead of his brother, and ends up rescuing a people. He does so by becoming one of them (as in Christ becoming part of the human race to be our kinsman-redeemer). Also, in the end, Jake becomes ‘born again’ as his avatar.12
- Romeo and Juliet
The budding romance between Jake’s avatar and the Princess Neytiri is initially disapproved of by both ‘families’; despite his Na’vi features, he is obviously not of the same kind (he can’t even speak the language), let alone of royal blood as she is.
- Erin Brokovich
The lone crusader who co-opts others in a long struggle against ruthless, environment-destroying corporate power and greed on behalf of its victims, the relatively powerless ‘little people’—finally becoming their triumphant hero.
- US military excursions vs indigenous resistance
See the comments earlier about Vietnam and Iraq.
- Mythological forest-dwellers—Pan, satyrs, etc.
To the earthlings inside their base on Pandora, the Na’vi are the mysterious and dangerous ‘people of the forest’—out there somewhere, vaguely threatening yet strangely alluring. Their pointy ear anatomy brings to mind illustrations of the Greek forest legend of Pan (the god playing those pipes) and the related satyrs, albeit minus the horns and body hair. Seeing a Na’vi joined (via the bio-link mentioned earlier) to the ‘horse’ he is riding reminds me of the Greek centaurs, the top of a man emerging from the body of a horse.
Jake Sully’s exhortation of his troops before the battle is Mel Gibson’s William Wallace doing the same, down to the blue-painted face.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Well, this one may not have been deliberate, and the imagery wasn’t as surreal as that movie, but it came to mind watching avatar-Jake and the Na’vi leap around and fight in the forest canopy.
- Custer’s last stand
The ruthless military leader that comes to wipe out the natives, only to be wiped out by them. The idea that indigenous ideology boosts environmental responsibility is especially pervasive in relation to Native Americans. So it’s not surprising that related imagery dominates, with stereotypical ‘Indian’ haircuts, bows and arrows, and ululatory war-whoops among the Na’vi.
The native princess who befriends John Smith (Jake), the outsider from the strange and hostile invader group, and teaches him the ways of her people.
In short, images/motifs derived from or paralleling the Bible are certainly there (which can be useful in discussions). But so are those from lots of other sources, all presumably utilized (‘hijacked’ might be less gracious) to serve the film’s larger aims, namely making money by providing memorable entertainment. At the same time, its makers almost certainly see themselves as doing ‘good’ by strongly pushing the dominant religious vision of our time.
Genesis vs the eco-paganism of Avatar
In this vision, the Bible’s Genesis-based framework of reality is an enemy. People were not made in God’s image, as Genesis declares—they are outgrowths of nature. Since all creatures evolved from organic soup, it’s not just apes and monkeys that are our relatives, but ultimately grasses, worms, fish and fruitflies—all part of one organic whole, all derived from ‘mother Earth’. In this view, the evils and injustices of our world do not arise from human sin and greed so much as they derive from a non-recognition of this biological connectedness. Death is not nice, but it’s not an intruder into perfection, it’s always been there for millions of years. So death is ‘natural’, and when we die, we can look at it, as do the Na’vi, as simply recycling that ‘borrowed energy’ back into the life-chain, or earth-goddess, or whatever one wants to call it.
To the true believers of this vision, the idea that mankind was meant to exercise (responsible) dominion over nature to benefit humanity (Genesis 1:26) is an eco-evil. Those who believe it are, at the least, in urgent need of re-education. This religious emotion is behind at least some of the passion in today’s anti-creationist crusade, which is sometimes so vituperative, that one can see them wishing that we creationists could be ‘shipped out’, like the defeated baddies in Avatar.
Bible believers, no matter how much they might share concerns about the pollution caused by thoughtlessness and greed, can’t come at that whole ‘biological connection, sacred earth’ thing. The pagan concept of the ‘sacred grove’ (shades of the Na’vi swaying and chanting to their nature goddess among the roots of their sacred tree) is foreign to biblical Christianity—it is the God of Creation who is sacred, not the products of His creation, which deserve respect, but not reverence.13
Christian peace vs Avatar peace
Christianity teaches that personal peace will come from peace with God, via the propitiatory sacrifice of God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The reason we need peace with God is all there in Genesis—because our first ancestor introduced enmity between us and Him. But, despite the best efforts and hopes of Miss Universe contestants, total “world peace” will only come as the Curse is removed and God restores the world to the sin-free, deathless perfection that it once lost.
The vision underlying Avatar, conversely, proposes that peace will come increasingly as we accept our place in nature, as an evolved part of the natural order. In that belief system, pagan societies have largely been the victims of the oppressor Christians—whose dysfunctional culture and false beliefs have prevented them from understanding these ultimately superior close-to-mother-nature cultures.
There are grains of truth buried within these caricatures (for example, few would claim that the record of dealings with indigenous peoples by Christians, whether at a national or individual level, has been always exemplary). But these grains of truth only heighten the danger that viewers will have a lowered resistance to accepting various errors, such as believing that a neo-pagan understanding of the world is much closer to the ‘truth’, the alleged ‘biological realities’ revealed by evolutionary science. Or believing that Christianity, rather than having been a huge overall benefit to the world, served instead to delay the onset of some coming golden age of human-nature harmony.
Christians who see Avatar with their ‘worldview glasses’ firmly on (in addition to their 3D ones14) will not just be seeing a brilliant sci-fi film. They can use it wisely to spark some really important discussions about how it links to the great religious and worldview conflicts of our age, of which the Genesis/evolution issue is at the core. This can lead naturally (meaning in an unforced way) to sharing the Gospel about the One who came into the real world, not the fantasy world of Cameron’s Avatar, to rescue us.
- Not just in appearance, either. Earthlings are unable to survive more than a short time without a portable oxygen supply in Pandora’s rarified atmosphere. Return to text.
- The name derives from Hindu religion, where an avatar is a manifestation of one of the gods (e.g. Vishnu)—usually thought of as an illusory form, rather than an actual incarnation. Return to text.
- According to media reports, an academic was hired to develop an entire Na’vi language, like Star Trek’s Klingon or the Elvish of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Return to text.
- This was the ethnic slur term used by some US military personnel in Vietnam in a derogatory way to describe the indigenous people—the use here is (hopefully obviously, hence the scare quotes) not to condone the term, but to highlight the way in which the film tried to portray ‘military vs locals’ as ‘baddies vs goodies’—by evoking memories of negative aspects of US involvement in Vietnam. Return to text.
- J-J Rousseau, a French Romantic Philosopher, who is credited with the idea of the ‘noble savage’. In this sort of mythos, less technologically advanced societies are more innocent and uncorrupted by the vices and stresses of ‘civilization’. Return to text.
- Perhaps ‘Na’vi’ was designed to sound similar to both ‘native’ and ‘naïve’ (as in innocent and unspoilt—or should that be unsullied?). Here on Earth, evidence suggests that the relative ‘innocence’, both militarily and environmentally, of indigenous low-tech cultures is more likely related to their lesser technological capacity to wage war and exploit the environment than to any moral superiority. Some have wondered whether there is any intended connection to the Hebrew word nabiy, meaning prophet. Return to text.
- When Jake tries to ‘pray’ to Eywa for help against the invaders, Neytiri explains to him that Eywa does not take sides in conflicts, the only thing she preserves is “the cycle of life”. This is consistent with the impersonal nature-god of the average evolutionary pantheist. Just to make it interesting, though (or perhaps to further appeal to ‘cultural Christians’), the film implies that maybe their victory was due to Eywa hearing and answering his prayer, after all. Return to text.
- Romans 1 contains a solemn reminder of the natural tendency of the unregenerate mind to worship created things, i.e. the creation rather than its Creator. Return to text.
- See Alien Intrusion. Return to text.
- The subtext in this showdown seems to be: technological connectedness is bad, biological/spiritual connectedness is good (regardless that it required technology in the first place). More crudely: hi-tech is bad, lo-tech is good. The ‘baddie’ within the transformer-like robot is eventually dispatched by arrows, not missiles. Return to text.
- Jake is usually short for Jacob—is this a deliberate invocation of the patriarchal progenitor of God’s chosen people? Return to text.
- The Na’vi actually inform Jake, prior to this, that every person can be “born twice”. Return to text.
- To the thoughtful Christian, the forest may not be wantonly chopped down at will, but its products may be wisely exploited to alleviate human need. Where to strike the balance is on ongoing wisdom issue for each situation. See Fouling the Nest. Return to text.
- This reviewer may have been one of the very few who deliberately went looking for a 2D performance of Avatar (Having lost one eye many years ago, it is not possible for me to see 3D). Return to text.