More Thoughts on ‘Avatar’ (Spoiler Alerts)

Posted on January 7, 2010 at 10:20 am

Many thanks for the very thoughtful comments on my post about the commentary that “Avatar” has inspired. I was particularly glad to be directed to some thoughtful assessments of the film I had not seen.
Thanks to Sheherazahde and Cheryl Anne for suggesting John Crowley’s commentary.

As to the story — it was astonishingly standard, every element, every twist, every emotion having been seen a thousand times before. It was nearly identical to both Disney’s and Terence Malick’s Pocohantas, but more Disney — the heroine even closely resembled Disney’s. But it also took from John Ford cavalry epics and a dozen other sources. It also was a derivative of Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest, one of her lesser and more platitudinous all-life-is-sacred-and-women-know-it stories, up to and including interconnected wise trees and brutal uncaring corporate and military types. Hilarious, actually, rather than lowering.

James led me to Carl McColman’s commentary on the film as a Christian parable.

I think it’s interesting to breathe through the obvious contours of this story and consider it as a parable of the intersection between sky-god and earth-goddess spiritualities. Here’s the key: one of the main characters is named Grace Augustine. Can you get any more heavy-handed than that?…

So in the end, wisdom proves greater than either might or avarice — and the “Christian” wisdom of grace and justice joins together with the “Pagan” wisdom of the goddess-as-the-web-of-life. And this integrated wisdom proves to be too much for the “sky people.” Quaritch dies at the hand of Neytiri, felled by the very arrows he laughed at throughout the story. Selfridge, meanwhile, is marched ingloriously onto a ship that is sent packing. Only Grace’s team is allowed to remain on Pandora, and the movie ends with Jake finally solving the problem of his paraplegic body.

Indeed, I think the fact that Jake is disabled is as central to understanding Avatar as is the symbolism of Grace Augustine (“grace pre-destined”?). Jake comes from a disabled planet. As he mournfully tells Eywa, “our home has no green on it; we’ve killed it all.” Both he and Grace experience a death-and-resurrection; but where hers is more classically Christian in tone: she, the sinner (smoker) is felled by sin (a gunshot wound) and dies, only to find new life in the post-corporeal, beatific vision of Eywa — whose name seems to be a möbius-strip inversion of “Yahweh” suggesting that she encompasses both earth goddess and sky god. Jake, on the other hand, undergoes a more explicitly Pagan death-and-rebirth, reincarnating in the healthy body of his avatar.

Sheherazahde also pointed us to this response from Druid blogger Ali, showing, as I said before, that the spareness of the story allows each of us to bring our own perspective (and bias) to it.
And I am grateful to Andy Culpepper for giving us a link to his “Avatar” commentary at The Hollywood Beat.

The electronic game and cyber worlds have given us a skewed definition of what an avatar represents, but the original meaning from the Sanskrit translates “one who crosses over….”

Not since 1999 and “The Matrix” ( have I come across such an accessible major motion picture so rich in mythological, literary and Judeo-Christian references. Like “The Matrix,” “Avatar” expands expectations of what a feature film can offer an appreciative audience.

Early on, Cameron lets us know that we’re following a protagonist who represents much more than what meets the eye. The Sanskrit definition – one who crosses over – refers to a deity who comes to Earth in body form. Is his Jake a Christ figure? No – he isn’t sacrificed. Does he undergo apotheosis? Oh, yeah.

Both Jake and his dead brother, Tom, have been named with a nod to the Bible. Thomas was also known as Ditimus, the original “doubting Tom,” and Jake is short for Jacob, a second-born twin whose name translates from the Hebrew as “the foot catcher.” Jacob was born in a breach birth – his hand clasping the heel of his slightly-older brother, Esau. In “Avatar,” Jake is a metaphorical foot-catcher: Becoming an avatar allows him the chance to walk on two feet again, if only during his cross-over or dream state.

Just as Jake in the movie “crossed over” to literally connect to the wisdom of the Pandorans, it seems to me that Cameron, in releasing his film, has opened up his story to the wisdom of the audiences. This discussion has enriched the experience of the movie for me. I loved jestrfyl’s reference to the ewoks! And his very wise conclusion that “These films, like Jesus’ parables, favor the characters who have no authority and have yet to realize their own power.”
A rabbi once told me to keep in mind that the only difference between a mirror and a window is a coating of silver. Some people want movies to be a mirror, to reflect back to them what they already believe. They can feel threatened or offended by any story that does not explicitly validate or reinforce their beliefs. Others look to movies as a window, to give them a sense of something they have not seen or thought of before. They cherish other views, even those that contradict their own, as a reinforcement of their notion of freedom and humanity, and an opportunity for deeper understanding and greater connection.

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6 Replies to “More Thoughts on ‘Avatar’ (Spoiler Alerts)”

  1. Nell,
    Thanks for the nod! I agree – nothing since Matrix has generated so much thought within and without the Christian community. I think it is a work of grace that does things like brings together these diverse philosophies and attitudes. I just came from our weekly Bible Study and a discussion of what is the Holy Spirit. I started the discussion with a reference to and recommendation to see “Avatar”. That sense of inter-connectedness is a portion of people’s sense of the Holy Spirit.
    It is remarkable for one other thing – as near as I can recall there is no obscene language (though some graphic vocab is employed by the paramilitary folks) and no sexual images. I was more comfortable making the recommendation to the Bible Study group for that reason – though I did warn them the movie was LOUD. Truly great films do not need to rely on sensationalism, the producers allow the story and the images to influence the audience.

  2. Nell,
    I truly love movies that are so open to interpretation. If you think about it, they are the most brilliantly written, not the most simplistic. A simplistic plot is an obvious one that can really only be interpreted one way…thus, “simple.” One that could be seen many different ways from many different perspectives would have to be considered “complex.”
    Who cares if it uses elements seen in earlier films (how hard is it getting NOT to do that nowadays). If the end result is a thought-provoking, visually stunning film…then, bravo!
    Thanks for these posts! Have really enjoyed them!

  3. I finally saw “Avatar” tonight with a group of friends. Loved Jestrfyl’s references to Ewoks, too, because I thought of “The Return of the Jedi” several times while watching the film. Another possible source of the film is C.S. Lewis’s “Space Trilogy,” specifically the first book, “Out of the Silent Planet” which described a trip to Mars.
    The fanciful descriptions of the Martian terrain definitely put me in mind of Pandora. This was a fantasy environment, not a planet in a Star Trek episode. And the evil men who kidnapped Lewis’s hero and brought him with them saw the indigenous peoples of Mars as aliens to be wiped out to make room for human colonization. Lewis was a Christian and in many respects a conservative, but I’m sure he would have been on the side of the Na’vi.
    I didn’t particularly like the overemphasis on the (U.S.) military as villains. It wasn’t just the 3D that made the military commander seem like a hologram rather than a real person. The military has a hard job, and doesn’t start wars. However, I did think the dilemma faced by our heroes, who felt powerless to prevent really bad decisions by the corporate guy and the military, was a real dilemma faced by many today.
    Of course, the Na’vi aren’t a real indigenous people, and because Cameron made them up, there were times during their prayers when I laughed when I was supposed to be moved. However, I did really enjoy this movie. It was spectacular – I especially loved the floating seeds that were something like butterflys and something like feathers. Plus, it was nice to see Michele Rodriguez again (she’ll always be Ana Lucia to me).

  4. Thanks, Alicia! A very thoughtful comment as always. I agree with you about the visual effects, especially the luminescent flora and I also love Michele Rodriguez. While the bad guys were mercenaries, it is easy to think of them as military and many people found that aspect disturbing.

  5. Avatar is the most visually fantastic film I’ve ever seen. It will be hailed as the groundbreaking 3D release of its time while setting a new standard by which all blockbusters are measured.

  6. Late to the party as usual, but thanks to Grandma and Grandpa my husband and I finally got to see Avatar while it was still on 3-D Imax. It’s pretty rare that I don’t pick apart a movie (I’m a lit person who writes about film–I can ruin anything), but knowing going in that the story would be thin, but the visuals would be great, I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the portrayal of faith and I enjoyed watching Jake Sully’s gradual and subtle growth. Mostly, the story didn’t bore me, which is always my great concern in a long movie. And the visuals rocked!

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