Paul Derengowski, ThM
Imagine, if you can, a movie that is a assortment of several other movies, including Alien I & I, Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator I & II, and Medicine Man. Mix in some contemporary liberal political commentary which indirectly take shots at George Bush, the Unites States military, corporate America, and those who believe that human beings are God’s greatest creation. Finally, add a dash of Hindu pantheism, American-Indian folklore, and New Age spirituality. Blend them all together, along with a production budget of over half-a-billion dollars, and some supposedly more sophisticated graphics and special effects, and you have Avatar.
Avatar is movie director James Cameron’s latest blockbuster which attempts to send the message to those who can distinguish fantasy from reality that there are places in the universe where Liberalism and paganism rule the day, even if that place is either only in the human mind or fictitious places called Pandora.
The movie itself is rather lengthy, being one hour and forty minutes, but for the most part it is fast-paced, if for no other reason than the video effects. The script, though, is rather stale and predictable, with Sam Worthington playing the part of a former Marine (“Jake Sully”) , who is now paraplegic, on a mission for the RDA corporation, and Sigourney Weaver, the foul-mouthed scientist who guides the Avatar program, and woodenly acts the part of Dr. Grace Augustine.
An avatar is actually a Hindu concept where a deity embodies another entity for the sake of representation. In Cameron’s movie, the avatars—mainly Sully, Augustine, and Joel David Moore, who plays Norm Spellman, another scientist—are of human origin. Through the wonders of modern science, and a lot of Hollywood imagination, humans are capable of crawling into transporter pods (think Star Trek, only laying down), where their personalities or souls are infused into ten-foot tall Na’vi bodies. This enables them to better handle the Pandoran atmosphere, since it is toxic to normal humans, plus it also affords them direct access to the Na’vi. who the big, bad corporation wants to negotiate with to mine “unobtainium,” the most efficient superconductor to ever exist—in the human imagination.
After Sully makes contact with the Na’vi, actually Neytiri (Zöe Saldana), when she manages to rescue him from an attack by a pack of viperwolves, she takes him back to mom and dad and introduces him to them. Initially Neytiri was going to kill Sully, but a flock of woodsprites, which are seeds from the Tree of Souls, gathers around Sully, and Neytiri puts away her bow and arrow.
Sully convinces Eytucan (Wes Studi) and Mo’at (CCH Pounder) that he a warrior that has come to learn from them and their customs. In a series of incarnations where Sully goes from being human to alien, he not only reports back to his commander, the egotistical and brazed Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), his progress and finding, but he becomes romantically involved with the Neytiri. In fact, they eventually become mates, minus any formal big wedding or having to send out invitations.
Things begin to go awry when the greedy corporate pawn Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) learns that the largest deposit of unobtainium just happens to be sitting underneath Hometree, which is where the Omaticaya or Na’vi tribe happen to live. Selfridge wants the big payoff from corporate headquarters, he’s learned all he needs to know from Sully, and he has the backing of Colonel Quaritch and his bravado to move the natives out of the way. So Selfridge orders the bulldozers in, even if that means killing the natives to do it. Sully manages to convince Selfridge to allow him to go speak with the Na’vi to persuade them to move out of the way of the big corporation and the military might, but ultimately fails. The Na’vi are determined to stay and fight modernism’s advance.
In predictable fashion, a huge military strike manages to take down Hometree, but Mother Ewya manages to intervene to prevent the complete overthrow of the environment. Several Na’vi are killed in the fray, including Neytiri’s father. But between a combination of Na’vi-riding banshees (a sort of flying dragon that looks like something straight out of hell) that manages to take down all the gunships and aircraft transporting daisy cutter bombs, including Colonel Quaritch (who is actually killed by Neytiri with her proficient bow and arrow), and a stampede of bullet-proof hammerhead Titanitheros, Pandora is spared the tyranny of human advancement. The environment has been saved!
Nevertheless, alien compassion and does not end there. During the scuffle between the bad, bad, bad military and the Na’vi, Augustine and her cohorts decided to fight on the side of the natives, and Augustine is shot and wounded. When the smoke clears Augustine is found laying before the Tree of Souls where the Na’vi chant in ecstatic ritual that her soul would be transported one last time into her avatar. The attempt fails due to her physical weakness and she is absorbed to become one of the voices in the tree. Moksha achieved.
Success is attained, though, when Sully is first saved by his mate Neytiri, and then does manage to transmigrate to his avatar, with the helpful chants of the Na’vi, and the aid of the Tree. No longer must he suffer his physical handicap. He’s tall, lean, mean, and blue, with more physical acumen than any athletic superstar to ever garner a uniform on earth. Plus, because of his courage in conquering the dreaded Toruk (a red flying dragon of equally demonic appearance and fierceness), Sully is now the leader of the Omaticaya, along with his lovely mate Neytiri.
In a final stroke of disdain toward the dastardly military and corporate greed, all survivors are paraded and packed on space craft and sent home. Only those who decided to rebel against progress and save the rainforest, including Sully, who is now an alien and not a human, are allowed to stay. The Mother spirit has won the day, and sent the message stern warning that one better not mess with Mother Nature.
Nevertheless, there is a lot propaganda, paganism and repetitiveness in the film, which is not only glaringly obvious, but downright annoying. Corporate business is made to look like a pariah in juxtaposition to the green, lush rain forest and aborigines. The military is portrayed as careless thugs who are at the disposal of corporate tyrants and bureaucrats to do their bidding, except in this case it’s for unobtainium, rather than in the real world where it’s allegedly for oil. Human thought is seen as inferior to alien thought, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment and advancing the pantheism inherent in it.
Is the film worth the price of admission? Not really. The plot is weak, the videography is okay, the agenda is obvious. It is nothing truly special for those aware of what Cameron is trying to convey. And for those who don’t know what’s going on, they will be mildly entertained, and then perhaps be a bit more ambivalent towards cutting down trees, the military’s involvement in places like Afghanistan, or toward Christian spirituality and religion. Nevertheless, that is what Cameron is ultimately wanting: ambivalence. And that is hardly a reason to be making a movie in the first place, let alone spending ten bucks to watch it.