The Pandora's Box of James Cameron -- Sightings

I must admit that I have not seen Avatar.  I know that I'm among the few who has not seen the movie, but that is the truth of it.  But, I must add that my wife isn't interested and my nearly 20 year old son who contemplated film school is in an anti-CGI mood.  My brother, on the other hand, thought it was one of the best ever.  So, what can I say -- at least one member of the family has seen it and likes it.

But, I do realize that there is a lot of buzz about the movie, especially its religious and ecological themes.  Those two go together -- as we're discovering in the bible study I'm leading at church. 

So, since I really have nothing to add to the discussion -- It is good to know that someone does, and Joseph Laycock, a PhD student at Boston University, helps us understand the attraction of the movie, and offers some important critique, in today's issue of Sightings.


Sightings 1/28/10

The Pandora’s Box of James Cameron
-- Joseph Laycock

Warning:  spoilers below.

Avatar, James Cameron’s high-budget blockbuster, is on track to become the highest grossing film of all time.  This two and a half hour saga tells the tale of the Na’vi, a race of blue skinned aliens with a pre-industrial culture.  Their planet, Pandora, is home to an ecosystem that has achieved a kind of sentience, and which the Na’vi revere as a deity.  The Na’vi way of life is interrupted by human strip-miners, who have come to Pandora in search of a mineral with the unlikely name “unobtanium.”

While audiences can simply enjoy the film’s cutting-edge special effects, few appear to be doing so.  Instead, Avatar has been compared to a cultural “Rorschach test,” onto which numerous allegorical meanings can be read, and discussions of Avatar frequently stumble into the realm of the transcendent.  Gaetano Vallini of the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, received wide media attention for his review of the film.  Although Vallini expressed neither outrage nor enthusiasm, he did suggest that a heavy-handed form of nature religion “bogged down” the story.  Since Vallini’s review, the blogosphere has filled with posts debating Avatar’s significance as an endorsement of pantheism.

Even more interesting is the phenomenon of depression among those who have recently seen the movie.  Some viewers reported great distress after seeing Pandora and realizing that their existence is confined to Earth.  A comment on one of the forums that has sprung up around the film reads, “It's so hard.  I can't force myself to think that it's just a movie, and to get over it, that living like the Na'vi will never happen.”  Most viewers appear to recover in a day or so.  But for some, Avatar appears to have raised a truly existential problem.  One poster commented, “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and that everything is the same as in Avatar.”  And a growing community comprises individuals who feel that they are Na’vi who have somehow been incarnated as human beings.  Websites like “We Are Na’vi” feature discussions of how James Cameron managed to get so many details of the Na’vi home world correct.

Avatar has been compared with numerous other films about the conflict between pre- and post-industrial cultures, including Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Fern Gully.  Surprisingly, it has not been compared to The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.  These books, written during the Second World War, combine Christian themes of fall and redemption with space exploration.  Lewis’ hero is sent against his will to Mars, home to several races of benevolent humanoids, by a group of scientists hoping to plunder the planet’s resources.  Eventually it is revealed that the rest of the solar system enjoys a state of prelapsarian grace:  Earth alone is a fallen planet and the domain of spiritual evil.  The religiosity emerging around Avatar may actually be more akin to Lewis’ Christian cosmology than to the new-age influences cited by the Vatican and others.

The idea that our world is flawed and that a perfect world exists elsewhere is the hallmark of a transcendent religion.  Karl Jaspers argued that between 800 and 200 BCE numerous civilizations from Greece to Israel to China began to form an idea of a transcendent order.  This “Axial Age” led to the rise of the world religions that have largely eclipsed older beliefs such as pantheism.  It also created a lasting social tension between the transcendent order and the mundane.  Cameron created the world of Pandora through technology never before seen by mankind.  For some, this seems to have had the effect of the transcendent vision described by Jaspers.  Compared to Pandora – as a movie-going experience for some and as a real possibility for others – Earth is a prison that must be escaped.  In fact, in one of the final scenes of Avatar the narrator makes a statement that is certainly poignant and possibly soteriological: “The aliens [i.e. humans] went back to their dying world.  Only a few were chosen to stay.” 

Ironically, the desire to live in another world is the antithesis of the pantheistic religion of the Na’vi.  While the Na’vi could imagine an even better world – perhaps one not inhabited by enormous carnivores – they do not.  The Axial Age has yet to occur on Pandora.  The perpetual search for a more perfect and more meaningful world is a uniquely human behavior.  But while humans cannot brachiate through phosphorescent jungles or ride prehistoric raptors, we can take comfort in our ability to imagine better worlds and to re-order our own.  In this sense, we have a type of radical freedom that the Na’vi do not.

“You Saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass Those Glasses!” Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times, 20 January, 2010.

“Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues,” Jo Piazza,, 11 January, 2010.

We Are Na’vi [Na’vi Reborn]

Joseph Laycock is a PhD student in religion and society at Boston University, and the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger Publishers, 2009).

In 2010's first edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Uses and Misuses of Polytheism and Monotheism in Hinduism"), Wendy Doniger explores the complex nature of Hindu theology and its relationship to historical and political issues by focusing on a simple question: "Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic?"  Her answer offers intriguing implications for the distinction between theological identities of "one" and "many" in Hinduism and--as respondents with expertise in other theological traditions reflect--beyond.  With invited responses from Martin Marty, Willemien Otten, Katherine E. Ulrich, and Ananya Vajpeyi.  
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


I loved Avatar, both the special effects, and yes, the theology. I disagree with Ross Douthat (NY Times op-ed) and others who have labeled the theology as pantheism. It's closer to panentheism, if anything (for most this will sound like hair-splitting) but reading the reaction of Douthat and others, I guess I'm not surprised. Christianity has distanced itself from both nature and bodily experience, so anything that threatens this dualism is labeled anathema and heresy. And there's no small amount of irony here that a movie that employs virtual reality as a central component of its plotline (the hero, Jake Sully, powers his avatar while in a virtual pod asleep) the ending includes a solution to the dualism based on a choice Jake makes (and probably not the choice many would expect). Jake is also a disabled vet, but in the world of the Na'vi, he has legs and can experience a wholeness the "real" world won't grant him. Those type of questions and possibilities are fascinating to me - perhaps to other religious types, as well?
Anonymous said…
"Christianity has distanced itself from both nature and bodily experience". This is a very good point (they're the same in my mind) and I'd like to learn why this had/ has to be so. David Mc
Rial Hamann said…

I saw Avatar, would see it again.
Let me know when you want to go.

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