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Avatar: Cameron Stacks the Deck for Green Religion

John on January 9, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Finally got around to seeing Avatar yesterday. I enjoyed it as I have most of Cameron’s films. The visuals are spectacular and the story, if predictable, seems well suited to the concept. Sure it has a lot in common with Disney’s Atlantis, but it’s a popcorn movie. Ultimately, it’s just supposed to be entertaining. On that level it succeeds.

What got me really interested in seeing it was Jonah Goldberg’s commentary about the overt religious nature of the film. That surprised me because I’m fairly certain James Cameron is an atheist. Can’t provide a cite for that at the moment, but I seem to remember reading it somewhere.

I want to add my two cents about the religious elements of the film. What follows isn’t a review per se, but in order to discuss the themes I’ll have to discuss some important elements of the plot. In short, this is your spoiler warning. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I recommend you do so before reading on.

Religion of the Na’vi

The natives of Pandora practice a sort of pantheist faith which respects the life of all things. Thus, they offer a kind of prayer before they kill an animal. During a long montage sequence where the main character, Jake Sully, is learning how to be a proper Na’vi, we are told that all life is a borrowing of energy which at some point has to be paid back. This last bit of narration happens as a dead Na’vi is shown buried in what looks a lot like a Neanderthal grave. There are shades of the “circle of life” from the Lion King here. What’s interesting though is that this is a view which is completely consistent with atheism, i.e. life is a kind of eddy in the currents of energy as it moves from a higher to lower state.

In addition to this view of borrowed energy, the Na’vi also have the ability to link their minds directly to one another and to other creatures in the environment. This is most dramatically demonstrated in Jake Sully’s attempt to capture a flying animal as a mount. He must link himself to it before he can successfully tame and ride it. But the film makes clear that it is not just complex animals to which the Na’vi can link themselves. In one scene, Jake Sully links himself to a particular tree which allows him to sense Eywa (the great spirit). When he does so, he can hear voices, presumably of the dead.

Religion Sans Faith?

Just when you think Cameron has embraced the Force in another guise, the story takes it another turn. At a critical point in the plot, the scientist running the Avatar program (played by Sigourney Weaver) explains to her superior that all the trees on Pandora appear to be a massive neural network with more connections than a human brain. Though her team can’t decipher the “thoughts” of the trees they are confident all of Pandora is one large living organism. In other words, Eywa appears to have a basis in science. Weaver’s character even says that there is “tangible evidence” for the Na’vi beliefs. But of course, a faith which can be demonstrated scientifically is not a faith at all. It’s just a fact.

Later in the film, Weaver’s scientist character is brought to a sacred grove and just before she dies she tells Jake Sully that Eywa is real saying, “I’m with her.” So this would seem to confirm what science has previously suggested is the case. But again, it’s not a faith. It’s a fact.

A few scenes later Jake offers a prayer on the same spot and opens with “I’m probably just talking to a tree right now…” It’s not clear why he has any reason to doubt Eywa this late in the story. The science and his experience all suggest almost overwhelmingly that Eywa is real. In fact, he’d be crazy not to believe it.

Midichlorians Redux

Cameron has taken the same route (and in my opinion made the same mistake) that Lucas took in the Star Wars prequels a few years earlier. In the original Star Wars trilogy, the Jedi are monks who believe in the Force. But people like the hard-bitten skeptic Han Solo consider the whole thing a primitive superstition, at least initially. He tells Obi-one in the first film that he’d rather have a good blaster at his side than a “hokey” faith.

But by the time of the prequels Lucas turned a corner and introduced the idea of “midichlorians.” Now one’s receptivity to the Force is no longer a faith, it’s a matter of science which can be measured by a blood test. In fact, it appears to be a genetic trait since it is passed from Anakin to his twins, Luke and Leia.

I was one of many fans who saw this as a big disappointment. For one thing, the genius of the original Star Wars was its reliance on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. As Campbell recognized, the singular thrust of the monomyth is that it points beyond the ordinary to the transcendent. And in the original film, that’s precisely what the Force seemed to do. It was clearly supernatural. Not so much in the prequels.

In addition to marring the story as myth, the concept of midichlorians robs the characters of the sense that they’d earned their place in the world. Why is Yoda a Jedi master? In the first trilogy it was presumably because of his devotion and commitment to the Force over hundreds of years. By the time of the prequels we learn that he probably had the most midichlorians in his blood, i.e. he won some sort of genetic lottery, as did Luke, Anakin and the rest of the Jedi. They’re not powerful because they are wise, they are simply genetic freaks. It makes the Jedi a kind of genetic oligarchy to which most people have no chance of gaining admittance.

Cameron Cheated

Imagine an alternative version of Avatar. All of the characters and elements are the same. It’s still the company and their mercenary desire for unobtanium versus the natives desire to live a simple life among the trees. Only in this revised version the trees are just trees so far as anyone can tell. There is no neural network. No voices of the deceased can be discerned. Eywa can’t be shown to have a basis in anything “tangible.” In this version of the story, is it still wrong to bulldoze the trees? Why? Can’t one just replant them somewhere else? They are living things of course, but not sentient beings as in Cameron’s version. They won’t know the difference.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that Cameron cheated. He was so eager to make his case for a simple, green life that he rigged the outcome to an absurd degree. He’s written a morality tale in which the natives must be respected because their beliefs can be proven scientifically and Pandora’s trees must be respected because they are part of a grand, living intelligence. There is no possible excuse for doing anything other than what the hero does. Indeed, in the film, only greed and the irrational love of violence resist him. This is still a moral I suppose, but not one nuanced enough to apply to the world outside the local multiplex where choices and trade-offs are never, ever so simple.

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