Thursday, January 14, 2010

Some Thoughts on Avatar

Before I begin, let me be clear that I am not a movie critic and the following article is not a review of James Cameron’s blockbuster sci-fi epic Avatar. Having seen the movie recently, having noted its almost “Titanic” popularity, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a reflection on the spiritual themes that stand at the centre of the film. A warning, though: spoilers will follow. Let the reader beware!

As a visual experience, Avatar was really a treat. Combining the very best in CGI with tasteful and awesome 3-D and motion capture technologies, Cameron creates a world called Pandora and a race called the Na’vi that are rich and varied and strangely beautiful. Though the story is familiar—a recycled blend of Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas—as a piece of pure entertainment, Avatar is well worth whatever you might pay to see a movie in the theatre these days.

My concern lies with the spiritual vision beneath Avatar’s visual finery. Simply put, Cameron sets up two belief systems and pits them, one against the other. This is called dialectic: an either/or situation between which we must choose. The choice, I would suggest, is a false one, but I am getting ahead of myself...

On one hand, Avatar presents a materialistic view of the human race. It seems that in the future, human beings will degenerate into energy-starved marauders whose sole purpose is to find new worlds and strip them of resources to keep their economy afloat (in the case of Pandora, it is a mineral called Unobtanium).

In this dystopia, humanity is divided between rationalistic scientists who investigate Pandora, and soldiers who provide the necessary muscle to take whatever riches the scientists discover. The point is to maintain the survival of the human race at all costs, even if it means annihilating indigenous groups such as the Na’vi. As the chief villain in the movie says, “It isn’t over until I am dead,” or something to that effect. On this “human” side of Cameron’s dialectic, then, there is little sense of a spiritual world beyond the material. Indeed, the very absence of a life beyond the five senses is what drives the human to acquire resources at any cost. This is Darwinism at its most basic level.

Cameron contrasts this hellish vision of humanity with the Na’vi themselves. These tall, long-limbed, blue-skinned creatures represent the dialectical opposite of materialistic humanity. They live in harmony with their world and see the survival of their bodies as subservient to the natural cycles of their ecology. In the network computer language used by the human scientists who understand Pandora, the life energy of the Na’vi are “downloaded” into their bodies at birth, and then “uploaded” back at death into a vast reservoir of collective energy known as Eywa—the Mother Goddess.

If the humans see the body as an end in itself, the Na’vi view it as simply a vehicle for the life energy. As in the classic Hindu understanding, the material world is like a horse on which the soul rides towards eternity.

This dialectic, this opposition between pure materialism and a kind of “spiritism” based on Hindu teaching, present the film’s hero, Jake Scully, with a choice. In the human world, he is crippled, unable to walk or afford the operation that would make him whole again. However, as a result of technology invented for the purposes of the movie’s plot, his consciousness (his life energy) is downloaded into a body similar to that of the Na’vi—agile, powerful, and whole. In that body, he learns and then wholeheartedly embraces the Na’vi way of life. It is no coincidence that the term “avatar” refers to the Hindu concept of a deity taking on a human form; this is exactly what Jake does when he appears as a Na’vi.

The dilemma that Jake faces, however, is precisely the weakness of the film’s spiritual vision. In this life, should we really have to choose, as Jake does, between a materialistic, consumerist world in which the body is the be-all and end-all of life, and a “spiritistic” world in which the body is merely a vehicle for the incorporeal spirit or soul?

In the Christian understanding, at least, the answer is no. The human body of Christ was not just another avatar—a human space suit—for the Son of God. Rather, by taking flesh, the Son of God eternally united humanity to God’s divinity, and by so doing, He made the human body a sacred space, to be honoured as a temple of the Holy Spirit from conception to burial and beyond, into the resurrection of the body in the age to come.

This teaching is well expressed by the 7th century Father, John of Damascus: “Never will I cease honouring the matter through which my salvation was wrought! I honour it, but not as God… Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. God has made nothing that is despicable.” In other words, we need not choose between obsessing over the material world or rejecting it as a mere vehicle for the spirit. We can respect, honour, cherish and even venerate the body as the very matrix in which God meets us and saves us, while recognizing that the material world is not an end itself, because only the transcendent God can save us.

At the end of Avatar (and here comes the spoiler), Jake’s life energy or spirit or soul or whatever is “uploaded” into a Na’vi body permanently—at least until his life energy, spirit etc. is “downloaded” again into Eywa when he dies. In effect, he resolves his body/spirit dialectic by rejecting the body in which he was born and escaping into Na’vi form. This “solution” is the basic cop-out of Avatar, which constitutes an avoidance of the whole gift of life as God has given it—body, soul and spirit—with all the struggles, sufferings, handicaps and sacrifices that ultimately make it worth living.

Avatar may be great entertainment, but as far as spiritual nourishment goes, this bag of popcorn won’t really satisfy.

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