Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar review

I just saw James Cameron's Avatar.

It was an immersive experience in the fullest sense of the phrase. I felt transported to another world.

The CGI and other special effects were seamless, smoothly integrated, not at all clunky. Moreover, the CGI didn't seem exploitive in the slightest. It wasn't mere eye candy, mainly present to draw attention to the director's technical wizardry. Rather, the CGI and other special effects serviced the story (well, not that I thought too highly of the story). And I saw the regular version, not the 3D version which I hear from some corners is even more visually stunning.

However, that's about all the movie had going for it. The plot was threadbare. And it was predictable. Perhaps because it's derivative. How many times have we seen the same story play out? Outsider enters into a community. Community welcomes him with tremendous suspicion if not outright hostility. After some time and thru a series of trials he wins their trust. He even wins the heart of a native girl. The outsider originally had a hidden, malicious agenda in entering the community, but he comes clean after he comes to grok the community and their ways. He becomes one of them. He fights for them. And he's willing to die for them. As others have pointed out, it's like Dances with Wolves. Or The Last Samurai. But on another planet and in the future. The hero in a thousand places.

Most of the actors were bland. They improved when they became CGIs but not by much (for those that became CGIs). The actor who played the colonel made a good villain though.

The movie is simple-minded. The planet may be teeming with life but not so the story. Humans are evil, except for the enlightened scientists. The natives, the Na'vi, are good. Corporations are selfish and greedy. The natives are selfless and altruistic. They're at one with nature. It was a pretty black and white movie. Not a whole lot of subtlety or nuance.

Again, among the humans it's only the enlightened scientists who want to truly understand the Na'vi on their own terms. The scientists have no sinister ulterior motives. They just want to do a little science and a little cultural anthropology. Dennis Nedry is nowhere to be found. Nor Hwang Woo-Suk. Not in this Cameron 'verse.

The corporation is only there for a valuable mineral worth millions of dollars per gram or ounce or whatever. They don't care about the natives let alone the planet or its environment. They're greedy, plain and simple. But in reality, i.e. back on planet earth c. 2009, there are some corporations which care about profits as well as taking care of workers, local communities, the environment, etc. Not all corporations are the spawn of Satan.

Technology doesn't fare too well. It's largely portrayed negatively. It's either associated with environmental abuse or the military - and anything which so much as smacks of the military is implicitly negative. Of course, it's actually technology that allowed the scientists to grow avatars in their labs and the paraplegic protagonist to inhabit his avatar and become a Na'vi. But otherwise technology is placed in negative contrast to nature or the environment.

What's portrayed positively is being at one with nature. The entire planet is a neural network of life. The Na'vi commune with the creatures on the planet - literally, via their ponytails. The Na'vi commune with their goddess Eywa which is the planet itself (we might instead name her Gaia). Moreover, when a creature dies, it becomes part of the planet. And the planet has some sort of sentience as seen when it "hears" the main character's "prayer" and fights back.

I think Cameron must've come of age in the '60s and '70s, and so taken his cue from this period. As if John Lennon's "Imagine" became a futuristic scifi movie. Whether or not this is the case, the movie plays like an idealized liberal romance. It's the story of a simple, peace-loving people in perfect communion with nature fighting against those who would destroy all that they hold dear. It's the story of the oppressed poor fighting against their bourgeoise oppressors a la the Socialists or Communists. It's the story of noble savages fighting against a technologically advanced, powerful, yet morally corrupt civilization. Perhaps like the jihadi "freedom fighers" fighting against the evil American empire. Noam Chomsky and Edward Said would be proud.

The movie is meant to be symbolic, allegorical. After all, the movie is titled Avatar. The chief scientist responsible for the avatar project is named Dr. Grace Augustine. The planet is named Pandora. It houses a precious mineral called "unobtanium."

An avatar is a manifestation ("incarnation") of a deity into human form. It's as if the gods descended onto earth in human form - or, rather, in Na'vi form. The protagonist, Jake Sully, fulfills several prophecies among the Na'vi people (perhaps not unlike Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert's Dune) and gains their hearts. He's their messiah, their savior. But from what? From the evil military industrial complex of course! On the surface, titling the film Avatar sounds clever, but the allegorical symbol is only as good as its moral or lesson.

That said, there is a grain of truth in the movie. It would be wonderful to have a world at peace and people genuinely loving and taking care of the earth and all its creatures. It would be wonderful for people to recognize and worship the one, true, living God, the God of the Bible - not Gaia or other false deities or no deities. It would be wonderful if people recognized and bowed their hearts to the truth.

Many liberals seem to think the problem is that some humans refuse to get with the program and cooperate and so are causing the rest of humanity its problems. The few are keeping the many - the rest of humanity - from utopia. But the problem isn't merely some humans (e.g. conservatives). The problem is all humans. The problem is sin - our sin. We live in a fallen world. We ourselves are fallen. We're sinners. We have rebelled against God himself. That's the problem. Or as G.K. Chesterton once responded to the question of what's wrong with the world: "I am."

If we were united together as one, we wouldn't take care of earth and all its creatures. We wouldn't commune with God. Instead, we'd build a tower to the heavens to make war against God.

Since our hearts harbor rebellion against God, and since we have rebelled against God, he must punish our sin and rebellion if justice is to be maintained.

Yet, the Bible teaches that those who repent of their sin and rebellion against God and trust in Jesus Christ, God has promised to forgive and in fact welcome back with open arms. Jesus Christ came to save his people from their sins. He died in their place so that they could have peace with God. Christ is the propitiation for our sins.

Socialism, liberalism, conservatism, environmentalism, capitalism, or any other ism can't save us. There are no other deities or avatars or saviors who can save us - not Gaia or Eywa or Jake Sully or Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Savior, and it is only through him that we can be saved. "Many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. . . . For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect" (Mark 13:6, 22). "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'" (John 14:6).

He's the only way to commune with God, to be one with him, his creatures, and his creation. And then to await the new heavens and the new earth, when God restores Eden.


  1. I think the best review of this movie was given by the Spoony One:

    "That's it?"

    It took Cameron 12 years to execute Ferngully with the smurfs + the matrix in video game graphics?

  2. Thanks for the review. And for speaking the Gospel in love. It's always good to hear the good news of Christ our King and Savior.

  3. From all the reviews I've been reading, it seem like this movie is the outer space version of "A Man Called Horse."

  4. Thanks for the review. I have no interest in seeing the movie as I knew the liberal bias would be there when I saw the trailer. Cameron is a Hollywood lib who has an agenda (as he did in Titanic). Movies do however paint a picture of what the society upholds.

  5. Thanks, everyone.

    Another point:

    I think Cameron's movie is kinda self-refuting, or somewhat contradictory.

    On the one hand, it seems to me Cameron wants to get across a message of peace and even pacifism, that fighting is inherently wrong, and likewise that harmony with one another and nature and the oneness of all life are what's most meaningful.

    But on the other hand, the movie is quite violent. In fact, judging by the various battle scenes in the film, I'd say it's almost as if Cameron revels in depicting warfare.

    Instead, why not make the Na'vi more like, say, Gandhi, and their resistance a nonviolent resistance?

    Or would Cameron concede it sometimes requires war to have peace?

  6. Moreover:

    On the one hand, Cameron is apparently censuring corporations for vices like selfishness and greed.

    But on the other hand, he reportedly spent somewhere around $300 million to make his film. No expense was spared, I don't think.

  7. I just watched it last night. Reaction: loved it.

    Now, as Steve and Patrick have pointed out, the film is loaded with liberal, mystical, pseudospiritual tree-hugging mumbo-jumbo, but as Patrick noted, there are grains of truth in the mix. And let me tell you...the mix is pretty amazing.

    But on to the positive points:

    First, who would argue that the wholesale theft by the powerful of property belonging to the weak is a good thing? Biblical ethics protects the rights of the weak from the strong.

    It's also true that mankind's responsibility over creation is that of a steward, and having an organic, non-exploitative relationship with creation is surely a positive thing. It has always struck me as odd that mankind seems to encase himself in a less and less natural environment of concrete and brick--a radical remodeling of God's creation to suit the designs of man.

    Also, the mind of man to create novelty and beauty is revealed in Avatar. IMHO Pandora is a wondrous creation--clearly intelligently designed (both inside and outside the story itself). Observing this beauty made me nostalgic for the new heavens and the new earth, which I know will far exceed Pandora in beauty and splendor.

    In a distant way, the "conversion" of Jake Sully reminded me of the conversion of the apostle Paul. Ordered to spy upon and plan the an attack upon the Na'vi, Jake ended up joining with them and fighting with them, after his diplomacy towards the military failed (I think it's interesting to note that "diplomacy" seems to function as a liberal equivalent to the gospel in some contexts). It's just too bad that he (and the other "good guys") were portrayed favorably in their service to a false deity, rather than the One True God.

    With regard to Steve's critique of Avatar, I'd have to say that although the film seems have the War on Terror as its explicitly-stated real-life referent, I'd much more readily associate it with the dispossession of Native Americans from their ancestral tribal lands by encroaching settlers. The Na'vi's religion, culture, etc. hardly resemble Islam. Whether Cameron had this in mind or not is unknown to me, but the Amerindian situation seems to be a much closer fit.

  8. It is interesting when you go to a movie expecting to see a biblically center redemptive story made by non-christians. Instead of worrying about the bias of people who don't know the truth of the greatest story of redemption every played out in the merciful love of the triune God for an unworthy people why don't we encourage christian artists and writers to create stories and movies that can retell that story.

  9. jstimages, I personally think Christians should be doing just that in the movie industry and all industries, however God has gifted and placed them.

    But we can appreciate the common grace bestowed upon unbelievers as reflected in their creations, even as they unwittingly demonstrate the fact that they bear the imago dei.

    Also, we can (and should) exercise our sense of discernment to be able to sift the good from the bad. I appreciate the way the Triabloggers do this.

  10. Thanks for your comments, guys.

  11. [Cross-post]

    Where Is Meaning?

    This is a very helpful post and I see applications of it in both the reviews of the movie "Avatar" and in the Manhattan Declaration.

    For example:

    Patrick Chan: "The movie is meant to be symbolic, allegorical."

    Steve Hays here: "That’s because the film is a set-up. Like any adept propagandist, Cameron is attempting–quite successfully, in Billy’s case–to sway the attitudes and emotions of the audience. ... It’s not a godly attribute to root for a thinly-veiled political allegory which slanders the very men who put their lives on the line to protect us from our mortal enemies. ... The only reason that Cameron has to specify an American force is because the film is a political allegory, ostensibly set in the future, but really about the “war on terror” and other alleged atrocities of US domestic and foreign policy."

    Daniel J. Phillips here: "I had read that Avatar was about pantheism, Gaia-worship, and evil America. I disagree... sort of.
    Is the film anti-military? Well, the soldiers there are ex-military; they are hirelings to the evil corporation. They are not the American Army, nor Navy, nor Air Force, nor Marines. So on the face of it, no. ...

    Therefore, I don't receive Avatar as a sermon about pantheism, Gaia-worship, Hinduism, America, the war on terror, nor eco-fascism.

    Now, I think that may be in the authorial intent. But if so, it failed to reach the screen.
    Briefly, then: Cameron may well have intended a heavy-handed parable preaching the joys of pantheistic Gaia-worship, and the evils of America, George Bush, the war on terror, the military, and capitalism.

    If so, Cameron failed miserably, pathetically, and laughably, because there is no actual connection."

    So by the above we see that there is a spectrum of opinion about the interplay between political allegory, authorial intent, and what Steve calls "audiencial meaning" from the movie "Avatar".

    Now let's do the same thing with the Manhattan Declaration as we just did with the "Avatar" review:

    Daniel J. Phillips here: "BTW, MD mastermind Chuck Colson wrote this:
    "This document [The Manhattan Declaration] is, in fact, a form of catechism for the foundational truths of the faith."

    Which very nicely (if tragically) underscores the point of my post.

    Yeah, Stan; and authorial intent is supposed to matter to us, no?"

    Dr. Niel Nielson here: "Some have pointed to statements from Chuck Colson which reflect his views about the purpose and hoped-for outcome of the Declaration as evidence of how misguided Evangelicals have been in signing. Let me be clear: With as much respect and appreciation for Chuck as I have, I did not – and do not – sign on to his commentaries about the Declaration, nor do I expect him, or anyone else, to sign on to mine. Together we signed the Declaration because of what it states so clearly and well, and I, for one, did so with unswerving conviction about the biblical gospel and the biblical doctrines articulated in the Protestant Reformation."

  12. [cont.]

    Dr. Niel Nielson: "I must add, even given what I have just said, that I dearly wish the gospel references had not been included in the Declaration. They introduce unnecessary ambiguity and provide unnecessary ground for the refusal of many Evangelicals to sign. With a more precisely disciplined focus on the main issues it addresses, the Declaration would have, I believe, garnered far wider support among Evangelicals and enabled this enterprise to have a vastly more far-reaching impact.

    So that’s why I almost didn’t sign The Manhattan Declaration – and why I did."


    So I recently read a very nice post by Rhoblogy titled "The Special Pleading of Sola Ecclesia-ists Claims to Unity" and I got to ponder Rhoblogy's argument that the RCC's are committing the fallacy of special pleading in their objection to Sola Scriptura. Well, it seems to me that Daniel J. Phillips may also be committing the fallacy of special pleading as well when comparing his reviews of Avatar and the Manhattan Declaration vis-a-vis authorial intent and "audiencial meaning."

    So if Dr. Nielson (and other conservative Protestant signers of the Manhattan Declaration) took the same evaluative approach towards the MD as Daniel J. Phillips himself did towards his review of the movie "Avatar" with regards to (failed) authorial intent and "audiencial meaning," then why is Daniel J. Phillips (and other conservative anti-MD Protestants) so bitter and angry towards the conservative Protestants who sign and support the Manhattan Declaration?

  13. (Though the plug is appreciated, Rho[b]logy in no way endorses or approves the content of the preceding comment.)

  14. Patrick Chan: "The movie is meant to be symbolic, allegorical. After all, the movie is titled Avatar."

    See this link on how the film has influenced some viewers.