Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Avatar of Our Lives

My wife and I saw Avatar this weekend in IMAX 3D (a cool format, although it made me sick being in the 3rd row, and I don't get sick in movies...).

This movie has gotten a lot of excellent press and recommendation from friends. Maybe I was expecting too much (although trying not to) and maybe I started off by being in a bad mood from having to sit so close, but I did not love the movie. The effects were phenomenal, and the story backed them up. But the story at the same time did not wow me. It was rather predictable, and I felt angry through most of it because of the injustices. My wife wants to get it on Blu-Ray, but right now, I'm not sure I even want to see it again because of the anger I felt during the movie.

Maybe the movie did it's job, though. It made me think about injustices in this world. In many ways, Avatar was a sort of avatar of modern life. Media at its best does that. It's one of the things I like about Star Trek: having us engage in moral and ethical dilemmas, but making the context foreign so we're able to see the issues better and not be so resistant to challenging our beliefs.

For those who haven't seen it, you may not want to read more (although none of this will be that much of a spoiler, I don't think). Also, there is another great blog post on Avatar as a metaphor for evangelism, so others are thinking of it in metaphorical terms.

Anyway, back to being ego-centric about my reactions. :) The first strong negative emotion I had was anger. The humans were being driven by money and greed (anger point #1) and then doing very inappropriate things to others while they had absolutely NO right to do this (anger point #2).

One of the strengths of this film versus others is that it let the audience get to know and understand both sides of the conflict. It starts with humans (who the audience has an obvious automatic affiliation). Then it helps us build a bond with the Navi.

So when things get heated, I cared about both sides. It made me sick seeing both sides get killed. And I actually thought it was unfair that most of the soldiers had to die while the leaders (the true corrupt ones) walked away (well, there was one exception). I didn't really hold most of the humans responsible for their actions since they were unaware of the full picture. But those who were exposed to the Navi and the injustice that went on were responsible. And they acted.

How often does that occur for us, though? We often do things without full knowledge of the situation. And we often act incorrectly. That doesn't mean we were not wrong, but should we always be condemned? I'm not sure. Yet we do often condemn others.

The movie also made me sick because it so beautifully and graphically and emotionally showed the tragedy of displacing the Other for our benefit. It made me realize the power of the horror that humanity has committed to so many populations over the millenia.

Again, I think this is a strength of media at its best: Helping us experience the world differently when we are unwilling or cannot see it directly. Basically, media can be an avatar for our lives. And that can be good. So good that I think it can be quite holy. (Not saying this movie was holy, but you get the idea. :) )


  1. Some interesting perspectives here on Avatar. I’m one who did love the film. I see it’s flaws but it moved me anyway.

    The plot was mostly predictable—we’ve seen most of this before (sort of a “Dances with Wolves” in outer space). The person from “our” group (Earthling/American/white man--fill in the blank) goes native and discovers the wonders of another world and identifies with it’s inhabitants and ends up fighting his “own” people and their rapacious, commercial, exploitive interests. Not the world's most original plot (even though the avatar element itself--where he really did go back and forth between the two worlds was fresh and original for me).

    Still, for me it was a very moving and even spiritual experience. There are a couple of contextual things that enhanced the impact. I have some background working in graphic arts (many years ago) I will say that the visuals were amazing and awe-inspiring—graphic arts taken to the highest level I’ve seen yet. And the fact that I went to see it with my son shaped the experience. He and I have some our best and deepest spiritual conversations over movies and this one was particularly good in that regard.

    But there were some larger thematic elements that resonated for me as well. First, the theme of being in two worlds and identifying with both in some way. In many ways my own life has been defined by that theme. In multiple ways—going all the way back to the cultural complexity of the urban environment in which I grew up. At some point I began to realize that several of the defining characteristics of “us” (the good guys, the ones who were on God’s side, the ones who were right about everything, etc.) weren’t quite as clear as I had once thought. Maybe God’s love and plan included people who didn’t live just the way we lived, look like us, believe the exact same details of dogma, attend the same church, vote for the same people we voted for, etc. I’ve had to really grapple with a key question raised by the film—who is “us”?

    It also reminded me that so much of what turns out to be evil is simply people following orders and doing their job. That’s one reason C.S. Lewis could characterize Satan’s operation as a “bureaucracy.” The recent financial debacle, which ripped people off of far more money than all the bank robberies in history, is an example. Most of the “bank robbers” were not bad people; they were just shortsighted people wanting to make a good income by doing their jobs. In the film lives on both sides were lost—often well-meaning people simply doing their job without questioning larger issues end up creating a lot of collateral damage.

    The Christian theme of incarnation also emerged in my experience with the film. You can’t identify with people and communicate with them without, in some sense, becoming one of them. And even self-sacrifice on behalf of people isn’t going to be meaningful unless you have somehow identified with them and lived among them.

    The film also hit me with questions about what I value. A key issue in the film is the dilemma posed because “we don’t have anything they want.” They don’t want MacDonald’s, Coke, Paris Hilton style celebrity status, designer jeans, an SUV, or a Rolex. They are content without those things and all too often we hope to “captivate” people by enhancing their wants for what we can offer them. The original temptation in Eden involved a form of “marketing”—creating a sense of discontent and getting Adam and Eve to believe that something other than what God had already given them was the path to highest fulfillment. I had to ask myself questions about values, contentment, and how I could be lured away from where God has put me. C.S. Lewis tells that story well in "Perlandra."

    More I could say. But these are some reasons I found Avatar so moving. Sure, it walks a well worn and sometimes clichéd path. But it moved me in the process.


  2. Excellent points, Cal. Thanks for sharing! It definitely had a strong spiritual component (both explicitly and implicitly), which I liked. The part you brought up I hadn't thought of was the definition of "us." That is quite central to the film, tackling the issue in very interesting ways, metaphorically and literally.

  3. http://thomaswebb.net/2010/01/23/thoughts-on-avatar/

    Here's my take on it.. I think I felt some of your anger. People do awful things, but that didn't seem realistic to me that no one looked the slightest disgusted when the protagonist dehumanized the Navi in front of the soldiers. Although I think that effect was intended.. Maybe the writer wanted us to feel ashamed of certain negative aspects of our culture.



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