Originally, I hadn’t planned on seeing the movie Avatar while it was in theatres. Money is tight right now, and I don’t go out to the movies as often as I used to. I heard so many positive reviews from friends, though, that I decided to see it.
I’m glad that I did!
Avatar is one of the most impressive movies I’ve seen in a long time. In fact, it’s one of the most impressive movies I’ve ever seen! There are flaws to it, of course, and I’ll get to those in a moment. Even with these flaws, though, I would say that it’s comparable to the original Star Wars series in terms of its groundbreaking visual style and profound mythological themes.
So what do I find so impressive about this movie?
First, there was my purely visual enjoyment of the film. Some of my friends who saw it in 3D were not that impressed with the new 3D technology. I, on the other hand, was deeply impressed. Maybe it helped that I haven’t really seen much of the old 3D technology, so the thought of seeing anything other than real life in 3D was still pretty new to me. Then, throw in the fact that they created a visually stunning virtual world and used the ultra close-ups sparingly enough to make them pop when they did happen. It really helped me to feel more deeply immersed in this alien world and the film’s compelling narrative.
Second, there was the story itself.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet, this will contain a few spoilers. With that said, I’d like to talk a bit about the story.
Human beings have established a military and economic presence on a distant moon named Pandora in order to extract an incredibly powerful and valuable mineral called unobtainium. [Yes, they really call it unobtainium.] Their extraction of this mineral, however, is complicated by the fact that there is a race of sentient indigenous humanoids called the Na’vi who live tribally in the massive forested landscape of Pandora.
The forests of Pandora are an impressive creation. The moon has lower gravity than Earth, and subsequently has massive towering trees and an endless variety of vegetation interwoven throughout the forest floor and canopy. They don’t say anything about most of the species present on Pandora, but it’s clear that they put a great deal of thought and effort into creating a rich backdrop of alien biodiversity for this profoundly ecological narrative.
One of the most interesting aspects of this ecology is the neural link. The Na’vi, as well as many other species (all animals?) have a braid-like appendage at the back of their head that grants them the ability to link into a global neural network that is personified as a planet-mother goddess named Eywa.
This is where the mythological elements really shine through. Each clan of Na’vi clusters around a massive Hometree. Together with the Tree of Souls and Tree of Voices, this Hometree constitutes a quite literal manifestation of the Tree of Life concept that is present in many real-world cultures, faiths, and mythologies. Their daily lives and identities are inextricably linked with their tree home, and it is both a symbolic and a literal connection to their planet-mother Eywa.
One of the most poignant scenes of the movie for me was the destruction of the Hometree.
Naturally, the largest deposit of unobtainium within range of the corporation’s base is underneath the Hometree. Therefore, after a half-hearted effort to get the local Na’vi clan to relocate, the corporation orders its military force to destroy the Hometree and drive any surviving Na’vi out of the area.
I know that some people don’t get as into movies as I do, and some people like to mock anyone who gets emotional about anything, especially a movie. If you’re one of those people, you can feel free to mock away. I must say, though, that the scene surrounding the destruction of the Hometree was profoundly moving for me in ways that I can’t even describe in words. But I have to try.
The Tree of Life — or the World Tree, or the Hometree, or whatever you like to call it — is a very primal mythological concept that has probably been with us since we descended from the trees to walk on the plains so many millennia ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, I encourage you to read up on it, starting with the Wikipedia article:
This Tree of Life has meant many things to many people. The overarching concept, though, is using a tree as a metaphor for the different aspects of the world as a whole. The roots involve the underworld, a hidden place beneath the soil where the dead depart to and new life emerges from. The trunk represents the manifest world, a solid and thick place where energy flows between earth and sky. The branches represent our connection to the cosmic, to the infinite, to the many branches of knowledge and wisdom and understanding. Taken as a whole, this Tree of Life represents the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and all of the mysteries and beauty and glory that it entails.
To watch such a clear and powerful incarnation of this Tree of Life being brutally destroyed before my very eyes was a profoundly sorrowful experience. It was like a re-enactment of humanity’s untold centuries of senseless genocide and ecocide, all of it packed into a few minutes of masterful cinematography. The only thing I can compare it to is the encounters I had with real-world ecocide during my time in Idaho — walking through the scorched remains of a series of massive clearcuts, or walking through a long stretch of cleared trees and realizing that this path would soon be a road on which many more clearcuts would unfold.
For me, it was a profound experience. I would go so far as to say that it was a spiritual experience. If the movie had just ended there, I think I would have been inconsolably sad and had to call my friends for emotional support.
Luckily for the moviegoers, however — and luckily for the Na’vi — it didn’t end there. With the help of the human main characters, the Na’vi fight back against the invaders. They not only succeed in driving the human aggressors back, but also manage to take over their base. The majority of the corporation’s personnel are exiled back to Earth, and the main characters and Navi live happily ever after.
On the whole, as you can tell, I was very impressed with Avatar. One of the flaws in the movie that I will point out, though, was mentioned to me by a friend of mine. I had noticed it on some level, but might not have thought to comment on it if she hadn’t brought it to my attention. It involves the two-dimensional — or perhaps more accurately, one-dimensional — portrayal of the humans who are fighting the Na’vi.
First of all, what are their motivations? They’re a military force — perhaps more accurately, a mercenary force — so we can’t expect them to be too sympathetic to the plight of the people they’ve been hired to keep in line. At the time they signed up, it wasn’t a full-on war with the Na’vi — but given the fact that you’re guarding mining operations that are encroaching ever-further into Na’vi territory, you’ve got to have at least some clue of what you’re signing up for.
Given the dehumanizing that goes on in any war, you can expect most of them to be down with the program. But all of them? Without question, without reservation, with great enthusiasm? The only people who even seem to consider the Na’vi perspective, much less support it, are: the scientists on the mission; the ex-Marine who is working for the scientists and spends all day running around in a Na’vi body; and one pilot who is friends with the ex-Marine and science team. Everyone else is just mindlessly hungry for the blood of the Na’vi, including a general who makes a deliciously over-the-top villain but doesn’t offer any depth to the humans who work for the corporation.
The conclusion I came to about this is that James Cameron simply doesn’t find the story of the conquerors interesting. He sees them as a one-dimensional force of nature — a mindless killing machine — rather than a collection of individual human beings with their own motivations, hopes, dreams, and so on. The aforementioned general has an intense and highly visible personal character, but it is there mostly for our amusement and/or horror, and offers intensity without any real depth. This is really unfortunate from a social and political perspective because one of the most important parts of fighting against imperialism and oppression is understanding what it is and how it works!
Another smaller issue I had with the movie was a quick throw-away line about how the Na’vi and their ability to communicate with their planet-mother goddess Eywa was a scientifically demonstrable phenomenon rather than some “mystic Pagan voodoo” or some similarly ridiculous and offensive phrase.
On the one hand, it was just a throw-away line that a real scientist might in fact use when describing a form of advanced biochemical communication that might otherwise be seen as “mystical” or “Pagan” or “voodoo.” On the other hand, it felt rather jarring and out of place in a movie that is otherwise profoundly mystical and arguably deeply Pagan in its narrative. People of many faiths and beliefs can identify with the tale, of course, just as they can appreciate ancient Greek mythology, or incorporate pagan mythic elements into decidedly Christian tales such as the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or the Lord of the Rings. But it seems a bit silly to me to construct an entire tale around a planet-mother-goddess archetype and then mock the ancient Pagan cultures that gave us this archetype.
One last point about Avatar that I’d like to talk about briefly is the fan response. In particular, the fans who have become depressed because of the movie:
I’ve heard people making fun of the “Avatar Blues,” so I wanted to say something supportive about it.
Personally, when I left that movie, I felt uplifted and inspired. The Na’vi may have lost a Hometree, and many lives, but they drove back the invaders. I’ve joked with friends that Avatar was like a re-enactment of the European conquerors invading the Americas and Africa — but this time, the indigenous people had dragons on their side! It’s an inspiring tale of resistance and liberation, and it ends on a bright and hopeful note.
But I can understand why it would leave some people depressed. Maybe they never encountered a fantasy story with that strong of an archetypal narrative before; maybe the 3D effects made it seem that much more real to them; maybe the current state of the economy and the nation has them feeling more depressed than usual. Whatever it was, I can see why it would leave some people depressed, and I think it’s cruel to make fun of them for it.
A big part of what helped me to have an inspiring rather than depressing experience was my firm belief that someday, if we choose wisely and take action to make our choices a reality, we can live in a world that is far closer to the deep beauty and deep connectedness that exists in Avatar. No, we probably won’t sprout USB ponytails that allow us to connect directly to Gaia’s neural network. But we can certainly live a life of deep, personal, and daily relationship with the beautiful living ecosystems that surround us. And as a mystic myself, I believe that we may even achieve telepathic abilities one day which surpass even the biochemical form of telepathy present in Avatar.
So if you’re one of the people who left Avatar feeling like your real life was a little too grey for comfort, take heart! If the movie touched you that deeply, then you are carrying a little splash of all of that color and radiance and connection around with you deep in your heart. And you are surrounded by many other people doing the same. So even if your surroundings look very grey at the moment, there is a network of people all around you who dream of a better world — and you can be a part of making it happen.
And if you’re one of the people who hasn’t seen Avatar yet, I would highly encourage it. Even if you only watch it so that you can make fun of “Dances With Smurfs of Fern Gully,” you may find yourself touched at some point by the experience. This one is definitely a classic worth seeing.