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When I sat down to watch Avatar in 3D last night, I had already been warned by reviews that this movie contained themes of nature worship, and I had heard snippets of the plot. These glimpses at the movie were not enough to dissuade me, however, once I saw the trailer of the film. This looked like something far beyond what I had seen before, and I really wanted to see it.
Walking out of the film, I realized I had just seen the most visually beautiful computer generated film ever. I had also seen a very thought-provoking film. And while I did not like the film, my mind has been mulling over the details of it since I walked out of the theater. Here are a few of my thoughts.
For those who don’t know, the movie’s plot (with a minimum of spoilers) is basically as follows. Because we are greedy humans hungry for money, we want the rare ore that is found on a planet called Pandora. So we go there and mine it. Unfortunately there are natives that live on this planet, and their giant “Home Tree,” where they live, is right atop deposits of the ore. There are two groups of humans: the environmentalist "Avatar project" scientists who want to study the planet and the culture of the aliens from the inside using remote-controlled alien bodies that they have created, and the greedy mining company with their army of marines. In short, you can probably guess what happens from that short synopsis. War and carnage.
The overarching theme of the entire film, as I see it, is that true happiness lies in being in union with nature. And not just in a sort of imaginary way. These happy aliens live in that union by truly connecting, physically, their bodies to the trees, the earth, and the animals they have domesticated (but in a very respectful way, of course). This process of “union” seems oddly sexual and bizarre. Hunting, for these aliens, ends in a sort of prayer of remorse and thanks to the soul of the now dead “brother” which has been killed and can become one with the divine Tree of Souls. Truly, the deity of Pandora is Pandora itself, with all its living creatures connected like neurons in a sort of brain that has, incidentally, “more connections than the human brain.” The goal of all life is thus to be united in the afterlife with the living planet itself.
As a Christian that does not sound quite right to me. I don’t see as my goal in the afterlife some sort of communion with nature on one planet. That is thinking far, far too small. Instead, I hope for union with the Creator of matter itself. And, if one reads the writings of the saints such as Saint Teresa of Avila and countless others, that union is real and can be experienced, to a degree, even in this life. And from what I have read and experienced, it is indescribably more beautiful – words always fail these saints as they try to express the experience – than what I saw on the screen last night. Even faithful Christians not versed whatsoever in Christian spirituality will know, through Scripture and the basic idea of monotheism, that there is only one true God, and that the spirituality of Avatar is severely misguided.
A week or so ago, I came across news reports of people feeling depressed after leaving the film because their real lives seem dull in comparison to what is on the screen. It was reported that people were talking of suicide because their real lives seemed dull and pointless after watching the beauty of Pandora. I, who had not seen the film at the time, did not believe that could possibly be true. Instead I concocted the conspiracy theory (for which I have no evidence but could still be true) that these discussion boards in which people described their post-Avatar depression were a creation of a viral marketing campaign, an attempt by the filmmakers to create a media buzz, which it did. But now that I have seen the film, I’m not so sure. Why? People applauded.
People applauded at the end of the film, which I found a bit disturbing. Visually, it was awesome. But we just saw humanity slaughtered on an alien planet. We just saw the greed of humanity at its worst. We just saw a terrible spirituality exalted as ideal. And, finally, we just saw the remnant of the humans sent back “to their dying planet,” and we cheered.
No wonder people feel depressed after stepping out of the theater and back into reality. We are scum. We are parasites. We deserve to die on this rotting planet for our sins against Mother Earth.
Yet people applauded. Was it just the visuals that they were applauding? Was it the predictable love story or battle scenes? I hope so, but doubt it. Many people are not seeking the transcendent God of reality, the one whose beauty and perfection we see reflected in that awesome beauty of the real planet Earth and in the cosmos. People are not seeking the transcendent God whose truth and wisdom is reflected in our own intellect and the sciences. Instead, they are stuck with a smallness of vision and are, even if they don’t realize it, turning to the religions of environmentalism and animism. Do not weep if a tree is felled in the forest. Yes, use the forest responsibly as a precious resource given to humanity by God. But don’t worship it. Worship its Creator!
It seems to me that Avatar is to the new age and environmentalist religions what C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy is to Christianity. In Lewis’ Space Trilogy, there are planets that do not suffer the effects of original sin, not being descendants or homes of Adam and Eve. These planets are described as being incredibly beautiful. The Space Trilogy is what James Cameron should have filmed. In fact, he did in a sense do just that. Many of the visuals I saw in Avatar were stolen right from the pages of Perelandra, the second book in the Space Trilogy. If you enjoyed Avatar, read Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, all by C.S. Lewis.
I also see a connection between Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Avatar. In Brave New World, a novel from, I think, the 1930s, humanity has progressed in science to the point of, basically, doing what we do today: things like test-tube babies and cloning. People aren’t “born.” They are grown in jars (sounds ridiculous, but it’s not far from IVF technologies of today). And what’s worse, they are modified as they grow in their jars to be a member of a certain class of society, and to be happy in that class, desiring nothing better. It is a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of science without morality, and consumerism, that we have not heeded in the decades since it was written.
Huxley’s Brave New World has and is becoming closer to reality, and many people seem content to go right along that path. In Avatar, the alien body that is remote controlled is not pure alien. It is a mixture of human and alien DNA, grown in a big jar, to be exactly what is needed. At the end of its growth, it is ready to be used and is “decanted,” a term the scientist in the film used to indicate the alien body’s removal from the jar. That is the exact phrase used in Huxley’s Brave New World. Perhaps the writers wanted to suggest that part of humanity’s depravity was its forays into genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and so on. Those who are not born but “decanted,” the products of misguided technology, are in fact themselves victims. In that, the writers are correct and should be commended. But most people won’t catch that reference. They will see no problem mixing human DNA with alien DNA to build a new creature for our use.
In short, the movie was visually beautiful. But it makes attractive a spirituality that is not in accord with human dignity and nature. It suggests, in no subtle way, that humanity is a parasite and that God exists in nature. Some will give me the cop-out comment of “It’s just a movie, get over it.” I say, this movie is the product of our culture.
Seek God, the true God, not the gods of nature. If you truly do so, you won’t be depressed because humanity is sinful and greedy. You will realize that your goal is union with the true God, not a tree, and that despite its flaws humanity is beautiful. Don’t despair; if you seek the beauty in reality, it is infinitely greater than fictitious Pandora.