If you've read any reviews of the new movie "Avatar," you've probably seen discussions about how
Political, it is. Religious it is not. And the lack of religion actually weakens the political argument that writer and director James Cameron is trying to make.
If you haven't seen the movie and don't want any information about it, don't read past the photo below until you see the film. Which you probably will.]
Now that I've protected the others, let's get rid of the obvious: Everything you've read about how amazing the film looks is true. We are now to the point where computer generated images look as real as those filmed with actual people and objects. And in the case of Avatar, the scenes of Pandora and the humanoid Na'vi who live there are more real, more vibrant than the scenes shot with regular actors clumping around regular sets.
But the plot is as thin as the wings of the reptilian flying "ikran" that the heroes ride in some of the more thrilling scenes. Here's the basic story in one sentence: "Dances With Wolves" on another planet, and the Indians win.
Humans from earth discover that the not-too-distant planet they call Pandora has a very valuable mineral. And that the Na'vi live in a Brobdingnagian
tree atop a prime vein that the earthers want to strip-mine. The corporate boss and his hired mercenaries are perfectly satisfied to take the mineral by force, without worrying overmuch about what or who on the planet gets hurt.
Toss in an interplanetary love story and some brutal, bloody, and horrific battle scenes. And find a mostly happy ending with the good guy winning the battle and the girl.
The movie suffers from some needless internal consistency problems that will come to you after the flash of Pandora fades. For instance: How do you get floating mountains on a planet where all the other physics is operating on Newtonian normal?
But the bottom line: Avatar is amazing spectacle and will make a million billion bazillion dollars.
So where are the politics? Start with the recapitulation of the invasion of the Americas by Europeans, and the subjugation of the indigenous peoples by outsiders with better technology. Move to the demonization of corporations and profit. Take a few swipes at President Bush 43 by invoking "shock and awe" and "preemptive war" to justify a brutal attack on the Na'vi home.
It's broad allegory, to be sure. Aimed at having the viewer think about how we want to treat people whose lives, customs and values are different than our own. But allegory is only effective if we can see ourselves in it -- if behind the inevitable distortion and artistry there are situations that we can apply to hard choices in our real lives. For all the otherworldliness in Gulliver's Travels, for instance, Jonathan Swift was careful to embed many details that would have grounded the readers of his day in their everyday world.
Now for the religion. For a lot of the movie, I thought the description of the film as a love note to New Age faith was pretty accurate. The Na'vi claim a link with all living things on Pandora. They have sacred places where they say they feel the deepest connection. When they kill an animal they speak a ritual "prayer" of thanks for the use of the creatures as food.
All of which sounds a lot like a mash-up of American Indian and less specific earth-based faiths we can find around us today. (For another angle, here's a reviewer in the India-based Hindustan Times
who sees Hindu elements in the Na'vi.)
But then Cameron takes another step: It turns out that the Na'vi deity that they call Eywa is real as rocks. Trees, plants and many animals have literal connections to each other, forming synapses in a giant world-mind. A mind that manifests itself at a key point of the plot in a way that leaves no ambiguity about whether "she" is real or not.
Academics will argue about exactly how you define "religion." But one element is common to every definition I've ever seen: faith. A religion requires its adherents to have faith in some aspect of the transcendent that cannot be proven using the material stuff of the ordinary world.
Explaining Eywa is a matter of neurophysics, not theology. So it's not about religion.
Why does that matter? If Eywa were the same sort of unprovable Mystery as the deities of Earth's religions, then the corporate raiders who want to despoil the "sacred places" of the Na'vi would be evil because of their unwillingness to respect the beliefs of the peoples who live on Pandora. Faced with a troubling ethical choice -- the corporate villain points out that, after all, there are
lots of other trees the Na'vi could choose for a home -- they make the wrong one. And we in the audience can take a lesson.
But if the world-mind is simply another odd but material aspect of a strange world, an aspect that may actually be more
valuable than any mineral deposit, then the bad guys are basically stupid for ignoring that reality. And "don't be stupid" is not a terribly interesting or sophisticated lesson.
Politics is easy when the facts are clear, after all. Lead smelters, for instance, were once a matter for political battles before the science proved the damage caused by even trace amounts of lead. These days, no successful politician is going to argue the ethics of lead contamination. Ditto cigarette smoke. As the science becomes less ambiguous, so does the politics.
But when the facts are unclear or the arguments depend mostly on philosophies, ethics, or heaven help us, theology, the battles are much more difficult. Imagine how the debate about abortion would change if one 10-week-old fetus on a sonogram looked into the camera and said in American Sign language, "Where's the thermostat in here?"
Cameron decided not to respect religion as
religion on Pandora and reduced it to just another materialistic phenomenon. And that takes us
out of his allegory, unless the New Agers' Gaia one day uses critters or clouds to send us a clear message that she, like Pandora's Eywa, is really out there. And sick of us.