I finally got a chance to watch Avatar in 3D the other night—strictly business, of course, since I had assigned it to the Sociology of Religion class for which I am guest-lecturing this evening on the nature and definition of religion, using Avatar as a launching point. It was essentially what I had heard: a highly immersive, visually impressive film with an unoriginal (and weak) script and ham-handed, thinly-veiled political, environmental, and religious messages. As my buddy Chris (who watched it in California the same night I watched it here) said, it is something like “Star Wars meets Jurassic Park, Dances with Wolves, and The Last Samurai,” to which I would add Pocahontas (as the prior link suggests) and perhaps the nearly unwatchable Wall-E for the “green” message.
But as far as religion is concerned, I was struck (though not surprised, given the title) by how James Cameron’s story borrowed from the narratives of Hindu avatars like Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu often portrayed with blue skin, much like the Na’vi of Avatar) while advocating an animistic or pantheistic view of the world (much like the views espoused within the Hindu traditions). This religion of the “circle of life” (to use The Lion King‘s term) is the sanitized, seeker-friendly version of the Hindu/Buddhist “samsara,” the circle of suffering, and rebirth.
I also am a bit surprised that no review I have read has pointed out that Na’vi (the name for the humanoid race inhabiting Pandora) is the Hebrew word for “prophet,” a detail that was surely not accidental (even down to the single close-quotation mark, which denotes an “aleph” when transliterating Hebrew). The “prophets” of Pandora are those who reject industrialization, instead living in an environmentally-friendly oneness with nature—Cameron’s ideal race looks an awful lot like an idealized picture of Native American life before the horrible Western invaders destroyed their union with their land. Yes, they are warlike people and hunt for their food, but they at least thank their prey and express an understanding of their unity with it after they kill it! (Yes, it’s okay to eat meat, as long as you feel a little bad about it. Actions themselves aren’t the problem; the important thing is that we feel at least a little guilty for our consumption.) As several others have pointed out, Cameron’s narrative (and message) is an Orientalist fantasy (many have—probably rightly—thrown “racist” into the discussion) and exhibits full-blown Western post-colonial guilt (insert your Edward Said references here).
“Pandora” is also taken from the famous Greek story of the first woman, Pandora, who opened her famous jar (popularly mistranslated “Pandora’s box”), letting out all sorts of evils, troubles, labor, etc., while only hope remained in the jar. (The “jar” is the womb, which unleashed the cycle of birth and death, along with all the troubles of mortal existence, though the next generation is always full of hope.) Some modern feminist interpretation has interpreted Pandora as representing the “Great Mother Goddess” (i.e. Mother Earth), while Hesiod’s story is understood as a later patriarchal attempt to subvert attention to more masculine divinities (forgetting of course that men in the ancient world seemed quite fond of their goddesses). Cameron’s use of “Pandora” thus reflects some interaction with the myth and interpretation of the myth, as the home-world, the interconnected ecosystem (“network” as one of the characters calls it) of Pandora is personified as the mother goddess, “Eywa.”
“Eywa” is of course “Yahweh” backward (leaving out the superfluous “h” vowel markers; why don’t any reviews point this out?), and in the same way Cameron turns the Hebrew divine name backward, Cameron’s Eywa turns the Jewish (or Christian or Muslim) notion of “God” inside out—moving from a supernatural masculine deity to an animistic mother-goddess identified with nature itself. Again, Cameron’s use of names sheds light on his (already thinly-veiled) objectives in this highly-political and religious script.
I won’t get into the Eden imagery, though there is plenty of that in Cameron’s conception of paradise. A number of other political statements were so blatant it was downright laughable (“unobtanium”? Seriously? He couldn’t come up with a better name for the fictional space element representing oil?), like the references to “some kind of ‘shock and awe campaign'” and “pre-emptive” measures, “fighting terror with terror,” etc.
That said, the film was quite immersive and the CGI dazzle was impressive; in addition, there is (for the lack of a better way to put it) a sense of a magnetic “presence” in the movie that grows stronger as the movie moves forward. It’s barely noticeable through the first 45 minutes or so, but by the midpoint or so of the movie, it is quite powerful. As another friend emailed to me after seeing it,
It’s only the second time that I’ve left the theater feeling like I’m stutteringly readjusting to seeing the world once again, walking out almost in a daze. (The first time for that was after I saw The Passion of the Christ.)
My guess is that the music of the film—which changes pretty dramatically as the viewer gets further immersed in the world of “Pandora”—has a large role in shaping that “numinous” sense. The comparison to The Passion is especially apropos; I left the theatre thinking that this movie was indeed something like a Passion for a perspective and worldview every bit as religious as Mel Gibson’s.