Avatar (2009)



"This film tries to make you feel bad for the killing of the Indians, destruction of the environment, and the Iraq War all at once!"

Review by Boniface
So I let my curiosity get the best of me and went to see Avatar last night with the wife, figuring that though I generally stay away from new cinema, this film seemed to be such a cultural phenomenon that I had to inform myself about it. I can say that my wife and I both enjoyed the film; it didn't seem like three hours as I was watching it, and I can certainly say that the cinematography and effects were spectacular. Besides the fact that it was entertaining and aesthetically pleasing to watch, I can't say that much more in praise of it. I am shocked that it has become the highest grossing movie of all time and am concerned that its worldview will become more mainstream as time goes on.

The first thing I want to point out is the utter unoriginality of the movie. The movie was basically a futuristic rehash of the 1995 Disney Pocahontas film. John Smith is Jake Sully and the girl (whatever her name was) is Pocahontas. The Marines are the English, who instead of gold are seeking an absurdly named ore called "Unobtainium." There's even a sacred tree, like in Pocahontas.

But to delve into this a little more deeply, one of the central things in the film is the ability of certain men, whose minds fit a specific profile, to be able to "jump into" certain synthetically engineered biological bodies ("Avatars") and control them remotely, or "drive" them. This concept is almost directly pirated from the 1995-1996 Japanese series of anime films entitled (in English) "Neon Genesis Evangelion" (see here), which was widely popular and grossed over $16 million. The central idea of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series was that a series of teenagers, with very specific mental profiles, were chosen to pilot bio-engineered creatures called "Evas." The Evas are organic, but they are basically shell bodies that are inhabited ("driven") by the human pilots in order to combat a threatening race of alien invaders. Like Jake Sully in Avatar, the main character in Neon Genesis Evangelion is a young boy named Shinji who is initially unfit to pilot an Eva but (like Jake Sully) becomes one of the most important Eva pilots through his uncanny union with his Eva body. Anyone being honest with themselves can see the similarities - I do not accuse James Cameron of direct plagiarism per se, though it is possible; I merely point out that this is hardly an original theme.

Another element of unoriginality was the concept of the taming of those dragon-looking birds and the nonsense about them only choosing one rider for life, the riders bonding with the creature, controlling it with their mind, etc. This is obviously plagiarized from Eragon, which Christopher Paolini stole from the Dragon Riders of Pern. When I saw this concept in Eragon, I was a little frustrated, but to see it so blatantly recycled in Avatar was too much.

From a Christian viewpoint, the biggest problem with Avatar is the spirituality positively portrayed in the film. The Na'vi have a relation to their planet (Pandora) in which the entire planet is a type of semi-conscious, living organism. The "souls" of the Na'vi come forth from the planet, or rather the planet's life force (Eywa) and return to the collective consciousness of the planet when they die. Thus there is a very strong pantheistic element, with several scenes of the Na'vi worshiping or praying to the planet in bizarre religious rituals that look like a mix between Native American ceremony and African tribalism. The problem is not so much that type of ritual is portrayed as much as that it is endorsed by the obvious sympathy which the audience is supposed to have for the Na'vi.

Regarding sympathy, the plot is so one-sided as to make the Marines into unredeemable evil antagonists, such that the main character Jake Sully, a former Marine, apparently has no scruples about turning on his own comrades and slaying them in a pitched battle at the end of the movie (and Marines are definitely the sort of people who are most likely to turn on their comrades, right?). Through its complete positive portrayal of the Na'vi and its complete negative portrayal of the human Marines, this film attempts to elicit the viewer's sympathy and draw implicit connections to a host of real world events - I told my wife upon leaving the theater, "This film tries to make you feel bad for the killing of the Indians, destruction of the environment, and the Iraq War all at once!" Not that I approve of any of those things, but to tie them all together under the ideology of pantheistic earth-worship creates a false dichotomy - as if to say that if you oppose pantheistic earth worship you must be in favor of destroying the environment. The sympathies created by the movie are too one sided and based on such false dichotomies.

While I initially sympathized with the Na'vi, I found it difficult to maintain my sympathy the further into the film as their pantheistic earth worship began to be more emphasized and promoted. By the latter part of the film, I found myself actually hoping the Marines would succeed in their plan to blow up the "Tree of Souls," the center of the Na'vi earth cult. What does it say about a film when our sympathies switch half way from the protagonist to the antagonist? It either means that I am very sadistic, or that the movie depicts an imbalanced approach to the themes it tries to address, which I think is indeed the case here based on other reviews I have heard of the film.

One more thing - the 3D effects just weren't that awesome. I'm sorry, but they weren't. It was a little bit cool I suppose, but after a few minutes I took my glasses off, preferring to watch the film normally. To my horror, the screen was all blurry - apparently this new breed of 3D film has to be watched with the glasses (which they conveniently charge an extra $2.00 for, making the tickets for my wife and I $21.95). Unfortunately, this seems to be the new thing, because all the films in the previews were for upcoming 3D features. The 3D was neat, and the scenery was beautiful, but I never really felt like the movie was coming out at me, nor did I think it that much better than viewing a traditional, non-3D movie.

So what are we left with? A breathtaking computerized cinematography with a one-sided plot, little depth (the last twenty minutes of the film were disgustingly predictable) and a pantheistic moral message, and sci-fi ideas lifted from several other films and books. Perhaps it would be good to rent if you are curious to see it, but I wouldn't waste $21.95 just to see it in the stupid 3D that only half-works. For these reasons, I give this film one out of three papal tiaras