AVATAR: Probing Beyond Visuals to Culture and Identity
For many months now I have been looking forward to the release of James Cameron’s AVATAR. But with all the hype, much of it coming from Cameron himself, I was prepared to be mesmerized by the visual display, but to feel let down by the storyline. Thankfully, the visual elements lived up to the hype, and the story exceeded my expectations in a great holiday science fiction/fantasy film experience.
AVATAR is set in the future in space. As the story begins, we are introduced to Jake Sully, a marine who has lost the use of his legs and is confined to a wheelchair. He awakens from the suspended animation of space travel to arrive at the planet-like moon Pandora where he is given the mission of controlling a biological avatar genetically engineered with a combination of human and alien DNA from the Pandoran race of the Na’vi. Earth is in need of new natural resources, and Pandora is teeming with one particularly valuable one. A major corporation has been working with a paramilitary unit to gain the trust of the Na’vi in the hopes of convincing them to move away from the part of the land most rich in the precious metal, and with the clock winding down on the diplomatic efforts, the use of military force to secure the resource is threatening. Sully “drives” his Na’vi avatar and gains the trust of a tribe, at first to provide intelligence data in order to secure the planet’s resources; however, as his time with the Na’vi continues, he begins to sympathize with the race and their way of life. This complicates his military mission and sets the stage for the unfolding drama of the film.
As many commentators have noted, the visual elements of AVATAR are impressive. In 1968 viewers were amazed at the realistic depiction of space flight created for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and in 1977 they were awed with STAR WARS’s swashbuckling variation on the theme. Cameron achieves a similar visual wonder with his new system of motion or performance capture, computer-generated animation, and digital imagery. Many previous attempts at generating the human form have been less than impressive, always having a very contrived look and feel to them. Although there have been exceptions, such as FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN, Cameron has taken this further, to the point where audiences forget that with the shift from the scientific and paramilitary compound to the realm of Pandora and the Na’vi, they are actually shifting from watching live action to watching human-like forms created in a computer.
Not only are the Na’vi rendered impressively; they live their lives and tell us their story in a lush fantasy realm of Pandora’s natural beauty. James Cameron and his cinematic team have brought the best of fantasy art’s depictions of alternative worlds to life with imaginative forms of landscapes, plants, and animal life. One minor critique from this reviewer comes in the form of the portions of the planet that have luminescence: although this feature is breathtaking at first, Cameron spends a little too much time on this aspect of Pandora’s landscape – to the point where it almost feels like an obsession with 1970s black light posters.
In terms of the storyline, I was expecting something that would struggle to keep pace with the visual effects, and which might come off more than a little “preachy” in terms of its anti-colonialism. As mentioned in the introduction, the story was better than I had hoped, and although the film does critique the West’s unfortunate history of colonialism, the abuse of indigenous peoples, and the plundering of natural resources, for those not overly sensitive to much of the contemporary angst and self-loathing that is expressed in Western self-critique in popular culture, it does not hit the viewer over the head and fits within the current cultural zeitgeist as the West reassess its historic past in interactions with those of other cultures.
Some of the more interesting features of AVATAR for this reviewer are its cultural and religious aspects. With the Na’vi, James Cameron has created an entire culture with a language, a way of life, a relationship with the land, and a religion or spirituality. This provides one of the entry ways for critique of the West, when we hear the corporation and the paramilitary organization with whom they are working refer to the Na’vi as savages and primitives who must obviously be backward because they live in trees rather than modern dwellings with all their technological comforts.
The religious beliefs of the Na’vi are belittled by most of those from Earth as well in favor of some kind of secular utilitarianism, with the Na’vi and their planet’s resources used as means to an end, rather than by way of contrast with some kind of monotheism. But Na’vi religious life, and its connection to nature, receives some level of respect from the scientific researchers as might be expected with a film that provides a duality and contrast between the evil corporation and paramilitary and the more benign group of scientists. Much like secular anthropologists who have studied Earth’s indigenous tribes and respected their beliefs even while viewing them as unenlightened and unscientific, the researchers in AVATAR do much the same with the spirituality of the Na’vi, even as they come to reassess the “validity” of these beliefs through their own experiences with the Na’vi and the land.
In regards to Na’vi religion, some commentators have referred to it as pantheism, but this is technically inaccurate. The Na’vi believe that Eywa, the divine “All Mother,” is connected to and in some sense “in” all things, but the “things” of the planet are not identical to Eywa and the All Mother is not the only reality. AVATAR’s religion may be more properly understood then as a form of panentheism and animism, the belief that deity resides within the world, including its animals and plants, but not that deity is the only reality.
An Internet search of “AVATAR and religion” yields a variety of perspectives, including many from those unhappy with the film’s religion. In one sense, it not well received due to the current culture wars between conservatives and progressives, but even so it would appear to fit well within the context of twenty-first century “progressive spirituality,” which meets current needs, according to scholars like Gordon Lynch, such as “the need for a credible religion for the modern age; the need for religion which is truly liberating and beneficial for women; the need to reconnect religion with scientific knowledge; and the need for a spirituality that can respond to our impending ecological crisis.” Religious conservatives on the right chafe at AVATAR’s depictions of deity and nature, but they might also pause to consider that it may have arisen as a response to perceived shortcomings or deficiencies in more traditional forms of Western religiosity.
Finally, a few words need to be said in relation to the title of the film. AVATAR refers to a well known concept in cyberspace wherein a person creates a virtual embodiment of the self that represents them in the digital realm. The term “avatar” is a Sanskrit word that refers to the incarnation of a Hindu god, but in common usage today it refers to our use of virtual forms of embodiment. AVATAR takes the concept of virtual embodiment further than previous treatments of the concept, moving beyond mentally inhabiting digital representations in a computer-generated reality such as THE MATRIX, and beyond the mental control of robotic avatars in SURROGATES, to neurologically inhabiting and “driving” biological entities as the “alien” persons and living their lives through an embodied state.
This unique form of avatar incarnation can lead to interesting personal choices. At one point in AVATAR, Sully states that for him his alternating experiences between his personhood as Sully and his Na’vi identity have switched: who he is as Na’vi seems more real than who he is as Sully. In other words, he comes to prefer and identify more with his avatar than with the identity “driving” the avatar.
There are real world implications for this aspect of AVATAR. When we consider that millions of people inhabit cyberspace and utilize an array of avatars, and that according to Tom Bukowski’s anthropological exploration of Second Life, “[e]mbodiment can be physical, but ‘we are also bodies in a social and cultural sense, and we experience that, too’”, it should come as no surprise that many people struggle with a sense of identity, many times preferring their avatar and the alternative worlds they inhabit to the physical bodies and worlds in which they live. With this in mind, although AVATAR is a science-fiction-fantasy film, it touches on very real questions, as virtual worlds continue to overlap with the non-virtual, whether in the cinema or in cyberspace.
The critical commentary is still coming together for AVATAR, from those who love it and consider it one of the best science fiction films ever made, to those who hate it and consider it to be yet another product of the progressive left in their conflict with cultural conservatism. Beyond these extremes there is much to be appreciated in the film, and it is exciting to speculate upon what Cameron and others will achieve, cinematically and imaginatively, with the digital technology that has been created.