Another Myth of Secular Salvation

James Cameron’s Avatar: Hollywood’s self-proclaimed “King of the World” is back.

In the last weekend of a year of record box-office returns that broke the $10 billion mark for the first time, Hollywood closed out the decade in grand style with the biggest weekend box office in history. At the top of the charts, for the second weekend in a row, was James Cameron’s Avatar.

Barely losing steam in the early days of 2010, Avatar has shown such strong legs that it looks on track to topple Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to become 2009’s top-grossing film—no mean feat for a sui generis film with no preexisting franchise appeal, no above-the-title major stars, and a director whose last film was a dozen years earlier.

Of course, that last film was nothing less than the unsinkable Titanic, which made money on a scale that movies just don’t make. (Titanic made more than $600 million domestically; Avatar surpassed it in early February.) Avatar‘s extraordinary success confirms that Titanic—which, like Avatar, was the most expensive movie ever filmed at that time, and likewise dismissed in advance as a debacle before going on to wow critics and audiences alike—was no fluke.

“To be this popular,” wrote Neil Anderson in an analysis of Titanic for the Media Awareness Network, “a story must be touching a mythic nerve, speaking to collective fears and desires.” Like Star Wars and The Matrix, Titanic offered audiences something more than just entertainment. It was nothing less than a way of understanding the world, a worldview in narrative form.

Titanic can be viewed from many angles—as romance, as tragedy, as spectacle, as celebration of youthful rebellion, as heavy-handed social commentary—but the film is perhaps most usefully seen as a myth of salvation. “He saved me,” old Rose says of Jack at the denouement, “in every way that a person can be saved.” At the same time, while Jack saves Rose, Rose also saves herself. When young Rose tells Jack, “It’s not up to you to save me,” his answer is, “You’re right, only you can do that.”

What about Avatar? In his weekly column for the New York Times, Catholic columnist Ross Douthat writes: “It’s fitting that James Cameron’s Avatar arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James.”

This “gospel,” Douthat clarifies, is “not the Christian Gospel. Instead, Avatar is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism—a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.”

Notwithstanding the general aptness of Douthat’s observations, “apologia” may not be the right word for Avatar. It might be better applied to The Da Vinci Code—the religious and mythic force of which Douthat has also admirably highlighted—as well as other cinematic flashpoints from Million Dollar Baby to Brokeback Mountain. Certainly The Da Vinci Code is well calculated to persuade casual consumers that Brown has actually done his homework and offers a construal of history that is actually reliable or at least plausible in significant part. It likewise seems plausible that Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain might have played, and been intended to play, a non-negligible role in ongoing battles to mainstream morally controversial outlooks and agendas.

SPEAKING TO THE ZEITGEIST

Is Avatar likely to persuade anyone of anything, or to affect the way that different religious (or political) outlooks are perceived? It seems unlikely. For one thing, unlike The Da Vinci Code, Million Dollar Baby, and Brokeback Mountain, Cameron isn’t pushing any envelopes. He is a filmmaker profoundly of his cultural moment; he speaks from and to the zeitgeist—not an approach particularly likely to change anything.

For another, despite all its mythic resonances, its resounding box-office success and considerable fan enthusiasm, nothing indicates that Avatar is actually connecting with audiences on a truly mythic level. Its heroes and villains are unlikely to achieve the cultural status in the collective imagination of, variously, Luke and Leia, Han and Darth Vader, Neo and Trinity, Morpheus and Agent Smith, Jack and Rose, or even Robert Langdon.

Everyone knows about the Force and the Matrix; a non-negligible fringe personally self-identify as “Jedis” and occasionally agitate for public recognition of their self-professed religious affiliation. Will anyone ever insist on being called a Na’vi? (The Na’vi are a race of superhumanly large, slender, vaguely feline humanoids with tails and blue skin, like ElfQuest’s “Glider” elves crossed with Nightcrawler from the second X-Men movie, who inhabit the planet of Pandora. Eywa is essentially the Pandoran Gaia, or planet-soul goddess.)

At the same time, it is fair to say that what it lacks in depth Avatar more than makes up for in breadth. Avatar may be an inch deep, but it’s a mile wide, and it thunders like Niagara Falls. In a real sense, not only is it the quintessential Hollywood blockbuster, it is almost the Hollywood monomyth—the apotheosis of the whole worldview and memory of contemporary Hollywood, given narrative and pictorial form in a mega-blockbuster pitched to absolutely every moviegoer in the world.

Viewed as mythopoeia, Avatar is an astonishing amalgamation of Star Wars and The Matrix, John Smith and Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and Fahrenheit 9/11, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard, Hayao Miyazaki and Jack Kirby, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Battle for Terra, Jurassic Park and Aliens. It’s noble primitives and warmongering Westerners, imperialist and expansionist guilt and no blood for oil, Cortez and Custer and George W. Bush in one fell swoop. It’s environmental apocalypticism, Gaia and the Force, Vulcan mind-melding and fal tor pan mysticism and Disney’s Grandmother Willow. It’s space Marines and military oppressiveness, mystic/enlightened feminist consciousness and interspecies romance. It is like everything, and yet there is nothing like it.

A dozen years have elapsed since Titanic, and Avatar has been in development for nearly 15. Cinematic stories so long labored over often become bogged down in excessive complications or sapped of narrative force. To his credit, Cameron avoids this trap. Despite all the sci-fi, political, and historical conceits the film will eventually develop, Avatar manages to avoid the sort of terminal monologues about midi-chlorians and unbalanced matrix equations that have plagued other productions.

Avatar is remarkably light on its feet, and hits the ground running—almost literally, as its protagonist, a crippled Marine named Jake Sully, rises unsteadily to his feet in his snazzy new alien body and bolts from the lab without the usual post-transfer protocols, much to the chagrin of the scientists and technicians of the Avatar Project.

For Sully, the appeal of the Avatar Project is obvious: his avatar body lets him get out of his wheelchair and walk again. For him, the alien world of Pandora is the ultimate adventure, like a computer game that he actually lives. And that’s before he meets the Na’vi warrior-princess Neytiri.

For audiences, though, Cameron offers something more than the world’s best computer graphics. Avatar offers an imaginative leap into a wholly fantastic universe unparalleled by even the biggest blockbusters of the last decade. Writing for the journal Image, Christian critic and novelist Jeffrey Overstreet explains why. “Normally, innovations are employed to bring horrors and nightmares to life. Peter Jackson depended on New Zealand for the beauty of The Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth, using effects to depict monsters, wars, and wastelands.”

Overstreet continues, “By contrast, Pandora is a whole new world of breathtaking beauty, exploding with wild new life forms that soar, spark, prowl, pounce, gallop, and graze. Borrowing heavily, and brilliantly, from what he’s seen in deep-sea exploration, Cameron has built the most enchanting magic kingdom since Dorothy first stepped into Technicolor Oz. The first hour feels like something Terrence Malick might film in a rain forest in a galaxy far, far away.”

Visions of Pandora are among the most spectacular sights ever committed to film: its luminous flora and riot of color; its vertiginous, lattice-like towering trees, worlds unto themselves; its mist-shrouded floating mountains with their ligament-like vines and bottomless waterfalls. Cameron knows how to let his characters slow down and smell the flowers—or watch as they vanish at a touch.

Then there are the alien Na’vi, who could only exist as computer-generated characters. Along with the ptero-dragon Banshees, the Na’vi are graceful and appealing cousins of all of Peter Jackson’s computer-generated grotesqueries—cave trolls, Gollum, and Shelob—and Cameron’s performance-capture process may be the best use of the technique to date, at least rivaling Gollum and King Kong.

Best of all, the flight sequences of the Na’vi Banshee-riders capture the euphoria of the flight with all the joy and exuberance of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasies. Cameron’s eco-spiritual and pacifist themes likewise resonate with Miyzaki—though without a tenth of Miyazaki’s humanism or nuance. In a Miyazaki film, conflicts almost always turn out to be more complex morally than they first appear; seeming villains are revealed as more ambiguous and human than we thought, and resolution almost never comes down to one side destroying or conquering the other.

Even this year’s computer-animated flop Battle for Terra, which featured a strikingly similar plot (human aggressors invade a resource-rich planet with a human-toxic atmosphere after exhausting earth’s resources, and attack the peaceful indigenous species; an open-minded alien female saves the life of a human soldier, who winds up switching allegiances and defending the planet against his own people), ultimately suggested that coexistence rather than sending the bad guys packing was the answer.

A MYTHOLOGIZED TRAIL OF TEARS

Cameron’s boomer bombast has no room for such subtlety. The forest-dwelling Na’vi are archetypal Noble Savages, living at one with nature and the planet. They’re spiritual, peaceful, feminist, practice sustainable living, and have negligible carbon footprints. Intriguingly, they take sex seriously and mate for life; free love and hooking up is the one element of the flower-child heritage that doesn’t seem to have been adopted by the Na’vi.

In part because Pandora’s atmosphere is poisonous to humans, and also to minimize cross-species differences, humans interact with the Na’vi through “avatars”—specially engineered Na’vi chimeras channeling the consciousness of a human being plugged into a Matrixesque control pod. Avatar operators are normally trained specialists—but Cameron shrewdly cuts through the insider-initiate dynamic by making his hero, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a newcomer to the Avatar project who knows hardly more about Pandora or avatars than we do.

Cameron’s conceit is that Sully’s twin brother was a trained avatar operator—but he died, and only Sully is genetically compatible with his brother’s avatar, which apparently represents a considerable investment of time, expense, or both. The dramatic payoff is that Sully learns about Pandora and the Na’vi as we do, on the fly.

Needless to say, the Avatar Project has not gone to all this trouble and expense just so Sully can dance with wolves and get the girl. They’re after a resource called—I swear I am not making this up—“unobtainium,” a term that is sometimes facetiously used in engineering discussions in a way not entirely unlike how the term “MacGuffinite” has been known to crop up in film discussions.

Before you can say “no blood for unobtainium,” humans and Na’vi are on a collision course, pitting bow-wielding primitives riding beasts of burden against a vastly superior technological military machine. Naturally, everyone who has seen Return of the Jedi knows how this story ends. It’s the same way Dances With Wolves would have ended if we could all have pretended that the Trail of Tears never happened.

Ironically, for all its liberal white guilt and fetishization of the noble savages, Avatar succumbs to the same imperialistic white messianism as, say, The Last Samurai, in which the disillusioned white man not only joins the enemies of his people, but becomes their leader and savior as well. In the words of a friend, it’s a movie in which “the white boy comes in” and in short order “gets the coolest ride, the best chick, and total fist-bump respect,” in the process becoming more or less the Na’vi messiah, fulfilling their mythology about their planet’s arch-predator with a head-smackingly patronizing stratagem, and ultimately uniting the disparate tribes of Na’vi and leading them against the evil forces of  human aggression.

Insofar as Avatar offers a mythologized alien Trail of Tears averted, Sully is a Lieutenant Dunbar figure; insofar as Avatar invokes the War on Terror and the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts with lines like “fighting terror with terror” and “shock and awe,” Sully can be seen as a mythologized Richard Reid, a heroic jihadist rebelling against an unjust war for resources. Some commentators have suggested that the human destruction of the massive Na’vi Hometree plays like a reversal of the World Trade Center attack, though if so that would seem to undermine the general political thrust.

One of Avatar’s most intriguing conceits is the biological connectivity of life on Pandora. A number of species on Pandora have a special appendage (the Na’vi version is like a ponytail) with tendrils capable of interlacing with tendrils from other species, opening a telepathic link between them. The Na’vi can even link to the Tree of Souls, where apparently the souls of the ancestors go, like Mount Seleya on Vulcan. They may even be able to commune with their deity, Eywa.

As remarkably comprehensive as Cameron’s pan-Hollywood mythological synthesis is, he wraps it all in his best meat-and-potatoes, three-star sensibilities, with stock characterizations, trite dialogue and bang-on PG-13 moviemaking aimed at absolutely everybody. The battle sequences are overwhelming but not as wincingly brutal as those in Lord of the Rings.

Much enthusiasm for and criticism of Avatar is fragmented, parsing out the heart-stopping pictures, the hackneyed plot, and the hippie politics. This, however, is to miss Cameron’s mythopoeic gift, which is precisely a knack for synthesis. In Avatar, even more than Titanic, Cameron has crafted a wholly integral mythology in which images, story, and milieu are all of a piece: the immoderate beauty of his alien world and the dullness of his characters and dialogue, liberal white guilt and masterfully choreographed action sequences, thoughtful xenobiology and New Age eco-spirituality.

In the end, what Cameron is really selling here is…Cameron. The big message of Avatar is not “We are all connected” or “Western culture is corrupt and has lost something that noble savages still remember,” etc. The real message of Avatar is: “I’m still the king of the world!” That message may be overblown, but Cameron is still one of Hollywood’s most formidable storytellers, and Avatar, for all its shallowness and problematic elements, is an impressive achievement—bone-headed, but also beautiful—not just exciting and technically impressive, like Jurassic Park, but wondrous and exhilarating. How many blockbusters can claim that?

 


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About Steven D. Greydanus 15 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is the film critic for the National Catholic Register and the creator of DecentFilms.com. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle Society and a permanent diaconate in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.