I absolutely loved the movie Avatar, for several reasons (see below), but I recognized some issues with it, too. I started writing down my thoughts about this movie a couple months ago, but it's taken me a while to distill it all out. I didn't want to merely regurgitate or resynthesize a lot of posts that are already out there. For instance, Christianity Today already has a good article, Box Office Pantheism, that strikes a nice balance between appreciating the movie for its creativity and beauty and even some of its Christian symbolism, but also warning Christians about its pantheistic world views. Tackling pantheism is not the point of this blog. CS Lewis has already done a supremely logical analysis of the weakness of pantheism in his classic book, Mere Christianity.
What I'm contending here is that even if you took the pantheism and deep ecology worldviews out of this movie, it would still be just as popular. But if you took out the Christian symbolism, as subtle as it is, the movie would lose some (not all) of its appeal - mostly it would a lot of its depth of character and motive.
I was startled by how much I loved the movie, so much that after seeing it the first time with a friend, I went right back with my husband and oldest daughter because I loved it so much I wanted them to see it, too. Here are five factors that I think account for its broad appeal (not a complete list, I'm sure).
- amazing specific effects, and not just effects for the sake of effects, but a really beautiful, well-imagined and well-crafted fantasy world, with a budget that could afford to pay attention to details. James Cameron used cinematography to create something so fantastic that the only comparison at its level I can think of is Tolkien's Middle Earth, created by written fiction (and not equalled in its cinematic version - though it is tempting to think what the movie version of Lord of the Rings might have been like if they'd waited another 8 years for advances in special effects. Still, we have the Hobbit to look forward to)
- lots of action: bang ‘em up, shoot ‘em up, some monstrous scary creatures, and some mythological-type creatures thrown in for good measure
- a Romeo and Juliet story, where people from two different cultures fall in love and their love triumphs over forces that would try to divide them (James Cameron apparently discovered how well this theme works in his other blockbuster, Titanic)
- everybody loves an underdog, and it’s really cool to see the Nav’ii triumph against overwhelming odds. (This is also a big factor in the popularity of the Lord of the Rings, too, I believe, where two little hobbits defeat the Dark Lord against all odds).
- a “good vs. evil” plot that follows archetypal story structure and includes some spiritual themes that many people relate to, including pantheistic and Christian themes.
A lot of highly successful movies/books have two or maybe even three of these elements, but this movie goes all out and includes all five of them. No wonder I was hooked.
But more about point 5 - the spiritual elements. There is a lot of Christian symbolism in Avatar. Though it is a lot more subtle than the pantheistic/deep ecology themes, I believe it is actually the Christian themes that contribute more to the movie's appeal than the pantheistic ones. The biggest pantheistic appeal of the movie is that in a world where all creatures realize they are interconnected, they will be in balance with each other. But merely being in balance isn't enough to make a good movie! No, the appeal of the movie is how the creatures magically work together and come to each other's aid in a time of need. But this is not actually something pantheists really believe; it is pure fantasy.
If you look at the climax of the movie, you see that the Nav’ii cannot triumph on their own over the forces that threatens them. Jake appeals to their goddess in prayer and she answers by causing all the animals to join in the battle. Jake knows the battle cannot be won without help. This is actually more of a Christian worldview than a pantheistic one. It corresponds more to how Christians know they cannot achieve anything worthwhile by their own efforts, but only through the strength of God. (Philippians 4:13 "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me").
Another example: when the spiritual leader of the Nav’ii says you cannot teach someone who is already full, and Jake says “I’m empty.” (1 Cor 1:20 “God has chose the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise”). We can all relate better to someone who admits he needs to learn and is willing to learn, versus pompous know-it-alls. This is one reason why I have such hard time sharing my faith - e.g. blurting out my faith - with other people. I don't want to come across as a pompous know-it-all. I want to know what other people believe, and why they believe it. I am still learning. We are all still learning. Which is why I also dearly hope that after they've shared their beliefs with me, they'd give me a chance to tell my own story.
There is also the part when Jake is accepted as one of the people, the Nav’ii tradition says that everyone is born twice – once a physical birth, and second a spiritual birth. (John 3:1 “You must be born again.”)
Maybe the filmmakers threw in a little bit of Christian symbolism to appease the Christians in the audience, but it is more likely these themes of needing help from beyond ourselves and the need for a spiritual birth or awakening are something that filmmakers have identified as themes that a majority of people can relate to. They have a broad appeal, because they also form the basis for the archetypal elements of the “hero’s journey”. (Of course it may be argued that the archetypal elements of great stories predate Christianity and even Judaism and these religions actually borrow from it. More about that in Part 2, coming soon).
Here are some past challenges I've made... I always love hearing responses and I'm always open to discussion.