The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

Avatar– Opening Pandora’s Box


You know the story of Pandora’s box.  By now the phrase ‘opening Pandora’s box’ has become a cliche as well.  But since the movie Avatar is set on a planet called Pandora, and since this movie opens up all kinds of new vistas for film-making, the cliche is unavoidable in this case.  

Ann and I were in Wellington NZ when they were finishing up some of the CG work on this film at Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop.  They certainly do amazing work. The danger of course with celestial technology and film is that the visuals overwhelm the story, the characters, the acting, the music, and basically everything else. With this film however the visuals are so remarkable, and at times awe-inspiring, that such complaints become carping to some degree.  When this movie is nominated for Best Oscar for Cinematography next year, no other films need apply. This one can’t be topped for a while, perhaps not for several years until the sequel comes out. This is one of those rare films which is worth repeated viewings (in 3 D) just for the visuals.  The combination of live action, motion capture, and CG is amazingly believable, seamlessly blending together.  But all is far from perfect in this film, once we get past the amazing visuals. 


James Cameron of course has a track record of putting together films that grab you visually and viscerally and you hang on for dear life until the end (e.g. Alien, Titantic). This film is like that, except that it is far too long.  You don’t mind the length because the visuals are so engrossing, but in terms of plot and narrative arc this film needs some serious editing.  It would still be as visually stunning with about 20 less minutes of fighting etc. 

Neither the dialogue nor the plot are memorable. Indeed, they are all too familiar— earthlings, having trashed their own planet, now turn to another to strip mine for resources to keep human life as we know it going.  The year is 2154, not that long from now actually.  And so we have the usual switch that the aliens, even though they are rather like ancient American Indians in their state of technology, are more human than the humans, and they are generally more likable as well. 


And then there is the Avatar concept itself— the mind and spirit of a human being inhabits a surrogate body, in this case of the alien, and so is able to be part of alien life, in disguise.  The premise is the Avatar is a sort of undercover spy sent on the mission to try and get the Navee to move so the mining company can get all those precious minerals without sending in their mercenaries to do them bodily harm.  The problem is that Jake, the main man Avatar, becomes quite partial to the Navee, even falls in love with one long tall blue lady, and so we have romance, exploitation, animal rights, primitive religion, ecology, and a host of other themes all rolled into one.  It’s a bit of a mishmash, but hey— there goes another amazing visual to distract you from realizing the problems with this film. 


Of the stars in the film the only one immediately recognizable to a wide audience is Sigourney Weaver… also the star of Cameron’s first big blockbuster— Alien. You may recognize one refugee from Lost as well.  But basically this is a cast of extras, not stars, but then again the acting is not all that crucial— this is an action flick with some romance thrown in for good measure. It is one part Nat Geo special, one part Star Wars sci fi flick, one part Lion King sound track. And I would say some of the images are too vivid and too violent for younger kids, which is a shame since the world Pandora is one beautiful place.

James Cameron clearly is a gifted film maker with a good visual imagination, but he needs some help with plot, narrative, characterization, dialogue and some editing. In some ways this film is like Peter Jackson’s King Kong— visually amazing but too long, and too many action sequences with lulls in between.   The problem with a visually amazing film is that it is hard to cut any of it– especially the more vivid and beautiful parts.  But going forward James Cameron plans to make more Avatar films.  I hope he is listening– box office success does not equal evidence that you have made an excellent film.  Entertaining is one thing, excellence is another, and it takes more than excellent visuals to make a really good film.


And one more thing—- the animistic and pantheistic religion of the film (we are all one with nature, and mother earth is just sharing her life and energy with us) will be off-putting to some, especially those who are not tree-huggers.  He might want to focus on other aspects of the Navee next time around.  If you want to see a better sci-fi with romance movie that deals with ecological themes and the notions of exploitation, watch Wall-E again.   The problem with opening Pandora’s Box, is that to some degree you can’t control what comes out— and for sure, you can’t get it all back in the box.  Weta Workshop certainly did their job well in this film.  Somebody needs to step up with a script and dialogue and memorable acting for the next one.           


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posted December 22, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Actually James Cameron didn’t do “Alien” but it’s sequel “Aliens” (with Weaver) in 1986. “Terminator” was his first big film.

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Ed Brenegar

posted December 22, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Just walked in from seeing it in Real 3D. My eyes hurt, and we sat on the next to last row. It is visually stunning. The story predictable. The bad guys are cardboard characters. The tension too easily resolved. And I walked out with having a satisfying emotional payoff in the end.
I found my mind wandering during the show, thinking about what kind of TV I need in order to take advantage of the technology on the screen.
I left feeling just like I did after Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Disappointed after waiting so long for the movie only to find it shallow and unrewarding.
I think I’ll go put The Fellowship of the Ring on and watch a real story on film.

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Scott F

posted December 23, 2009 at 12:08 am

That’s funny, ed. I watched the fellowship not so long ago and felt the urge to pick up the book to experience a real story :)

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Mike Bull

posted December 23, 2009 at 1:44 am

It was a remake of Fern Gully, with the same animism and pantheism, but less funny and without the cool musical numbers.

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posted December 23, 2009 at 10:16 am

no thanks, I won’t waste any money on films that contain the same boring liberal stereotypes of humanity. Earth=good Humans=bad

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posted December 23, 2009 at 4:15 pm

“The problem is that Jake, the main man Avatar, becomes quite partial to the Navee, even falls in love with one long tall blue lady, and so we have romance, exploitation, animal rights, primitive religion, ecology, and a host of other themes all rolled into one. It’s a bit of a mishmash, but hey— there goes another amazing visual to distract you from realizing the problems with this film.”
I don’t know what this is supposed to mean – these themes were intertwined in various episodes of American history – so is a film which touches on all of these somehow the less for that? Imagine a film about Lewis and Clark or Pocohantas which avoided one of the listed themes and you’ll have imagined a defective film. The basic plot may be a retread in some ways, but its a good one. Shakespeare used plots others had worked, too. So what?
As for “hurting the eyes” I sat on the front row of an IMAX and had no problems with watching it. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to be a very enjoyable and well-crafted movie. As far as “liberal” – Jake was fully human as were several other “good” characters in this movie. The movie does not equate humans with evil. Saying it does only reveals that Chapp has a bias up his . . .

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posted December 24, 2009 at 1:40 am

“If you want to see a better sci-fi with romance movie that deals with ecological themes and the notions of exploitation, watch Wall-E again.” I second this!

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Guillaume Smit

posted December 24, 2009 at 3:24 am

Hi Ben.
I appreciated your review. I took the liberty to repost it (with link and authorship acknowledged) on my own blog (
I hope it is okay with you.

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R Mark

posted December 27, 2009 at 2:57 am

I basically agree with Ben’s critique. And it will be interesting to see what comes out of Pandora in what obviously will be at least two more sequels.
But as far as the first installment is concerned, I also felt that there was a fair degree of potential with the storyline, and that in spite of the Hindu (Cameron himself, in an interview with Charlie Rose, described the concept of “Avatar” as derived from the Hindu notion of reincarnation) and earth-religion influences, the basic story echoed the Christian narrative, i.e., that humanity is fallen and becomes utterly corrupt through greed and power (characterized most poigniantly by Colonel Miles), but that through the power of love (which Jake opens himself to), new birth can take place that is nothing short of a new creation. And of course, as the movie draws you along to its final (and predictable) outcome, with Jake intentionally entering into his final transformation, you would consider Jake a complete fool for not doing what he did. Actually, for the three non-Christian neighbors that I watched the movie with, it was a pretty natural question to ask as we were walking out, “If you could be born again, would you?” It seemed to me to be a way of entertaining that question in a no-brainer kind of context.
Yes, there are a fair amount of problems with the plot and development of Avatar. And it seems pretty clear that when they sat down to write the story in its beginning stages, the priority of being theologically sound was not high on the list. But to me, even the “pagan” and inconsistent religious influences of the movie could not overpower the primary impulse of the story (a particularly Christian impulse, in my view), namely, that new birth can only be known in an experience of mutually given and received love. This is not something that one learns from reincarnation, primitive religion, or mother-earth spirituality, but only from the Triune God.

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posted December 31, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Get past the visuals people! This movie was so much more than amazing graphics! There needs to be more movies made with these same themes. Pandora, was not an alien planet. Pandora is a reflection of Earth, and what we are doing to it, and our own people and creatures. Earth IS that beautiful and breath taking, you just have to look!

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A Booty

posted January 19, 2010 at 9:17 am

I fear people are distracted by the visuals and save the planet theme so much so, that they are are missing the dangers of this movie to young minds RE: Christianity . This movie offers an alternate religion, and also negates the biblical belief system, as we now spread sin onto other planets of people that have a different faith system a faith system similar to a Hinduism. I feel it is important to ask, where do we see God is, in this movie,..
And if it isn’t for God,. Then it is against God… this movie is a heaped dose of distraction,. Some people having gone to movies to see it many times,. That’s food taken off peoples tables.. $$ taken away from Gods work,.
See Avatar again? or help some starving kids?
Something to think about

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posted February 22, 2011 at 12:47 am

I’ve been waiting for a feature like this! Yesterday while I was listening to a nostalgic tune from high school I thought to myself, “I wish I could share this with my HS friends on my FB page”, and now I can.
Thanks for the update! Looking for more integration in the future.

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