Idol Chatter

Idol Chatter

Death and the Scientist in ‘Avatar’

posted by Paul O'Donnell

movie-avatar.jpgIt’s hard to quibble with the majesty of the imagined world of “Avatar,” James Cameron’s lushly animated science-fiction pic that, according to recent reports, is on track to ring up the second highest box-office receipts in history, after Cameron’s own “Titanic.”
But I am here to quibble anyway. I’m that precisely that kind of unreasonable rationalist who drives sci-fi nuts crazy. What are the odds, I want to know, that random selection would produce a planet, five years’ space journey from here, that sports not only jellyfish like ours–albeit airborne ones, but people–albeit blue ones with USB-style genitalia in their topknots–with arms and legs and the culture of the Iroquois?

Needless to say, this kind of unromantic snorting didn’t get me too far with the pre-teens who sat beside me at the cineplex. But even when I accept the movie on its own physical terms, I found a significant, and perhaps typically Hollywood, flaw in Cameron’s spiritual worldview, one that any intelligent, reality-based but religion-minded reader–that means you–could sign onto.
The faith of the Nav’i, with whom Cameron populates the planet Pandora, is based on Native-American spirituality, which in general, views the Earth as a web of interdependent beings. They welcome Jake Sully into their tribe by placing him at the center of a crowd of adult members linked hand to shoulder. Like some American tribes, the Nav’i hunters thank their kill for contributing their life and energy. According to
Grace Augustine, the human scientist played by Sigourney Weaver, they can download data from the very trees.
In a spiritual realm like this, where each plant and person is part of an all-encompassing Spirit, death is seen as part of the circle of life. Which is why I wrinkled my brow at the tribe’s effort to save Dr. Augustine’s life. Of course individuals are treasured, and when, for instance, the young princess Neytiri mourns her father her feelings are perfectly natural.
But when Grace is mortally wounded, would the shaman gather everyone to channel preserve her body, Nav’i or otherwise? Letting her go back to nature, as she does, is a completely satisfactory result for anyone who believes, as we expect the Nav’i do, that she’s rejoining the communal soul.
This isn’t to say that Cameron gets everything wrong. Though some critics say indigenous people are dopily portrayed as innocents, the Nav’i’s innocence to the evil the humans are bringing is convincing, at least spiritually. By and large, Native American religion, until it met up with Western notions of moral duality, didn’t recognize poles of bad and good, purity and pollution.
When Jake Sully taps into the Tree of Souls before “Avatar’s” 45-minute final battle to make the simple point is that humans are capable of absolute destruction, the movie is at its most authentic spiritually–and most damning of the West’s apocalyptic worldview in that term’s most literal sense.
James Cameron

  • jestrfyl

    I’m afraid you betray your own ignorance more than the films shortcomings. The “jellyfish” in the film are more like milkweed seeds; the “genitalia” have no equivalent in our genome (we did not see any actual mating in the movie, nor did we see evidence of internal evacuation – a tribute to the film maker who did not feel the need to show beastial representations). I think Cameron did an extraordinary job thinking through a new environment on a planetary scale – equivalent to Tolkien’s creation of whole cultures, histories, and languages. The interconnectedness of plant life is documented on our own planet – rings of connected fungus and trees that are miles across are but one example. What of the workings of hives and flocks? There is more to our world than has met your eye.
    Also you naivete about Native American sophistication is well displayed. Many of the indigenous people had plenty of vocabulary and expressions for the evil that is done without care or thinking. They did not live in idyllic Utopias before the arrival of Europeans.
    The film is not flawless. It is filled with amusing puns – now what was the name of the ore they were mining? Take it for what it is, learn the lessons it offers, and be entertained as you are enlightened.

  • DaveW

    I don’t think the movie ever implied that the tree of souls kept more than some pieces of all of the ancestors thoughts and memories.
    Therefore, when someone dies, they are still very much dead, and very much a loss to grieve.

  • barnet

    “But when Grace is mortally wounded, would the shaman gather everyone to channel preserve her body, Nav’i or otherwise?”
    ummm…They did because Jake, the guy with the human hang ups, asked them to.
    Nice job paying attention to the storyline. /sarcasm

  • Charles

    Yes, DNA and humanoid forms is stupid, but required to sell tickets. Especially if you make the huanoids weird but still sexy. Elongated giant supermodels with glowing skin patterns. I’m in.
    As for religion, the film is clearly naturalistic. The entire “Mother Pandora”, deity tree, etc is explained clearly as biologically based. In some sense, the Na’vi have an advantage over humans – they are part of the “planet-brain” of linked like on Pandora. We don’t have that. Harder for us to commune with the rest of the natural order without plug and play.
    But no religion required. The Na’vi don’t hae science, so they conceptualize their plug in to Pandora in spiritual ways. But it’s all signal transduction. Biology. Planet consciousness. Neat idea, but not a religious one.

  • Mike

    There is nothing specifically American Indian about this kind of spirituality; you can find similar religions all over the world. They correspond to a particular stage of human cultural development. Much of Europe–“the white man”–had beliefs like that when Mediterranean cultures already had “Western” beliefs. Humans abandoned those notions because they are not rational, they are not founded in observation or reasons, and because for the past few thousand years, we have replaced hunting and gathering with the predictability of agriculture and farming. Humans are connected in vital ways to the natural world, but through biology, not animal spirits.
    However, much as we like to interpret American Indian cultures as some kind of harmonious eco-cults, it hasn’t worked out that way. Peoples with these kinds of beliefs conquered, committed genocide, wrecked their environments, and died out just like Europeans, they just weren’t as good at it.
    Europeans are the first people to begin to understand ecology. Movies like these are a powerful metaphor that can communicate the importance of ecology. But we should not make the mistake of interpreting them as any kind of historical analog to actual American Indian culture.

  • tim

    uh, the film was entertainment, try not to take it so seriously. the film could have easily been a cowboy and Indian movie. personally i think that the movie could have been a lot more imaginative. also not every movie or t.v. show needs to be a morality play. sometimes people just like to watch the explosions, carnage, sex, and special effects for their own sake.

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