It’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.