Many thanks for the very thoughtful comments on my post about the commentary that “Avatar” has inspired. I was particularly glad to be directed to some thoughtful assessments of the film I had not seen.
Thanks to Sheherazahde and Cheryl Anne for suggesting John Crowley’s commentary.
As to the story — it was astonishingly standard, every element, every twist, every emotion having been seen a thousand times before. It was nearly identical to both Disney’s and Terence Malick’s Pocohantas, but more Disney — the heroine even closely resembled Disney’s. But it also took from John Ford cavalry epics and a dozen other sources. It also was a derivative of Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest, one of her lesser and more platitudinous all-life-is-sacred-and-women-know-it stories, up to and including interconnected wise trees and brutal uncaring corporate and military types. Hilarious, actually, rather than lowering.
James led me to Carl McColman’s commentary on the film as a Christian parable.
I think it’s interesting to breathe through the obvious contours of this story and consider it as a parable of the intersection between sky-god and earth-goddess spiritualities. Here’s the key: one of the main characters is named Grace Augustine. Can you get any more heavy-handed than that?…
So in the end, wisdom proves greater than either might or avarice — and the “Christian” wisdom of grace and justice joins together with the “Pagan” wisdom of the goddess-as-the-web-of-life. And this integrated wisdom proves to be too much for the “sky people.” Quaritch dies at the hand of Neytiri, felled by the very arrows he laughed at throughout the story. Selfridge, meanwhile, is marched ingloriously onto a ship that is sent packing. Only Grace’s team is allowed to remain on Pandora, and the movie ends with Jake finally solving the problem of his paraplegic body.
Indeed, I think the fact that Jake is disabled is as central to understanding Avatar as is the symbolism of Grace Augustine (“grace pre-destined”?). Jake comes from a disabled planet. As he mournfully tells Eywa, “our home has no green on it; we’ve killed it all.” Both he and Grace experience a death-and-resurrection; but where hers is more classically Christian in tone: she, the sinner (smoker) is felled by sin (a gunshot wound) and dies, only to find new life in the post-corporeal, beatific vision of Eywa — whose name seems to be a möbius-strip inversion of “Yahweh” suggesting that she encompasses both earth goddess and sky god. Jake, on the other hand, undergoes a more explicitly Pagan death-and-rebirth, reincarnating in the healthy body of his avatar.
Sheherazahde also pointed us to this response from Druid blogger Ali, showing, as I said before, that the spareness of the story allows each of us to bring our own perspective (and bias) to it.
And I am grateful to Andy Culpepper for giving us a link to his “Avatar” commentary at The Hollywood Beat.
The electronic game and cyber worlds have given us a skewed definition of what an avatar represents, but the original meaning from the Sanskrit translates “one who crosses over….”
Not since 1999 and “The Matrix” (http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Movies/9903/31/matrix/) have I come across such an accessible major motion picture so rich in mythological, literary and Judeo-Christian references. Like “The Matrix,” “Avatar” expands expectations of what a feature film can offer an appreciative audience.
Early on, Cameron lets us know that we’re following a protagonist who represents much more than what meets the eye. The Sanskrit definition – one who crosses over – refers to a deity who comes to Earth in body form. Is his Jake a Christ figure? No – he isn’t sacrificed. Does he undergo apotheosis? Oh, yeah.
Both Jake and his dead brother, Tom, have been named with a nod to the Bible. Thomas was also known as Ditimus, the original “doubting Tom,” and Jake is short for Jacob, a second-born twin whose name translates from the Hebrew as “the foot catcher.” Jacob was born in a breach birth – his hand clasping the heel of his slightly-older brother, Esau. In “Avatar,” Jake is a metaphorical foot-catcher: Becoming an avatar allows him the chance to walk on two feet again, if only during his cross-over or dream state.
Just as Jake in the movie “crossed over” to literally connect to the wisdom of the Pandorans, it seems to me that Cameron, in releasing his film, has opened up his story to the wisdom of the audiences. This discussion has enriched the experience of the movie for me. I loved jestrfyl’s reference to the ewoks! And his very wise conclusion that “These films, like Jesus’ parables, favor the characters who have no authority and have yet to realize their own power.”
A rabbi once told me to keep in mind that the only difference between a mirror and a window is a coating of silver. Some people want movies to be a mirror, to reflect back to them what they already believe. They can feel threatened or offended by any story that does not explicitly validate or reinforce their beliefs. Others look to movies as a window, to give them a sense of something they have not seen or thought of before. They cherish other views, even those that contradict their own, as a reinforcement of their notion of freedom and humanity, and an opportunity for deeper understanding and greater connection.