Sunday, January 17, 2010

Animism, Creationism, and Worldview: Chris Faris on Avatar

A bit of insight from my brother's excellent review of Avatar (emphasis mine):
    Spirituality is also a big component of the film. Like the believability of Cameron’s visual world where things look like ours but aren’t the same, the spiritual connection he strives for is Pandoran but it borrows from a lot of animism. The trees, animals and flowers all seem to have souls and spirits. It is perplexing to me that people find a spirit inside nature but somehow are closed off to the idea that nature points to its actual Creator. Granted, the people and world of “Avatar” are made up, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t recognize that all creative endeavors inherently express some type of worldview.
As for his thoughts on the movie as a whole, here is his conclusion:
    It would be unfair to say that “Avatar” is like a beautiful woman with no brains, because “Avatar [sic] is not a garbage film. “Avatar” is just an average film. No amount of visual pop and creative 3D can overcome how tired the story felt. How could I be held in suspense if the ending was in plain sight before it happened? How am I supposed to care about the characters if they feel like stereotypes that have little depth? And seriously, do you really expect me to buy into a love story between an alien and a human (complete with a brief sex scene)? Sci-fi and fantasy enthusiasts may get more out of the experience than I did, but once was enough for me.


Bill Faris said...

Fresh back from my plunge into Pandora and I must say I quite enjoyed the journey.

It's easy to point out some of Avatar's flaws, but despite the fact that there are elements of LOTR, Matrix, Transformers, Dances With Wolves, and (as Matthew Faris, who went with me, pointed out - The Last Samuri), it seemed to me that Cameron managed to squeeze out enough originiality to successfull weave his particular tale.

Regarding the "spirituality" in the story, I didn't mind it much especially at first. Later, however, the tribal "worship" liturgies seemed a little bit too much like a cross between a cult ritual and a U2 concert.

The animism was glamorized, but there was acknowledgement that the humanoid personalities of Pandora's rainforest world had to interact with a Divinity that had a will, that may or may not hear and answer prayers, etc. It wasn't, in other words, a pure manipulation of spirits that characterizes classic withcraft and animistic spirituality in its most raw form.

That nature had more personality and "soul" than we normally think of it as having is nothing new to these grand stories. Even Lewis played on this note and, in some ways, I enjoyd things like the little jellyfish pods and so on. Even LOTR had trees that talked and otherwise intelligently expressed their feelings and memories and,of course, Star Wars had The Force.

So, even though Avatar's spiritual notions were not as developed as Tolkein's, I appreciated that they were at least not as vague as the impersonal "force" from Star Wars.

What was more interesting to me was the question of morality. Where do the protaginists / antagonists get their notions of what is right and what is wrong? That seemed shifty and it felt like the weakest part of the movie -- indeed, James Cameron seemed to just plain punt on this point.

The "bad" guys were bad because they were greedy for gain and militaristic (and most like us and our neighbors) but they were so entirely unsympathic that it was hard to identify with any dilemma they may have been facing about what they were doing -- even if it included wholesale maurading and death-dealing.

And we were asked to suspend a lot of belief about the motives of the Na'vi. Did they hate their oppressors? Did they want some payback for payback's sake? If they did, it was hard to detect. Even Greenpeace leaders have had their flaws and divisions but The People in Avatar were pretty much one dimensional in their moral sophisitication. "We'll show those sky people this is OUR LAND" Sully urges at one point. Translation = "We'll kill the bastards or dies trying". Hmmmm.

And was there jealousy after Sully bonded to his mentor and broke the ancient traditions about how power and authority would be passed down? If there was, it sure was resolved quickly.

The morality of both sides was painted broadly and, in light of this, the genius of Tolkein, for instance, really shines all the brighter (like, for example, when a "good guy" like Borimir is overcome with near murderous jealousy for the ring and when a "bad guy" like Gollum is revealed to be a regular Joe who gave in to his dark side and, therefore, remains at least somewhat sympathetic and redeemable until he makes his final choices.

Like so many tales that do not rely on a Judeo-Christian worldview, we are left to ourselves to make up what and who is "good" or "evil" in Avatar based on shallow and instantly detectable characteristics.

Having said that, I thought Avatar was quite a ride and even though elements of the story were quite predictable, it did not stop me from wanting very much to see them get played out.

There's much more to say, I'm sure, but that's my first stab and, oh yeah, I've got quite a store of Unobtainium if you've got an extra 20 million...

greenyuppie said...

Nice post Bill- I too felt echoes of modernity vs. utopia in cinematic influences such as Apocalypse Now, Robinson Crusoe, Ferngully, or Pocahontas. Given the duration of script development (15 years!), however, I felt that is the lacked sophistication and dimensionality (I’m hilarious!) that would warrant a second viewing. Nonetheless, the Navi were clearly written to have a fairly complex moral and theological system.

Consider, as examples, the submission to their deity’s will (“was going to kill him, but there was a sign from Eywa”), the independence of a soul (“your spirit goes with Eywa, your body stays behind”), monogamy as a spiritual union (“We are mated before Eywa. It is done”), and even concepts of spiritual healing (“She must pass through the Eye of Eywa and return”) and Grace (“The Great Mother may choose to save all”). These elements seem to suggest a supreme Creator of the Pandoran universe that ‘science’ (as exemplified by the scientist’s efforts) fails to fully explain.

If there is a world-view expressed in this movie- it doesn’t seem like a particularly objectionable one: that we are stewards of our terrestrial planets and should respect the sovereignty of others. And for me that was the impediment to further engagement- that Cameron failed to wrestle the more difficult issues identified by Bill. I mean, these days how can you critically live your life without some internalized environmental values?

Like most reviews of ‘Avatar’ I will say that despite its heavy-handed script, the movie pulls its weight through innovation and execution. However, like an audiophile listening to Steely Dan’s most recent album ‘Everything Must Go,’ I must conclude that no amount of shimmering polish can make up for weak writing. You can put lipstick on a pig… but it won’t make it a film.