Thursday, December 31, 2009


I have joined the masses and donned my 3D glasses. Last night, my wife and I watched Avatar on our 6th Day of Christmas Date.

Several thoughts and observations:

1. The 3D is definitely fun. I had a strange sensation a number of times where I couldn't quite remember the difference between seeing 2D and 3D on screen. My wife said she regularly pulled the glasses off to compare, but I stuck with the glasses just to enjoy it for what it was. Maybe next time, I'll compare more on the visual side of things.

2. One of the reviews I read said that Avatar is sort of a combination of a number of famous movies: Braveheart, The Matrix, King Kong, Jurassic Park, Dances with Wolves, The Lord of the Rings, and several other films. This is a very fair observation. Avatar takes some of the best elements of those films, those stories and effects and pushes them further.

3. The firsts half of the movie or so I allowed myself to be enchanted. There were a number of little hiccups along the way where the pantheism got thick, the script ached for dialog, and I wondered how certain elements fit together. But I suspended disbelief like a good member of the audience. I wasn't really bothered at all by the politics. The particular jabs taken at George W. and American foreign policy in general seemed general enough to me to work as parabolic stand-ins, representing "bad guys" as generic, greedy, cold-hearted imperialists. And in so far as America has aided or perpetrated this sort of evil in the world, we completely deserve it. But more to my point about enchantment and parable, I would add another movie to the list above: Planet Earth.

While it was clunky and cheesy in places, the thing I found fun was that I repeatedly felt like I wasn't being introduced to an alien planet and alien creatures and alien culture. No, I repeatedly thought to myself, "hey, that's just like humans, that's just like our (fill in the blank)..." In other words, I have no idea what James Cameron was going for exactly, but in so far as the movie was meant as an elaborate parable of earth, I thought it worked. The Navi were so human it was funny (and a little corny). They were obviously just natives of some newly discovered continent (probably America). But they weren't savage, inhuman natives. They were virtuous, noble savages. Maybe I should have expected this, but I guess I was expecting something more foreign, more alien, more E.T. maybe?

But back to the Planet Earth bit. All the coolest stuff on Planet Pandora is from Earth. Just watch a pile of National Geographic videos or Planet Earth or the Discovery Channel, and you'll see all the parallels. Sure, it's bigger, wilder, Hollywood stylized, and perhaps a little too tidy and symmetrical for our God. But really, it's a nice elementary attempt at imitating Creation. Plants that light up and glow in the dark, giant fan-shaped plants that collapse into tiny buds at a slight touch, giant rhinos with hammers on their heads, flying dragon-pterodactyls, jelly fish. Good work, James Cameron, you get an Excellent on your kindergarten report card for tracing creation.

So all that to say that I allowed myself to be enchanted. I enjoyed the first half of the movie a great deal. The scenes where Jake Sully and his female Navi companion are running through the forest, leaping from great heights, climbing up floating islands, and of course riding their chosen dragons, I had fun. Call this the Last of the Mohicans and Dances Wolves part of the story. Again, caveats aside, I enjoyed it. The Navi are a redeemed race; they rule creation with wisdom and understanding. They take dominion like a new race of Adam and Eve. Distorted at points sure, but that's what my imagination is for, right?

4. But the spell was broken. The spell was broken, and here come the spoilers (although if you've seen the above mentioned movies, you already know what's coming). So the bad guys come to bulldoze the giant Navi tree, it goes up in two giant pillars of smoke: Right. Was it just me or did it look momentarily like the 9/11 Trade Towers with smoke billowing out of the foundations as the roots crumble beneath the tree? But then in the gloom of this seeming defeat, Jake Sully (now fully Navi) rises up as the Aragorn/William Wallace figure and reappears on the scene having tamed the biggest, baddest dragon of them all. And with Jake's scientist friend (Sigourney Weaver) dead, we have all the elements in place for revenge and the big battle showdown. And that's where the spell was broken. These Navi are so completely human. They're not really different. We were led to believe that they were more noble (nobles savages and all that), more enlightened, more graceful. But it turns out that they can get ticked off too. They're justified of course. Their towers, er, I mean their tree just got nuked. What else is there to do but shoot back? I mean, that's what I teach my kids: if someone hits you, you hit them back. That's nobility.

And the movie intentionally draws an explicit parallel here. Watching the wicked human general calling his dufus comrades to arms against the "blue monkeys," you realize that the "blue monkeys" are just like the stupid earthlings. They are a couple of two year olds fighting. One pushes the other, the other slaps back. Next we will have 45 minutes of multi million dollar, CGI hair pulling, pinching, and screaming. The final scene in the movie depicts these Blue Toddlers as the victors, the new imperialists lined up, watching the humans walk slowly back to their ships like so many POWs. I couldn't help but think that the roles had been completely reversed. I thought this movie was critiquing greedy imperialists, but it reminded me of watching movie clips of American soldiers being escorted to prison camps by Japanese soldiers in World War II. And why is that OK? I guess because they got what they deserve. I guess retribution is OK afterall. Shock and awe and all that. I didn't get the impression that the high ideals of the Enlightened Blue People would include honorable burials for all the humans they killed in the battle either. So much for a redeemed humanity.

In the end it felt like a clunky tragedy, like an unintentional story of the Fall, a lost Eden, with Cain and Abel duking it out in God's front yard. And yes, I know Abel was an innocent victim. And that's the point. Abel's victory comes through death. Abel's blood cries out, and God vindicates. But Eywa is not the Trinity, and so we're left with a random/blind deity whose sole dedication to "balance" leaves us empty and hopeless in a world that churns away really no differently than the "evil" machines that get expelled from the planet. Eywa is just a mythological name for survival of the fittest, Darwin's tyrannical creed of might makes right.

O well, it was still a fun fireworks display. And I know that's all it was really meant to be anyway.


RIver City Pastor said...

Son, we're having fun with Jess and Kate. Tonight a blow-out up at the church. We've talking books, movies, music, games and yes, a little Avatar. So, we're on to you; we're tracking with you. Jess got me onto Goodreads. Kinda fun. Is there not a way to be connected nowadays? My first plan is to post up on Goodreads with the gentleman and writer, famed now, for BLUE ICE, the Canon publication. I'll try find the material on diaconal outreach, as mentioned. I really enjoy your posts here. Mom and I have more fodder for talk back and forth on your stuff. Good deal. Love and blessings in 2010. Dad

Remy said...

I think a lot of the noble savage talk is too much. The Na'vi are organized militarily, everyone is a warrior, there is no agriculture or science, and it's a patriarchal society.

To take the humans as violent and greedy misses out on the scientists and the people back on earth who wouldn't be happy if the company eradicates the locals.

In fact the heroes are the two marines and the scientists.

Again, not that it's a flawless movie, but I don't think it can be taken nearly so flat as the goodguys are blueskinned.

Brad Littlejohn said...

Hey Toby,
Thanks for a great review! I felt much the same way. Awe-inspiring visually, and really made me appreciate our Creation that much more, but the moral in the end is depressing. I'd be cool with liberal anti-war activists if that's what they really were, but this movie eloquently shows how skin-deep their opposition to violence really is.

Brad Littlejohn said...

By the way, did you catch the striking, though ultimately distorted and almost certainly unintentional, incarnation allegory? Your brother pointed it out to me.

Joffre said...

Great review, thanks, Toby. I had a lot of the same thoughts as I watched. I have to agree with Remy that the heroes are not the Na'vi, but the righteous humans. In fact, I'd be interested in exploring the significance of the shot where three of them are waiting in jail to be let out. I think the biggest lense through which to view this movie is the "they killed their mother" line.

Toby said...

Thanks, Dad!

Remy and Joffre, thanks. Maybe I'm missing your point, but while recognizing the good marines and the good scientists as heroes, the glorification of those "noble humans" ends up being a "resurrection" into Navi bodies. Aren't they heroic primarily because they become or identify with the Navi? But correct me if I've missed your point.

And Brad, good catch on the incarnation bit. Were there specific things you/Jesse were thinking of? It does seem like the birth/re-birth theme is stressed. He's first "born" into a Navi body, then he "becomes Navi" through the laying on of hands, and finally at the end he is "reborn" yet again into his permanent Navi body, leaving his human body behind (it's his birthday). But for me, Jake Sully's "death" and victory over evil is so unsacrificial the "incarnation" feels completely nullified. And I suppose that's what you meant by "distorted."

Eric Engerbretson said...

I went last night to what I feel is what is, visually, the greatest movie ever made, Avatar in 3D. To see it in 3D is vital. It is easy to see that one day all movies will be made in 3D. Under normal circumstances I could never call a movie whose story is so replete with clichés the "greatest movie ever made." But Cameron does a fantastic job of overwhelming your senses to the point where the deficit of a cliché story line is positively ignored. When you go into the theater, you're thinking "this movie is over-hyped", and you walk out thinking "why isn't there more buzz about this!" The most interesting thing about the movie to me is it's spirituality. It takes every opportunity to proselytize us with a mixture of Wicca, Pantheism, and Pagan earth-worship that is both Neo and as old as mankind (without showing us a glimpse of the dark side of these philosophies)-- and yet in the end, has no way to fulfill itself without turning to the Christian God. Fascinating. Its' spiritual message is beautiful, but seems unaware of its self-contradiction. The story tells us that The All, The Oneness, is impersonal, and the heroine states directly that the deity "does not take sides". And yet, throughout the movie the characters are crying out for a personal God to walk with. When Jake bows down and links with the Uber-tree, he prays in a very personal way, asking for a very personal God to hear him, take sides, and answer his prayer. It is interesting that we want an impersonal God when we want to create our own morality, but we want a personal God when we need our prayers answered. The movie spends its entirety portraying the glory of personality and yet worships a God who has none. Cameron would say God transcends personality, but every character in the movie is crying out for more of it, not less. It is folly to think that personality could ever come from non-personality-- the lower can't beget the greater. Human personality must come from a greater personality. In the end, to make the story beautiful, and actually have a happy ending, the director has to turn to a Christian-like God who hears prayers, takes a side, and answers prayers in a big way. Not understanding the Christian God who, rather than "not taking sides", takes sides in such a sacrificial, loving, personal way that He actually comes to earth as a baby, and dies for personality. The so-called moderns think that they transcend the God of the Bible, but they don't begin to realize what they are missing, and how they continue to flail in their spiritual search.

As a total package, had the Lord Of The Rings trilogy been shot in 3D, it would dwarf Avatar, but as such, Avatar is the next great step in movie making, and is not to be missed.