Decent Films Blog

Avatar and the Meaning of Life

Posted Jan 13th 2010, 10:07 PM

Was I wrong to contend, as I did recently in a response to a reader, that “Unlike Star Wars and The Matrix, Avatar doesn’t strike me as a film likely to burrow deep into the collective consciousness”? A recent story at CNN.com, “Audiences Experience ‘Avatar’ Blues,” at least raises questions about that assessment. Some highlights:

James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.

On the fan forum site “Avatar Forums,” a topic thread entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope. …

“Ever since I went to see ‘Avatar’ I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it,” [a reader] posted. “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in ‘Avatar.’ ”

The comments go on, one sadder than the last. It’s like the obssessive, distracted Twilight Moms phenomenon all over again. In my New Moon article I commented that where Dan Brown fans got to flock to Rome and Paris, Twilight obsessives were stuck with rainy Forks, Washington. But what if you’re an Avatar obsessive? There’s literally nowhere to go.

About one thing, at any rate, I was certainly wrong: It was not yet clear, when I wrote that response, just how titanic Avatar’s box-office performance would prove to be over time. Even with higher 3-D ticket prices, I would never have predicted that Avatar stood a chance of sinking Titanic’s domestic and overseas box-office records — but it’s looking like it does now. There’s no doubt about it: Cameron is the king of the world (or even the emperor of the universe, as one critic half-snarked).

Even so, I continue to be skeptical that Jake Sully, Neytiri, Dr. Grace Augustine and evil military what’s-his-face, Colonel Quaritch (I had to look it up) are colonizing viewers’ imaginations like Luke, Leia, Han and Darth Vader, or Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and Agent Smith. On the other hand, I also wrote:

There are self-proclaimed “Jedis” today who make “the Force” an actual religion; I don’t see a lot of people declaring themselves “Na’vi” or getting passionate about “Eywa.” (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people who see this film even two or three times wouldn’t be able to tell you afterward who “Eywa” was even if you supplied the name.)

Does the obsessive fan comment posted above, about wanting to be a Na’vi badly enough to entertain thoughts of suicide in the forlorn hope of being reincarnated in a world like Pandora, disprove my optimism? Even if it doesn’t, even if there’s a meaningful distinction to be drawn (and I think there may be), it’s still depressingly close to what I thought so improbable. It’s hard to fathom that kind of existential or imaginative alienation from the real world.

Other fan comments are similarly troubling. Here’s another one:

When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning … It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.

I wish I could hold out hope that those words could have been written by a studio publicity sock puppet drumming up controversy. In fact, it seems the writer is 17-year-old Ivar Hill, a gaming design student in Sweden. (Well, that might explain a few things right there.) Contacted by CNN.com, Hill elaborated:

One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality.

What’s going on here? A number of things, it seems. On the one hand, we have a youth who has dedicated a significant chunk of his young life to unreal worlds encountering one that tops them all, and finding the experience so overwhelming as to eclipse the goodness of the world and the meaningfulness of life. Mixed up with this are environmental and perhaps political and social concerns which may be partly valid and partly exaggerated.

On the other hand, such reactions aren’t necessarily all bad. Take the comment “I live in a dying world” — quite true, and perhaps telling. Never mind that, cosmologically speaking, Pandora would be be a dying world too. It seems that Pandora has nonetheless evoked a young man’s dissatisfaction with living in a dying world — a dissatisfaction ultimately rooted, in Christian thought, in God having placed eternity in our hearts.

Pandora is not Heaven, nor is it Eden. It’s an exaggerated playground fantasy world with mixed New Age overtones. Even so, in this young man’s response to Pandora may be, whether he knows it or not, a kind of homesickness, a longing for our true home.

In the litheness and impossible acrobatics of the Na’vi we may glimpse a hint of the eschatological agility of glorified bodies in the resurrection. The heightened splendor of Pandora, with trees like mountains and mountains like clouds, may evoke the unimaginable glory of the new earth of which the beauties of this present world are only a foretaste.

When a young man says he wants to “escape reality,” could the diagnosis be less than entirely accurate? The longing for escape may be unmistakable enough, but is it necessarily “reality” he wants to escape, or only the fallen reality of the world as we know it? Granted, if it leads him or anyone else to contemplate suicide, or other unhealthy forms of escapism, it may not much matter (or perhaps again it may; God will be the judge of that).

One key question, I guess, is whether Avatar is having a net effect of harming people who would otherwise be fine, or whether it’s merely a question of people hitching their wagons to Avatar rather than something else. Avatar is a big and obvious cultural target to hitch onto; maybe a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily have found something else if it hadn’t been for Avatar. But would that necessarily be better? Any time a cultural phenomenon grows big enough, from “Star Trek” and Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, people will hitch their wagons to it — healthy people in healthy ways, unhealthy people in unhealthy ways.

Some phenomena do appeal more, or even primarily, to unhealthy people, or unhealthy impulses in people. That’s why my commentary on, say, the Twilight phenomenon has been basically negative: because I think the appeal is largely, though not necessarily entirely, unwholesome. This is a different thing from saying “Some people will respond to this in unwholesome ways.” That’s trivially true of everything, including the Bible.

To put it another way, I think that the Twilight phenomenon has little to offer to people who are basically healthy morally and psychologically, and that turning away from it is the healthiest response. I would say the same of the Dan Brown franchise, and of other works I view as morally problematic or objectionable. In a sense, that’s what a morally objectionable work is — one that basically healthy viewers will likely want to turn away from, and for which the appeal, to many who don’t turn away, is something significantly unhealthy.

By contrast, a work that can be enjoyed by healthy people without significant issue is a basically acceptable work, even if it poses a problem for unhealthy people. An example I’ve long used: The sort of ethnographic nudity in a film like The Mission need not be a moral issue for basically healthy adult viewers, though it might for immature or unhealthy viewers. (On the other hand, a salacious sex scene poses a moral issue for healthy viewers too.)

Incidentally, The Mission is also a film about rapacious Westerners exploiting noble savages, and sympathetic Westerners going rogue and siding with the savages against their own fellow Westerners. Of course, it’s also a story in which the Christian West has something ennobling to offer the savages. Still, there’s nothing inherently objectionable about the picture of rapacious humans trying to exploit and rob innocent aliens. It’s basically the scenario C. S. Lewis anticipated in “Religion and Rocketry,” as I noted in an epigraph in my review of District 9.

Granted, we might roll our eyes at the idealization of the Na’vi, particularly if we remember (as someone pointed out recently) that even Dances with Wolves didn’t portray the Indians as uniformly noble; the Pawnee were treacherous and violent. An alien race might be different, though. In any case, I think an eye roll is sufficient response; neither outrage nor hand-wringing seems mandatory to me.

At any rate, Avatar, for me, is a film in which healthy people can find a great deal to appreciate and enjoy. As my review credits Jeff Overstreet with noting, it’s a film that makes unprecedented use of special effects to create vistas of beauty and wonder rather than of horror or grotesquerie.

Its spiritual vision is sub-Christian, certainly, but not anti-Christian. As Peter Chattaway has aptly observed, it’s one noble-savages movie that does not pit “true spirituality” against “organized religion”; whatever other millstones are hung around the necks of the humans, they aren’t evil, hypocritical Christians (or notably religious in any other way, other than a cross around the neck one of the sympathetic humans, Michelle Rodriguez’s chopper pilot).

Nor is Avatar fundamentally antithetical to Christianity. In general, nothing about Pandora radically precludes us from imagining God creating such a world. Like the Force in the Star Wars movies, Na’vi religion can be interpreted in different frameworks. It wouldn’t do to say that Eywa is God, or even a symbol for God; but Eywa could be a created intelligence with delegated oversight of Pandora, not entirely unlike the Oyeresu (planetary angels) in Lewis’s Space Trilogy. The Soul Tree — much like Vulcan’s Mount Seleya in “Star Trek” — is closer to nirvana than Heaven, but either could also be thought of as a sort of extraterrestrial analog to the limbo patronum. At any rate, I’m not going to jettison either “Star Trek” or Avatar over the issue. Avatar is a flawed film, but I appreciate what is beautiful in it in the same way that I appreciate the mythological paintings of Titian and Rembrandt, not because I believe in the worldview depicted, but because beauty as such belongs to God.

From what little I’ve seen of even obsessive, over-the-top fan reaction, people are not coming out of Avatar gushing, by and large, about pantheistic spirituality. People love Pandora (and other fantasy landscapes from the Star Wars universe to Miyazaki’s films) for the same reasons that we all love wild, unspoiled, strange landscapes in nature documentaries, but in a unique way, because Pandora is wilder and more alien than anything on Earth. Most of us live far from unspoiled nature, and are well aware (perhaps exaggeratedly so in some cases) of the “spoiled” state of too much of our world. The Na’vi combine appealing qualities of imaginary races like elves and fairies as well as extraterrestrials, mythical adventurers like Tarzan and Conan, and exotic indigenous populations, whose closeness to nature and simplicity of lifestyle holds aesthetic appeal to moderns. The idealized portrayal of Na’vi nobility is appealing because we are a fallen race that remembers Eden and is haunted by Heaven.

None of this is to discount the problematic aspects of Avatar — only to note that the film can still be enjoyed by those with adequate perspective on its issues. Not everyone has adequate perspective, of course, which is why (as Anton Ego noted in Ratatouille) the critic’s job includes providing perspective. Even so, unhealthy, obsessive responses will still take place. I don’t minimize that. I do suggest that they may say more about the viewers than the film.

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Mail: Re: Avatar and the Meaning of Life

I found a kind of grim irony in the Avatar blues” phenomenon. Tolkien wrote in Tree and Leaf that one purpose of fantasy was to help us recover our sight or “clean our windows”:

By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and the Moon [or, one might hope, Pandora] root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.

It is kind of sad then that rather than helping viewers realize what an exciting world our own planet it is, Avatar has had the opposite effect on some (though not all; I recovered my sight of panthers, horses, and gunships).

Grim irony, indeed. In the movie’s own words:

Neytiri: Sky People can not learn. You do not see.

Sully: Then teach me how to see.

Neytiri: No one can teach you to see.

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Mail: Re: Avatar and the Meaning of Life

I read your review of Avatar and the mail you have received on the subject. I have seen the movie several times now and each time I come away with something new. I am a very devout Catholic with a love for history and mythology. I see Avatar as a fairytale for today. I didn’t have a problem with the Na’vi’s religious beliefs. It is set in a different world, etc. What struck me was the differences between the humans and the Na’vi. Apparently, the humans are very secular in outlook, either greedy or very scientific. They don’t “see” that there is something more to the planet than the “unobtainium.”

I thought it was a refreshing movie. How many sci-fi movies acknowledge anything other than science and technology? It is one of the few movies that shows a deity saving the day. Am I the only Catholic out there that sees this stuff? I feel kinda lonesome since I actually like the movie (seen it now seven times) and almost every Catholic I see on the Internet, etc., doesn’t like it.

Also, about the whole post-Avatar depression thing. I can guarantee you that there are very few that are experiencing it. It is mostly because those people were depressed already. I have seen an opposite reaction. There are very good and intensive discussions about what is means to live in this society on the Avatar boards. I frequent them. I believe that that story about depression was taken out of context because some silly reporter couldn’t find a real story. Anyway, this is just my two cents. Let me know what you think.

I think much the same as you on several points. You make a good point that the human conquistadors are very secular in outlook; this is one of the things that saves the film from being anti-religious. Too many noble-savage movies pit enlightened native “spirituality” against corrupt organized/Western/institutional religion, i.e., Christianity and especially Catholicism. Avatar doesn’t do this. Instead, it pits the worst kind of utilitarian, secular self-interest against a quasi-Edenic ideal of harmony with other selves, with the world, with the divine.

The nature of that divine remains a sticking point, I think. I can’t entirely embrace the idea of “a deity saving the day” when that deity is a planetary goddess-spirit somehow comprising all living creatures on her planet. The example of Lewis’s planetary guardian spirits (oyeresu), a class of angels, gets me part of the way there, but the relationship between Eywa and her planet’s creatures has overtones of pantheism, or heno-pantheism, or something.

That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. In the first place, it’s a sci-fi fantasy; in the second place, I can’t say that God couldn’t create a world like Pandora if he wanted to. Still, the resonances with real-life sub-Christian religion remain an issue that Christians should be aware of.

Hm, is it that uncommon for sci-fi movies to have a spiritual side? 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Contact and Serenity come to mind. But since all of my examples come from different decades you may be right. Of course, many sci-fi films are overtly moralistic. And on the small screen there’s been “Battlestar Galactica” and “Babylon 5,” among other things.

And yeah, I also suspect that “post-Avatar blues” is a fringe phenomenon that makes for an eye-grabbing headline, but doesn’t describe the vast majority of people who saw the film. Like I said, it’s a big obvious thing for people to hitch their wagons to. Without Avatar, those people would probably still be just as unhappy, but we wouldn’t have read about them on CNN.com.

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Review: Avatar (2009)

B+ | ***½ | -2| Teens & Up*

James Cameron’s Avatar is a virtual apotheosis of Hollywood mythopoeia. It is the whole worldview and memory of contemporary Hollywood, given shape in a narrative and pictoral form that is stunning in its finality and grandeur. It is like everything and there is nothing like it.

Continue reading this review >

Blog: Avatar: What the Vatican Really Said

A priest friend, frustrated by dodgy media coverage, recently sent me his own translation of the entire L’Osservatore Romano review, as well as of a segment that ran of Vatican Radio.

Continue reading this post >

Blog: Avatar and Religion Redux

Last week Peter Chattaway blogged an essay on Avatar and religion originally written for Anglican Planet (which is an awesome name for an Anglican periodical on so many levels, although I know nothing else about it).

Continue reading this post >

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