I’ll admit it up front: I love the movie “Avatar.” I know that admission will immediately garner scoffers and the like, but I’d like to take this opportunity to look over some of the themes in the film to show why I like it so much. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.
A Concern for Social Justice
First, it must be admitted that there is a strong concern for social justice throughout the film. This concern is borne out in three ways:
1) The disabled- Jake Sully is wheelchair-bound, and this leads to some overt thematic elements related to this. Other characters make offhand remarks over his state. “That’s just wrong”–presumably referring to sending someone with such a disability to Pandora; Jake refuses help from others and relies on his military background to keep himself motivated to do whatever anyone else can. In the extended edition of the film, Jake is also bodily thrown out of a bar early on, which highlights his feelings of injustice and helplessness, while also showing compassion demonstrated by his character. Jake’s veteran benefits can’t pay for a “new set” of legs, so he looks to Pandora for a fresh start.
From these portrayals, one may draw two primary areas of discussion. First, the ultimate solution to Jake’s status is transcendence into the Avatar body. His state is ultimately not one he can overcome himself but one which is ultimately reliant upon others–even deity (see next section). Second, there is some concern here for those with disabilities: we should neither treat them as deficient nor should we ignore the possibility of increasing the well-being of those in such situations.
2) The Environment- Some may not consider notions of concern for the environment a “social justice” issue. However, it should be clear that impact upon an environment definitely brings about societal change. If a group lives in a jungle, razing that jungle to the ground will have profound impact on that people group. Although the portrayal in the film is very straightforward (perhaps even simplistic), the concern for how destruction of an environment can lead to societal ills is certainly portrayed. In the Bible, we are given the command to care for creation. This should translate into a concern for societal well-being as well.
3) The “Other”- The Na’vi (interestingly similar to the Hebrew word for “prophet”) are the “other” in the film. From the human persepctive, they are a strange people. They have a seemingly paganistic nature worship along with inherent pantheism. They prefer to live in trees and tribal communities than building roads and buildings. The way in which the humans interact with the “Other” is ultimately a question of major concern and conflict. By downplaying the needs and disrespecting the culture of the “Other,” humans fail to learn from them and perhaps come to mutual understanding and a better relationship. Rather, the “Other” is seen as one to exploit for one’s own ends. For some discussion of how the “Other” is used in religious contexts, see my post on “The Myth of Religion.”
Deity- Or, Avatar is not Pantheistic
One aspect of the film I have heard other Christians complain about is that the religion of the Na’vi is pantheistic. However, it seems clear that Eywa is no friend to pantheism. Indeed, this “goddess” is far from the pantheistic all-in-all. Rather, it turns out in the climactic battle near the film’s end that Eywa “had heard” Jake’s prayer and in fact answers in rather extraordinary fashion. Eywa (again, interestingly similar to the name of the LORD in Hebrew) turns out to be not so much a pantheistic, monistic One as a theistic deity capable of activity within the natural realm.
Thus, the ultimate reality of the film is that there is such a thing as deity interfacing with the prayers of persons and with power to answer them. This is not to say the film is entirely friendly to Christian theism. For example, one line Jake Sully says to Eywa is that the inhabitants of Earth “killed their Earth-Mother.” Surely this is not an affirmation of theistic faith but rather hints at a kind of pantheon of deities for each planet! Well, not so fast: Jake says this before he even knows that Eywa is truly a deity capable of activity on the planet. He is trying to describe the situation in his doubt, and his prayer is that of a skeptic trying to make sure he’s covered all his bases. The answer of the extent of Eywa’s rule over Pandora (or beyond?) is left unanswered.
Again, I am not trying to suggest that Eywa should be identified with Christian theism. Rather, within the context of the film, it is clear that a deity exists and acts within the “real world.” I think it must be admitted that this is a far cry from the outlook of many films which are either anti-theistic or generally ignore the question of deity altogether.
“Avatar” is a film that’s worth talking about for more than its beauty. Although many mock it for its emulation of some story tropes (Pocahontas in space!), there are more thoughtful elements in the film worth discussing. In particular, the question of divine activity is poignantly brought to the forefront. Moreover, the themes of social justice brought forward call into question our own assumptions about what is the best way to address various needs and issues.
What I’ve written here is only the beginning of possible discussions. A whole slew of topics remained untouched (what of mind/body connections and the use of the Avatars themselves?; what of the use of mercenaries?; what kind of criminal justice system could one have in a corporate run entity like this?; etc.), so I’d love to read your own thoughts on the film.
Escaping to Pandora– J. Warner Wallace notes other issues of apologetic importance of the movie “Avatar.” He specifically focuses on the real hope in heaven and the transcendent.
Caring for Creation: A discussion among evangelicals– I write about creation care from a number of perspectives offered at a recent panel of prominent evangelical thinkers in this area.
Also see my other looks into movies (scroll down for more).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
I recently had the chance to see “Iron Man 3,” and I must say it is a dazzling sight to behold. Here, I will briefly comment on a few themes. Be aware that there will be major SPOILERS in this post, so stop reading now if you do not wish to have major plot points revealed.
Science and Ethics
One of the recurring themes throughout the film is the notion that there is a real interplay between doing science (and other activities) and ethics. That is, the practice of science is more complex than abstract notions of lab work without any strings attached. Aldrich Killian is a disabled man who longs to transcend the body he was given. He wants to help others who have physical problems. When he is rejected by Tony Stark, he falls to extreme measures to finally cure himself and start “helping” others.
Many characters are seen raising this same issue. Their motivations start out pure: they want to help people, they want to save others, but they ultimately have that dream tainted. They don’t get the funding they need; they are rejected by the people they care about; their experiments don’t turn out as expected. One can see the human predicament here: we too often and easily let ourselves fall from our ideals. We are willing to make a compromise to get towards a “greater good,” yet once we look back, we discover a sea of wrongdoing.
The very brief discussion about scientific funding and the like is worth noting. It is often thought that scientists are some kind of demigods, doing their research and learning things just because they can. But the reality is that funding is very often an issue, that ethical considerations come into the research that is sought, and that people are involved in the scientific enterprise. These are important points to remember.
The Fall and the Human Predicament
The notion of a “fall” is intertwined with the discussion on ethics and science above. The “bad guys” all have aspects which are pitiable. The opening scene with Aldrich leaves one pitying him rather than seeing him as some kind of evil person. Thus, there is development from him as an object of sympathy to an evil man. The development is abrupt, but it can be seen how this development would occur. When someone makes the decision to choose evil rather than good, there is a very real “fall” which goes along with it.
Other characters experience similar difficulties, but perhaps the most interesting is that of Tony Stark himself. He is the billionaire hotshot who could get anything he wants, yet he suffers from bouts of panic and anxiety attacks. He is human, after all. The human predicament is aptly illustrated through the character of Tony Stark. I could almost hear the words of Ecclesiastes echo over his attempts to use his wealth and “charm” to get through everything: “Meaningless, meaningless… everything is meaningless [under the sun]” (see Ecclesiastes 1ff). No matter what heights we attain, we are ultimately grounded within our own sinful nature. We cannot get past it by our own power.
On a personal note, this part of the film was most disturbing for me. My wife was born without her left arm. In “Iron Man 3,” the “bad guys” almost all turn out to be those who are affected by disabilities. They go to Aldrich to get their missing limbs regrown; they are willing to betray their country to help a child who is missing a limb; Aldrich himself is motivated by his desire to overcome his disability. I couldn’t help but think that the film therefore presents a dim view of those with physical disabilities. There were no counterbalances given; it seemed that the operating assumption was if someone is missing a limb or suffering from other physical disabilities, they would be willing to go to almost any extreme to fix it.
Now, I’ll grant that some of these people seem to have been unknowingly used by Aldrich. I admit my personal feelings in this issue up front because I may be overly critical here. Yet I know of other superhero films in recent memory that use this same theme: those with disabilities often turn out to be the bad guys, and they are willing to kill in order to overcome them.
Here, I have only written up some very brief thoughts on the film. I believe those who go to see it will be able to come away with a number of talking points. The interplay between science and ethics was of great interest. The portrayal of disabilities was, perhaps, questionable, and there were moral issues raised throughout. Please leave a comment and let me know your own thoughts on the movie.
Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.” I often ask questions for readers and give links related to interests on this site.
A Christian Look at “The Avengers”– I examine a number of other themes in “The Avengers” which Christians and non-Christians can discuss.
Engaging Culture: A Brief Guide for movies– I reflect on how Christians can engage with popular movies in order to have meaningful conversations with those around them.
Be sure to check out other looks at movies that I have written (scroll down for more).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.