Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Movie Review: Avatar

So I let my curiosity get the best of me and went to see Avatar last night with the wife, figuring that though I generally stay away from new cinema, this film seemed to be such a cultural phenomenon that I had to inform myself about it. My wife and I both enjoyed the film; it didn't seem like three hours as I was watching it, and I can certainly say that the cinematography and effects were spectacular. Besides the fact that it was entertaining and aesthetically pleasing to watch, I can't say that much more in praise of it. I am shocked that it has become the highest grossing movie of all time and am concerned that its worldview will become more mainstream as time goes on.

The first thing I want to point out is the utter unoriginality of the movie. The movie was basically a futuristic rehash of the 1995 Disney Pocahontas film. John Smith is Jake Sully and the girl (whatever her name was) is Pocahontas. The Marines are the English, who instead of gold are seeking an absurdly named ore called "Unobtainium." There's even a sacred tree, like in Pocahontas.

But to delve into this a little more deeply, one of the central things in the film is the ability of certain men, whose minds fit a specific profile, to be able to "jump into" certain synthetically engineered biological bodies ("Avatars") and control them remotely, or "drive" them. This concept is almost directly pirated from the 1995-1996 Japanese series of anime films entitled (in English) "Neon Genesis Evangelion" (see here), which was widely popular and grossed over $16 million. The central idea of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series was that a series of teenagers, with very specific mental profiles, were chosen to pilot bio-engineered creatures called "Evas." The Evas are organic, but they are basically shell bodies that are inhabited ("driven") by the human pilots in order to combat a threatening race of alien invaders. Like Jake Sully in Avatar, the main character in Neon Genesis Evangelion is a young boy named Shinji who is initially unfit to pilot an Eva but (like Jake Sully) becomes one of the most important Eva pilots through his uncanny union with his Eva body. Anyone being honest with themselves can see the similarities - I do not accuse James Cameron of direct plagiarism per se, though it is possible; I merely point out that this is hardly an original theme.

Another element of unoriginality was the concept of the taming of those dragon-looking birds and the nonsense about them only choosing one rider for life, the riders bonding with the creature, controlling it with their mind, etc. This is obviously plagiarized from Eragon, which Christopher Paolini stole from the Dragon Riders of Pern. When I saw this concept in Eragon, I was a little frustrated, but to see it so blatantly recycled in Avatar was too much.

From a Christian viewpoint, the biggest problem with Avatar is the spirituality positively portrayed in the film. The Na'vi have a relation to their planet (Pandora) in which the entire planet is a type of semi-conscious, living organism. The "souls" of the Na'vi come forth from the planet, or rather the planet's life force (Eywa) and return to the collective consciousness of the planet when they die. Thus there is a very strong pantheistic element, with several scenes of the Na'vi worshiping or praying to the planet in bizarre religious rituals that look like a mix between Native American ceremony and African tribalism. The problem is not so much that type of ritual is portrayed as much as that it is endorsed by the obvious sympathy which the audience is supposed to have for the Na'vi.

Regarding sympathy, the plot is so one-sided as to make the Marines into unredeemable evil antagonists, such that the main character Jake Sully, a former Marine, apparently has no scruples about turning on his own comrades and slaying them in a pitched battle at the end of the movie. Through its complete positive portrayal of the Na'vi and its complete negative portrayal of the human Marines, this film attempts to elicit the viewer's sympathy and draw implicit connections to a host of real world events - I told my wife upon leaving the theater, "This film tries to make you feel bad for the killing of the Indians, destruction of the environment, and the Iraq War all at once!" Not that I approve of any of those things, but to tie them all together under the ideology of pantheistic earth-worship creates a false dichotomy - as if to say that if you oppose pantheistic earth worship you must be in favor of destroying the environment. The sympathies created by the movie are too one sided and based on such false dichotomies.

While I initially sympathized with the Na'vi, I found it difficult to maintain my sympathy the further into the film as their pantheistic earth worship began to be more emphasized and promoted. By the latter part of the film, I found myself actually hoping the Marines would succeed in their plan to blow up the "Tree of Souls," the center of the Na'vi earth cult. What does it say about a film when our sympathies switch half way from the protagonist to the antagonist? It either means that I am very sadistic, or that the movie depicts an imbalanced approach to the themes it tries to address, which I think is indeed the case here based on other reviews I have heard of the film.

One more thing - the 3D effects just weren't that awesome. I'm sorry, but they weren't. It was a little bit cool I suppose, but after a few minutes I took my glasses off, preferring to watch the film normally. To my horror, the screen was all blurry - apparently this new breed of 3D film has to be watched with the glasses (which they conveniently charge an extra $2.00 for, making the tickets for my wife and I $21.95). Unfortunately, this seems to be the new thing, because all the films in the previews were for upcoming 3D features. The 3D was neat, and the scenery was beautiful, but I never really felt like the movie was coming out at me, nor did I think it that much better than viewing a traditional, non-3D movie.

So what are we left with? A breathtaking computerized cinematography with a one-sided plot, little depth (the last twenty minutes of the film were disgustingly predictable) and a pantheistic moral message, and sci-fi ideas lifted from several other films and books. Perhaps it would be good to rent if you are curious to see it, but I wouldn't waste $21.95 just to see it in the stupid 3D that only half-works. For these reasons, I give this film one out of three papal tiaras


Anonymous said...

Such a film (that I did not like) doesn't deserve a long script from you.Too much honour.

Steve said...

It was boring.

Anthony88 said...

Hi Boniface, I could not find an email link on your blog to refer this video to you, so I'll post it here. It's called the 'Passion of the Catholic Church':
It's beyond interesting for faithful Catholics. It’s a good watch, hope you enjoy it.

God bless. Our Lady of the Rosary, Pray for us!

bgeorge77 said...

1. No way, 3D is awesome.

2. I think the pantheism thing was actually the least insidious of the three insidious ideas in the film, to wit:

a. The pantheism: You have addressed that nicely already. It was just slathered on, totally ridiculous.

b. The racism: This film shares the problems of Pocahontas. It's not really a film about Natives, it's a film about the white/imperialist question, "What do we do with these natives? Kill them or have sex with them?" The film appealed to every white outsider's deepest fantasies-- that if he (always a he) just got away from all those jocks who were mean to him in high school, and went to, say, Japan... man, THEN the chicks would really dig him! And the people would make him their leader! Without any effort! Simply cause he's the chosen one! Did I mention the chicks?!

c. The Gnosticism: The idea that you can upload or download your body more or less at will, and that your body is just an avatar of your "real self," this is pure poison. You are not your Facebook profile, and everything that happens to you necessarily happens to your body. When I speak with my teens about this movie, this is the point I really carp on, because even a teen can see through the pantheism junk. The loss of a coherent sense of self is a far more dangerous and pervasive problem than overwrought treehuggery.

Boniface said...

Thanks, Ben. Those are veyr insightful and spot on. But, as one commentator already said, the review was too long already...thanks for bringing out some more points.

Boniface said...

Thanks, Ben. Those are veyr insightful and spot on. But, as one commentator already said, the review was too long already...thanks for bringing out some more points.

spraffmeister said...

I found the 3D awkward for my eyes as it does the focussing for you, leaving you cross-eyed. Also, my brother turned to me about an hour in and said "Nothing has happened - the plot hasn't moved on at all". I don't think he was to impressed after the following two hours either. As for the pantheistic tree-boogie at the end, I heard not a few sniggers in the cinema. It was so full-on that most people are put off by it. As a commenter above said, the worst part was the actual avatar idea.

Matthew said...

So here's a question.
Is there an email I can contact you guys at? I want to ask Anselm about where he's studying.


Boniface said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anselm said...

Dear Matthew,

You can reach me at

I'd be happy to tell you about a particularly excellent institute of Catholic Higher Education :)

Christina said...

Ben, I think you're right on with the racism thing. It's obnoxious: The white director/writer creates a story depicting the native/minority group sympathetically, but then a White man comes along and HE has to be the one who actually (as a white) is better than them all and ends up with the prettiest native woman and becomes their savior. It stinks of poorly guided white guilt.

Matthew said...

Thanks guys, Anselm, sent you an email, looking forward to your reply!

Anonymous said...

Firstly, I believe in God.

You could say I am a Christian.


Face it:

1. You wish you lived on Pandora. Pandora is what we could have had if we did not grow greedy and started to destroy our natural habitat.

2. Nature worship was here before religion and all wild animals still take part in it. Religion is a substitute for nature worship with God representing nature (i.e. an abstract leader figure). This occurs with domestic animals as well, i.e. your dog sees you as God.

3. The most noble and compassionate nations in the world were (some still are) nature worshippers, and they perfected Christian principles, e.g. humility, love, self-control. Like the San Bushmen and Tibetan Buddhists.

4. Christianity is a translation of nature worship into modern terms (starting 2,000 years ago) so that our overly developed brains can understand the concept of respect and live in overpopulation and to let abstraction replace nature.

5. Christianity was derived for people who feared death, and heaven was conceived to overcome this. For me, dying and integrating into the earth already is heaven.

6. Europeans should never have taken over the World.

When people migrated to Europe from Africa 40,000 years ago we were an invasive species, having developed in the harsher African climate with more aggressive competition, we relatively quickly colonised Europe and Asia.

Others colonised the rest of the world and by 13,000 years ago they had crossed to the USA from modern day Russia at the last ice age.

In the meanwhile, the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East developed agriculture, because of the availability of wild crops to domesticate, and husbandry from the already existent more docile animals.

The poor buggers in America and S. America could only domesticate the Llama and two other similar animals. Their environment had a lot less that could lead to full blown agriculture, which would lead to technology, etc.

So when John Smith and his buddies came to America, the American Indians were still living in the garden of Eden. They brought their viruses (and btw the concept of sin) and exterminated the Indians. By chance (which some people like to call "divine intervention") a religion was destroyed by another religion. Does that mean the one god is stronger than the other... that that god is The God and all should worship Him?

The only reason why you are a Christian is because the "winning" religion of the day was Christian.

The A. Indians were not saints, but they were Nature Worshippers and they were happy.

To me, the Natives in Avatar, (to a limited extent like the A. Indians) represent the epitome of human contentment. Luckily for them, the winning religion of the day was Nature Worshipping.

I don't know about you, but I would rather have somebody pluck out my heart than to get burned at a stake or be raped by a Vatican priest.

My point?

Christianity has a bloody past. Accept that it is faulty just like any other concept.

There is only truth. Spirituality is a basic need. We believe in God because we need him to exist. Go read the bible. See beyond the words and think beyond the paradigm. Challenge your pastor. Who says he knows Truth? Be honest. Let science and religion unite. Respect the trees. Respect the birds and animals. Worship nature and God. Be humane. Don't live for heaven but let heaven be a place on earth. If there then is an actual heaven, you'll get double the bonus.

In the end all pretences will fall.

Be free.

8. ...o yeah, AVATAR IS AWESOME!

Boniface said...


There is too much nonsense in your post for me to respond to it all, but I will say three things -

First, you are in no way a Christian if you believe all the things you just said.

Second, I don't wish I lived on Pandora. There are too many huge predators.

Third, if you think the Indians were living in the "Garden of Eden", then you have not read the Indian histories close enough - I suggest you read some of the accounts of how these people lived. Read the memoirs of the French who came to Quebec and see how the Iroquois and Huron were living - it was no Eden, it was a barbaric, filthy and cruel lifestyle, complete with malicious torture of captives, cannibalism, people living in squalor and their own waste infested with bugs and eating disgustingly unhealthy diets of fat and grease. The noble savage idea is invented by Hollywood.

Henry Bartholomew said...

dear anonymous,
about your point that domestic animals see you as God. As a matter of fact studies show that dogs when petted release a hormone into their bloodstream that is also released by mothers and children. In other words, your dog doesn't see you as god, he sees you as dad.I do not know of any other animal to see humans as gods as you claim. could you point some out please? I rather doubt it.