I don't get to theater movies often, but "Avatar" is worth it. It is not the best movie I've ever seen but it may be the most spectacular. The action takes place on another planet, Pandora, and the scenery on Pandora does something which C.S. Lewis often manages to do in print but which I had thought impossible on a screen: to convey some of what we find beautiful, awe-inspiring, in wild nature, and to take it to a higher level. "Avatar" mingles the virtues of science fiction and fantasy: it has the comparative realism of science fiction, the sense that this is possible in our world, the appeal to the gadgeteer in each of us as we puzzle over how the futuristic machines work, and the convenient assumption that the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry etc. may be assumed to apply (no magic); yet at the same time it attains the mythic freedom of a work that projects the works of pure imagination. The story is respectable too. There is "character development": the protagonists learn, change, and discover through their experiences and moral crises. There is suspense, action, thrills, but also tenderness and affection and love, loyalty, friendship, sorrow. It meets the test, so seemingly simple yet so often failed, of making sense. Characters' actions are well motivated and consistent, without being tediously predictable, at least, not always. Highly recommended.
For this blog, though, the most interesting part of the film is its... what to call it? Let's say "cause," but we could say "ideology," "agenda," "creed," whatever. In short, what makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad. A movie needs a cause. You have to care who wins, you have to get a signal whose side to be on, and I think American moviegoers are sophisticated enough-- I certainly am-- to practice a sort of ideological suspension of disbelief. The elements of the cause are familiar: environmentalism, anti-imperialism, antagonism to resource-hungry corporations, idealization of the primitive. I heard the movie compared to "Dances with Wolves." Maybe. Another analogy is "The Last Samurai." In each of these films a disillusioned American warrior "goes native" amidst a foreign people whose primitive yet noble culture he recognizes as superior to his own. Though there is one difference here: the protagonist of "Avatar" (a) doesn't seem particularly disillusioned at the beginning of the film, and (b) makes an important observation early on, that the military types in the Pandora base camp are different from the Marines he knew at home because they're only there for the money. The operation on Pandora doesn't seem to be a government initiative, and its more trigger-happy agents seem to be more like mercenaries than normal patriotic soldiers. That's only one of the ways in which "Avatar" makes its cause much less controversial than those of "The Last Samurai" and "Dances with Wolves." Far more importantly, the whole story is set on another world, where the rights and wrongs of things might be quite different from here. North American Indians are not worse off for having the land they lived in settled by Europeans: they live longer, are better nourished, can read and write, enjoy indoor plumbing, etc. We know for a fact that murder rates are much higher among primitive peoples of Papua New Guinea and Amazonia than in modern industrialized nations. To idealize the lifestyles of primitive tribes on Earth is balderdash. Man is better off with civilization. But on other worlds, there might, for all we know, be peoples for whom this is not the case, who live amidst wild nature in harmony and happiness and could ask nothing more. A well-informed and conscientious moviegoer ought to reject the ideologies of "The Last Samurai" and "Dances with Wolves," but not necessarily that of "Avatar."
So I'm inclined to make another comparison: C.S. Lewis's Perelandra. In Perelandra, as in "Avatar," man arrives on an unfallen world in its edenic splendor; and he comes as a potential corrupter. On Perelandra, as to some extent on Pandora, the beasts have a natural love and obedience for man: they are there for his benefit and pleasure, though they are also ennobled in serving him. In Perelandra and Pandora, too, a gloriously beautiful nature is part of the story; the splendor of a different Nature, compared to which earthly nature, darkened by the fall, seems like a dim second-rate affair, is ever-present, and is not merely a background to the plot, but the brilliance with the author has imagined it is one of the chief pleasures of the story, as well as its theme and the key to its meaning. The people of the foreign planet are in their innocence, and it is the task of the protagonist to use sinister knowledge which he has from his tainted earthly background in order to foil an assault on paradise which the natives, in their innocence, can't understand and don't know how to resist. The protagonist's reward is to be taken up into that better world (albeit, in Perelandra, after a delay and another adventure).
As the analogy to Perelandra might suggest, "Avatar" has a theology. What's interesting, though, is the explicit paganism of that theology: there is a sort of Gaia figure, a nature-goddess, whom the protagonist initially regards with skepticism but who turns out to be real. This Gaia figure, called Eywa, is evidently not omnipotent like the Christian deity: her sway is apparently limited to the planet Pandora and does not extend to earth; it seems that there is a real risk of defeating her if a certain "tree of souls" is destroyed by Earthling artillery; and it seems that she resides somehow in the "network" that is Perelandra's ecology. This is really exceedingly interesting. Who comes up with this stuff? Where do they get their ideas? Paganism has been dead for 1,500 years and yet, somehow, Hollywood screenwriters feel called upon to reinvent it, only for fictional purposes no doubt, yet one wonders: do they believe it? A little bit at least? I've noticed this before. In computer games like "Baldur's Gate" there are various gods for whom one sometimes undertakes quests: again, paganism, not seriously believed, yet somehow necessary to introduce for entertainment purposes. I'm not sure that the paganism of late antiquity was so very different. One gets the sense that it was a powerful cultural force yet, at the same time, was not taken too seriously. The Greeks were irreverent and impious about their gods from the beginning, from Homer's day, but the human love of stories, of imagination, the human need to contemplate and half-believe in the transcendent in order to enjoy life, even if they didn't regard it as a lawgiver to be obeyed, was enough to keep the Greeks building temples to Jupiter and Apollo for a thousand years. It was against this paganism that the martyrs waged their grim but glorious struggle, paying the price of death for the joy of denouncing these corrupting pseudo-divinities with their last breath. Hollywood today is a similar kind of rival to Christianity, a source of narratives and role models and values, in the aggregate absurd, impractical, elitist, cruel, conducive to misery, yet exerting a powerful sway over the imagination, a fount of corruption. (The convention of spontaneous sex, without consequences or complications or even, seemingly, contraceptives, is just one example.) But Hollywood's paganism is rarely as overt as in "Avatar."