Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Avatar: A Review and Reflections

In the world according to this blogger, there are two signs that a movie is a good one:

1. After the movie is over you continue to think about it.
2. You would gladly pay the obscenely high cost of seeing it again in the theater (in my case multiple times).

James Cameron's Avatar meets both these conditions. For those who have not yet seen this film I'll offer a brief summary. It is a basically a boy saves the world, boy gets girl story. This time the boy is a wheel chair bound marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and the girl is a stunning, 10 foot tall, blue humanoid named Neytiri
(Zoe Saldana). The world is Pandora, a far away moon. Pandora is a special effects feast for the eyes whose beauty steals every scene from the characters flying, running, fighting, loving and dying on it.

Jake gets a chance to enter the "Avatar" program where humans use their minds to "drive" remote control bodies made to resemble the indigenous population of Pandora called the Na'vi. The purpose of the Avatar program is to encourage diplomatic relations between the humans and the Na'vi and facilitate scientific research. The program is run by Grace (sci-fi queen Sigourney Weaver), tough as nails but full of tenderness for Pandora and its denizens.

Unfortunately, not everyone wants to play nice with the locals. In an analogy to problems here on Earth, the human desire to dig in the dirt for high priced rocks (that seem to always matter more than people) gets in the way. The rock in this case is the cleverly named "unobtainium" and the Na'vi's home (a magnificent tree) sits on the biggest pile of the stuff. Thus the locals need to move and can either do it the easy way (diplomacy) or the hard way (a military smack down).

Jake gets assigned the task of infiltrating the Na'vi to funnel intelligence to the military guys but ends of falling in love with Neytiri, a Na'vi warrior-princess-priestess who teaches Jake her people's ways. Jake switches sides, the military makes its move and both tragedy and triumph ensue.

All in all, Avatar is a great sci-fi, adventure, romance that is definitely worth seeing (and seeing again). The cinematography transports you into a world that feels real, the interracial romance moves you, the tragedies make you want to cry and the triumphs make you want to stand up and shout. In brief, this is a movie that does what movies were invented to do.

The strengths of the film more than make up for its limitations. These include a story that is completely derivative (it's basically Dances with Wolves in space) and simplistic black/white moralizing (scientists and indigenous people=good, corporations and the military=bad). Much has been made by other reviewers of the dialogue, but people in real life rarely speak soaring, Shakespearean prose so I don't know why we expect characters on film to talk that way.

In addition, I noted several images, metaphors and themes that connect with Baha'i teaching:

1. Tree symbolism: In Avatar, trees have great significance, both as a home of Neytiri's clan and as a means of connecting with ancestral spirits and the Na'vi's deity. The Baha'i writings are full of tree symolism but I'll note just one here. The tree is used as a symbol of the organic and spiritual connection that unites all human beings:

"The Blessed Beauty [Baha'u'llah] saith: 'Ye are all the fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch.' Thus hath He likened this world of being to a single tree, and all its peoples to the leaves thereof, and the blossoms and fruits. It is needful for the bough to blossom, and leaf and fruit to flourish, and upon the interconnection of all parts of the world-tree, dependeth the flourishing of leaf and blossom, and the sweetness of the fruit.

For this reason must all human beings powerfully sustain one another and seek for everlasting life; and for this reason must the lovers of God in this contingent world become the mercies and the blessings sent forth by that clement King of the seen and unseen realms. Let them purify their sight and behold all humankind as leaves and blossoms and fruits of the tree of being.

Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 1)

2. From "Other" to "Brother": Both Jake Sully and the Na'vi go through a transformation over the course of the film that I refer to as "from other to brother". This is a process of becoming conscious of the connections that transcend our differences and make unity in diversity (an important Baha'i concept) possible:

"O ye lovers of this wronged one! Cleanse ye your eyes, so that ye behold no man as different from yourselves. See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness. And in this new and wondrous age, the Holy Writings say that we must be at one with every people; that we must see neither harshness nor injustice, neither malevolence, nor hostility, nor hate, but rather turn our eyes toward the heaven of ancient glory. For each of the creatures is a sign of God, and it was by the grace of the Lord and His power that each did step into the world; therefore they are not strangers, but in the family; not aliens, but friends, and to be treated as such." (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 24)

3. Everything is connected: On Pandora, everything is literally connected, a kind of network of energy flowing among plants, animals, people and the planet itself. The Baha'i writings describe a similar kind of connection among all things:

"Reflect upon the inner realities of the universe, the secret wisdoms involved, the enigmas, the inter-relationships, the rules that govern all. For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever. In the physical realm of creation, all things are eaters and eaten: the plant drinketh in the mineral, the animal doth crop and swallow down the plant, man doth feed upon the animal, and the mineral devoureth the body of man. Physical bodies are transferred past one barrier after another, from one life to another, and all things are subject to transformation and change, save only the essence of existence itself -- since it is constant and immutable, and upon it is founded the life of every species and kind, of every contingent reality throughout the whole of creation..." (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 157)

4. Is Peace Possible? In addition to a strong pro-environmental message, Avatar raises socio-political questions related to capitalism, militarism and imperialism. One question that may be less explicit in the film is whether peace is possible in the face of human selfishness and aggression. Because the climax of Avatar film is a fierce battle between the humans and the Na'vi, a battle that seems virtually inevitable, the answer would seem to be "no". I'm reminded of commentary from The Promise of World Peace:

"The winds of despair", Bahá'u'lláh wrote, "are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective." This prophetic judgement has been amply confirmed by the common experience of humanity. Flaws in the prevailing order are conspicuous in the inability of sovereign states organized as United Nations to exorcize the spectre of war, the threatened collapse of the international economic order, the spread of anarchy and terrorism, and the intense suffering which these and other afflictions are causing to increasing millions. Indeed, so much have aggression and conflict come to characterize our social, economic and religious systems, that many have succumbed to the view that such behaviour is intrinsic to human nature and therefore ineradicable.

With the entrenchment of this view, a paralyzing contradiction has developed in human affairs. On the one hand, people of all nations proclaim not only their readiness but their longing for peace and harmony, for an end to the harrowing apprehensions tormenting their daily lives. On the other, uncritical assent is given to the proposition that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive and thus incapable of erecting a social system at once progressive and peaceful, dynamic and harmonious, a system giving free play to individual creativity and initiative but based on co-operation and reciprocity.

As the need for peace becomes more urgent, this fundamental contradiction, which hinders its realization, demands a reassessment of the assumptions upon which the commonly held view of mankind's historical predicament is based. Dispassionately examined, the evidence reveals that such conduct, far from expressing man's true self, represents a distortion of the human spirit. Satisfaction on this point will enable all people to set in motion constructive social forces which, because they are consistent with human nature, will encourage harmony and co-operation instead of war and conflict. (The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 1)

There is much more that could be said but I'll stop now. You can read another review from a Baha'i blogger here.

I'd love to hear from readers who have seen Avatar. What is your review of the movie? What, if any, connections did you see between its images, metaphors and themes and your spiritual or religious tradition?