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?


  1. These explanations won't cease to amaze me...

  2. Great post Phillipe, I really loved your observations. I'm especially interested in your mention of Tree symbolism, I love the use of nature imagery in the Baha'i writings. Very thoughtful analysis.

  3. Anonymous11:40 PM

    Phillipe, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review and reflections! I found the movie quite amazing also.

    Taking the tree connection further, the concept of praying also shone through strongly when Jake Sully prays for assistance, just before the major battle. Two things strike me here. Firstly, whilst he believes he is some sort of a 'chosen one' he still feels the need to draw on heavenly aid, and secondly, the channel by which he prays is through those who have passed away, and this is comparable to the belief that souls that have transcended to the next world can act as mediators or like angels to help and guide us in times of tests and difficulties.

    Shamim K

  4. In addition to these interesting perspectives, another is to consider the notion of "avatar" as embodiment ... but of what? A Baha'i notion might be that one's spirit is, in essence, embodiment of qualities and attributes that define one's being, that is, one's existential reality. The use of the word "avatar" has always had either a positive or negative connotation. The positive relates perhaps to those positive attributes and qualities, whereas the negative is the flip side of the dualistic coin of human nature (the lower nature, which can also embody negative qualities and attributes).

  5. Loved the film. The film did work for me in few places the visual part rest it was all the way downhill.

  6. Anonymous5:57 AM

    You've really done a great job of incorporating the Baha'i perspective here. I was in the process of writing a very different review when a friend of mine emailed me this link. I'm rethinking now. I have a couple points though. One is that in the movie the Earth was dying and it stood to reason that the unobtainium could somehow save or at least prolong Earth (hence it's great value). So, like with oil, it isn't purely just greed motivating the "bad guys". Its necessity and desperation as well which unfortunately go hand and hand with supply and demand and price. It drove me insane that no one in the movie ever said to the Na'vi: "Please, we need the unobtainium for our dying planet." especially when they were all yelling at Sully. All he said was "The sky people are going to destroy Home Tree." but he didn't say why! Surely the wise, noble and life-respecting Na'vi could be altruistic and have sympathy for an entire dying planet! And if they could not, then perhaps they are xenophobic and selfish themselves.

    Also, I have never subscribed to the idea that there is honor in luddite/mennonite thinking. I love science and technology and i think technological progress is a sure measure of how advanced a civilization is. Baha'u'llah promotes it as well. I mean, what do the Na'vi really do? hunt, eat, have babies, ride animals and worship their ancestors and Gaia, but not God, which is very primitive. They are pantheistic at best. I know i'm taking a nasty stance here, but I really hate it when the makers of movies assume I am so dumb and doughy that they can just tell me how I'm supposed to feel about something.

    Anyway, regardless of those points, I think the movie is really to get us to think and talk about this stuff. Again, you have done an amazing job of showing how the Baha'i Writings are divinely true beyond movies and our debates about them and how they indeed offer the solutions to all the problems of us Earthlings.

  7. Thanks to everyone who has weighed in so far about Avatar. It is amazing how much thought a movie can provoke. The comments are making me think about the movie in some new ways. If you have written a review, please include it as a link in your comments so people can hear more points of view.

  8. Thank you Phillipe for your great insights. I've seen the movie and must say it was a great visual spectacle with another Cameron milestone in movie making. However, for me the story line was a little shallow and very predictable. With that said, I think the movie is overrated, because it lacks to grab your attention beyond its visual effects.

    I wasn't happy with the solution the movie is promoting either. It promotes little tolerance, which is a main ingredient of a peaceful and diverse society. But the movie suggests that we either adapt or we can go to hell.

    Jake was successful in reuniting the tribes of Pandora, but failed to implement a sustainable and lasting solution with the humans. How long will it take before they come back for another shot at those valuable resources. Oh, I heard there's enough material for a sequel. Great! Cameron has another chance to make it right.

    If Jake is the promised one, I'm sure he'll have the power to unite the humans with the Na'vi. But for now, he has failed to do so.

  9. A window of opportunity is that Jake had his life change chance at the very end of the movie while Neo had his during the 1st movie. But this is also following a mesomorph, a do-er personality, through his pov changes. Neo was more an ectomorph, a thinker.

  10. Anonymous11:47 PM

    wow! this is stimulating stuff.
    i loved the movie and like how you've linked it to the Writings. The TREE in the Writings is also a symbol of the Manifestation of God, or Messenger, as the "tree beyond which there is no passing", etc etc. We are all sheltered under these trees, as the Na'vi were in the movie. I don't think Avatar was trying to express this idea - though there were some concepts of Jake as a prophet - but it still came to mind for me.

    I don't think unobtanium (or whatever it's called) could help the Earth in any way, there was no mention of that. It was just worth a lot of money. They weren't trying to heal the earth, just in it for short-term gain.
    Also, their idea of Gaia was God. To me, that was obvious and clear. The creator, the source, the all-knowing. Thus I found it really inspiring.

  11. Philip, I really enjoy how you have incorporated the Baha'i writings into the plot of the movie. I have to say that watching the movie, it was quite visually stunning. I had to remind myself that the movie normally would be in 2D instead of 3D.

    I think that the way the Na'vi went about to solve the situation wouldn't necessarily solve the problem in the end. As I watching the movie, a quote from Baha'u'llah came mind "...Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the "Most Great Peace" shall come.... These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family.... Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind.... (words spoken by Baha'u'llah to Prof. E.G. Browne of Cambridge University in 1890)"

    I really liked though to see the multi-dimenational connections that the Na'vi had with the beings on Pandora and the planet itself; a real symbiosis. It was beautifully done. It reminded me a lot of Native values.

  12. I really liked reading your review. In fact I read it before seeing the movie and I paid attention to certain things I might have otherwise missed. Some might say I entered the movie prejudiced, but I view it quite the opposite - I went in with eyes wide open. One more thing I'd like to add - not sure if it hasn't been mentioned yet in the other comments - is in relation to your point 3. In the beginning they talk about the avatar and how it is supposed to work as closely as possible with the mind of the human belonging to it. To me this resembles to some extend the Baha'i understanding of our body being the temple of our soul in this world. I don't think it is purely accidental that we were given the bodies we've got. I think they are the perfect temple for the individual souls and were created just for us and nobody else.