James Cameron has a knack of making films that redefine cinematic boundaries. Titanic did it, and now he has done it all over again with his latest film Avatar.
The facts speak for themselves: a $280,000,000 budget; 14 years to make it; new technology invented; box office returns of $1 billion in just 17 days; two Golden Globe awards; 8 Bafta and 9 Oscar nominations.
Set in the future, it tells the story of a paraplegic marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who becomes part of a team sent out to the distant planet Pandora. The planet is populated by a race of humanoids called the ‘Na’vi’ (think 9-foot Smurfs!), who live idyllic lives unspoiled by modern technology. Jake’s job when he arrives is to work for a greedy corporation mining the planet’s natural resources.
He is tasked with infiltrating the Na’vi to provide valuable information for the mining company. The way he does this is through an ‘Avatar’- a Na’vi body that he is able to control by his mind. But as he spends time with the tribe he soon finds himself drawn to their way of life and desires to protect rather than exploit them.
The most striking aspect of the film is its visuals – and they are quite staggering. In Pandora, Cameron has created a breathtaking world that it is hard not to get drawn into. There are some good performances too, not least Sigourney Weaver as a fiery scientist.
But whilst the visuals may be groundbreaking, the plot certainly isn’t. It’s very similar to Dances with wolves or even Pocahontas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the dialogue doesn’t breathe new life into the formula.
Some of the themes are problematic. Cameron clearly didn’t want to make another brainless blockbuster, so is keen to convey messages. At times it plays like a piece of green propaganda (nature is good, technology and business bad); or possibly an anti-colonial political tract (the greedy corporation representing Bush’s America, Pandora Iraq).
A film that makes the viewer think may be commendable, but Cameron’s message is delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Whatever your politics, these are complex issues that need to be carefully weighed.
The film is rich with themes echoing the Bible’s. There is an interesting dynamic between the need for beauty – Pandora is a kind of Eden – and man’s capacity to destroy all that is good and right. The film foregrounds human frailty and the desire to become new.
Every time Jake takes over his Avatar he is able to walk and run – things he is unable to do in his human body. It is actually the promise of restored legs that leads him to accept the mission in the first place. These aspirations echo the concrete hope of a physical restoration and renewal promised in the gospel.
But, above everything else, Avatar is a long sermon about pantheism – a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. ‘Salvation’ comes in two ways in the film. The first is through ‘Eywa’ described as the ‘All mother’.
She is a kind of earth goddess who embodies all natural energy. But she offers no personal relationship, no fellowship with her followers – only a vague sense of being a benevolent mystical force. This is Hollywood pantheism, that you find in many films from The Lion king to Star wars.
But Eywa isn’t enough to save them; they also need Jake and his Avatar. In fact, an Avatar, in Hindu understanding, is a deity who has chosen to come down to earth in a representative form. And Jake, becoming one of the Na’vi, does bring a kind of salvation, albeit as a very flawed saviour with a very limited salvation.
Here a useful window is opened to the gospel. The Bible teaches that Jesus stepped down from the outside and became one of us (John 1) in order to save us. But he didn’t come as a flawed saviour like Jake. He came as the perfect Saviour to bring full and perfect salvation, to make known the true God. That God is not indistinguishable from the world, but is its creator and redeemer.
The ‘gospel’ of Cameron only offers a slender hope – an impersonal god who will never ask too much of us and a flawed saviour who only offers a partial salvation. The gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, promises a full, complete and glorious hope, both now and for ever.