December 28, 2009

MOVIES: “AVATAR”

Call me a CGI philistine, but I don't really see what's so technically DIFFERENT about "Avatar" from the other fine SPFX-laden movies these days (even after seeing it in IMAX 3-D), but I will take the film world's word for it that this is a ginormous leap forward. The biggest technological leap forward that I was ever able to perceive on screen is still "Star Wars" (and--I'm serious--the pioneering "Veggie Tales").

"Avatar" is not all about action and special effects, however. There is superlative acting by Sam Worthington* (the soldier), Sigourney Weaver (the chain-smoking scientist), Stephen Lang (the ruthless Colonel). The story is entertaining and satisfying. The banter is amusing and truth-telling.


"Avatar" documents the soldier's struggle. The soldier is always in the middle. Always the one who pays the most: with body, soul, conscience, sanity. (That is, the soldier pays the most after the "collateral damage" innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire.) A soldier's intentions are not necessarily those of the war machine behind him/her (big business, big science, multi-nationals, the military, the government), and the soldier may not always realize this till he/she is in deep.


Jake Sully is a wheelchair-bound Marine who is nobody's first choice for a mission to the moon Pandora where a priceless substance called "unobtanium" is found "below the ground." It's the new petrol that Earth (led by the USA, of course) must have by any means necessary.


Jake goes to Pandora as a native avatar (the natives—the Na'vi--of Pandora are blue, nine-feet tall and have a culture/dress/jewelry/weapons/beliefs/language very similar to Native Americans). Like the movie "Surrogate," people are immobile in a bed-like device while their avatar is active.

Jake is just following orders, doing a job on Pandora--but his heart is strong, good and fearless, which is readily recognized by the natives, especially the chief's daughter, Neytiri, (Zoe Saldana—superlative voice-acting). The natives agree to teach him their ways (as Jake secretly reports back to the Colonel and Grace, the scientist). But when Jake realizes the Na'vi will never move from their uber-valuable home, and the expedition to extract the unobtanium is going ahead at whatever cost, he must choose sides.

What is so thoroughly new and earth-shaking (cosmos-shaking) to me about "Avatar," is its theology. The Na'vi live in harmony with nature (although they kill animals for food, but ask forgiveness of each animal they kill—like Native Americans) and worship a Mother Goddess who is completely transcendent and outside of nature. (Therefore, this is not pantheism, panentheism, or even New Age). We never see her, but the Divine is firmly a character, sustaining life and intervening. Something like the concept of Providence. The Na'vi even say at a certain point: "God will provide." We haven't really seen this kind of a God in the movies before. If there is a mention of God in movies, it's often a kind of magical, God-as-Santa, God-as-a-just-in-case-cover-all-the-bases-God, God-as-superstition, or fleeting references to a rather distant, occasionally meaningful Judaeo-Christian God ("Christian" films and some African-American films are an exception, because God is either central or taken seriously or both).

"Avatar" presents a rather sound natural theology. God is beyond nature, but acting upon and within nature. Nature is presented according to "The Gaia Theory": all of Nature is one giant, interactive, interlocking, entirely interdependent living organism, starting at the sub-atomic level. Usually, the Gaia Theory (a scientific explanation) is presented without reference to God; and religion tends to teach only about God and humans without reference to Nature. "Avatar" brings the two together.

We are so individualistic that we need this message of our profound organic connection--that only modern science could have concretely revealed to us! Yay, modern science! This is ultimately what http://www.themanhattandeclaration.org/ is all about. Our profound interconnectedness.

Extremists at both ends of the environmental movement are actually reading from the same playbook ("extremes meet"). Both those who trash Mother Nature with impunity and those who believe humans are a scourge/plague on the face of the Earth that should be eliminated believe—falsely—that HUMANS ARE NOT A PART OF NATURE. We most certainly are! If we could only recognize our God-designed, God-planned, God-willed "naturalness," which begins with "bodiliness," (Theology of the Body, anyone?) we would all be on the right track. Why else could St. Francis say: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wolf? Was he New Age? Pagan? I think not.

Kudos to writer-director James Cameron (although "Avatar" is obviously not a complete, Christian worldview) for filling in the blanks and connecting the dots between God, man and nature. I really do believe that it's time we started to see more of this convergence on the silver, TV and computer screen. Hollywood's basic silence about God is very unnatural and distressing. We need to see more of this GOD AS EVERYTHING. GOD AS PRIMARY. God who is the Source of all life. Our life. God who is our all. God whom we can and must rely upon. God to whom we have the most basic, fundamental, forever relationship. God who is benevolent and whom we can trust. God, without whose constant love and solicitude we would instantly non-be. God to whom we owe everything (Neytiri: "all energy is borrowed and must be given back some day"). Cameron's script says that we shouldn't be focused on one substance from the earth (oil or "unobtainium"), but on the whole earth as a whole. And what is oil but an energy source? The point is clearly made that God is the energy source we all need to be in touch with first, from whom all life and healing and necessities will flow and be taken care of. WOWZA. (Unfortunately, this worldview seems only to apply to Pandora, not anywhere else. But it's a start.)

A word about the women in "Avatar." The female soldiers are all tougher-than-thou, swaggering broads (OK, Michelle Rodriguez really IS tough) who exemplify the male paradigm better than men. Newsflash: This is Feminism 1.0. Can we please see women in traditionally male-held occupations who are, well, a little softer? Who don't look like they're going to suddenly spew tobacco on my shoes at any minute? You see, if we can be women on screen rather than men, this means we've arrived. This means that we don't have anything to prove, that the female paradigm is legit. "We're not there in the real world yet," you say? Well, how about using the media to hasten the day? Is it not arguable that shows like "The Cosby Show" portrayed what can be, or rather a section of the population that existed, but had no visibility in the popular imagination? Practice can precede precept. The female Na'vi are also just female males. They are hunters and warriors. There are NO pregnant Na'vi chicks, and there are NO children nowhere. Only when our emotional heartstrings are being pulled at the end –SPOILER ALERT!—and the Na'vi's home is ready to be fire-bombed do we hear: "There are children and babies down there!" Um, OK—we'll take your word for it (and we've already seen lots of crowd shots). All I could think of was the nomadic Neanderthals. It's believed they went extinct for many, many reasons, but one of them was the lack of division of tasks. Pregnant women and infants went on the hunt. I shudder to think. (There was no way to cook or preserve food—it was hand-to-mouth.)

This is a film squarely about culture, about God, and about the colossal shooting-oneself-in-the-foot foolishness of "might makes right." It made me think: who COULD kick the butt of the "just take whatever you want" United States portrayed in "Avatar"? Hmmm, Mother Nature, perhaps? I have huge doubts about where "global warming" is actually going (I've read Al Gore, the "disaster" scientists who says it's too late to do ANYTHING, and the "denying" scientists who say we're going to be fine), but if you "you-know-what" in your own bed or "you-know-what" where you eat, you're going to have to sleep in it and eat it.

OTHER STUFF:

--Jake has good instincts. And shouldn't all the awesome technology he's using also be used for the wonder, fun, exploration, and joy Jake wants to use it for in the beginning (not just for profiteering and destruction)? But in the end, isn't he dumb for not seeing the big, destructive picture he was an integral part of? But in the end, wasn't he smart to know how to win the respect of the tribe back?

--Wasn't Jake cruel to let Neytiri fall in love with him (an avatar!)? But of course there are two examples in the movie (don't wanna spoil it) when/where the real J & N meet....

--J & N are like online dating. You get to know what's inside a person first (if they're honest) and then you meet in the flesh....

--This coming together of real and virtual worlds is another huge theme of "Avatar." At a certain point, I wasn't really distinguishing too much (I "fell for it"!), and by the end, there's a total enmeshment during the battle and of course after....

--I was disappointed by the small IMAX 3-D at Navy Pier, Chicago. First of all, what happened to those huge nausea-inducing-side-of-20-barns-size screens? And the 3-D wasn't all that. But, I was in the first row. And my 3-D glasses were smudgy. And maybe I wasn't supposed to have my 3-D glasses smashed against my eyes, but perched on the end of my nose. And maybe they were getting all foggy because I ran to the theater in a snowstorm. And maybe my eyes are aging and I need real glasses.

--"Avatar" is available in 2-D, IMAX 3-D, Digital 3-D, and Real D 3-D. Say wha????

--I thought the stakes could have been higher than Jake wanting his legs back. And he was never in any real danger, only his avatar was. If there had been some kind of life-and-death CONNECTION between avatar Jake and real Jake, that would have totally upped the ante.

--"Avatar," set in the future, refers to wars in the past with Venezuela and Nigeria….hmmm. What do these two countries have in common?

--If the "Mother Goddess" is outside of and acting on "Mother Earth," where's the yin and the yang? Why is it OK to say "Mother," but not "Father"?

--We don't seem to see any worship/adoration/praise of God in "Avatar," but petition, trust and providence is a good start.

--Like "Book of Eli," is Cameron using exciting, entertaining violence to tell us that violence isn't the way?

--1/17/10 New York Times crossword puzzle already using "Tree of Souls"!

--My definition of Virtual Reality: ANY media representation of reality. If the FULL gift of the bodily presence is not there, it's VR. To put it positively: VR can extend a PART of the gift of the bodily presence in space and time.

--For me, the very simple difference between reality and VR is the body.
1. God created us as bodies. 2. Bodies define us. 3. Bodies are not optional.
Even though it seemed like Jake was really getting in touch with his body and nature and animals on Pandora, he was not. His body was in a pod. He may have been able to experience scent, touch, taste, etc., neurologically only, but—that ain't livin'. Of course, as a paraplegic, this is the ONLY way he could experience being ambulatory again. But it still wasn't his own legs.

--At a certain point Jake says: "Now 'out there' is the true world and here is the dream." Will we ever get to that point as we develop VR? Are we already there? Made me think of Native Americans and the importance they put on DREAMS, a kind of virtual reality! While they were awake, they were also very aware of the "spirit world," which--I think I read somewhere that along with the dreams they believed came from the spirit world--was more real to them than "reality." Interesting. And the Native Americans didn't have the media gadgets that we have today. I'm not even sure that they all had written languages.

--The Na'vi call the earthlings' avatars "dream walkers." And when one disconnected avatar falls to the ground mid-sentence, a Na'vi picks up the body and says: "These are demons in false bodies!" Hmmmm.

--This is a true humanist movie. Yay! Humans (or humanoids) have dominion (not domination) over the earth (or Pandora) and are called to be good stewards. Yay!

--Interesting use of the word "natives" and "aliens." Who's who? When and where?

--Hurrah for the hammerhead rhinos!

--The ultimate cynicism of the Colonel: It will always come to force. Force is the only way to get things done.

--Could an avatar ever be made of organic material? Can organic and synthetic materials ever be fully fused? (It's being attempted as we speak.)

--"Avatar" seems to be James Cameron's idea of utopia (or he is just tapping into the Joseph Campbell deep mythology school of filmmaking).

--The Na'vi "mate for life."

--If I could ask James Cameron ONE question, it would be: Why did you make a THEOLOGICAL film? He didn't have to. It could have been about "the Force" or just life energy. This is THE most theological film (centered squarely on the absolute necessity of God) that I have ever seen.
Seems I have my answer in this interview with "Entertainment Weekly" (1/22/10) p. 35. The magazine was quoting some comments on the film and Cameron was replying.
COMMENT: "This movie in all aspects was the best movie ever, the Holy Spirit spoke to me all the way through.... I am convinced this was of God."
Cameron: "Well, that's nice. Forget about the divine or the mystical. I think it's really more about being in touch with the unconscious.... The more you are in touch with that kind of unconscious dream state, the more you're in touch with the audience."
The question still remains why he DID make it theological, though, although Cameron goes on to state that he doesn't always know why he makes the choices he does in his films and can't explain it.

--The audience clapped at the end.

AFTER THE GOLDEN GLOBES 1/10:

--Cameron explained his movie thus: "We are all connected, and we're all connected to the earth. If we have to go to a moon with blue people to understand that, so be it."
___
*Worthington has mastered that American soldier look in his eye, and he's not even American. He resembles a cross between a young (singer) Everlast and wrestler John Cena. Worthington was in "Terminator Salvation" and was seriously considered to play James Bond in "Casino Royale" which went, of course, to Daniel Craig (BIG MISTAKE).

____________________

From an email I received:

ANONYMOUS:
Maybe I'll say Pope Benedict XVI and your "Catholic New World" review are at odds on the theology of "Avatar."
Did you read AP's quotes from L'Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio on the movie? Supposedly they "reflect Pope Benedict XVI's views on the dangers of turning nature into a 'new divinity.'"
And then there's Sister Helena (the Lib) "connecting the dots between God, man and nature."
We also have the decorated Marine veteran alderman of the 11th ward who says, the film makes Marines "look like lunatics." He added, "We are a good, generous country that helps people. They never mentioned America but when you have the eagle, globe and anchor -- the Marine Corps emblem -- it has to be America." And Tom Roeser (Catholic conservative) echoed that with "This is the only time I ever sat in a theater where people were cheering the forest and the blue people, attacking ex-Marines."

MY RESPONSE:
I knew "Avatar" would cause a stir (the movie itself and any halfway positive review, like mine).

There are two major points of "controversy": First, the portrayal of not just the (thinly-veiled) U.S.-led "Earth" military, but how big government, big science, big business (multi-nationals, not just the U.S.), all work together for better or for worse. Second: the huge theological underpinnings of the world of the Na'vi (on the fantastical animated planet).

First: The "military-industrial complex" (as you know, this term was coined by Eisenhower). Although "Avatar" makes a kind of caricature out of each character representing military, science, business, government, "Avatar" is actually an ode to the individual SOLDIER, doing all the dirty work, putting their life on the line, getting caught up in moral dilemmas. It is interesting that "Jake," the soldier is recognized as having a "very pure spirit" by the Na'vi. Jake is not against violence or use of force, only if it is used immorally. If you read my full review:
http://hellburns.blogspot.com/2009/12/movies-avatar.html I really bring this out. I chopped this piece from the CNW review because I wanted to focus on the "God" part and I only have 450 words. eek!. "Avatar" really warranted a longer review to do it justice and avoid confusion. (Please read my whole review, even though it's lengthy.)

Second: I knew people would cry "New Age"! with regard to the God/religion element in "Avatar," but it's not. Unfortunately, what happened, (Catholic News Agency for one) is that it got called "Gnosticism"! "Avatar" is the exact opposite! There is a great lack of critical thinking here and ignorance of the actual meaning of words and concepts. The God/religion in "Avatar" is concrete. It's not a fuzzy "spirituality," it's a concrete nature religion. "Religion" means "to bind," "to connect." Religion deals in tangibles. "Spirituality" deals in just that: the spiritual, the unseen, the often "whatever you want it to be." As I mentioned, the religion is very similar to Native American religions. There is a transcendent God over all who gives and sustains everything, all life. It's a Mother Goddess (see my blog review for my problems with that). The amazing thing to me is that we don't see this kind of COMPREHENSIVE God (of whatever ilk) in the movies. Ever. God is always kept at a safe distance with a small role to play (if any). The entire ending of "Avatar" depends on GOD. And not "deus ex machina" either. GOD is everything, God is integral, God is absolutely necessary. Everything depends on God. This is the point I was trying to make.

Something else that has been going on lately with movie reviews/critiques: people are taking anything that is said by anybody in Rome about a movie and saying "the Vatican declares..." even though nothing has been said in an official capacity or by people with the duty to speak for various offices, etc. Taking the Pope's words out of context and applying them is not good either. In the movie "Avatar," nature is NOT worshipped, is NOT divine, but is dependent on an outside God for life. Actually, if one reads the Pope's strong pro-Creation talk from Jan. 1 (from which the cautionary words about making nature divine were taken), they would be found to be more in SUPPORT of "Avatar"'s respect for nature/living in harmony with nature, actually!

I have great respect for Tom Roeser and his writings. But what is being portrayed in "Avatar" is a (fictional) immoral action by the Marines/U.S./multinational-army-representing-Earth, which nobody should want to defend.

In the end, this is a fantasy. Pot-shot at U.S./military? Perhaps, but not a cheap shot. Again, Jake, the soldier is a hero (who never ceases being a soldier/warrior).

I would suggest you see the movie for yourself and see if what I'm saying isn't true....

ANONYMOUS:
thanks again, Sister -- you have a fresh approach, without an obvious agenda -- that's why you're sometimes dangerous.

MY RESPONSE:
ha ha--basically what i do is write a rambling, freestyle, non-linear, no-holds barred review for my blog. then i trim that down and edit it like crazy to be much more formal and non-first-person and appropriate for CNW. 450 words is the standard length of my review for CNW.
thanks for saying i don't have an agenda cuz i like to think that. i try to come at it very honestly AND unsuspiciously. i don't bend over backwards to "find the good"--i just really let the thing speak to me, judging it by filmmaking (screenwriting mostly) standards, philosophy, media literacy, theology of the body and the Catholic Faith! i am not looking for the usual "red flags" that causes predictable, stereotyping, alarmist reactions. I am in nobody's camp, but I know how various camps will interpret movies (and my reviews). but i must call 'em like i see 'em. my most difficult review that i'm still rather uncomfortable with actually was "new moon" and this whole thing about "losing one's soul".... i'm still rather disquieted by it. more and more we are seeing this "in between" world on the screen--neither earth, purgatory, heaven or hell--it's just this "other place" where people like the undead hang around.....with it's own rules and stuff. lots of this on TV, too: "medium," "ghost whisperer." maybe it's a kind of limbo. which should now be shuttered (pope B).

i meant to mention to you that James Cameron is no "friend" to Christianity. That's why it's so curious to me that he got "sound natural theology" down quite correctly! (he executive-produced that Canadian documentary on "They Found Jesus" Family Tomb!" in Israel. Jesus' wife, Mary Magdalene was in the family tomb, of course, along with Jesus' bones and the bones of his mother Mary.) HA HA HA.

Check out this NYTimes review that says "A" is actually insulting to indigenous peoples:
http://nyti.ms/4UcofD because of the "White Messiah" thing.

Here are some more interesting reviews:

Fr. Robert Barron praises the prominence of religion in "A," (but I still disagree about the "pantheism"). The mother goddess IS personal: she "decides" and "provides" and when one of the characters dies, they go to "be with" the mother goddess. There are two different things going on: created energy/interconnected life force on the moon Pandora, and the goddess outside of it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtZyku2H1PI

Randy Beeler (young Catholic dude) does fascinating reading of "A" as a kind of anti-Gospel. The blue princess Neytiri is a demonic anti-Mary! I don't think "A" is that sinister, but this is still a fascinating read (check out the anti-Pieta!) http://triptbishop.blogspot.com/2010/01/avatars-cuddly-demons-naah-blue-is.html

Check out the obsessed fan site: http://www.naviblue.com/

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