Thursday, February 4, 2010


It was bound to happen any day now. This past Tuesday, Avatar became the #1 domestic grossing film of all time. Bringing in a total of $602 million, Avatar pushed ahead of James Cameron’s other blockbuster film, Titanic. Just last week, it brought in over $2 billion worldwide to become the all-time grossing film. If that’s not enough great news for the producers of Avatar, this week they received 9 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It was a very good week.

I know everybody, including your grandmother, has probably written something about Avatar. So do I have something new to say? I will give it a go. First, I saw Avatar back in December in its full glory on IMAX 3-D. I’ve got to tell you. I was totally blown away. It’s quite a visual experience. I had never seen a movie in 3-D. There’s no question that the stars of this film are the technology, special effects and CGI. You are going to want every movie that you watch from this point on shot in 3-D. It’s a huge leap forward. For me it was like that Star Wars experience, seeing something fresh and innovative for the first time. It was well worth my $14 investment.

Now, the bad news. When I saw Avatar, I had some doubts that this film would become a huge blockbuster. Sure the sci-fi and techie fans would provide a solid base. But would the general public respond, which is a requirement for getting a mega, super-blockbuster status? I thought the story was one-dimensional and pretty straightforward. It was like I’d seen all this before in countless other sci-fi movies.

When I walked out of the theater, I was thinking, “Did I just see “Dances with Wolves” in outer space?” It’s hard not to see the comparison. A disillusioned, hopeless, tragic figure journeys to a faraway place to discover his true identity and was transformed by an indigenous people, who are wise and connected spiritually to nature and the land. As a result, our hero turns away from his past, evil culture only to be unmercifully hunted down as a traitor to his people and their way of life. Sound familiar? But to be fair, the Avatar concept is brilliant. What better way to interact with an alien race than to actually become an alien.

But putting the Avatar concept aside, I have to tell you this story could have been written by a first-year film student. It follows a fairly predictable story structure that every film student is familiar with—the hero’s journey. I would have expected a little more from a $300 million film. The other thing that is hard to ignore is there are no original or authentic characters in the entire film. Each character is stereotypical right from the gung- ho, kill everything that moves, over-the-top colonel played by Stephen Lang to the crusty, rough-around-the edges but heart of gold lead scientist (Sigourney Weaver). Yes, we have seen these characters countless times. It’s right out of the screenwriter’s playbook.

Now to the messy stuff. Is this a message movie? Is this a spiritual movie? No doubt James Cameron is weaving social and political themes into Avatar. He certainly is speaking out about militarism, capitalism and imperialism. Some have suggested Avatar is a reflection of America’s political and military objectives in the Middle East. Is that a fair comparison? It’s a possibility, but you will have to decide.

To add some balance, yes we have had a somewhat ugly history of dealing with indigenous people. I think we all remember the treatment of Native Americans, African-Americans and, more recently, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But does that mean today’s America is a bloodthirsty nation determined to dispossess others for their natural resources for our advancement?

Now the spiritual issues. Yes, our main character, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), does go through a significant spiritual journey which leads to his healing both mentally and physically. The people of Pandora believe all living things are connected to one another. Their god, Eywa, is portrayed as a mother goddess. In fact, all living things, including nature and the land itself, are part of the godhead. You may recognize this as a form of pantheism. As a Christian, I believe we could all do a better job of being a steward of the natural resources that God has entrusted to us. So, I don’t have a problem with taking care of nature. No question about it. God’s grace and His design and handiwork can be found everywhere on planet Earth. Nothing wrong with clean water or clean air, but we should not put it at the center of the universe and worship it.

Bottom line. As long as you know what the message is, I recommend that you take a look at Avatar. The visual experience is worth the trip. See it now on 3-D IMAX before it’s too late. It will not be the same experience even if you have the best home theater system. As for the message, I think it will give you an opportunity to talk about spirituality with your friends. It’s a great way to start a dialogue about the importance of nature and how God is at work in nature. There is something about the essence of God in nature because He is part of the equation. Maybe that is why so many people feel connected to Avatar.

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