The Movie Itself
I went with a friend to see the new movie Avatar over the weekend. Unbeknownst to us, there was a 3D version (which we were expecting) and a regular version. By mistake, we meandered into the regular version.
Still, even without the 3D special affects, the movie itself was visually breathtaking. The constant use of luminescence in the forest, the mythical animals, the indigenous population all were the result of a highly talented and imaginative mind. In fact, the graphics were so good that it carried the rather weak storyline.
This isn't to say that the story wasn't interesting. The tale is told in such a way that it made me care about the characters. My daughter and son-in-law recently showed me two DVD's that featured characters that were so one-dimensional that I really didn't care if they lived or died. Therefore, the parts that were supposed to be scary, weren't.
In contrast, the characters in this narrative are more than mere paper cut-outs. All but one (the single minded military commander whose every line and action is painfully predictable) have enough significant conflicts as to make them interesting.
The plot itself, on the other hand, was completely foreseeable. Merely viewing the trailer tells you everything you need to know to write the storyline before actually seeing the film.
Nevertheless, the strength of the special effects and the general character development caused the film to remain interesting, sometimes even moving, and broadly entertaining.
The Messiah as Plot Device
Avatar's story is solely supported by what might be called the Messiah Plot Device. Common in all sorts of stories and film, the Messiah Plot Device is taken (in very general terms) from the common (mis)understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus. Always painted in broad strokes, I've listed some of the common elements to this theme. While seldom are all the elements present, there are usually several from this list that make identification fairly obvious.
- The Messiah figure either possesses or develops in the course of events a unique gift that profoundly impacts the lives of others.
- This gift is often the result of an unspoken providence, sometimes the fulfillment of a prophecy or an uncanny likeness to a former hero. Special points are given when the protagonist is given a name like "The One" or "The Chosen One."
- He is often encouraged by an older wiser figure to guide him in "the path."
- The Messianic character either has always acted or makes a decision to act outside the boundaries of accepted social behavior. This makes him at once a hated and beloved figure.
- He is often forced to become an outcast by his own people and /or the people he is trying to save. Rejection by his own people causes him to be hunted. Rejection by the people he is trying to save is based upon misunderstanding and/or tradition.
- Catastrophe awaits the weak if the Messiah doesn't act.
- The weak are presented as worthy of being saved, often because of their deep connection to "the land." This connection can be either ecological or historical.
- The action necessary to save requires either the laying down of his life or, at a minimum, risking his life in a hopeless quest. The unspoken, but nevertheless obvious acts of providence is often required to ensure the success of this quest.
- In the process of procuring salvation, the character grows wiser, is bound by principles rather than societal rules or mere tradition, overcomes his fears, and grows spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
- Whether or not he survives the quest, the weak are saved from certain destruction and he leaves a deeply emotional and spiritual legacy for others to follow.
As one reviews this list, it is easy to spot both literary and theatrical figures that fit this model. Here are just a couple out of dozens of examples that could be mentioned:
Neo in The Matrix is "The One" who fulfills prophecy, bends the computer reality to his will, is loved by some and hated by others (who do nothing it seems but hunt him), is the ultimate non-conformist who must save the helpless ones that don't even know that they need saving.
Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy all exhibit, in one fashion or another, the mixture or prophecy, special giftedness, providential care or purpose, and a quest to save those connected to the Land (in this case the Shire).
Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is told by his mother that he had no father (alluding to a virgin birth) while Qui Gon believes that the one who will "bring balance to the force" is the young Anakin.
Even in the arena of politics, this Messiah theme can be seen. Some think that Oprah Winfrey's introduction of Barack Obama as "The One" is the best example of this trend. But it certainly isn't the first. Consider the Messianic tone of this political commercial from 1964. The implication is that certain destruction awaits if you don't vote for Lyndon Johnson or even if you do nothing at all.
Avatar makes generous use of this Messianic Plot Device. Jake, a paraplegic war veteran, is given a body to control in order to interact with the Na'vi, a humanoid race with their own language and culture, which, as far as I can tell at least, was modeled after Hollywood's conception of Native American cultures. They are in danger of destruction from the greedy mining company. Jake learns their ways, falls in love, and…well…you can pretty much guess the rest.
The Problem of Application
Because of the general nature of the plot, different interpretations as to the meaning of the film are already being bandied about. It appears the two most common are 1) this is the story of the Native Americans as they were pushed onto the reservations, and 2) this is the story of the Iraqi people, being exploited for their oil.
There is one major problem with either interpretation. In fact, it's a problem with applying this film to any historical situation. While I understand that the Na'vi are a different species, the application of their society to human history requires us to transfer human characteristics to them as well. In fact, the movie portrays them as human in everything but form. And therein lies the problem.
This movie presents the oppressed Na'vi as an ideal society. They are in touch with nature, have a culture composed of order and justice, and use violence only to protect and eat. Even then, they feel incredibly guilty about the taking of life. The problem, therefore, is that this is a fiction; this type of society has never existed, for the issue of sin is absent.
No society without Christ has been or ever will be righteous and just. Because sin is a universal experience, all the injustices, violence, cruelties, greed, hatred, corruption, betrayal, and any other sin that could be mentioned, will be present at every level of society. From the bottom rungs to the seats of power, the ravages of sin will be evident. The lack of such evidence makes any application of this fictional society to the real world a mere caricature of what has actually occurred.
Consider the conquest of the West. There were no good guys and bad guys. Depending on the situation, both sides acted nobly and both sides acted savagely. In fact, the latter was far more prevalent than the former. In this clash of civilizations, it's far easier to recognize the winner than it is to identify who was morally superior. Just like the rest of the world through history, the nations were taking their stand together against the LORD and his Anointed One.
This isn't to say that in the history of the world there haven't been incredibly violent and cruel regimes bent on conquest and destruction. The evidence supporting that claim is overwhelming. This fact isn't being challenged.
What is being challenged is the idea of a totally innocent society which is just and righteous without Christ. There has never been an example of this and there never will be. Even those societies that take the name "Christian" don't measure up to that standard. Every society has been a mixture of order and chaos, of justice and injustice, of law and lawlessness. And in fairness, there has been far more chaos, injustice, and lawlessness than anything resembling righteousness.
I've come to the conclusion that there is such a thing as a just war. That some nations are more evil than others. But none are righteous. And that makes the application of this film a fool's errand.
If your looking for a good story, you will be mildly disappointed. If you're interested in a thoughtful critique of the human condition and the wars in which nations engage, you will walk away empty. But if you're looking for mindless entertainment and great special effects, you will be satisfied. And to be honest, looking for anything else in a Hollywood production is a mere exercise in futility.