Monday, December 28, 2009

“Avatar”- Just a high-tech caricature?

So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For, as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.' Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead...." (Acts 17:22-29)

Conservative reviews of Avatar (e.g. by Movieguide's Dr. Ted Baehr and WND's Drew Zahn) definitely worked to prejudice my mind against James Cameron's reportedly groundbreaking blockbuster. They led me to expect an idol worshipping, anti-American screed calculated to draw impressionable minds into the moat of self-hatred that separates the zombies of the Obama faction from those still loyal to the American creed. Sometimes such reviews would be enough to convince me not to waste time on the glamorous evil of America hating propagandists, or add my resources to the treasury that finances their power.

But since childhood I've been a sucker for cinema fairy tales and science fiction. I've also had a weakness for animated films, inbred during the years when Disney was a name decent parents (including mine) still trusted. My adult years have been marked (or marred?) by a fascination with the new worlds of human expression cyber-technology makes possible. I am also convinced that those of us who fight to preserve America's respect for the authority of the Creator cannot do so with full intelligence if we simply ignore the powerful means this technology offers human fabricators to influence the backdrop of conscience and emotion against which the battle takes place.

The socialist forces seeking to establish an international regime of totalitarian elite domination use scenarios of global ecological collapse to foment the mentality of fearful crisis that serves their political agenda. As we now understand better than ever, this involves fabrications in the disguise of science. It has also routinely involved the use of cinematic fabrications that prepare the soil of human conscience and emotion to accept without question the lies disguised as 'scientific' facts.

Brandon Gray's description of Avatar as "a fantasy or science fiction action-adventure that's not based on pre-established material" may be accurate in the strict sense. But as fantasy melodrama, the film is highly derivative. In fact, this is probably among its most glaring flaws. Drew Zahn rightly describes it as "Ferngully on steroids, only not as subtle". But its predictable storyline seems equally beholden to a range of films from Star Trek: Insurrection (which involved a scheme to move an outwardly simple but morally sophisticated people from their beloved home planet in order to exploit a form of energy uniquely available there) to low grade epics like Sheena or the whole series of Johnny Weissmuller vehicles (e.g., Tarzan's Secret Treasure.) Like Avatar's protagonist, the English Lord gone African native, Tarzan, was known to whistle up a herd of angry elephants or well armored rhinos to crush the enemy's superior firepower. And as in Sheena (a similar plot, also set in Africa, with a nativized American woman as the movie's protagonist and namesake), there are feminist and sensualist touches that mark it, for better or worse, as a contemporary contraption. Avatar basically offers nothing truly original beyond a marriage of 3D, CGI and live action that moves well beyond the not so civil unions of the past.

In this respect the film reminded me of Titanic, the unequaled box office smash for which James Cameron's name is (and probably always will be) best remembered. The technological centerpiece of that film was the enormous set, a meticulous, carefully engineered reproduction of the ill fated passenger liner. Because Cameron invests such enormous money and energy creating the technological backdrop for of his productions he tends to spend way too much film time dwelling with prideful affection on the result. Some of that time would be better spent drawing his audience more deeply into the human and emotional background. That would have meant spending more time drawing the audience into the personal lives and relationships of the immigrants on the "Titanic", going beyond stylized scenes involving their amusements or externally caused travails. It would mean giving the audience a deeper sense of the personal lives and emotions of the alien natives of Avatar's planet Pandora, as well as the rank and file mercenaries who make up the security forces ultimately used to devastate their home.

The 3D technology in Avatar represents an almost seamless blend of living and imaginary elements that marks a new frontier for the cinematic use of animation (in the broadest sense of the term.) Unfortunately, Cameron's presentation of life through his characters is in other, ultimately more important ways, utterly lacking in depth and complexity. The images seem real, but by comparison the words and actions of the characters seem like the stick figures of a child's drawing, so abstract that only the over generous imagination of childhood, or the pristine power of adolescent romantic passion, lend them any semblance of true personality.

I believe this flaw is what keeps the movie from living up to its negative billing as an anti-American rant. Toward the beginning the invalid marine protagonist comments that at home marines fight for freedom, but on Pandora their only incentive is greed. The commander of the corporation's security forces is a one dimensional caricature meant to embody the perfect (and therefore indiscriminately destructive) military instrument of unbridled corporate greed. People who see anything especially "American" in this caricature say more about their own tragically distorted understanding of what it means to be American than they do about the film, whatever its intention.

As a black American I've lived all of my adult life recognizing the need to make a distinction between what America is and the injustice some Americans do. I have no problem cheering for innocent people, whatever their religious persuasion, when they fight back against those (American or otherwise) who disregard the spirit and personality of others in order to treat them as inferior beings to be casually swept aside by the juggernauts of greed and material power. I see nothing anti-American in their fight because the American creed champions the intrinsic, God ordained worth of every person, and condemns those whose pursuit of gold, business success or scientific progress impels them to disregard the lives and rights of innocent individuals or peoples. Throughout our history this has led Americans to support the cause of such peoples,
from 19th Mexico and Latin and South America, to 20th century Spain and Greece. Such American support was sometimes ignorant, thoughtless or naïve about what constitutes the better alternative to such power mad oppression, but a thoroughly American sense of justice inspired even such errors.

Avatar depicts a race of aliens facing such an unjust assault. They are people who believe that one living being unifies their people with all the living things on their world. A glowing, fern like 'Tree of Life' represents their point of contact with this world being. They believe that in death all who are truly part of the people return to this being. They believe that it is possible to pray to this being and by communion with it to commune with those who have departed this life. They believe that this being commands respect for life, and that healing, even at the brink of death, is possible by the power of this communion.

If we insist we can see in this depiction simply an effort to seduce vulnerable minds with lying semblances of truth. However, there's nothing particularly Christian about dismissing the wholesome elements of pagan belief as somehow inherently evil. The great Christian evangelists who spread the Gospel to the barbarian peoples as they overran the Roman Empire, and converted hearts in Asia, Africa and the Western hemisphere down through the centuries rather used God's word and their own Christ inspired discourse and actions to help people take hold of the little strand of truth contained in such beliefs. They sought to guide them, by dint of the reason and right sentiment God built into us, along the path that confronts mind and heart with the truth revealed by God in Scripture, and especially in the life and ministry of His Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

The notion that some force in being unites all things is not the whole truth, but it reflects openness to the truth, established by the hand of God in the heart of all creation. The Bible reveals that there is but one God, one being from whom all things arise. Christ particularly emphasized the unifying force of being, which is His love. This oneness of being, in and through the love of God, may not be the same as the unity in nature worshipped by the alien natives in Avatar (or some real tribes and peoples on planet Earth) but it offers a starting point and common ground for the conversation of mind and heart that is the vehicle of conversion. Christians have no reason to fear such depictions of pagan belief, or treat them as inherently hostile or simply wicked. In fact, if we are not willing to look at them and think them through, how can the conversations that might lead to conversion take place?

James Cameron's cinematic work combines technological sophistication with an almost pathetically childish want of moral and spiritual maturity. In this he seems to reproduce the tragic flaw of the society whose people have made his films so profitable. Are the followers of Christ in America so caught up in the conflictual logic of the contemporary moral, social and political struggle that we cannot see that America now represents a mission field, its soil rich and much of it untilled? Are we so busy defending Christianity against attack that we forget our truer vocation, which is to share with all the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Part of this evangelizing work must involve taking seriously the strands of truth contained in works like Avatar; helping people to see the contradictions involved in the flawed human presentation of truth; and introducing them to the deep consistency with which the Gospel reveals what human craftsmen can, by themselves, only dimly see or represent.

In Avatar, for example, the native aliens of planet Pandora profess great respect for life, yet contemn and are moved to slay, with little qualm or introspection, the alien visitors whose blundering seems at first to involve only inadvertent destructiveness. Though their own use of the animals on the planet involves negotiation (symbolized by a form of communication that takes place through the intertwining of hair like strands), they simply dismiss the possibility of negotiation with the humans visiting their world. The oneness of life they revere appears therefore to be localized and to lead to what amounts to bigotry: casual hostility to strangers and even a brutal inclination to kill without compunction what they fear, despise or do not understand. Their concept of being respects oneness, but the one they respect is not the universal one. They revere life as a particular manifestation of wholeness, but seem to have no clear sense of the general manifestation of life that encompasses the whole of all possibilities. They are not open to all the ways of being, including those greatly different from their own, that the one Being brings to life and by so doing endows with a right to live that all are obliged to respect. In this they suffer from a defect of perception and understanding not unlike that which leads the corporate profiteers brutally to assault them.

This fictional instance of self-contradiction parallels the contradiction between the life revering ethic supposedly promoted by the film, and the embrace of the culture of death that today characterizes so much of America's creative elite. In the film, the profit hungry corporate apparatchik hesitates to order an assault when reminded that innocent children will be done to death in the ensuing onslaught. But the elite stars and producers who people the apparatus of the entertainment industry do not hesitate in their support for the legalized and purposeful slaughter of human embryos and infants. Such forms of human life have at least as much claim to be part of the great continuum of living Being as the aliens and animals the film shows being gutted and slain by the heedless abuse of military power. Is life to be respected when its alien appearance is mitigated by stylistic touches of grace and sensuality, but not when a more extreme divergence in appearance simply masks the identity between all humans and their offspring?

Do the entertainment elites sincerely respect the premise of holistic unity suggested by their professed embrace of humanitarianism and global ecological responsibility? If so, they are caught in precisely the web of self-destructive contradiction that Christ, in so many of his parables, sought to reveal and from which the Gospel offers true hope of redemption. Rather than simply reject and condemn the sophomoric creative works that expose this contradiction, Christians seeking to spread the Gospel might do better to do what Christ often did. Sometimes, fallible human contradictions appear as people feel their way toward God. He used them to expose the mind to truth, truth that the God created heart, as through a looking glass however darkly, still has the eyes to see; and by which, through the Grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ, all people may be saved.


Anonymous said...

You truly know how to call it, Dr. Keyes! A very thorough and fascinating review.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your words, Dr. Keyes.
After the movie, I had to explain certain portions to my teen-aged son. It is a retelling of Mother Earth, Gaia, or other name for the same and those who are dependent upon her. It was another hi-tech eco-friendly movie. But it was done well, cinematically speaking.
Thank you for your points and reference to Paul in Athens. It is taking what is available as a point of reference then hearing the Holy Spirit to find the right words to reach the hearts of the listeners.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with the common notion that there is anything remotely good in Avatar's use of 'realistic' CGI. Yes, it may represent a new technical benchmark in making such imagery both realistic and attractive (though in my perception of the film's content does not justify such an accolade), but does the systematic divorce of 'realism' from reality actually serve art?

Of course, I am not entirely satisfied with the notion that we can always identify the 'good guys' in narrative literature with truly moral values of individual freedom and responsibility. If this were a valid argument, particularly for what is generally admitted to be an utterly puerile exercise in subordinating realistic characterization and dramatic structure to computer-generated high-resolution eye-candy, then there could be no such thing as art which is unworthy of our praise.

And it is true that, when one speaks of the dangers to art and culture presented by the deliberate blurring of the lines between fiction and reality, the pronounced tendency of today's popular narrative arts to resort to outright deception about the very nature of the narrative and art involved is a more pressing concern. But still, I am no pleased with the trend of the new technology. It is being molded into something that serves no purpose other than to make it easier to present fundamental physical impossibility as visually recorded fact. The wonderful appeal of animated fiction is not just the magic of bringing a drawing to life, but the fact that it is clearly a drawing rather than life. Children need this (or, we might say, instinctively crave it) because it simplifies their essential task as an audience for a work of fiction, using common sense and reason to identify the truthful parts of the narrative and separate them from the parts which they must not believe.

Are we so willing to be deceived as to support the creation of tools which can have no other end than to lock us in a prison of lies? Not merely plausible lies, but lies which will become literally indistinguishable from reality? It is all very well to claim (as I admit I probably would, should I ever see this travesty myself) to still be able to clearly discern the real from the unreal. But I will not let my arrogance blind me to the essential danger involved.

It is, to be sure, a minor point. In truth, one comes away from the entire debate over this movie grasping to find anything significant to say about it. Even in an age when humanity has collectively decided to entrust vital decisions about their entire world to cleverly generated lies backed by computer modeling technology, it is still a bit silly to complain about the glorified electric heaters which are used to bolster the deception. But if one is going to talk about a particularly stupid movie, one must expect particularly inane complaints.

Anonymous said...

you may see it then understand everything why i am saying to see it...A tiny detail among the bonanza of visual wonders in Avatar convinced me the movie had achieved not only technical mastery, but something more...

dsi r4

Dawg_em said...

Art imitates life; life is inspired through art. Round and 'round we go. Is it a descending spiral or an uplifting corkscrew of propulsion?

I suppose much depends on your perspective. Personally, I can vouch for being somewhat thin-skinned, what with attacks on Christianity, America-hating demagogues and division within our own ranks. It's easy to become defensive. After all, much is at stake.

But if we can set aside our own risk-aversion perhaps Dr. Keyes is correct. Perhaps these cinemagraphic wonders can be made into an opportunity to evangelize. Certainly there are limitations. Not every movie-goer will have the benefit of access to perspectives that put the moral elements into perspective.

I, too, have had a lifelong fascination with science fiction. I can get past many affronts when I allow for the context. Though not always. I still get offended by liberal preachy-ness and a condescending tone. However, this battle is being waged on many fronts and I would not suggest dissuading any efforts that not only seek to guard against apostasy, but would also provide a segue to bring our brothers and sisters closer to the revealed truth of our Creator.

You never know who's listening.

Parrfection said...

A great review. Still, I refuse to pay to see this movie. I'll wait for a friend to rent the DVD and watch it at his house.

Clay said...

Seen the movie yesterday, just awful. It presents the viewer with a god only an atheist could love. A Tree-Computer that downloads peoples memories. New World Religion written all over it. I'll stick to Star Wars.

Anonymous said...

You know...that recalls to mind the only 'good' argument for Atheism I ever heard. To wit, "Well, what if there's a Giant Tree...I wouldn't want to make the Giant Tree angry by believing in God."

This is, of course, technically an argument for paganism rather than atheism. But it's still better than any other argument for atheism.

Clay said...

This movie has nothing to do with paganism. The 'good' atheist Dr. Grace Augustine discovered that the vegetation on the planet had super ability to conduct and produce electricity. Then when you combined enough electrical networkds you get and emergent entity. What atheist science says our branis are, an emergent conscious from a neural network. The entire plant life on the planet was a big brain. The Na'vi incorrectly interpreted the neural network, tree consciousness as a god. It was only the atheist Dr. Augustine that figured it out and was rewarded with the download, ascension, of here memeories into the bio-computer.

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