(Warning: This post contains spoilers.)
After some conservatives, now the Vatican has come out against the movie â€œAvatarâ€. They are criticizing the movie because they say it suggests that the worship of nature is a replacement for religion. They also described the movie as simplistic and sappy, despite its â€œawe-inspiring special effects.â€
Yes, the movie is simplistic, and yes, I suppose it can be described as â€œsappyâ€, but both of these shortcomings are lost in the grandeur of its presentation. On the basic concept level, the movie is little more than a screen rendition of a comic book story. What attracts in a comic book is the graphical presentation, and here â€œAvatarâ€ has outdone the imaginable. The movie is more than two and a half hours long, but you are so drawn into the visual experience that you do not notice the passage of time. I have sat through ninety-minute movies that have seemed twice as long as this one.
The Vatican says that â€œAvatarâ€¦gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature,â€ and â€œnature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worshipâ€ (Lâ€™Osservatore and Vatican Radio). I would dispute the â€œbogged downâ€ part, but certainly the Naâ€™viÂ (the blue deer people) are very closely attuned to and part of the nature of their world. But when we watch the movie, we know that these are the Naâ€™vi, not human beings; we canâ€™t even breathe their air; they are blue and ten feet tall; their world Pandora is an alien world, not earth (though in a metaphorical ecological argument, you might want to make that comparison); this is science fiction, a fantasy, not a sermon. Nor is it â€œDances with Wolvesâ€, despite the similar response to a pure native culture by a battered or in this case crippled military man. If these fictional native people â€œworshipâ€ Ewya, this is clearly their â€œreligionâ€, not ours. Besides, Ewya is less a deity than the essence of Pandora, and â€œworshipâ€ and â€œreligionâ€ are not appropriate words for the Naâ€™vi behavior. In our religions, we worship; in the Naâ€™vi way, they commune.
The Vatican, therefore, has nothing to fear from â€œAvatarâ€, just as the conservatives, who are worried about possible â€œliberalâ€ views, have nothing to fear. Even if you support the exploitation of nature, few conservatives are as ruthless as the Colonel Quaritch or even the company man Selfridge. The presentation of Quaritch is so comic book two-dimensional that he represents a concept rather than a real character. Selfridge, who is less of an extreme, towards the end seems to show some doubt over where everything is heading.
Some will see this movie as an allegory of American exploitation, but it is jingoistic to make it â€œAmericanâ€. â€œHumanâ€ would be more accurate. There are elements that have allegorical overtones, say, in the names. Pandora reminds one of Pandoraâ€™s box (almost but not opened in this movie). The mineral sought by the humans is Unobtainium. Naâ€™vi is a corruption of â€œnativeâ€, Selfridge of â€œselfishâ€; Quaritch seems to be derived from “quarrelâ€ and “son-of-a-bitch”, while the sympathetic research scientist is called â€œGrace Augustineâ€. The plot can also be reduced to a formula: The bad guys want to strip mine the planet; the good guys beat them off. This is not a new theme. It is also not what draws a viewer into this movie, or what holds the viewerâ€™s interest. The final battle is pure comic book style entertainment, leading to resolution rather than making a point. Besides, the strength of the movie lies in its presentation, not in its story.
The Naâ€™vi are depicted as ten feet tall. One might rationalize this as being due to the â€œpureâ€ way they live, but that is a minor point. What isÂ visually striking is that humans appear small and insignificant next to them, and, in the final scene, they seem almost like vermin, a reflection of their failed mission of destruction. Size is significant, as Jonathan Swift realized in â€œGulliverâ€™s Travelsâ€, where in the first two books, the ones who are satirized are the little guys. In this movie also, we come to look down on the smaller figures. But our hero, the last good guy, has grown spiritually. He becomes his avatar and we have our closure.