I saw the highly acclaimed (and somewhat controversial) film Avatar this week. There is probably not much I can say about the film that has not been said by other bloggers and professional movie reviewers and critics. Almost everyone agrees that the special effects are a breakthrough in movie-making and will change the way all animation films are produced. In addition, this is James Cameron’s attempt to produce an epic movie this decade since his last major film was Titanic in 1997.
The acting is about average, though Sigourney Weaver does enough to make her character, Dr. Grace Augustine, believable. Sam Worthington, the protagonist, is brilliant with his role as Jake Sully, the marine who joins the Na’vi tribe. I enjoyed Worthington’s role as Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation. Given his strong acting in two major 2009 films, he should have many scripts at his door in 2010.
Aside from the philosophical and worldview issues, I felt that the plot dragged a bit. In addition, much of the film is predictable and there was no shock value. One suggestion I heard from a blogger is that the film would have made a larger impact for environmentalism (which Cameron claims was the broad metaphor of the film) if the Na’vi lost and the humans replaced all that is green with gravel and and trees with strip malls. Yet, Cameron wishes to turn this movie into an epic series with multiple sequals based upon lucrative success with the first film (which is already a foregone conclusion), so producing a such a heart-stirring ending was never an option for him.
Environmentalism, Star Wars for democrats, anti-Bush/Iraq War, etc. These are all descriptions of Avatar. I will assume that environmentalism is the main concern of the film and that political issues are secondary in nature. Yet, the environmentalism proposed to us is that of pantheism, where deity is bound with nature, and creatures are themselves bound with nature, thus making the Creator and the creature, ultimately, one. Both Worthington and Weaver’s characters discover this “nature is divine” paradigm of Pandora (the name of the planet they are on), and thus become “converts” of the Na’vi over and against the savagery of the human race which seeks to destroy nature for more lucrative prospects.
Many may roll their eyes at the obvious propaganda of Avatar. Many evangelical Christians especially roll their eyes at any form of environmental concern since the radicalization and politization of the environment invades our lives. However, I am not hostile to the film for these reasons. Art, in general, is propaganda (jn the broad sense). And for the Christian, the environment should be a concern (though perhaps not to the sometimes radical and violent extent of many interest groups today).
However, my main concern with the philosophy of Avatar is the basis given for caring for the environment. If I as a human being wish to see the creation around me flourish and serve good, proper ends, what sort of basis is needed to pursue this as a society? Pantheism seems to provide no basis for this. An inherently naturalistic perspective of the world, pantheism gives no reason for humans to preserve and protect the environment at all costs. Naturalism lends itself to many “is” indicatives, but very little “ought” imperatives are derived. What if it is pragmatically better for trees to be burned and air to be polluted? And if one cares to throw in Darwinian motives, is it possible that the survival of the strong and fit may need to destroy any “green” threat? Such is possible, and would be permissible. In the end, pantheism gives no good reason to care about the “divine” unless the environment itself serves my purpose and cause, or even society’s purpose and cause (though as cultural relativists have shown us, defining “society” is quite difficult a task).
Here is the problem with modern-day proposals of environmentalism – there is either an inherent selfishness imbedded in those proposing to save the environment (since it serves their own Darwinian, survival tendencies) or there is an extreme irrationalism since the argument is reduced to “we save the environment because we want to save the environment.” In either case, is there an authentic love spawned for trees, grass, the ocean, etc? Can such a perspective spur others on to love the environment and thus seek to preserve it and cultivate it for inherently good and proper ends?
I would suggest that all philosophies of imminent moralism (naturalism, pantheism, atheism, buddhism, confucianism) and transcendent mysticism (hinduism, taoism, Islam) fail to give us any reason to love the world around us. The former religions and philosophies end up becoming to individualistic and selfish while the latter show little to no concern for material and creational matters. It is only in Christianity that both the immanent and the transcendent are properly balanced, that the distinction between the Creator and creation is maintained, and that human beings themselves may flourish in part by working towards the flourishing of the earth. God made the world “good” and commanded the first humans to serve it and cultivate it (Genesis 1:26-28…God even commands Adam and Eve to both work and guard the Garden of Eden, showing the preciousness of creation). Sometimes this cultivating of the earth may call for cutting down a tree, but this is to serve greater ends for the rest of creation. Needless and wasteful usage of the resources of this world are unethical in Christianity, and there is good reason for calling it unethical – the God of creation, the lone Personal Absolute whose word means anything, calls it unethical.
If you are moved by Avatar to better love and serve this earth, then look to the very One who is the basis for any true love and service to the ground you walk on. Love him, and he will show you how to love his creation.