Thursday, January 14, 2010

    CULTURE WATCH: The Problem with "Avatar"

    The new film "Avatar" would make for a great youth ministry discussion.  But what exactly is the film teaching?

    Like any good science-fiction, Avatar is at least in part a commentary on the culture and world we live in today.  The story focuses on the plight of the Na'vi, the tall blue-skinned inhabitants of the moon Pandora. The Na'vi seem to live a very peaceful and nature-centered existence.  At least, they do until ex-military mercenaries from Earth, hired and directed by some greedy corporate no-gooders, arrive on Pandora to steal its natural resources. To do so, they conclude the only solution is to uproot the Na'vi and take away their land, even if it means destroying their culture and way of life. 

    I can see this plot being a great basis for a thoughtful conversation with teens about justice, compassion, the sacredness of creation, and the world as it "is" as opposed to the world as it "could be."  It also opens up the possibility for a critique of history. The plot of Avatar carries echoes of the Exile in Hebrew history, the plight of Africans torn from their countries and sold into slavery, the attempt to destroy the culture of the indigenous peoples in the history of the United States, the Holocaust, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the list could go on and on.  

    Where I would actually argue against the film is in its violence.  If you've seen the trailers, it's not giving much away to say that the film eventually winds up being a hardcore and bloody battle between the humans and the Na'vi. In fact, the video game based on the movie is completely focused, not on the beautiful world and peaceful life of the Na'vi, but on the battle with the humans.  Even as this seems inevitable, I wondered why the filmmakers couldn't have been more creative.  Is the only answer to violence more violence?  Couldn't the Na'vi's spiritual life have offered them another choice? What should be the Christain perspective on this?  Is there another way to respond to violence or is the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus offers simply an unattainable dream?  Now, there is fodder for a great conversation with your youth!

    Update: Check out this interesting post on Avatar and other recent films by fellow blogger Jason Fisher.

    -- Brian


    KaGe said...

    Great stuff. It's a question that isn't talked about nearly as much as it should be...should our first reaction to injustice be violence?

    But unfortunately the story of Dances With Wolves...I mean Pocahontas...I mean Avatar is kind of regurgitated. They dumped all their money into special effects and didn't take the time to write an original script.

    J.Steadman said...

    It seems to me that there is an obvious opportunity to help teens understand the Incarnation, and how the story sets up love for the people, and only by becoming one of them can he hope to reach them with the message that they are perishing.

    Granted, there's a lot of other baggage, as you noted, but I'm curious as to why you have glossed over this?

    Brian said...

    KaGe - I agree that the story was not all it could be. A little too black and white when it came to good guys and bad guys. But the 3-D was pretty cool!

    J. -- don't you know blog posts have to be short or no one will read them? : ) If I said everything I wanted to say about that movie you'd be reading the post until next week!

    Actually, I totally agree with your thoughts on the incarnation. I heard criticism of the film that once again we have a story of the great white man coming to save the noble savages. What the critique totally misses is that the "hero" has to become one of the Na'vi in order to help them.

    Beyond the notion of God becoming human in the form of Jesus, we have the way in which Jesus lived his life. By eating with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast and the unclean, he showed a willingness to become one of them.

    Danny Bradfield said...

    My thoughts on seeing the movie (which I did just this past weekend) are the same as yours. I was in awe of the artistry of the movie, but wondered about the theme of "If you pray, then your God will help you violently crush your enemies."

    Anonymous said...

    Brian wrote: "Is the only answer to violence more violence? Couldn't the Na'vi's spiritual life have offered them another choice? What should be the Christian perspective on this?"

    The only movie I can actually think of that shows two very different ways for Christians to deal with violence was the 1986 movie "The Mission." A native population being forcefully removed from their land and two Jesuit priests with two very different decisions on how to deal with such violence.

    Does anyone know of any others?