Avatar & the Longing for “Home”
It’s the biggest grossing movie of all time. It’s dazzled people with special effects, and left in them a longing so deep that quite a few viewers have left depressed. It’s garnered many admirers, but also some critics for its rather worn-out plot devices. But like Titanic, that doesn’t seem to stop it.
So what’s the secret to Avatar’s success? Is the plot just a prop for some 3D, HD thrills? Or is it worth going under the hood to ask what exactly Avatar is about?
Last night at the Sojourn Forum, a faith-and-doubt discussion group I host, about 30 Christians, atheists (from Penn State Atheists/Agnostics Association) and pagans (from Penn State’s Silver Circle group) gathered to discuss Avatar.
We discussed the various labels people have put on Avatar. From our discussion and media coverage, people gravitate to one of the 4 following options:
On the surface, Avatar is all of these. This partly explains its success, as it perfectly captures the zeitgeist. If James Cameron is a master of anything, it is that. Avatar meets our culture where it is at: Its pantheism is amenable to the Oprah-fied masses of people who are “spiritual but not religious,” people who are more open to eastern spiritual ideas than ever.
Its perceived anti-American, anti-military, anti-capitalist elements resonate with those in the West who are exceedingly uncomfortable with two foreign wars and the legacy of American international involvement.
Its battles to preserve Pandora’s beautiful landscape allow people to work out their anxiety–and guilt–about the state of the environment. We generally feel helpless and know our recycling doesn’t do heck of a lot. This battle is satisfying. It offers a resolution that “An Inconvenient Truth” never could.
Avatar even allows a glimpse of spirituality and the environment merging together–which commentators have noticed is a phenomenon here. Environmentalism, some say, is a new kind of civil religion, complete with priests, rituals, penance, and sacred texts.
And for those who don’t care for any of the big ideas & trends listed above, Avatar is great entertainment. We love our gadgets and special effects and we love to be wowed.
Given all of these factors, Avatar’s success is not surprising in the least. It has skillfully and attractively given people exactly what they wanted.
Still, seeing ingredients for its success does not entirely explain its allure. Those factors fall short, in part because each of them has serious holes.
Though the Pope has come out strong against the pantheistic elements of Avatar, (while also calling it “bland”), Avatar as a tract for pantheism is woefully deficient, to a true pantheist. It’s an open question whether the religion/spirituality on display is pantheism, panentheism, or a more generic Hollywood paganism.
Some have argued that Cameron has–perhaps inadvertently–allowed monotheism to creep in. Jake Sully doesn’t pray TO a tree, he prays THROUGH it, to a personal deity named Eywa (strikingly similar to the Hebrew Yahweh). Unlike depersonalized nature, Eywa intervenes specifically and directly in the affairs of Na’Vi (& humans). True pantheism (or Mother Nature) is blind and uncaring to the fates of particular creatures. And then there’s this: central to the story, and the salvation of Pandora, is that Sully incarnates himself–becomes a Na’Vi–in order to save them. How Christ-like is that?
As far as the anti-militaristic, anti-capitalist, anti-technological view–If that was Cameron’s goal, he failed miserably. I don’t think that was his goal, because he undercuts himself too obviously. Can we really take an anti-capitalist rant seriously from the movie that is now the highest grossing film in history, and which also cost more than any other movie to make in history? Can we take an anti-militaristic rant seriously when the “Savior” is also a former soldier–a white, male, American soldier, and that the resolution comes violently? Can we take an anti-technology rant seriously from the movie that is being hailed as a technological marvel, a groundbreaking, bar-setting feat that will surely win every technical Oscar?
But I would argue that Avatar’s success is due in part to another reason, one which I haven’t seen addressed. Avatar succeeds most admirably as an evoking of a deep, barely conscious longing for “home.” What do I mean?
The phenomenon of post-Avatar depression is telling. As one fan posted on a fan website, “When I woke up this morning after watching ‘Avatar’ for the first time yesterday, the world seemed gray. It just seems so meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”
Avatar has caused, for many of its viewers, a deeply felt desire to live in a world that doesn’t exist. It has awakened a longing for a world where humanity is not in conflict with nature, but preserving it. Where people are deeply connected to nature, yet still in dominion over it. A longing for a pristine world not defamed and destroyed by violence, greed, & technology. Where life and vitality is winning over death and decay. A longing for a place that feels more truly like “home” than our current planet.
This world doesn’t exist. It never has, except in one place, according to the Christian tradition: Eden. The “Avatar Blues” are more than a response to amazing special effects and contemporary anxieties. They evoke the longing for paradise, for the return to the Garden. They remind us that this is not all there is, and that things are not meant to stay like this.
As C.S. Lewis so wisely said:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”
Avatar succeeds not so much because of its special effects or because of how it addresses contemporary issues, but because it addresses the oldest issue of all: the longing for another, better world, the desire to “get back to the Garden.”