AVATAR Isn’t About An Other-World

The blockbuster film Avatar may not have won the most coveted Oscar, but it continues to challenge audiences to see the world through different eyes. The box-office record-breaker is being passionately discussed in reviews, webs and blogs. In his blog “Caught In Play”, Peter Stromberg, takes a slightly different angle. He reiterates that “Avatar is a utopian eco-fantasy about a world of lithe and powerful humanoids, the Na’vi, living in perfect harmony with their environment.” But then he despairs about the huge disconnect between the message about the defense of nature, and so many people packing into the theatre being overweight; filling themselves with junk foods dished out at entertainment factories.

Human realities exist on many levels. While Avatar must be judged in artistic terms, we also have to put such mass film-going into its consumer context. Are we perhaps not just consuming junk food, but also craving and “eating up” film fantasy? Many youth watch movies and play video games the way we used to go out and play games with our childhood neighbours. Especially since 9/11 and the economic downturn, movie theatres lost market share to people hunkering-down with their home entertainment system. But film consumption may become more public; the US market has hit $30 billion and this is largely due to the enhanced visual experience from 3-D, led by Avatar.


Is the theatre perhaps becoming the “church” of a technological religion? Is entertainment “escapism” turning the blockbuster film into an “other worldly” experience? The mass appeal of Avatar clearly relates to the experience of “oneness”; with the Na’vi being so connected with other creatures in their shared world. Whether or not someone ravenously consumes junk food, they may yearn for such a state of being. And why wouldn’t we all want more of this feeling, as we see what is happening around us, whether its urban sprawl or endangered species. With overtones of the Internet, the Na’vi “plug in” their burly braids, to communicate with the fluorescent plants they walk among and the magnificent reptile-like creatures which carry them. They are intimately interwoven into a natural order which unites and revolts against the interloper Earthlings. You can see why some would see the film advocating a return to paganism but this misses the mark.

When Avatar received the Oscar for Special Effects the recipient didn’t say anything about film technique, rather stressing the film is about seeing the world differently. We know what he was trying to say: the earth’s biosphere is a wondrous and energetic web of life and we are an integral part of this. But his words came out differently; he said that the real ecological world we live in “is just as” rich as the world depicted in this high-tech film. Director James Cameron and his creative inner circle spent over ten years refining Avatar’s story-line and special effects. It is a masterpiece of quality control of detail. And not surprisingly the film-makers, like audiences, remain a bit mixed up about the relation of the virtual and real. If it’s hard for a first-time viewer to return to the ecologically-compromised world “outside” the theatre, imagine what kind of a bubble those who gave so much of their lives for the film might be in.

Our ego identities in this consumer society are perhaps the strongest ever in human history. This magnifies our feeling of separation. However, even if our over-individualized and always desirous identities keep us thinking we are separate from nature, we aren’t. We are composed of the same earth, fire, water and air that permeate all the life we live among. We are, apparently, suffering from a bad case of “false consciousness”.


The world we inhabit is far richer than the fantasy world in Avatar; they can’t and shouldn’t be compared. It is in this world that Avatar was made; where we experience being so energetically connected to its amazing air-born, legged and rooted creatures. And why do we so readily identity with all this? Because no matter how much we ignore or repress this in our busy, time-bound, productive lives, we continue to experience our deep interconnection within the natural order. This isn’t a throwback to paganism. It’s a “throw-ahead” after centuries of dualism, where we’ve acted as though we were above and in charge of nature. And look where this got us? Avatar challenges us to confront the larger ecological truth; to envision what lies ahead if we stay the present human course. If you saw Avatar, tell me that some part of you didn’t want to stay with the Na’vi and not be banished back to the dying planet of the defeated Earthlings!

When spring comes, the life-force of plants, which has hibernated deep down in the ground, slowly rises back towards the warming sun. It heals the shell of the plants, so beaten from winter’s freezing winds. Earth, fire (sun), water and air all work together in this wondrous restorative process. We are more like this than we think. Though we have legs and brains and the power of mobility and construction, and, yes, destruction, we remain deeply rooted in this world. We are much more than plugged-in; our whole nature, everything about us, connects us to the biosphere. Each breath!

After the invention of the printing press, and the mass production of the world’s religious and other literature, many people started to imagine another world based literally on the written stories. This has sometime been used to justify the conquest of nature and, as it turns out, of each other. Film is an even more powerful media than print. Avatar can be another step on the slippery slope towards a technologically-induced “other-world”, special effect “highs” and all. It can also challenge us to become more aware of, and more rooted in, the sacred place where we actually live.

Next time I’ll look at the Saskatchewan bounty on the coyote.

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