DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
RELEASE DATE: December 17, 2009
By the time you read this, a twelve-year-old movie mile-stone will have died. This is not a threat; it is an inevitability, and its passing signals a watershed moment in cinematic history.
In 1997-1998 the epic seaborne romance Titanic entered the record books as the highest earning film of all time, delivering $1.843 billion US dollars at the world-wide box office. The success made its director James Cameron “King of the world!” at the Oscars. Current receipts for Cameron’s latest block-buster Avatar run to $1.841 billion, without the inclusion of the weekend’s international screenings – meaning that no-one will be taking away the king’s crown any time soon.
For those of you who have spent Christmas in an iron lung, Avatar is set in 2154 when a crippled space marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is given the chance to virtually take control of an alien body, and so walk again. In exchange he has to take his ‘avatar’ into Pandora, the world of the Na’vi, and convince the locals to move away from a mineral reserve of extreme value to humans. However when Sully literally takes a walk in the Na’vi’s shoes, he discovers a culture that is perfectly in tune with and respectful of their environment – as well as the love of his life. When the space marines arrive and begin tearing up the sacred groves, Sully goes native with spectacular results.
It’s hard to get a grip on how successful Avatar has been without making a few comparisons. In four weeks at the cinemas Avatar has delivered more than the totals sales of any two Harry Potter films combined; more than three times that of current teen runaway New Moon. Many people have sought to explain this unprecedented success by pointing to a long line of usual suspects. Avatar is an action-packed, science-fiction love-story with heavy ‘green’ credentials. In short, there’s something for everyone. Others have pointed to the film’s immersive special effects, in particular the new style of 3D photography that gives every scene amazing depth. A few realists have even indicated the increased ticket charges being introduced for 3D films – a 24% increase for adults in Australia – meaning the film has been collecting more dollars, faster. On paper, Avatar appears something of a perfect storm for producers.
Trying to separate a film’s selling points from its story line, though, is like trying to judge a jam contest without considering taste. Many films have shared similar ingredients to Avatar but failed to impress the audience’s palette. 3D for one thing is hardly new, and this more immersive technology introduces just as much fatigue as innovation when the film passes its second hour. However the story’s adoration of a trinity of powerful 21st century themes has probably done more to generate its feel-good exits than all of the above combined.
Firstly, Avatar mirrors the pro-environment mindset that has globally energized Generation Y. Pandora is a unique planet under threat by ruthless business interests. Sigourney Weaver revises her 1988 Gorillas In The Mist role as an environmentalist but produces an undreamt of effect. Current viewers have learned to so loathe the behaviour of merciless multinationals that identifying with aliens over their own species was an easy ask. Furthermore, the resemblance of the story to current oil politics in Iraq and Afghanistan swells their support for a marine who would abandon his comrades to fulfil a ‘higher duty’. And what is that duty? Nature-worship.
Avatar ushers neo-paganism into the new millennium. Because Pandora’s environment is interconnected at every level the Na’vi can truthfully call the animals and the trees their brothers. The eco-theology that emerges is straight out of the 1980’s New Age movement: the goddess is in all of us, and every tree, rock and termite besides. Pandora has a planetary consciousness that is capable of thinking for and defending itself. Mother Earth with fists. This worldview interconnects the current generation’s environmental concerns with its growing spiritual awareness. When Jake Sully inhabits his Na’vi body he gains more than mobility but a sense of his soul. He is happier and freer than he has ever been, without having to count himself more important than anything. On the contrary, his final peace rests in trusting himself to the all-knowing Pandora. This is not to say that cinemagoers are ripe for conversion. Pandora is a gentle goddess who places no significant limits on personal autonomy. However if I were a militant atheist, I would be particularly concerned about how inoffensive people found this philosophy.
Yet I believe that modern audiences also crave Jake’s transcendence for a wholly new reason. In another sphere of life we have all become aware of the self-loathing advertising has encouraged in first the female and now the male mind. Films like Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas have encouraged audiences to mentally switch sides; Avatar encourages them to reject their bodies altogether. Its humans are sweaty, scarred and in Jake’s case shattered. The Na’vi are nine-foot supermodels with Olympian agility. It is no wonder they spend the film almost entirely naked; they have nothing to be ashamed of. Their complete lack of body hair completes their picture of attraction. Of course Cameron would be unlikely to create hideous exteriors for characters he wants us to identify with. Yet Avatar may have unwittingly tapped into the profound discomfort many feel within their bodies. Certainly the film does invalids no favours. Sully’s only hope is that either science or Pandora will free him from his physical prison.
Ask someone what they liked about Avatar and you will hear guys crave the rush of riding a wild beast, while girls reflect on the relational beauty of a people and planet living in harmony. Either way Avatar represents a profound dissatisfaction with our public and personal worlds. Crass pragmatism can’t be tolerated in the face of environmental responsibilities; determined atheism has no place in the face of spiritual realities; ugly exteriors can’t satisfy when beauty is within reach. Imagine, though, if you could tell viewers that their fantasy could be reality in far less than a century? That they could live in a society where all levels co-existed in harmony? That they could claim a new, beautiful body that would respond to, rather than resist the world around them? That there was a way to finally do away with those things they loathed that went deeper than their skin? And that this transcendence was the gift of an all-surrounding being who could their guarantee their peace for eternity? That would be great news – gospel news – wouldn’t it?