Last Sunday night, I took the Youth Group to see the new movie Avatar. James Cameron’s 3-D, sci-fi epic, Avatar is a special effects masterpiece, 15 years in the making. The computer-generated images are a visual delight, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (and I’ve seen a lot of science fiction). While the special effects are multi-layered and intricate, so too, are the themes and messages inherent in the film.
Much of what I heard about Avatar was mixed. While friends and critics hailed the stunning visuals of the film, almost everyone was critical about the plot of the movie. “It’s Dances With Wolves with Smurfs,” was one comment. “How can James Cameron make so much money by stealing Disney’s Pocahontas?” One person even went so far as to mark up the plot of the Disney cartoon and replace it with names from Avatar. Spoiler warning!
My initial reaction was to roll my eyes upon seeing yet another rehash of such a story. However, I quickly changed my mind upon seeing the film. Yes, it’s like Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas, but even those stories aren’t original. In fact, I’d argue that few, if any, movies, books, or television shows are “original.” Avatar takes an age-old myth story and transforms it for a new audience and turns it into a significant parable for those of us who know the story well.
First of all, when I use the term myth, I don’t mean “an untrue story.” I use it in the academic sense of a timeless story or legend, folklore handed down through the ages. Myths are full of powerful archetypes that contain truths that help us explain the world around us. Avatar contains many archetypal and mythical stories, just as Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas does.
Perhaps the one that people are most focused on is the idea of the “outsider” coming into a world of “insiders,” becoming one of the “insiders,” and saving them from destruction. Avatar is a futuristic story about a handicapped former marine, Jake Sully, who volunteers to work for a company that is mining a precious mineral from the planet Pandora. Pandora’s inhabitants, the Na’vi, are 12-foot blue humanoids who are indigenous to the planet. They are hunters and gatherers, and have a great spirituality of connection with the planet, the animals, and the plant life. Each can literally connect with creation through appendages from their heads. They can connect to their ancestors, they can connect to the beasts they ride, and they can even connect to their Creator. The humans on the planet, in an effort to study them (and eventually get them to move), have created avatars, genetic Na’vi templates for humans to “upload” into so they can communicate and interact with the much-larger natives.
Jake begins as a bodyguard for the scientists who wish to genuinely study the planet. But through a course of events, he gets separated and taken in by the Na’vi, and eventually learns to become one. Through the process, he learns to love them and become a Na’vi in more than just his appearance. They accept him as one of them until the militaristic minors come and destroy their homes. Jake then must go on his own journey of self-exploration to fight for the people and culture he loves. By becoming one of them, he ends up saving them.
There’s another story with the same archetypes, one that we Christians know pretty well. One about a true outsider who comes to our world, becoming like us in order to save us. We know this as the Incarnation. God, in the form of human flesh in Jesus Christ, becomes one of us, in order for us to be connected to God in a way we have never experienced before. Avatar‘s story is one of incarnation, one of love for God’s creation, one of transformation in order to understand. Jake Sully is clearly the Messianic figure who is willing to risk everything in order to save those he loves.
Many would say that the Messianic archetype stretches far beyond the story in which Christians have placed their faith. It’s a story that has been told in many religions pre-dating Christianity. But that’s what makes the story so good. It’s a story that will never end. Humanity will always need it’s saviors. Movies like Avatar create fantastic parables to help us understand the world around us. That we are in need of something greater than ourselves and how blessed we are to have a God who loves us so much that God wants to be with us so much that God became one of us. In the Avatar story, we become the Na’vi, perhaps as avatars ourselves, and relate to their plight. We recognize our own need to have that outsider come and be with us and become part of us, so that we can become part of him. Avatar may not be a factual story, but it is a true story.
So is Avatar basically Pocahontas with blue people? Yes. But is that bad? Certainly not.