Atheist Film: Avatar

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 12, 2010 in Atheist Film & TV

avatar2

I usually don’t like action movies. Cameron’s last movie, Titanic, was unbearable. The trailers for Avatar made it look just as bad. I’ve had the opinion that 3D cinema is an annoying gimmick that spoils a great 2D artistic medium. My list of the best films of all times contains no action movies, but rather avantgarde films like Persona and Un Chien Andalou and Zerkalo.

But then, James Cameron’s Avatar gave me the best cinematic experience of my life.

I imagine this is the effect Star Wars had on people in 1977, before I was born. Avatar is such a leap forward in technology and visual splendor, and such a well-paced archetypal heroic epic, it hit almost all my emotional buttons perfectly. Avatar made me a believer in 3D cinema, a believer in ‘performance capture’ (which was previously plagued by the uncanny valley effect), and a believer again in space operas (which are almost always terrible).

Which is not to say that Avatar is one of the best movies of the decade or anything like that. The story follows all the usual screenwriting rules, and is therefore predictable. The dialogue isn’t annoying, but it isn’t smart either. And there are lots of scientific and tactical absurdities, such as the pointless military decision to deploy ground troops to be picked off by the Na’vi while missile-launching airships do all the work.

But here’s the thing. Avatar is a classic action-adventure movie. Its purpose is not to revolutionize storytelling or mise-en-scene or montage or chronology. Its purpose is to tell an exciting, emotional, moral story that we connect to as humans. And frankly, Avatar does that better than any other film I can think of. For example, let’s consider four elements crucial to the action-adventure genre: pacing, visuals, excitement, and moral message. I think a strong case could be made that Avatar does all of these better than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Better than Star Wars. Better than any similar movie you can think of. Better even than The Matrix. Frankly, as a straight-up action-adventure movie, Avatar might be the best action-adventure of all time.

And I’m probably not alone in thinking so, now that it’s the highest-grossing film of all time (though not when adjusted for inflation, or counted by tickets sold).

Whether or not you enjoy Avatar as much as I do, you may be wondering how I can call it an ‘atheist film‘. After all, the heroes of the movie, the Na’vi, are deeply religious. They practice an earth-based religion (well, Pandora-based religion) and claim to have a spiritual connection to almost every living thing on the planet – even over great distances.

The key to unlocking Avatar‘s atheistic heart is an exchange between Avatar‘s godless scientist hero, Dr. Grace Augustine, and the corporate administrator in charge of stripping Pandora of its natural resources, Parker:

GRACE: Those trees were sacred to the Na’vi in a way you can’t imagine.

PARKER: You know what? You throw a stick in the air around here and it’s gonna land on some sacred fern for Christ’s sake.

GRACE: I’m not talking about some kind of pagan voodoo here, I’m talking about something real. Something measurable in the biology of the forest.

PARKER: Which is what, exactly?

GRACE: There is some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees, like the synapses between neurons. And each tree has 104 connections to the trees around it. And there are 1012 trees on Pandora. It’s more connections than the human brain. Get it? It’s a network. It’s a global network, and the Na’vi can access it… at sites like the one you just destroyed.

Avatar‘s slam against religion is this: it shows us what religions would be like if they were real.

The point is that human religions are not based on anything real like the religion of the Na’vi is. Human religions are voodoo bullshit, because there’s nothing real behind them.

The heroes of Avatar are not superstitious primitives. They are a species that lives on a planet with genuine connections they have evolved to participate in. They are smart enough to have given up war with their neighboring tribes, and they are smart enough to respect the interdependency of living things on their planet.

Another point in favor of my interpretation? James Cameron is, of course, an atheist – and one who thinks agnosticism is ‘cowardly atheism.’

Christian apologist Sean McDowell also seems to agree with my interpretation.

avatar3

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

fraukus February 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm

I’m new here. Anyway, I had the same reaction when I saw the film many months ago. Initially I likened the Na’vi “religion” to Buddhism, but as the movie progressed the notion that their “god” could be scientifically observed and evidenced was impossible to ignore. I didn’t really think of it as a god per say, but more of an interconnectedness to all the matter and energy on the planet–a complete living organism. Of course many a theist or non-theist spiritualist disagrees with me. Not surprising really.

With that said, I found the film to be rather transparent, predictable, and a rehashing of overused formulaic plot lines. For instance: the obvious metaphors for European Colonization and genocide of the natives that followed; humans disrespect of life and the Earth. I take the film for what it is and that is a roller coaster ride, and quite fun if you don’t over analyze the plot.

I didn’t know that Cameron was an atheist. Good to know, now I can offer that up as more evidence for my claims.

  (Quote)

lukeprog February 12, 2010 at 10:46 pm

fraukus,

Re: transparency. Yup. Avatar ain’t no Inland Empire. But it’s damn good fun, unlike Inland Empire.

  (Quote)

thacks February 12, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Good movie. The bad guy was a bit one dimensional and boring though.

It’s a shame they didn’t explore the whole brain world real religion thing better, there was a lot of potential there. But hey, you gotta please the masses.

  (Quote)

lukeprog February 12, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Perhaps Cameron will do so in the sequel.

  (Quote)

Beelzebub February 13, 2010 at 1:27 am

Wan’t Cameron the financial backer of the whole “Jesus Tomb” thing?

Also, I wouldn’t call Titanic an action movie. It was romance or drama, and it was wretched.

  (Quote)

Nate February 13, 2010 at 2:08 am

My experience of Avatar was similar, and I too had the sense of taking part in a groundbreaking and larger-than-life cinematic event. I was less ill-disposed though, because while disdaining Titanic, T2 is endlessly rewatchable, and Aliens is all-time.

The scientifically quantifiable nature of the “spiritual force” was indeed interesting, as was the replacement of missionary schools (that accompanied our terrestrial colonizations) with a scientific outpost for cultural anthropology (or, should I say, naviology) that facilitated language learning and assimilation. Other religiously and philosophically interesting themes are present as well, for one, the analogous role that these missionaries or scientists played in restraining the rapacious ambitions of the mercenaries and “conquistadors”; the “incarnation” of Jake Sully to infiltrate the Na’vi, and ultimately be their savior, at least in part; and, possible implications for the mind/body debate suggested by Sully’s mind inhabiting/controlling another body. Avatar is a worthy departure for many a discussion, including the more overt themes of colonialism and ecological mismanagement. Here’s another one: If Dr. Grace Augustine had not been able to measure this life force, would Jake Sully have been reasonable to conclude after his prayer to that force, that based on the cooperation of all the living forms on the planet in their battle against the mercenaries, that a miracle had occurred, that that force was real?

By the way, thanks for turning me on to Primer in your best movies of the decade. A fun watch, worth a second and third time through. Incidentally, it’s available as an Instant Watch on Netflix for others who are interested.

  (Quote)

Haukur February 13, 2010 at 4:57 am

I thought of this atheistic interpretation, Luke, but the more I thought about it the more problematic it seemed to me. If Eywa is distinctly real and Gaia is distinctly not real then that really blunts the ideological message of the movie and the emotional impact of several scenes. In particular, it makes non-sense of Jake’s utterance, “They killed their mother.”

I think this line about “pagan voodoo” is best seen as an attempt by the filmmakers to have their pantheism and eat it too. This might even be part of a trend or symptomatic of the zeitgeist. In the old Star Wars films they had a pantheistic Force and were content to keep it mystical and unexplained. But in the Phantom Menace they introduced some techno-babble about “midi-chlorians”, enabling people to use devices to measure Force-ability or some such. This seems similar to the scene in Avatar where the scientists stick a measuring device into a root and start talking about how the trees are connected in one big system (but what about trees on the floating mountains?).

It looks to me like Cameron was simply trying to please everybody – do a lot to please the tree-hugging spiritual people but throw in some stuff to keep the hard-nosed skeptics content. So I can’t view Avatar as a “slam against religion” but Luke can. And Cameron succeeds :)

  (Quote)

Nonchai February 13, 2010 at 5:27 am

Yes I lovd primer too although im not sure i ever got to figuring all the links. First time indie movies are so often more rewarding than blockbusters. Give me an indie Primer” instead of any Michael Bay movie any time.

Its a real shame Cameron coudnt have spent a little more time developing the characters ( particuarly the soldier ones ) and a less obvious plot. Still, hes never been a Ridley Scott. An “Aliens” director never “Alien”.

  (Quote)

lukeprog February 13, 2010 at 7:56 am

Haukur,

Yeah, that could be, too.

  (Quote)

Bill Maher February 13, 2010 at 10:33 am

I know someone that didn’t like it because it is “pro-Earth”. lol.

  (Quote)

Chris Hallquist February 13, 2010 at 11:08 am

This is a cool discussion. Both Luke and Hauker have pointed out important things that I would have otherwise missed. But while Avatar was fun, I don’t buy the idea of it as a great action movie, and don’t expect it to age well. At bottom, unlike Star Wars, which was about heroism, Avatar was about the beauty of Deus ex Machina.

The apparent assumption driving Avatar’s script was that it is more noble for a sentient planet to save the day than it is for some cool cat people to save the day. This is a weird assumption that only makes sense through a religious lens. It’s a bit like in Star Wars, where it’s more noble to aim your proton torpedoes with magical powers than a targeting computer, except in Avatar this assumption is taken to the point of leaving the heroes without much to do besides begging for the planet’s intervention (they try doing other things, but absolutely nothing comes of those efforts).

Even at the level of special effects, Star Wars wins. Part of what makes Star Wars amazing is that it sill looks good after 30+ years of larger budgets and advances in CGI. The flaws that were fixed in the special edition are there if you look closely, but you do have to look closely. You don’t see it and automatically think about how it could be better. With Avatar, though, the CGI is never quite convincing, and it’s easy to imagine how future movies will improve on it. Someday, I will show my grandkids a YouTube clip of Avatar, and they will find the CGI hopelessly cheesy.

  (Quote)

Haukur February 13, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Chris Hallquist: I don’t buy the idea of it as a great action movie, and don’t expect it to age well. At bottom, unlike Star Wars, which was about heroism, Avatar was about the beauty of Deus ex Machina.

I think Chris may be on to something here and I think Luke put it well too – Avatar is great as a “cinematic experience”. As a movie? Who knows! It would certainly seem to lose a whole lot when viewed on a DVD or, gods forbid, in YouTube clips. The RLM review compares it to a theme park ride.

But whatever it is, I really did enjoy those hours in the cinema.

  (Quote)

Nate February 13, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Great analysis, Chris. Ultimately, a “deus ex machina” rather than a human or Na’vi hero saves the day, a redeemer narrative over a heroic one.

I think we may have a fanboy in our midst, though :-) I loved Star Wars as a kid too, but I might beg to differ about how well it holds up.

“Good shot, red two.”

  (Quote)

Chris Hallquist February 14, 2010 at 10:48 am

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a Star Wars message board or even watched the movies, I swear! I admit my memories of the movies may be playing tricks on me; I’ll probably re-watch them in the near future to see if they’re as good as I remember them being.

  (Quote)

lukeprog February 14, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Chris,

Don’t do it. They’re not.

  (Quote)

Lee A.P. February 15, 2010 at 11:20 am

Wow. I thought “Avatar” sucked. It was a trite, preaching mess that became boring once the 3-d visual gimmick wore off. The badass marine that you just knew he had to fight at the end was a goddamned cartoon character. So was Giovanni Ribisi’s character. The only good performance was the female Navi’ lead (I do not know her name). The Austrailian guy with the bad American accent was “bleh”.

It was all so completely predictable. It looked like a hybrid of Dances with “Wolves” and “Ferngully”.

For me the tech aspect did not overcome the gargantuan flaws and/or the predictability of the plot and characters.

I went in knowing that some of those flaws were going to be present. I was not impressed.

  (Quote)

lukeprog February 15, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Lee,

I think that’s all true, but I still had a hell of a time. :)

  (Quote)

Lee A.P. February 15, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Yeah. I have recommended people see it in IMAX 3-D because the visuals are worth it even if the the movie is average at best.

I’m not trying to be mr. cool guy film critic either. I like a ton of very flawed pictures and as I get older I am actually less hard on films. But this; I was actually pretty bored for the last 30-45 minutes.

Its all art — subjective stuff. But the fact that you liked this one a lot but told someone else not to watch the “Star Wars” saga again??? Luke the alien world looked GOOD in 3-D but it did NOT look REAL. It was a fluorescent fake as hell wonderland that was visually interesting but fake as a mofo. It was a bit like being on a boring, but visually interesting ride at Disney Worlds’s Epcot Center.

The Star Wars films still look good. Actually all Lucas should have done is digitally “clean up” the picture and left it there. The added shit is gratuitous and sometimes fake looking. The space scenes in the “Star Wars” films look a shit ton more realistic than Pandora though.

I’m rambling on a bit here but “Return of the Jedi” is often seen as when Lucas first started loosing his touch but the scenes toward the end with Vader/Luke/Emperor are solid fucking gold.

The camera pans to Vader’s face while the Emperor is just letting Luke have it with the lightening shots and behind Vader’s robotic, masked exterior you can nearly “see” his emotion and caring for Luke and when he picks up the Emperor’s wrinkly ass and tosses him down the mine shaft — one of the most powerful moments in movie history! MY OPINION IS FACT!

Star Wars is ruined because everyone knows all the facts before watching it. No one was sure that Vader was Luke’s father after “Empire” in 1980. Vader was the lying price of darkness. It could easily all be bullshit. All that stuff becomes such pop-icon shit, that it is all taken for granted. And with Lucas’ nearly worthless prequels…

  (Quote)

Rhys February 16, 2010 at 4:11 am

Craig does a review for it as well, and thinks it is some kind of left wing greenie liberal propaganda.

What an idiot.

  (Quote)

StevenH February 17, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I have to say that I disagree with the “Deus ex machina” comment. It would be that if it were a “magical” event, but it made logical sense. When Jake communicated (jacked in) to Eywa, he specifically asked the planetary AI to use Grace’s memories in order to help win. Without her knowledge about Humanity and their technology, there would have been no way for the Pandorans (all of them, not just the Na’vi). Since Eywa had access to Grace’s memories, it could see that the only way to beat the Humans would be to overwhelm them with huge numbers. (I will admit to realizing that the timing of the reinforcements *just when the Na’vi are about to lose* was a little “screenwriter -predictable”.)

Still, since I liked the movie, and loved it from a worldbuilder’s perspective, I enjoy hearing other people’s ideas about it, even if they don’t agree with me ;-)

And yeah, it was predictable. The only thing that I would have been surprised at would be if Humans DIDN”T suck. (I had the same feeling coming out of District 9, too). One of these days we as a species will get past our greed, ignorance, and distructiveness.

  (Quote)

Brice August 26, 2010 at 3:29 pm

@Haukur

To me it was more like Cameron wanted to use the old Native American stories to make a statement about the environment (Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas etc), but didn’t want magic. We live in an age where we don’t have to call on magic for things. So he explained it through natural means. In doing this he’s able to make the metaphor for our Earth problems. Instead of the humans just ravaging another planet and it’s Earth like ecosystem like they did on Earth we see a planet where live is LITERALLY connected. Sure it is on Earth as well, but not nearly this explicit for obvious. This is what Sci-fi does. I don’t think there is any wanting to have his cake and eat it to.

  (Quote)

Cliff November 23, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I agree with most of what the writer is saying here. In fact, I saw the movie today for the first time, and as an atheist, went online after the movie and searched “Avatar atheist” to see what would come up. So far this is the only article I was able to find.

I found the most entertaining part of the movie to be the reality of the gods. The afterlife and god were real.. touchable.. talk-to-able….In fact, when asked to help at the end of the movie, the god actually sends some rather bad-ass animals to help out. Not a coincidence, ohh look at the miracle kind of help, but the god actually sent the creatures! What a concept!!

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment