“One life ends, another begins.” Jake Sully
It is a classic tale of a little guy who defeats an oppressive military power by relying on a force he didn’t previously know existed. Sure, the dialogue is clunky at times, the religion a New Age mash-up and the enemies a bit stereotypical, but none of that matters as we are swept up in its epic scope and technical mastery.
I’m speaking, of course, of Star Wars, but the comparisons some are drawing with Avatar are quite appropriate. I saw it yesterday, fully two weeks after its release date, and the lines were still longer than at most opening day releases. I can see why. We were shocked to find the 3D showings sold out, but even in 2D it was an amazing film (and less nausea-inducing, I would think). Even my wife loved it, and she normally steers clear of anything with aliens.
Avatar is by no means flawless. The story is fairly simple, though I still found it moving, but the dialogue and characterization were bigger problems, and this is where the comparison with Star Wars begins to break down. The heroes were forgettable, the villains thin as shooting range targets, and the Na’vi a little too transparently Native American for aliens (though with a touch of Maasai thrown in). I can’t think of a single quotable line of dialogue. Practically the only memorable lines at all were the groan-worthy references to “the current economy,” “terrorists” and “shock and awe.” There was too much exposition in the first third, too little character development in the second, and too much preaching in the third.
Avatar’s anti-war and pro-environmentalist messages were about as subtle as a mechanized soldier, but the film still manages to transcend its political agenda, and the breathtaking visuals and incredible special effects more than make up for its deficiencies in other areas. The world-building here is unmatched, and probably will remain so for some time. Pandora is a wonder, as full of hope and danger as its mythological namesake. Though I definitely want to see it again in 3D, that version intentionally limits your focus and depth of field, so it was worth going to a 2D showing simply to take it in. From the swirling gas giant Pandora orbits, to its tiny insects drinking pollen from otherworldly flowers, I suspect you could watch it a dozen times and still not catch all the visual details James Cameron has poured into this film.
For the privilege of spending a few hours in such a world, I’ll gladly take whatever heavy-handed sermonizing Cameron wants to pack on. In fact, I didn’t find the film’s message nearly as disturbing as some Christians appear to have found it. Even the fantasy Gaia worship was an acceptable trade-off for Avatar’s open acknowledgement of the power of faith, love, prayer and the supernatural. More than any of this, however, I especially loved the film’s resurrection symbolism. I was shocked to find no mention of this in several excellent Christian reviews (though see this review, and this discussion of resurrection and transhumanism in Avatar). To my mind, this imagery was at least as central to the plot as the Gaia mythology we’ve heard so much about, and would well repay a closer look.
Sleep and waking are frequent images of death and resurrection in the New Testament (and elsewhere), as when Jesus says Lazarus is “asleep… but I go to wake him” (John 11:11), and when Paul says, “Wake up, sleeper! Rise from the dead!” (Ephesians 5:14). Thus I find it highly appropriate that the film revolves around scenes of sleep and waking. In the very first sequence, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) tells us that he dreams of flying, but the first time we actually see him is as he wakes from a cryogenic sleep “without dreams.” This sleep has brought him from an Earth which is “dead,” to the living, breathing, flying world of Pandora.
Jake is a paraplegic, but in this new world he can take control of an “avatar,” a genetically engineered body made to look and function just like the Na’vi, the powerful race of sexy blue giants who live on Pandora. He can only inhabit this avatar by going to sleep, and he can only wake back in his human body by sleeping as an avatar. But the contrast between these two states could not be more apparent. As a human, Jake is crippled and lonely, and visibly tires and weakens as the film progresses. Yet as a Na’vi, he is whole and strong and loved, and steadily wakes to a new and full and exhilarating life.
If all that were not enough, the Na’vi explicitly refer to Jake’s acceptance into the clan as a “second birth,” an expression that cannot help but resonate with Christian notions of resurrection, even while echoing Eastern concepts as well. Without giving too much away, this imagery proves quite appropriate to the later development of the story, giving it a depth its simplistic narrative might otherwise lack. For under all the fantastic imagery and big-budget violence, this film is really about hope and sacrifice and love and life on the other side of death, wrapped up in an extraordinarily beautiful and imaginative world.