Avatar Movie Review: The Sociology, Theology and Politics of Avatar

I finally found someone to go see Avatar with me. (Thanks Doug! A year into Indiana and I still don’t have a movie buddy yet. This is something I really have to change.) We went for the full effect and saw it in 3-d on the IMAX. If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to know too much, just looking for a recommendation here is my take. It is a visually mesmerizing movie that really blows your mind with its creativity and technology. At first the concept of watching people who are really CGI characters the whole time sounded lame, but there was nothing lame about the production value of Avatar. It cost 300 million and you understand why. It is a movie you should absolutely experience in the theaters to truly appreciate it. If you like fun, creative, action packed movies without too much violence, too much blood shed, cussing or sex, well then you have my full recommendation to go and check it out.

If you don’t want to know anything else, then stop reading now. The rest of this is all details and impressions.

I have to give James Cameron credit, he certainly made a movie that got a reaction out of me. The reaction is decidedly mixed, but it is a reaction and a pretty strong one. On face value I really enjoyed Avatar and would rank it up there with most any sci-fi movie going experience I have had, no doubt. On the other hand I was seriously disappointed by parts of the movie.

The first part I struggled with was the absolute lack of creativity or depth to the story line. There was no subtly or surprise to the storyline or the characters. Maybe it is fitting that in a movie named Avatar everyone seemed to be a caricature of a real person. I have no question that my buddy Todd and I could have sat down and dreamed up everyone one of the characters in the movies and their back stories and their role in the film in one night. No surprises at all there. That is okay, I guess, when you are simply trying to make a blockbuster, but the film obviously was trying to make points regarding environmental, corporate, and national issues, so I frankly expected better.

Sociologically I found the film almost offensively basic. The indigenous people of Pandora, the Navi, were a strange mix of every stereotype ever created around “primitive” or “tribal” cultures, especially from the eyes of white western culture. The Navi were a mix of Native American, African and Amazon tribes wrapped in blue feline humanoid form. Seriously James you couldn’t have stepped outside of any of the stereotypes? At times I wasn’t sure if I was watching Dancing with Wolves, Shaka Zulu, or Rambo. The Navi were so simplistically portrayed with no creativity regarding their religion (completely pantheistic with the added twist of them physically connecting with creation around them), their tribal social functioning, or their mannerisms. It was almost offensive in some ways. It felt one hundred percent like a film a rich white movie maker from America makes about an indigenous people anywhere, here in the US, in South America, in Africa or on the moon Pandora in 2154.

The characters themselves were almost laughably simplistic. Sam Worthington’s lead character Sully was a stupid jarhead who found feelings. Sigourney Weaver was enjoyable as always, but she was the hardcore scientist environmentalist who hated the marines. Giovanni Rivisi whom I find really entertaining was the corporate guy looking for cheddar. Stephen Lang as the Colonel channeled his best Sam Eliot or R. Lee Ermey and was the hard as nails marine who just wanted to blow stuff up. Michelle Rodriguez was good, but she played the same character she plays on every show.  I mean come on, couldn’t someone have been a little surprising or interesting? (I did enjoy Joel Moore as Norman Spellman, Joel is a frequent character on Bones and I thought he was well cast.)

Theologically there was a strong pantheism throughout the movie with an emphasis on the interrelatedness of all creatures. That was fine, I am not exactly expecting a Christians motif in Avatar, but once again the religious practices of the Navi, with tribal drumming, chanting, ecstatic swaying and the such was just so cliche that it was annoying. Once again there was just no depth or creativity to this part of the film or the Navi people. There was such potential to add different levels to them or to the story or to tackle interesting questions but that was obviously not something they spent any time worrying about.

Politically there were a couple of interesting things happening. First, it was telling that it was an evil corporation, not a nation or government that was on the planet exploiting its natural resources. The greed that effected, paid for and spawned scientific research was also its demise. The mixture of a corporation with its own private military also bore a lot of similarity to much of what we see happening today. There was some commentary in the film on the fact that the soldiers used to be marines, they used to fight for something that mattered, but now they were just fighting for money and they were soulless, essentially. Secondly, anytime a powerful group attacks a less powerful one for a natural resource you feel like Hollywood is making some sort of commentary on oil and our current environmental issues. That is fine, it is a real enough issue for movies to cover, but once again the movie added nothing to the conversation.

What did it have to say about the environment except for trees good, roads and trucks bad? Nothing!This movie even made tree huggers a caricature!

So overall the sfx were amazing, the experience was really good and the movie was very enjoyable, it just wasn’t amazing. an amazing movie makes you walk away from it more aware of yourself or struggling with questions about the world or inspiring you. This movie did nothing for me except for entertain and slighty annoy me for its lack of script creativity.

Any of you seen it? What did you think?

6 thoughts on “Avatar Movie Review: The Sociology, Theology and Politics of Avatar

  1. In general, I would agree if your review except that I was not entertained at all by this movie. The CGI that many people, including you, have commented as being well done made me feel as though I was watching someone else play a video game for two hours. Your points about the dialogue and script are all valid.

  2. Stacey and I saw this movie on New Year’s Eve in Mishawaka (only $7.50/person — in 3D!), and we both enjoyed it. I knew going in that there were complaints about the writing, etc. But I liked it.

    Even though it may not have added anything especially new (which seems to be your main complaint), I think there’s a place for movies that basically re-tell stories to a new generation. Most young people today have never experienced this kind of colonialism that cares nothing for destroying native cultures. They may have learned about it in history class. But they’ve probably never seen it presented in an emotionally impactful way.

    (Dances with Wolves came out in 1990, before any current high school student was born, and long enough ago that most college students have probably never seen it. Shaka Zulu is even older, and First Blood is 28 years old!)

    So I enjoyed it. There were enough “new” scifi elements to keep me entertained, and the personal struggle of Sully’s character, as he was drawn more and more into the life of his avatar (with strong, working legs!) kept me engaged as well.

  3. Oh my friend, you know me well. I saw “Avatar” just before I left for Liberia over New Years (yeah, that’s right…Liberia – I now view “Blood Diamond” as more of a documentary) and I could not agree more with every single point of your take. Yep, we could have written it, and, yep, it was a mish-mash of Pocahontas Dancing with Zulus, however, I mean this emphatically (just like you did) I really really enjoyed it! Cameron has also been a true sci-fi visionary, but I mean that in the literal sense. He is a VISIONary. His vision for future locales, technology, etc is unparalled. From “Aliens” to the “Abyss” to “Terminator 2” he is unmatched in sci-fi presentation. I think, if I allow him to remain in that context and do not seek anything else, I will remain thoroughly pleased and entertained with his films. While there are definitely bits of other films in this movie, the film maker that he steals from most blatantly (and effectively) is himself. Notice the style of military craft (a mix of Aliens and Terminator), the evening color palette (straight from the Abyss). Personally, I find this cool, not cheap. It brings my fond memories of those sci-fi classics into this latest effort.

    Color me entertained, and after recently returning from a work trip to sub-Saharan Africa, simple fun-lovin entertainment is just what the doctor ordered. :)

    1. I of course knew that we would have the exact same opinion of this movie! Fun, thrilling, silly, very Cameronesque and a bit cliched. Exactly the type of movie you need to see after going to Liberia. God bless you and your work Admiral (have no idea what rank you are now so I will simply call you the Admiral).

  4. Aside from all the typical “left/right” talk that people seem to identify with so much there is also a great message of the enlightened. The aliens just can’t understand that they don’t want anything from them, there is nothing…no-thing material that they can offer the people of Pandora in exchange for their sacred land to which they live with and don’t ‘own’.

    I think we have have deep seeded knowing that there is something lacking still with this modern life we’ve created and it isn’t fulfilling what we’re searching for. Why is ‘Greed’ considered a sin? The Amorality of ‘just doing my job’ regardless of who you’re hurting is because we are all operating unconsciously.

    Xanex doesn’t exist on Pandora for a reason.

    I don’t thank God for Corporations, they are inherently evil and are fueled by greed. They are merely a physical entity and deserve no rights to anything human what-so-ever.

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