I went to Avatar determined to like it in spite of the fact I was aware I might not. I knew only that it was a special-effects miracle with a New-Age-green message delivered by some tall blue people. This is not my usual cup of tea.
But I’m reading a book by an old friend on the philosophy of Spinoza, and he sent me a review of the movie that suggested some shared meaning between the great 17th Century thinker and this 21st Century futuristic fantasy. From what I have learned so far of the philosophy of Spinoza (with whom Albert Einstein is said to have agreed) it is basically that what we refer to as God is not so much a human-like entity but rather a sustained connection of all living things. This led me to the movie house expecting, if not enlightenment, a bit of direction toward a spiritual path.
You don’t have to tell me I was asking too much from a film by James Cameron. I know his wildly successful Titanic was dismissed by many as predictable and melodramatic (what else, from a story whose ending we all know, revolving around such idealized fictional romantic characters?), but its ending was one of the most exhilarating moments I have had in a movie ever, and I thought this one just might give me a moment or two like that.
It did, once I got used to the blue people with their white-flecked flat-nosed faces. I was utterly transported by the flora and fauna of Cameron’s forest. I wanted to walk there forever. I loved his floating blossoms that looked like jellyfish and thistles. I loved his hideous monsters who must be fought to be tamed (the scene when the protaganist has to ride his glorious dragon and bond with it was almost painful in its handling of spectacle and phantasmagorical realism). The villainnous villains, in this case the Marines and corporate executives, were a little extreme for me, but then I always liked Oz better than Kansas too. Like Jake Scully, I wanted to go back.
I saw that these blue people didn’t pray to their God to help them win wars because they had an understanding that that was not "her" job; I saw that they were connected to the animals because they bonded with them and seemed to read their minds. However, I don’t see that as pantheism or Spinozism or any religion that I know of. Some say their connection to the “land” symbolized the spirit of the Native American people. Perhaps, but I think there is a great deal that we do not know about the religion of the Native American people (at least I don’t) and that idealizing it is a little too easy. If on one level Avatar is an allegory about our ravaging of the planet and every planet we discover, well, it does make that point, but as only a footnote in the film. If it is an indictment of the military-industrial complex, that’s not big news—President Eisenhower started that in 1961.
So none of the messages of the movie moved me much. On the other hand, the special effects were astonishing—and I have to tell you here that I didn’t even see it in 3-D; it was too hard to get a ticket at short notice. It’s a beautiful film, and one that will without question influence future filmmakers. It may affect some of the audience with its philosophy, as those of a more Conservative political persuasion than I are suggesting, and it may even open some young eyes, but I think what will last about the movie is what lasts about all good movies. It moves its audience to a place they’ve never been.
Spoiler alert: I had one niggling problem with the story, and I say niggling because I’ve not seen it mentioned in another review so it must not be very important. In the climactic scene when the blue princess saves the dying Jake, I almost said aloud, “You mean she knew all along she was in love with an avatar? She knew that human lying on the floor was him, needing to be revived with that air mask?”
So I was forced to suspend disbelief. That’s part of the agreement we make with any moviemaker when we walk through the door, particularly a movie like this. You expect a little preaching and probably a couple of hidden agendas that are hardly hidden. It won’t convert you to pantheism, or to Spinoza’s concept of a connecting substance underpinning all living forms, but it will decidedly take you on a trip you have not seen before outside your best dreams.
A nice innovation was the appearance of the title instead of “The End,” The soul is transferred from crippled human to tall blue warrior, its yellow eye opens and we are told we have just seen Avatar. There is applause in the theater.