Saturday, February 20, 2010

Avatar film review

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone, which is the New Zealand Methodist magazine. Here is my review for February, on the movie Avatar. (Many more reviews, back to 2005, are here.)

“Avatar” is a blockbuster, set to sink “Titanic” as one of the highest earnings movies of all time. James Cameron, who directed “Titanic” and multiple editions of “Terminator”, is, well, back!

Apparently he has been waiting ten years for technology – specifically motion capture suits complete with skull cap to capture facial movements – to make believably human his imagination. The result is visually stunning, a movie that mixes live action with animation, human reality with CGI graphics.

Marine Sam Worthington (Jake Scully) is offered a fresh start on the new world of Pandora. His commission is to let his brain be housed inside an alien body (the avatar), in the form of the indigenous (Na’vi) people. Their planet is made beautifully dangerous by the presence of sacred trees, flying dinosaurs and the supernatural presence of Eywa. Attempts to educate the Na’v ihave failed. Scientific hope is now placed in the avatars as a way to gain insight and influence.

Sam, all action and naivety, finds himself unexpectedly befriended by Na’vi princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Love develops (this is Hollywood after all), pitting Sam between the Na’vi and the colonising interests of those sending him into Pandora.

In other words, this movie has got it all – guns, graphics, greed, and girls, dressed up in the latest in skimpy indigenous attire.

A crowd pleaser is the use of 3D technology. A buzz went around the cinema (sold out at 3:40 pm on a weekday) following the instruction to don our 3D (polarised) glasses. The lens let through different shades of colour, allowing left and right eyes to see different images simultaneously. The effects are stunning, creating a cinematic wonderland that is breathtaking in it’s beauty.

Amid this 3D world, the characters are sadly, stereotypically, two-dimensional. The indigenous people are exotic, the military are butch, the scientists naive, the businessmen greedy. Thinly veiled contemporary political references abound: the destruction of the Na’vi will be a campaign of “shock and awe”, driven by the need to “fight terror with terror.” Once again Hollywood has reduced life to cardboard cutout.

Thinking theologically, the movie brings the Christian understanding of the Incarnation into sharp focus. In Philippians chapter two, we find Christ as the One who humbles himself, taking on the very form of a servant. How does this compare with the actions and attitudes of Sam Worthington, taking on the form of another on Pandora?

Initially Sam, like Jesus declares himself an empty cup, willing to learn from the Navii. As the film unfolds, Sam, like Jesus finds himself increasingly both outcast and alien, a pawn for political and economic powers.

Yet the Christian understanding of the Incarnation offers more complex dimensions than those portrayed by James Cameron’s avatars. The historic Christian affirmation of fully human and fully divine suggests that Jesus is no avatar, who can be jerked back to heaven with the punch of a divine button. Instead, and most especially in Luke 1 and 2, the Incarnation is conceived (pun intended) as the baby who grows, fully entering into, living to the full, the human life.

While Avatar remains an act of cinematic beauty, and a technological triumph, it remains a Hollywood that offers a pale imitation of the depths of Incarnation needed for God to enter our human world.

549 words

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Director of Missiology, Uniting College, Adelaide. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church?(Zondervan, 2005) and writes regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

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