We saw Avatar the other day in 3D. What an experience! We were blown away.

Soon after seeing the movie, I read a very bad, cynical, almost angry review of it by John Petrakis, published in The Christian Century, the magazine that sponsors the network of which this blog is a part. The critic labeled the film “pabulum” that doesn’t make the audience think (March 23, 2010: 43).

I couldn’t disagree more. What is it with some critics who contend that a movie has to do more than entertain? I’m a pastor, and after dealing with weighty matters of death and grief, surgery, what to say to people hungry for biblical truth, and how to help a church move creatively into the future, I’m ready not to think. So I don’t need always to find meaning in a film, TV show or song. I simply want to enjoy myself.

And enjoy myself I did watching Avatar. I would have been satisfied if a good feeling was all I got from it. But the film does offer more, despite Mr. Petrakis’s blindness to its merits. Here’s what I found in it.

First, affirmation of the importance of a sense of place. For the Earth people, especially the military, one place is as good as another. So why wouldn’t the indigenous people, the Na’vi, simply move? The tree they called home was, to the Earth invaders, no different from all the other trees on the moon Pandora.

But for the indigenous people, their literal and figurative roots mattered. Their place, their home, was unique. That is a lesson that could be learned or at least needs to be remembered and appreciated by an adult child who asks an elderly parent to give up his or her home to go to a nursing facility or by a church bureaucrat that want to close a little church that has been in the same place for a century or so.

Second, an invitation to see. The Na’vi greeting in the film is “I see you.” Sigourney Weaver’s character explains that this means “I see inside you.” What a challenge to any and all of us who live on the surface of things, who never take the time to look around, to appreciate our world or to get to know with any depth another person! To see truly is to know intimately and well.

Third, a depiction of true networking. So many long to be connected to others these days. Hence the immense popularity of social networking sites, where every little action is posted on a “wall,” announced to the whole world. The film questions whether the sharing of such trivia is real connection. Instead, the Na’vi are joined with each other, with the earth, with their ancestors in rich and enduring ways. One striking scene in the film is the ceremony in which Jake Sully (or “Jakesully”) in his avatar body, becomes one of the People. Seen from above, the Na’vi form a giant web around him. They are physically as well as spiritually networked.

Fourth, a promise of new life. The original Hindu meaning of “avatar” was the incarnation of a god or a released soul. This is what Jake experiences in the film. He is born again into a new body, voluntarily dying in his old, human one. His soul, sorely tempted to go along with the oppressors, is now truly part of the People, released. It seems to me that James Cameron has depicted what baptism signifies.

It was interesting to see on the same day on DVD the George Clooney film Up in the Air. It’s about a man who is isolated and rootless. When asked where he’s from by an airline captain, he says “I’m from here,” meaning the airplane, the sky, en route. He has an apartment, but it’s not home.

Clooney’s character fires people for a living. So his whole life is an exercise in deracination. As he lets people go from their companies, he cuts them off from one source of meaning, from roots that sustain them. When he’s not flying around outplacing employees, he gives motivational talks about emptying a backpack, symbolic of life, of everything and everyone. Ironically, when finally decides he wants to put down roots, circumstances prevent him.

Avatar and Up in the Air show us two competing visions of human life. The former is organic, connected, fulfilling, life-giving, victorious. The latter is depressing, lonely, cut off, rejecting companionship until it’s too late. Ironically, the people in Avatar were literally “up in the air” in their tree, but they were also the most down to earth.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

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