For starters, the 3-D glasses are really cool, not the flimsy paper and celluloid things of the past. These are fashioned on the perennially chic Ray-Ban Wayfarers. However, the neat glasses certainly are not the main reason to go see Avatar.
Director James Cameron’s groundbreaking use of 3-D technology was enough to get me into the theater, but the breadth of his vision in bringing an alien world to life kept me glued to my seat. Many reviewers have praised Cameron’s latest project, and I don’t intend on repeating those praises here. It was a beautiful and thrilling movie.
Several thoughtful people have accurately and justifiably criticized the film’s philosophical underpinnings. (David Brook’s does it better than anyone else!) Even L’Osservatore Romano weighed in, warning about the film’s promotion of paganism. Others have missed the forest for the trees in whining about the smoking habit of Sigourney Weaver’s character. Even though nature worship doesn’t quite square with Christianity and smoking won’t endear you to your doctor, there are many, many more things in Avatar that should give us pause for thoughtful reflection. Plus, a film that sells $1 billion in tickets in just over two weeks should be taken very seriously.
Cameron’s film raises at least five topics for reflection. These are relevant because of their topicality and/or on account of their importance for understanding human existence. In no specific order they are: personal identity, encounters with the other, our relationship with nature, greed and exploitation, and varieties of religious experience.
The notion of a personal identity that can crafted, modified, tweaked, broken and reformed is a relatively new notion—a notion developed by the psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1940’s and 50’s. Much of Erikson’s research focused on the childhood development in term of identity formation. In brief, identity is that which gives us a sense of wholeness and a confidence in our capacity to encounter both internal and external crises. Erikson’s concepts—“identity” and “identity crisis”—have been applied to several situations beyond childhood development. Erikson himself used his own theories to make sense of the plight of large groups of refugees in the wake of World War II.
The taxonomy of identity formation and development is now part of the lexicon of institutions such as universities and high schools. Jesuit universities have vice presidents who focus on developing and promoting Ignatian identity. An individual encounters the complexities of the world and of self with a capacity that is called “identity.” Identity is the answer to the question: Who are you?
Jake Sully, in Avatar, is a former Marine hired because of one element of identity—his genetic code. His brother had been trained to operate the body of an alien N’avi that shared his DNA. After his brother’s untimely death, the genetically engineered N’avi body could only be used by Jake since he, too, shared the same DNA. Although the two brothers shared enough genetic matter to use the same N’avi host body, they were very different men. Jake’s brother was a scientist; Jake is a former Marine. The brother had mastered the difficult N’avi language and had studied the culture; Jake new virtually nothing of the world he was entering. Their identities had been formed by what they had done rather than by their genetic code.
Moreover, Avatar reminds us that personal identity is more than exterior, physical elements. Jake’s avatar looks exactly like the rest of the N’avi, but the N’avi are not fooled; they know immediately is he not “one of them.” They knew he was a “dream walker” sent from the “sky people.” Jake retains something inherent to Jake even when he is using his avatar. The film asks us to reflect on what exactly comprises the essence of our identity. Cameron indicates that it’s more than what happens in our brains—our conscience. Identity is more than our genetic code; identity is formed or, in Jake’s case, reformed through interaction with a community.
Encounter with Others
Jesus’ wish for his disciples to go and make disciples of all means that we will come into contact with people who are very different from ourselves. How do we behave when this happens? Cameron’s film, shallowly and predictably, offers a few options for what to do when one encounters the Other. Nonetheless, Cameron gets us thinking once again about how we are to behave when we encounter peoples whose values and lifestyles are very different. We have the scientists, Dr. Grace Augustine and companions, who are objectively sympathetic and want to “understand” the Na’vi and are open to learning from them. However, there is something very paternalistic/maternalistic about these scientists. Dr. Augustine admits she doesn’t believe the myths regarding the Na’vi’s deity, but she nonetheless admires them on account of their belief. She permit herself this admiration since she has found the objective scientific evidence for the foundations of their belief. Cameron doesn’t condemn this approach, but neither does he wholeheartedly advocate it. After all, Dr. Augustine dies before the final victory, unable to completely participate in the Na’vi’s vindication.
Of course, we are supposed to condemn the military’s approach and business’s approach to the other. According to Cameron’s broad brushstrokes, the military readily turns the other into the enemy, while big business turns the other into a road bump on the way to a free and flourishing market economy. Even though Cameron treats these categories with very little, if any, nuance, it should not stop us from reflecting upon the very real circumstance of our encounter with the Other.
For Francis Xavier, the Japanese might as well have been the Na’vi. In our increasingly globalized world we forget how foreign and alien Xavier must has seemed to the Japanese in the 1540’s. Likewise, Xavier was struck profoundly by the differences. Not unlike Jake, Xavier arrives in Japan and other foreign lands on account of the commercial interests of Portugal. Moreover, just as in the movie, these commercial interests are protected by the military might of a superpower. In India, Xavier made it very clear to the Indians that he was neither an invading political force nor a commercial profiteer. He did this in Goa by refusing to live in the governmental/ecclesial residences and instead he lived in the local hospital where he cared for and ministered to the most vulnerable of the Indians.
In Japan, he endeavored to learn the Japanese categories—he even used their own word for God—in a way very different from the scientists of Avatar. He didn’t learn the Japanese way of life for some cynical and ulterior motive. He learned their way of life because he knew that God loved these people and was offering an invitation to life with God. Jesuit missionary work—Xavier, Ricci, and many others—offer wonderful examples of what to do in a “strange” land.
–to be continued–