Avatar: James Cameron’s Retelling of the Fall
and Restoration of the Garden of Eden

Noble Savages? Recapturing his Innocence?Over the Christmas weekend, like so many others, I saw James Cameron’s, Avatar. I will be the first to admit the imagery was spectacular. I had already read discussions of the plot, about the anti-corporation and greed messages, and the thinly veiled representation of Native American spirituality. Thus I was not surprised when I saw the film and these points were as prominent as the three-dimensional arrows and objects protruding towards me. Yet, once I was able to think about it, I was deeply disappointed by Cameron’s representation of spirituality because there really isn’t that much in the movie, at least not spirituality as many Native Americans understand it. Instead what was really there was a religious message more familiar than most think.

As Kurt Schlichter so aptly points out, Cameron’s representation of the Na’vi is a pastiche of romanticized noble savage tropes, a group helpless to save themselves and dependent on a hero coming from the very same race that threatens them. While Cameron praises the Na’vi for their connection to nature, he portrays them as ignorant children shooting arrows at flying machines that can withstand the assault. Are the Na’vi really so stupid to keep shooting arrows at the helicopter-like crafts after seeing their initial arrows are useless? Are they really so dumb that it takes exploding missiles to get through to them that they are out gunned? According to Cameron it does. This is the problem. Since the seventeenth century western society has believed children were innocent and through this innocence, they were closer to nature. The Native American were connected to this innocence. Thus, Cameron cannot escape this infantilizing notion and therefore casts the Na’vi as a dumb but spiritually innocent race, part of the planet and in tune with all life.

But this leads to my biggest problem, the representation of Na’vi spirituality. It is the most vague and mostly unspiritual understanding of Native American beliefs. There is a big difference between saying all humanity is one because they share the same creator or were saved from sin by the blood of Christ versus we are all one because we share the same DNA and evolutionary background. Cameron’s unity falls pretty close to the latter. His unity of the “Great Spirit” is not deeply spiritual, as so many reviews discuss, it is neurobiological. Far from some Great Spirit, or Wakan Tanka, Cameron’s unity is the neurobiological matrix that connects all the plants and animals on the planet. As Sigourney Weaver’s character says, “We’re not talking about pagan voodoo but something that is real biologically: a global network of neurons.” This is far from Native American spirituality. It would be much more appropriate to point to Gaia explanations common in ecological and climate change debates rooted in biology and materialism.

This is where Cameron is just a guilty as the prior colonizers he wishes to critique. He represents the indigenous people as helpless children, much like the Europeans who came to North America, and then appropriates them for his ideological harangue. In colonizing their image, he casts them as savage infants, ignorant but close to nature, and then subsumes all of these representations and his imagining of Native American belief into a larger condemnation of the western world’s destruction of the environment.This, I argue, is where Cameron’s real allegiance relies. It is not some vague spiritualism; it is not a pining for the lost connection to the land that Native American claim or claimed. Cameron’s appropriation of Native American imagry is in the service of the environment; it is all about environmentalism.

So what is the real spirituality at the heart of Avatar? Christianity. In the movie, Examined Life, Slavoj Zizek argues that modern discourses of environmentalism are secularized versions of the fall from grace, man’s ejection from the garden of Eden and his loss of innocence. Cameron’s movie is a retelling of the Garden of Eden story where the greedy-technological humans play the role of Satan who threatens the Na’vi, a pre-fallen and innocent humanity. Yet Hollywood endings cannot be so negative, and thus a savior must arise to preserve the innocence of the pre-fallen. It cannot be one of the Na’vi because to do so would require losing innocence. Thus the messiah must be one of the corrupt who is redeemed and, not surprisingly, is reborn and becomes one with the inhabitants of the saved garden, of course after dying and being resurrected by God(dess).

The “deep spirituality” of Avatar that many praise is just shallow neo-pagan window dressing. Though James Cameron may borrow terms and imagery from Greek mythology and from pagan and Native American spirituality, the deep spiritual message in Avatar is Christian, although a secularized version. Humanity through its greed and technological knowledge has fallen from grace, lost its purity, and has destroyed the world. But all is not lost. Humanity can redeem itself, and make things right. It must restore the earth, rebalance the biosphere, and stop its evil, greedy, and corporate ways. Of course this cannot be done by a spiritual savior; it must be done by humanity, the same race who caused the problem. But fret not, it is possible, just look at Sam Worthington’s character, right? He was able to reclaim his innocence and be reborn, we can too, right? It is not an accident that the Na’vi planet is called Pandora. After she opened her box the second time she found the one good spirit amongst the evil: hope. So have hope that we can fix things, right? It would see Cameron hopes so otherwise he would not have made the movie.

Nevertheless, Avatar is quite a spectacle and will set the standard that all future 3D movies will have to meet or surpass, at least for a while. Still, I think people watching the movie will have to dig a little deeper than the surface neo-pagan or Native American references. Cameron’s story is cliché and his appropriation of themes and images haphazard and unreflective. Cameron himself is from a Protestant background but is described as “only marginally religious.” With all these indicators, what makes one think he would really be able to invest his story with “deep spirituality.” It is just not there. Instead he calls upon the deep religious tropes so common in our society and these come from the Bible. While it is hardly a Christian narrative that evangelicals will be able to get behind, the Biblical foundation is there. So please, journalists, stop representing this movie as having anything to do with Native American spirituality. It is far from it. You need to start looking closer to home because the foundational story of the Na’vi is not found with Wakan Tanka, but in Genesis.

Category: American Religious History, Popular Culture
Tags: Environmentalism, Movies, Native American Spirituality, Neopaganism, Spirituality


[17 Jan 2010: For an alternate view of the movie, see this blog entry about Avatar on the Twilight Traveler’s blog.]

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