Avatar: A Western take on Eastern ideas (and I’m not sure that’s good)

Posted on 21 December 2009 by Quaid

Avatar_PosterIn reading reviews of James Cameron’s alien-centric opus Avatar, I feel like I’ve been seeing the same things over and over.  Most criticism comes from the fact that audiences simply don’t identify with characters or find the story simple, contrived, or cliche.

And they’ve got a good point.  In the end, Avatar comes down to a story of good nature-oriented guys fighting off the bad, mechanized humans.  It’s more than a little on-the-nose.

Even the self-proclaimed “Green” population will complain about being preached to about environmental issues, and Cameron is most definitely on his soap-box.  In watching Avatar, though, my mind began to drift toward a slightly different (but admittedly conected) theme–that of a unitive consciousness.

This idea is not in any way new.  In fact, it is, in some ways, the oldest form of religion and spirituality.   Nearly all major world religions preach this idea in one form or another…that the world is connected in some unseen way through a collective consciousness.  Buddhism attacks this problem most directly, in my opinion, arguing that what we perceive as our “self” is not our true self, but is actually just our ego manifest with thoughts and emotions and conditioned responses.  In reality, our minds and personalities and thoughts and worldly desires are like a computer.  We run programs and compute data, but that data has no meaning without the person running the computer–our true self–who cannot be “witnessed” by us because…well…who would be doing the witnessing?

Of course, I’m wildly simplifying these ideas for the sake of brevity…the purpose of this article is not to explain unitive consciousness or to convince you readers of its merit or silliness.  Instead, I wanted to look at how this generally Eastern idea was used by Cameron and twisted in a decidedly Western way.

Avatar1On Padora, the Na’vi live their lives in harmony with nature–all plants, animals, and each other.  They, too, believe in a unitive consciousness, complete with interconnection with animal and plant life and a union with their goddess Eywa.  Na’vi can even commune with their dead.

Where Cameron adds his Western twist, however, is in the form this collective consciousness takes.  Where as Buddhists would argue that the unitive consciousness must exist spiritually, outside space-time and unable to be observed or measured via material instruments, Cameron’s version is very definitively prove-able.  The entire planet of Pandora exists as a kind of neural network that connects the roots of the trees to cable-like branches (that glow in a way that reminds us of modern optical storage technology).  This network extends to the animals who can be “plugged into” and even to the Na’vi who seem to have a built-in USB port at the end of their ponytails.

The Na’vi can “connect with” an animal by plugging in, and communing with the dead means downloading the spirits/memories/whatever of ancestors directly into your mind.  The idea is cool science fiction that on Pandora has developed naturally.

Where Cameron goes “wrong,” though, is to assign a spiritual value to this very scientific and limited version of a collective consciousness.  It’s even stated in the movie that the fate of the planet and the Na’vi, themselves, is tied to the fate of this fragile neural planet-wide network.  In other words, everything valuable and meaningful about the Na’vi can be destroyed via bombs.  The “eternal soul” of these creatures seems to be tied into the fate of a tree.  If it is destroyed, so is the consciousness of the ancestors and the living Na’vi.  I ask you, James, what kind of a religion is that?

Avatar2The whole point of Unitive conciousness is that the true self–the consciousness of the world–exists outside of space-time and so is immortal and greater than all things earthly.  By defining the world of Pandora as a storage-based computer, Cameron has undercut his environmental and spiritual themes.  These places aren’t “sacred,” they’re just important to the survival of the species and the planet.  All the spiritual, other-worldly mumbo jumbo loses its meaning and we’re left with a race fighting for survival in the protection of their giant biological supercomputer.

But that doesn’t stop Avatar from delving into spiritual silliness–such as the moment where Neytiri decides not to kill Jake because of an air-borne jellyfish landing on her arrow.  In the world of the movie, though, we must assume that this jellyfish was sent by the computer program of the collective consciousness in order to ensure its own survival.  Not really that deep.

It’s a wildly western and borderline atheist idea to reduce all forms of spirituality to a massive machine that acts as if it has some deeper meaning, but that’s what Cameron has done.  Regardless of your religious leanings (or lack thereof), you kind of have to call bullshit on Cameron’s preachiness in light of his all-too-easy and ultimately shallow spiritual explanation for Pandora.  I have no problem with any of the cool interconnectedness of the planet that Cameron shows us, and I think it’s beautiful and wonderful.  But to elevate it to the level of ultimate religious truth is insulting.

I mean, eventually the universe will thin out into a gaseous state.  It will then (arguably) collapse into a singularity.  The point is, Pandora will be destroyed, and all the ancestral memories of the Na’vi  and the life-force of its people will die.  So these blue aliens are fighting an ultimately losing battle, no matter how many US marine warships they defeat.

In existential literature they call this absurdity.  While the Na’vi preach their connection to something beyond the physical, they worship the physical as the end-all be-all. Is that really an idea worth giving one’s life for?                           

11 Comments For This Post

  1. carbonetc Says:

    “Where Cameron goes ‘wrong,’ though, is to assign a spiritual value to this very scientific and limited version of a collective consciousness.”

    Cameron isn’t assigning this value. The Na’vi are. And they’re doing exactly what human cultures have done from the very beginning — becoming aware of a natural phenomenon they can’t explain and building a religion out of it. If anything, Cameron is being honest about where spirituality comes from. He’s also demonstrating why spirituality is often a useful fiction because it has a role in keeping cultures from coming unglued (as the depicted human culture which has “killed its mother” arguably has).

    “I ask you, James, what kind of a religion is that?”

    Exactly. Every criticism you have for the shallowness of the Na’vi religion is applicable to every human religion. The article is laden with the assumption that there’s something “more spiritual” that the Na’vi should be worshiping instead. I’d argue that anyone who has a problem with people spiritualizing the material should maybe take a long hard look in the mirror. It couldn’t be more obvious to the Na’vi that Eywa is spiritual in character; it couldn’t be more obvious to us that consciousness is spiritual in character. The Na’vi are mistaken, but we cannot be? Cognitive science has already shone more light on where we err than most people realize. And, historically, bets against the explainability of things in natural terms have been consistently bad bets.

    “I have no problem with any of the cool interconnectedness of the planet that Cameron shows us, and I think it’s beautiful and wonderful. But to elevate it to the level of ultimate religious truth is insulting.”

    Then don’t do so. Cameron isn’t asking you to, as far as I can tell. Though a Na’vi might. I think you’ve fallen into the common trap of attributing the beliefs of a writer’s characters to the writer himself.

    “I mean, eventually the universe will thin out into a gaseous state. It will then (arguably) collapse into a singularity. The point is, Pandora will be destroyed, and all the ancestral memories of the Na’vi and the life-force of its people will die. So these blue aliens are fighting an ultimately losing battle, no matter how many US marine warships they defeat.”

    How terrible. Just how long does one have to exist to make being alive another day a worthwhile goal? A thousand years? A million? A quintillion? Or can a life only be meaningful if it’s eternal? Again, we’re no better off than the Na’vi in this regard.

    This sounds to me like the usual argument from adverse consequences. The thought that this is all there is to life is unbearable, therefore there must be more to life. But we just can’t make it so by wanting it really badly.

  2. Quaid Says:

    “…the purpose of this article is not to explain unitive consciousness or to convince you readers of its merit or silliness. Instead, I wanted to look at how this generally Eastern idea was used by Cameron and twisted in a decidedly Western way.”

    I am neither condoning nor condemning world religions or the idea of unitive consciousness, carbon. I’ve oscillated wildly between spiritual belief and atheistic philosophy, and I do, in fact, think that all meaning can be found in the here and now…

    But based on the way Cameron has presented the religion of the Na’vi, they believe in eternal being. Their eternal being, however, is based on physical objects that will, by definition, be destroyed.

    Also, if Cameron was trying to “send up” world religions, he’s done a poor job. The spirit of the movie and the film’s themes are a ringing endorsement of the Na’vi’s religion, 100%. And that’s where I have problems, because the filmmakers are endorsing a religion that promotes an eternal spirit which is tied scientifically to non-eternal physical objects.

    So I think the argument that the Na’vi are a spiritually awakened people is a weak one since the only manifestation of their spirituality is tied to physical, easily destroyed objects. But we, as an audience, are asked to stay with the Na’vi every step of the way–which is something I couldn’t do as a film goer, because the religion, even if it was 100% accurate, seemed shallow and transient.

    Thanks for your well thought out comments…feel free to “rip me a new one” in the future…I enjoy the discourse :)

  3. carbonetc Says:

    I don’t mean to be cantankerous. I just feel like we each saw a different movie, and still do after reading your comment. So it would seem that either I’m projecting onto the movie or you are, or both.

    “But based on the way Cameron has presented the religion of the Na’vi, they believe in eternal being. Their eternal being, however, is based on physical objects that will, by definition, be destroyed.”

    Would this not be an accurate portrayal of your typical pre-scientific culture? Can you think of many so-called primitive cultures which DON’T spiritualize the matter around them? What sort of religion should Cameron have given them instead? I don’t see any problem with them being mistaken about their world — I’d expect it.

    “Also, if Cameron was trying to ‘send up’ world religions, he’s done a poor job. The spirit of the movie and the film’s themes are a ringing endorsement of the Na’vi’s religion, 100%. And that’s where I have problems, because the filmmakers are endorsing a religion that promotes an eternal spirit which is tied scientifically to non-eternal physical objects.”

    How does one endorse a fictional religion? I don’t think even Jake bought into the religion. I don’t remember if he was privy to the scientific explanation of the interconnectedness (perhaps off-screen), but I take it he was a pretty pragmatic fellow (“I’m probably just talking to a tree right now”). It isn’t the religion he was converted to, it was the culture. And it wasn’t Eywa he was trying to save, it was a people and a way of life. In Dances With Wolves (Cameron acknowledges some inspiration) Dunbar adopts and defends the Sioux way of life. This doesn’t mean that he had started believing in Wakan Tanka (nor that the viewers should).

    You see a similar phenomenon in mainstream religions as well. There are Christians and Jews who aren’t particularly interested in whether supernatural beings exist. They just appreciate the moral and social structure and see value in the rituals and traditions. It’s the culture they’re after; the supernatural claims are just hitching a ride.

    If the filmmakers are endorsing anything, it’s Na’vi culture, not Na’vi religion. And even then it’s not that Na’vi culture is the correct culture, but that it’s entitled to exist, or at least defend itself. The movie is more anti-imperialism than pro-spirituality.

    I wouldn’t say that the Na’vi are spiritually awakened, nor did I feel like I was being asked to accept that they are. I viewed them as I would view any Amazonian or African tribe — wrong (understandably) about the nature of the universe, but still having extremely valuable cultural insights. There were a few ways in which the Na’vi could be said to be culturally superior to the depicted humans. They were inclined not to destroy their own home, for example.

    I take it you think that Cameron wanted to endorse a certain type of spirituality (which you say is Eastern, but animism and connectedness are pretty universal in shamanic religions), so he came up with some scientific explanation to make it real. Instead I think he wanted to endorse a certain type of culture (or at least create a culture which is the opposite of an imperialistic one for contrast) so he designed a world in which that sort of culture would naturally arise. Realism dictated that some form of spirituality be woven into it, be it based in fact or not.

  4. Quaid Says:

    Carbon…

    I think I’m getting the gist of your argument a little better here…to me, though, I still feel like Cameron was trying to say something about the value of the spirituality of the Na’vi being connected with all living things etc etc and the “one-mindedness” of the world. Hence we are privy to all the talk about how your animal must “choose” you, and we even have Sigourney Weaver’s character saying “I’m with her…she’s real.” Which, of course, is true, but in the context of the movie is supposed to be more significant than “I’m plugged into the harddrive of the trees.”

    I think it’s probably logical to assume that, yes, we did see two “different” movies and picked up on different things based on our own preconceived notions about religion and culture etc. But I will still argue that Cameron is at LEAST on the verge of adding (and encouraging) spiritual significance to a strictly physical phenomenon. Which, I know, we’re all probably guilty of at one time or another.

    I hope we can still be friends.

  5. Quaid Says:

    And nice call on the Eastern vs. worldly religion nomenclature. The idea of “unitive consciousness” is much more universal than just “Eastern” but is a spiritual idea that has met with more than a little resistance in the individualistic West (read the United States). I took a few liberties to put together a slightly snappier headline. ;)

  6. Dudley Holl Says:

    Darf ich fragen, wie heisst den dieses WordPress Theme auf dieser Seite? Ich hab es schon mal wo gesehen und w

  7. Paul Says:

    Hi there,

    I was curious, after a total flop of a Vatican’s comment on this movie, if there are out there people that saw other threads in it than environmentalism or religion. Well there are but still not there (at what I think it is about).
    I would think that indeed the idea is older, that of a collective (sometimes) shared consciousness. Still I do not think it is about religion – bigger better eternal being. I would rather consider it as a possible functional biological based form of existence that implies what we call mind/psyche and why not a possible future for humankind. Other explorers Carl Gustav Jung, Dawkins, SF book Neuromancer, the Matrix, Throne etc.

    So the movie and the author are not shitty in this, although a bit boring, but quite successful in instilling the idea in the psyche of humans given the attendance.

    I also like your other considerations while processing the ideea.

  8. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack Says:

    Heya i’m for the primary time here. I found this board and I in finding It truly helpful & it helped me out much. I hope to give one thing again and help others like you aided me.

  9. opinie o nom Says:

    Hi there very nice website!! Man .. Excellent .
    . Amazing .. I will bookmark your web site and take the feeds additionally?

    I’m satisfied to search out numerous helpful info here within the publish, we need work out extra strategies in this regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . .

  10. Estes Park Says:

    My brother recommended I might like this web site.
    He was entirely right. This post actually made my day.

    You can not imagine just how much time I had spent for this info!
    Thanks!

    My webpage … Estes Park

  11. egon Says:

    Great post. I used to be checking continuously this blog and I am inspired!
    Very helpful info specially the remaining phase :) I deal with such information a lot.

    I was looking for this certain info for a very lengthy time.
    Thank you and best of luck.

Leave a Reply

Categories

Recent Comments

  • Loading...