28 December 2009

A Brunch Film Review: AVATAR Part III: The Strange Christian Conservative Case Against the Film

Recently my nemesis Janet Parshall and a conservative Christian (in Janet's world there is no other kind) film reviewer guest attacked James Cameron's Avatar in no uncertain terms. Janet hadn't seen the film of course, and it was hard to say if her reviewer guest had seen it either. Their criticism focused on a trifecta of egregious sins Cameron is imagined to have committed. On this point they were unified: James Cameron has made a thoroughly evil film. The sins?

1. Avatar, at least according to synopses they had possibly, kinda, sorta, maybe read was critical of captialism (click for an example).

2. Avatar supported Gaia worship and was an environmentalist tract. It implied that humans have acted unwisely with Earth. Indeed the film, fundamentalists assert, views humans as evil and a lesser species for such behavior. (do click for one of the most hilarious and medieval approaches to film critique you are likely to see in sometime)

3. Avatar functions as a self-hating critique, allegorical, of US history and as wider critique of humanity. (click at your own risk, one of the more muddle headed and ugly reviews follows)

Even were these criticisms true in their entirety -they are not- many of these reviews fail to address the film on its own merits. Was the story structured well? How was the acting? Was it good, poor or blah? Were the special effects everything that industry insiders said it would be? None of it mattered a whit to the ideological concerns of many Christian Conservative viewers, (with the exception of Todd Hertz at Christianity Today whose who review is thoughtful and complex)seem to have attended to their opinions of the film prior to the business of seeing it. Their only concern about the craftsmanship of the film itself, was the worry that it would be up to Cameron's typical standard and thus a blockbuster. An appropriate worry it would seem as the film made a billion dollars in just twenty-one days.

Before examining the categories of critique, I wonder at the obvious overlap between the morality of the heroes of Cameron's film, the Na'vi, and the scientists and at least two of the mercenaries (Jake Sully and Trudy Chacon)
and the general morality and ethics espoused by most Christians. I'm surprised that the film hasn't sparked dialogue about this obvious overlap instead of ham-handed critique that fails at internal consistency (see the note at the end of this review). Isn't a huge part of the Christian critique of humanity, both fundamentalist and liberal about human moral failings? Isn't it a rebuke of unethical action? Isn't it cheeky in the extreme to castigate someone for something you yourself do even if for slightly different reasons? Clearly among the liberal believing reviewers this is exactly how they approach the film. Fundamentalists (and it appears the Vatican) are ever fearful of tumbling down a slippery slope. If they grant any degree of consensus they must worry that they have ceded some truth to their rivals. This consistent inability to really examine the nuance of their own position and that which they find themselves in opposition renders their critique obviously hypocritical and almost hilariously silly.
Let us look at the conservative worries as I've laid them out.

Is AVATAR critical of capitalism?
What is the general obsession among Christians with capitalism anyway? I don't think that any objective reading of the Bible could possibly support any view that held Jesus was an early free marketeer. Nevertheless, among fundamentalists the Bible inspires a theology that must be accompanied by the op-ed column of the Wallstreet Journal. In the unlikely event that Jesus was anything like his biblical image it is doubtful that he would have been a subscriber to the WSJ, or its philosophy.

However, the conservative attachment to capitalism is not threatened by AVATAR in the slightest unless it also holds that it is okay to deal unethically and immorally toward people with whom you wish to trade, or whose resources you wish to acquire.
The primary economic critique found in the film is of profit at any cost, which seems to be how the Resource Development Administration (RDA) seems to operate.

For whatever reason, the film never explains, unobtanium is incomprehensibly valuable, and the RDA wants to move as much of it off world to Earth as quickly as possible. One Catholic conservative review balked at this contextlessness. Maybe unobtainium cured cancer, or solved the ecological crisis Jake mentions, maybe that is why the RDA is doing what it is doing. As if this would justify the treatement of another people and their world? Quite clearly it doesn't matter what unobtainium does, or is good for on Earth, the problem is the way in which it is acquired. It would be hard to find the capitalist critique since the market on earth is not given any context either. Thoughtless greed is the source of AVATAR's ire.

It should also be noted that AVATAR is not inventing a historically unique situation, unheard of in real human history. Prior to the great strides of organized labor companies and corporations, unregulated, managed to royally screw all kinds of people, both among their workers and among indigenous peoples. A modest look at one's old text books could find mention of company script, of Pinkertons etc. For some reason there is no acknowledgement of this obvious bit of history.

Is AVATAR and environmentalist tract that supports Gaia worship and suggests humans are a lesser species?
To this I am tempted to answer no and move on but that is probably unfair.

Clearly AVATAR is an environmentally sensitive movie. Clearly it fits into something someone might describe as environmentalist. I'm sure Al Gore saw this movie and did not think it was the product of Ben Stein or Bjorn Lombork. It does have an environmental message. The message, to me without counterpoint, is that we really ought to try behaving with more wisdom toward the planet on which we live, and more ethically toward the organisms with which we share the planet.

Janet Parshall was outraged at the film's acceptance of anthropogenic global warming (hereafter AGW), and seemed more or less astounded that anyone could think humans capable of altering the climate at all. "The whole film seems to say that humans are evil!" She, and many other reviewers ignored the smaller scales completely. So put aside whether you accept AGW for a moment and marvel at that omission. On smaller scales, at the level of city, state and country we humans seem to do a bang-up job at polluting, and damaging the environment, endangering or catapulting into extinction other species. On a planet where we have UV alerts because of ozone depletion, red-tide warnings, and where evidence is mounting that humanity may be precipitating a mass extinction that will rival the Cretaceous/Tertiary event it seems dishonest to be completely dismissive of the environmental movement, or its concerns. Humans unarguably are a source of pollution, and precipitate obvious local and dramatic ecological change. We alter, too often negatively, the air, the water quality, and bio-diversity.

Humans have been doing this very thing almost since Lucy. Indeed we aren't even unique in the tendency to push against the environment. Beavers wreak local havoc on area when they move in that affects everything around them, be it plant or animal. The major difference between us and other animals is that through our technology we have managed to break free from many of the constraints environments place on species. The film isn't saying out with humans, it is saying in with greater forsight, wisdom, empathy and ethics among humans as we move forward.

As to whether the film promotes paganesque Gaia worship that seems somewhat preposterous. This concern emerges from the entity Ey'wa, which is some kind of immense neural network, to which every organism on Pandora is capable of communicating however primitively. When the Na'vi communicate with Ey'wa their behavior certainly seems religious. But strictly speaking they are communicating with another intelligent biological entity that has evolved on Pandora and not a god. As Ey'wa isn't a god, but some kind of massive database its powers are limited to Pandora and its goals somewhat mysterious. I certainly saw no worship Gaia message as a viewer of the film, but then I am not burdened by the notion that I must proselytize for a god. Its almost like these reviewers think that upon arrival on Pandora humans should have discovered another species of Christianity to which they could relate.

Science Fiction though has always been a tough slog for Christian Fundamentalists who tend the view the genre as subversive and irreligious at best.

Science fiction takes the reader into a strange world without God. Oh, there might be “a god,” a “force,” but it is definitely not the God of the Bible, and the prominent names in this field are atheists.

(From the Way of Life Fundamental Baptist Information Service)

Is Avatar a self-hating film, that functions as a negative critique of US history?

Pretending that US History is clean and without moral blemish is self-hate, traveling with its sibling, self-deception. To the extent that AVATAR is a commentary on US history and action that probably isn't a bad thing. But to see the film so narrowly, as many US Fundamentalists seem to do is a mistake. This story is older than the European collision with Native America, it is older than the collision of English settlers with Aboriginie. It is even older than the collision of the Maori with Moriori. Asymmetrical conflict between more powerful people and less powerful people is almost a historical constant.

US based fundamentalists would prefer, it seems, to not think about US history too closely. This is because many of them think that its success is based on divine mandate from an omnipotent, omniscient, and, perhaps most importantly, omnibenenovlent God. Early US history certainly does nothing to reveal any of these three qualities, but looking at the rough way US citizens have dealt with others damages, irrevocably any conception of omnibenevolence. I suspect this is the reason for some of extremely vocal, and vitriol laden, responses to the film among some evangelicals. Looking hard at Western history has implications that many Fundamentalists simply do not want to examine. This is particularly the case of that species of conservative that weds correctness of their religious beliefs to their nationalistic pride.

However for all the Christian conservative backlash against the film, it is satisfying to see that the public makes its own decisions about what makes good and entertaining art (another example of this has to be the succes of internet porn, yay markets!). While a certain brand of religious and political leader may be banging away at their particular pulpit the public proceeds to the cineplex anyway. The reasons for its success are simple I think. It is an old story to which everyone, on some level, can relate. We all know what it feels like to to be mistreated, and bullied. The Na'vi, and their human co-conspirators are characters to whom we are immediately sympathetic. Given the polling, it is likely that the environmental message also resonates. The worries of the conservative Christians simply don't matter.
And that is a decidedly good thing.

Note: I began this third installment almost immediately after the release of AVATAR and I simply want to note, between that time and this that there have been several Christian movie review sites that have taken the more introspective and mature approach to AVATAR and film in general. Even where they find disagreement the film is seen as a conversation starter that provokes good and hard questions. Strangely one of these sites has been from Pat Robertson's pal CBN broadcasting. There are others. Kudos to them.

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