Picture from http://scifiwire.com/2009/12/avatars-spectacular-and-c.php
The movie Avatar is the most expensive and in some ways most spectacular movie yet made. Apart from the 3D special effects, however, it is not "new". The plot copies a whole series of other movies, from Pocahontas to Fern Gully, and even The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. The hero of Avatar is an American soldier, like the character played by Cruise, who is co-opted into a fight against a technologically "primitive" people, is taken prisoner by them, learns their warrior ways, and falls in love with their superior wisdom, eventually joining them and betraying his own people.
The story is repeated in so many variations because it is an archetypal one - like the other tale so often told in modern film, and also favoured by James Cameron, that of the robots taking over and crushing all but a brave remnant of humanity. The story of conversion to the wisdom of the primitive is particularly appealing because we know that something of our connection with the earth and with nature has been lost in the rush towards global consumerism and technocracy. Thus Avatar, like the other movies I mentioned, expresses the yearning both of the New Age romantics and of the Green movement. And of course it caters for the feminists, or rather the eco-feminists, who identify the wisdom of the primitive lost world with the wisdom of Woman, the All-Mother, or Gaia. The Biblical Book of Wisdom tells us that creation "exerts itself to punish the unrighteous" (Wis. 16:24) because it serves God. In Avatar the living creatures are enlisted by the All-Mother Eywa to fight the forces of patriarchy.
In Avatar, the hero, Jake, is a former Marine who has lost the use of his legs. His consciousness is projected into a specially-grown alien body so that he can function in the alien landscape of the planet Pandora. The assumptions here, as in most sci-fi, are Cartesian - i.e. the soul in the traditional sense has disappeared, and what we are left with is just mind and body. What makes us human is consciousness, will, and memory, all of which can be downloaded and transferred like a computer programme from one body to another. (In some sci-fi the goal of evolution is to become pure consciousness and be free of all the limitations imposed by the body. The Gnostics had the same idea. But that doesn't sit too well with a glorification of the ecosystem, so in Avatar it is a new embodiment - if it can be in a ten-foot blue body - that remains the ideal.)
Look more closely, however, and you see that the "mystical" connectedness of the ecosystem on Pandora, as represented by the Tree of Souls, is another modern, i.e.post-Cartesian, delusion. The Tree is a vast brain, composed of synapses and connections that spread everywhere like filaments. If bombed, as the military force intend, it would be destroyed. In other words, it is a physical not a spiritual entity.
Nevertheless, the appeal of Avatar and of Pandora lies not in the fact that it is designed to make a kind of sense to people brought up on computer technology, but in the aesthetics of the whole thing. Pandora is genuininely beautiful, awe-inspiring, in the way natural landscapes may also be. But in natural landscapes we don't often get the chance to jump off sheer cliffs among floating mountains onto the back of a dragon.For an intelligent and sympathetic review of the movie by Matthew Milliner go here.