Avatar-Teaser-PosterWent to see the movie Avatar on Christmas ’09. Avatar is an incredible action movie. And James Cameron has done an outstanding job constructing the fantasy world that is Pandora. However, long before you hear the first battle cry of the Na’vi (the ingeniousness people of Pandora), you already know that you are in a “cowboys and Indians” movie. (Forgive the politically incorrect terms.) I like Stanley A. Miller II’s review in the Journal Sentinel:

Avatar is big.

Huge blue aliens, gigantic war machines and Jurassic-size wildlife make this sci-fi movie, which hit theaters Friday, a colossus.

Cascading with special effects and 3-D engineering, Avatar marvels at its own visually captivating technical superiority — and for many moviegoers, this brilliant style will be entertaining enough.

There is plenty of gee-whiz technology to keep the audience marveling over how they did this and that, so that, with any luck, viewers won’t dwell too long on the derivative, unimaginative story and the shallow characters. (“Effects steal show in predictable Avatar,” JSOnline, 18 December, 2009.)

Shallow characters indeed. How can we not fall in love with the two main characters, wanting them to fall in love and conquer all their enemies? How can we not hate the evil Colonel? How can we not cheer when the Michelle Rodriguez character appears in war paint, and how could we not shed a tear of two when she goes down fighting? And whether in blue or in pink, isn’t the hero just another white American kid who wins the day, and the lady, through his spunk, bravery, luck, superior violence and good old ‘aw-shucks” cuteness? Shallow characters? Well, definitely stock characters.

But it is the story line that bugs me. I am old enough to see how the “cowboys and Indians” story line has evolved. When I was young, the cowboys were the good guys, poor struggling settlers trying to make a living in the American West. The Indians were cruel pagans who killed without mercy. We were glad when the cavalry finally arrives to save the day, killing the evil Indians, and saving the good cowboys.

Nowadays, the Indians or whatever indigenous group in a story, are the good guys, spiritual, loving, green, innocent. The cowboys are now the greedy, crass, exploiting imperialists ever ready to use force and trickery to bully the indigenous people for political and commercial gains. The roles have been reversed, The “cowboys” are now the bad guys and the “Indians” are the good guys and we just can’t wait for the Indians to rise up and give the evil cowboys a bloody nose. Avatar is the latest offering of this new “reality.” As I watched Avatar I immediately thought of movies like Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai.

I have trouble with both the old and the new portrayals of cowboys and Indians. Why? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NET). But movies like Avatar divide the world into good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are always the other side. How can we hope to build community in a pluralistic world with such a “us-them” approach to settling conflicts? We don’t need this in Malaysia, or Nigeria, or anywhere. Truth is, the primary divide is not between human beings. The primary divide is between a Holy God and a fallen humanity. And we are all on the same side of this divide.

My other main problem with movies like Avatar is that it portrays violence as the main way we solve complex human problems. Sure the Sigourney Weaver character advocates an approach to inter communal relations by literally entering the skin of the other community so that you can understand them better, hence the Avatar programme. And it is this approach that enables the hero to understand and then identify with the Na’vi. But all this is lost in the adrenaline charged pyrotechnics of the climactic battle scenes. Ya, ya we need to understand each other, yada, yada, yada, but the day is won by the good guys beating the c___ out of the bad guys.

Compare the Avatar type approach to movies like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The lesson there is that evil tempts us all and that we all must be vigilant against it. The lesson there is that the day is won when different types of people learn to work together for a common cause. The lesson there is that the day is won, finally, not through violence, but through love, and friendship, and faith, and loyalty. These are the lessons we need to hear in the dark days we live in.

Maybe I am too optimistic or too old. When a young person heard me complain that the story line in Avatar was weak, he said, “If I want a good story I read a book.” I presume that he was more than happy with the entertainment value of Avatar and the ground breaking film making technology on show there. (Others obviously agree with my young friend. Avatar won “best drama” at the recent Golden Globes and her director, James Cameron, won the “best director” award.) I am afraid I have a higher regard for movies. They are the primary narratives of our day. And yes, I expect a good movie to entertain me, but I still look for something more. I still expect a good movie to also point me to truths that will strengthen my heart to be a better person, working for a better world. Hmm. . . anybody want to join me for another Lord of the Rings marathon?