Does Avatar’s Message of I See You Enlighten or Blind?

By: David C. Ward, DPhil; ©2010
Avatar’s message, conveyed by its theme song and repeated phrase, “I See You,” is about perceiving the true nature of reality beneath surface appearances and selfish human agendas. Does what the film means by “I see you” enlighten or deceive?

Introduction

With Avatar’s release on DVD, the largest-grossing film in history will invade the home habitats of planet earth’s natives with its displacing message. Avatar’s message, conveyed by its theme song and repeated phrase, “I See You,” is about perceiving the true nature of reality beneath surface appearances and selfish human agendas. Does what the film means by “I see you” enlighten or deceive? True insight about Avatar comes into focus through questioning three dimensions: 1) your personal approach to viewing, 2) its artistic means of communication, and 3) its worldview message. Christianity’s ultimate narrative illuminates all three dimensions of truly seeing Avatar’s significance. Consumers buying the DVD who do not see beyond saying, “It’s just entertainment!” are fooling themselves by neglecting the anti-capitalist message and pagan faith which Avatar blatantly preaches. While this three stage interpretive process can be expanded, it enables us to see Avatar truly even in brief.

Personal Questions

Personal Questions: Choosing whether to see Avatar (or any film) is to embark on a mythic entertainment journey towards a measure of truth or conditioned blindness. But if you do not start by asking whether a film is worthwhile and healthy, you insure that you will not truly see a film’s depth dimensions which dim your vision. 1) Is Avatar (or any movie) worthwhile and healthy in terms of entertainment value, artistic quality, or moral content (i.e. language, violence, sex, or values) and message (worldview ideology and religion)? Simple research through online film reviews (secular and Christian) can prepare you to choose insight or increasing blindness. Whether to watch or to purchase a film like this with such a global cultural footprint is a choice that should be made carefully. Avatar is clearly entertaining and artistically stunning. However it does contain some profanity, some sexual content (i.e. mild native nudity and a non-explicit sexual encounter), as well as mature video game level battle violence. But like the poisonous atmosphere of the film’s fictional planet, Avatar’s most dangerous toxins lie in the socio-political ideology and religious message inhaled throughout the entire film without a protective gas mask of discernment.

Artistic Questions

Artistic Questions: To feel the full wonder of a film and fathom its message, we must ask questions about how films communicate artistically. 2) What is communicated well or poorly by a movie’s genre, setting, plot, character development, conflict, and musical score? Avatar broke new ground in life-like 3-D computer animation. I saw it with the 3-D glasses and was blown away by the virtual reality of the experience. The setting of the sci-fi story takes you to the mysterious and beautiful savage planet of Pandora (named to symbolize dangerous futility). From the iridescent colors of the night-glow plant life, to the ferociously fanged multi-legged jungle and flying alien creatures, to the breath-taking floating mountains like old Yes album art—the world of Pandora is enchanting and awesome. The plot, however, is a predictable template of the battle for a valuable natural resource called unobtanium (the conflict motivation MacGuffin) which is buried beneath the ground of the native’s village in an unspoiled paradise.

The conflict is between a military backed greedy corporation and a fierce native population of ten-foot tall, blue cat-like humanoids called the Navi. Scientists have developed clones of the natives called avatars from hybrid alien and human DNA which are possessed by human “drivers.” The driver’s consciousness scientifically incarnates a Navi body to infiltrate the native population in order to entice them to relocate from their sacred territory. The main characters fulfill each necessary plot function:

  • Jake Sully, the initially sullen narrator-hero, is a crippled former marine looking for a new chance at life. He starts as a spy for the invaders and goes native, switching allegiance to become a messiah-like savior of the victimized. This hero’s journey has been seen in Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and many other films.
  • Neytiri is the Pocahontas-like beautiful daughter of the chief who becomes Jake’s mentor to teach him alien ways. Predictably, Pocahontas becomes Sully’s love interest.
  • Mo’at is Neytiri’s mother and the Navi’s shaman spiritual leader. As a witch doctor, Mo’at acknowledges pagan omens about Jake thus allowing his acceptance in the tribe.
  • Dr. Grace Augustine is the avatar program director representing scientific agnosticism. Grace’s research converts her to faith in the real spiritual connection of all life on Pandora.
  • Parker Selfridge is the profit-driven manipulator who directs the Resource Development Administration. The RDA is the greedy mining corporation and real chief antagonist.
  • Colonel Miles Quaritch is the jarhead who leads the mercenary military security force. The efficient troops and fearsome weapons symbolize the callous American military in the service of corporate profit.

Worldview Message Questions

Worldview Message Questions: People who truly see should not enter the atmosphere of this film without a gas-mask of worldview discernment. To truly see Avatar (or any film) clearly we need to think critically by asking basic worldview questions. 3) What message does the plot’s premise promote? How does that story’s message support or distort the truth of the Bible’s ultimate-narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption? While some reviews rant against the film as racist guilt and self-loathing, the racist theme is subservient to its anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism. At a socio-political level, Avatar includes a highly-crafted anti-capitalist message (The hypocritical irony is that Avatar as a moneymaker is the biggest capitalist success in movie history!). In the film, a dying earth represents a Western (often American) influence characterized as polluting, all-consuming, and ultimately self-destructive. The “shock and awe” military is the muscle behind the havoc of amoral capitalist corporate greed. Regardless of one’s view of the political message, however, the more subtle and more concerning spiritual message is what we as followers of Christ must examine most closely.

Avatar presents classic neopaganism as a more attractive alternative to the traditional Western Judeo-Christian religion whose cultural mandate to “subdue the earth” also includes the oft-neglected “stewardship of nature’s garden” creation theme. The mother goddess of planet Pandora is called Eywa, the pantheistic life force that pervades and connects all life. Every Navi learns literally to bond with nature and the nature spirit through tentacles at the end of their hippie-like braided ponytails. One vivid image is the Navi tribe in worship of mother earth goddess Eywa. When the whole community is networked in locked arms under their sacred tree, it is simultaneously alluring and creepy. Jake comes to the planet Pandora as the crippled everyman of a dying earth civilization (think Western capitalism). As the narrator, his character is designed to create audience identification. We are meant to bond with him and follow on his journey of conversion. Through possessing the body of a noble savage (the Navi call him a “demon” and a “warrior dreamwalker”), he experiences a converting discovery that changes him forever. He and all of his people do not see the “superior” harmony with nature and with the spirit which fills every living thing. The Navi do see.

The vehicle for casting the neopagan enchantment in the Avatar myth is the love story between Jake and Neytiri. The lyrics of the Avatar theme song, “I See You” read like an incantation to surrender one’s past world and beliefs to be born again to a new and alien life. When placed in the context of Pandora’s religious worldview, you have a gospel outline for New Age pantheism. At the end of the movie Jake literally dies to his human body and former life through a shamanistic ceremony and resurrects in his Navi body and neopagan new life. We have bonded with him and are expected to follow his lead. In the last startling moment of the film, Jake’s permanent alien eyes open, communicating “I see you.”

Eyes Open Response

For those who follow Christ, we must carefully discern between the quality filmmaking (which we can affirm) and the non-biblical, pagan influences taught within its story (which we must reject). Without such critical thinking regarding this culture-influencing film, we will find ourselves not only watching the latest new release, but affirming a message contradictory to our faith.

On the positive side, many have seen this film, creating everyday opportunities to discuss questions about God and the afterlife. I would encourage you to use the story of God’s biblical narrative to tell the most powerful story ever communicated, using the backdrop of Avatar as a starting point for deeper discussion about the beliefs that matter most in our lives today and for eternity.


Dr. David C. Ward

Dr. David Ward has a Masters of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Philosophy from Tennessee’s Oxford Graduate School in Social Research and Religion. He currently teaches for Bryan College and has a special interest in cultural apologetics.

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