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January 09, 2010

Comments

Erin

I've dubbed that a hippo-hammer-head-opotamus. My favorite parts of Avatar were the bits that felt like a National Geographic special.

Elliot

Thanks for the mention. I really do wonder why that character was called Grace Augustine. It's an awfully theological name... And yes, I also winced a little every time they said "unobtainium." BTW, have you read Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Word for World is Forest?" Some definite parallels there.

Elliot

Waaaait-a-minute... Wayne Barlowe is the Barlowe of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials? Huh. Cool!

Wilder

Gabe... I'm astounded by your claim that AVATAR's verifiable religion is unusual or unique in pop sci-fi. Aside from a matter of scale, how is the Tree of Souls any different than Vader force-choking a doubter in the Death Star conference room?

I'd argue that confirming religious beliefs and/or mystical thinking is a staple of pop sci-fi. It's a proven path to mainstream appeal: provide a parable where the skeptics are WRONG, and proven wrong by their own measures, regarding religious matters. Fulfill the mass-audience's wish that science confirm the soul, and Heaven, and cosmic justice. It's part of the formula to turn hard SF into Hollywood success, even when it fails. See the end of the film version of CONTACT for just one example.

A side note: I have always had a great admiration for STAR TREK because it has occasionally touched the mainstream while just barely maintaining its lack of religious confirmation (and, in fact, has demonstrated frequent religious doubt). I wonder, as the new incarnation broadens its appeal, how long that can be maintained. AVATAR does not impress me: it disappoints me that it's formulaic even there.

I await the day when there's a movie in the top 10 grossers (adjusted for inflation) that doesn't deal in the confirmation of hocus pocus. But judging by the composition of the human mind, I doubt I will ever see it. (Take note of the top horror film... The Exorcist).

Gabriel Mckee

Wilder,

You're right, the fact that Avatar gives a rational explanation for a religious phenomenon isn't unique. But it's interesting that you raise Star Trek as a counterexample, because I would tend to think that Star Trek represents the norm: providing a rational "debunking" that demystifies. The book _God in the Movies_ by Andrew Greeley and Alfred Bergeson complains about precisely this demystification: God can't be God, but has to be a superintelligent alien or an energy being. This is certainly the case in prose SF; I'd have to ponder further to see if I think this is an area where filmed SF differs.

In Avatar, the mysticism isn't debunked by the rational explanation; it's confirmed by it. Of course, one person's debunking is another's confirmation...

In any event, I don't think this film confirms "hocus pocus"-- there are no miraculous events that can't otherwise be explained, just a world-mind with some implications for a specific kind of mystical experience.

David Ellis

"It's a proven path to mainstream appeal: provide a parable where the skeptics are WRONG, and proven wrong by their own measures, regarding religious matters. Fulfill the mass-audience's wish that science confirm the soul, and Heaven, and cosmic justice."

Except in Avatar the Na'vi have a purely naturalistic religion. Their afterlife and communion with nature are grounded in what amounts to biotechnologies, not supernatural forces.

The skeptics aren't wrong (and even if we were talking about supernaturalism, it's confirmation doesn't mean skeptics were wrong---not for those skeptics whose position is, as is frequently the case: "show me good evidence and I'll believe").

John W. Morehead

Thanks for weighing in on the religious aspects of AVATAR. As I've argued in my article on the film at Cinefantastique Online, I believe he religion of the Na'vi is better understood as the panentheism that you lean to rather than the pantheism that many have read in the film. The appreciation and lack thereof for this religious element of the film expressed in the media is yet another indicator of the continuing culture wars between progressives and conservatives.

Tom Ligon

Gabe,

Just saw "Avatar" this weekend. A co-worker and I both instantly identified the "military" group here as actually being mercenaries (and the story does essentially state this early on). They're clearly Blackwater. If you dropped modern US military into the Pandora situation, they'd be very sensitive to local religion and trying to be diplomats.

Gabriel Mckee

Tom,

Good point-- they are definitely not connected to any government; they answer only to the corporation. (It could be argued that the US military also answers to corporate interests, but that's a whole other kettle of fish.) In any event, the breadth of attitudes in Cameron's oeuvre toward those who bear arms, both public and private, is quite intriguing-- the guy responsible for both Aliens and Rambo: First Blood Part II also made Avatar and The Abyss!

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