Film Review:  Avatar as a Mythic Heroes Journey

Sheila Musaji

Posted Jan 4, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Film Review:  Avatar as a Mythic Heroes Journey

by Sheila Musaji

This week my copy of Carl Jung’s Redbook came in the mail, and my family went to see the film Avatar.  It struck me during the film that the incredible colors in the film were very similar to the drawings in the Redbook.  It also struck me that I needed to go home and reread Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces

Avatar is an epic mythic heroes journey.  Like the epic saga Beowulf, Avatar doesn’t distinguish between the real and mythic.  The film for me was like a nested puzzle with layers of meaning.  On one level it is a great story with the most up to date special effects possible, and although the film is long it flows so well that the time flies by.  It would be worth seeing as a great sci-fi film, and an incredible visual treat, even if this was all there was to the film, and we have already published on TAM from this point of view. 

In the film, it is 2154, and the human beings on planet earth have an energy crisis and look to other planets to obtain what they need - and, just like today, if “they” are sitting on top of what “we” need, then they are expendable.  It is quickly obvious that the humans who have travelled to the planet Pandora, inhabited by a people called the Na’vi, to get what they need have not taken President Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex ever being allowed to take control to heart.  That appears to be exactly what has happened.  Obviously in this future, we have not learned from our past or (our present).  The Na’vi are not technologically sophisticated, but are very much in tune with their planet and all of its creatures.  The humans appear to be very much disconnected from any real connectedness to the rest of creation. 

The film has definite anti-war, anti-exploitation, anti-colonialism themes, so there is a political statement being made.  The use of certain phrases in the dialogue, e.g. “shock and awe”, “preemptive strikes”, and “fighting terror with terror” remind us throughout the film of the destruction of the native Americans, of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and all the other wars.  Visuals of attacks reminded me of news footage from Vietnam, and the scene after the attack on the Na’vi’s home tree was a visual reminder of 9/11.  James Cameron himself has been quoted as saying:  “Cameron said yesterday that the theme was not the main point of Avatar, but added that Americans had a “moral responsibility” to understand the impact that their country’s recent military campaigns had had.  We went down a path that cost several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. I don’t think the American people even know why it was done. So it’s all about opening your eyes.”  AND FURTHER:  “Referring to the “shock and awe” sequence, he said: “We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America. I think there’s a moral responsibility to understand that.  That’s not what the movie’s about — that’s only a minor part of it. For me it feels consistent only in a very generalised theme of us looking at ourselves as human beings in a technical society with all its skills, part of which is the ability to do mechanised warfare, part of which is the ability to do warfare at a distance, at a remove, which seems to make it morally easier to deal with, but its not.” 

This is also a spiritual film - raising issues of who we are as human beings - are we connected to the web of life, or are we simply consumers - are we somehow superior because of our advanced technology and therefore have the right to force our will on those less advanced - are there consequences of our actions - will our lack of awareness inevitably lead to our downfall if we don’t change our ways - have we become parasites?  The film asks questions, the answers may vary from individual to individual.

The characters are archetypes, and the characters are not only the people, but the planet itself, the flora and fauna.  Avatar is a mythic allegory about human tendencies that have been all too real right here on earth, e.g. exploitation, greed, colonialism, consumerism, imperialism, environmental destruction, war, terrorism, injustice, xenophobia, etc. 

An AVATAR is a spiritual being who comes from heaven to earth and is incarnated in a human form.  PANDORA, the name of the planet also has meaning.  There are many variants of this story of PANDORA (the giver of all) in Greek mythology, most commonly her curiosity caused her to open a jar which she had been forbidden to open and when she opened it, evils including death, disease and sorrow flew out of the jar before she could slam the lid back on The only good thing to come out of the jar was hope.  In other versions, hope was left in the jar.  Whichever version of the Pandora story you favor, hope is what the planet of PANDORA and the NA’VI show us in abundance.

The world view of the NA’VI reminded me of the Qur’anic verse:  “The seven heavens and the earth, And all beings therein, Declare His glory: There is not a thing But celebrates His praise: And yet ye understand not How they declare His Glory! (Quran 17:44).”  And, of the Bible verse “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?  Matthew 16:26”  The word itself also reminded me of the Arabic “Nabi” or prophet.

The phrase “I see you” which is the Na’vi greeting (with the emphasis on SEE), expresses a truth that only by actually seeing each other as fellow human beings and fellow creatures can we live in harmony.  Although they are “aliens”, the representation of the Na’vi in the film evoked images of tribal people all over the world. 

The HOME TREE of the Na’vi which is sacred to them, reminded me of the tree of life, and I wondered if we really have become so hard of heart and arrogant tht it has diminished our humanity to the point that we would be willing to destroy the tree of life for just a little more time to party?  Is there a point at which we will see that we can’t continue to take without giving back.  Is this tree the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden?  Would we even be capable today of recognizing Eden? 

As Hasan Zillur Rahim has said regarding our relationship (or lack of relationship with the environment:  “Spirituality, stewardship and ethics are the themes of our discussion tonight. Spirituality is to recognize that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Spirituality differentiates between the beliefs we have and the way we live as a result of those beliefs. Religion is organized spirituality. Stewardship is the individual’s responsibility to take care of the environment and the living beings in it. Ethics is to do what is right.  Environmental ethics goes beyond human concerns to include all living beings. It includes nurturing the relationship between generations. Aldo Leopold taught us that a land ethic imposes limitations on the kinds of things we can do. Human arrogance, ignorance and greed are the main reasons for the environmental problems we face today.”

EYWA the name of the Na’vi’s deity although addressed as “mother” immediately made me think of the Hebrew “Yahweh”.

The finding of the human scouting team that “we have nothing they want” sets the wheels in motion to cancel any attempts at diplomacy in favor of a “final solution” to ensure that we get what we want.  This statement seems to me to be filled with meanings on which to meditate.  Even the name of the substance that the humans are willing to kill for UNOBTAINIUM is also full of meaning.  Of course, the “things” we think we must have at all costs are unobtainable because “things” never satisfy.  There will always be another illusive UNOBTANIUM.

I had been working on this review, and then received an impetus to finish it and share my thoughts, after receiving two very different emails.  The first was a link to an article discussing the fact that many Evangelical Christian sites were very upset about Avatar and saw it as some sort of an attack on Christianity.  I attempted to understand how they could come to such a conclusion, but could not.  The second was an email letter from Rabbi Arthur Waskow in which he said in part:

We are just now approaching the ecological-mystical festival of Tu B’Shvat. It intertwines celebration of the midwinter rebirth of trees and the rebirth of the Great Tree of Life Itself, God, Whose roots are in heaven and whose fruit is our world. Tu B’Shvat comes on the 15th day (the full moon) of the midwinter Jewish lunar month of Sh’vat. This year, that falls from Friday evening January 29, till Saturday evening, January 30.

Out of winter, out of seeming death, out of seeds that sank into the earth three months before, the juice of life begins to rise again. Begins invisibly, to sprout in spring.

Beneath the official deadly failures of the Copenhagen conference that was supposed to reinvigorate the world’s effort to face the climate crisis, the seeds of rebirth were growing.  They were growing in the grass-roots activists who will not let our earth die so easily at the hands of Oil and Coal and governmental arrogance as the Crusher tanks and rocket-planes and the robotic Marine generals and corporate exploiters of AVATAR would like to kill Pandora and its God/dess Eywa.

I urge that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, those who celebrate Manitou/ GreatSpirit in the varied forms of Native practice, join for Tu B’Shvat to celebrate the Sacred Forests of our planet.

I urge that we reach across our boundaries and barricades to celebrate the trees that breathe us into life. The forests that absorb the carbon dioxide that humans are over-producing, the forests that breathe out life-giving oxygen for ourselves and all the other animals to breathe in.

For us, Eywa is YyyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, “pronounceable” only by breathing, the Interbreathing of all life, Great Mother/Father/ Creator of our planet Whose breath, Whose very Name,  through the climate crisis and its global scorching is being choked by corporate rapacity and governmental arrogance.

I urge that we begin by going , anytime from now till January 29, in interfaith, multireligious groups to see AVATAR and then discuss its meaning in our lives. And then I suggest we gather on the evening of January 29 to celebrate the sacred meal of Tu B’Shvat together

What’s to discuss? AVATAR teaches that the war against peoples and the war against the earth are the same war, being incited and fought by the same Crusher institutions. If we agree with this, how do we bring together the so-far separate struggles to end the two kinds of war?  If we don’t agree, how do we see the relationship?

AVATAR teaches that in the struggle to heal our world,  birds and animals and trees and grasses can become our active allies if we “see” them as part of ourselves, part of our Beloved Community. Is there a way to make this true for us?

AVATAR describes how some Earthians turn their backs on the military-corporate attempt to shatter the Na’vi and instead join the Na’vi resistance. What do we Americans, we Westerners, make of that?

On January 29, what’s to eat? A sacred meal, a Seder with four courses of nuts and fruit and four cups of wine. Foods that require the death of no living being, not even a carrot or a radish that dies when its roots are plucked from the earth. For the Trees of Life give forth their nuts and fruit in such profusion that to eat them kills no being. The sacred meal of the Tree Reborn is itself a meal of life.

And the four cups of wine are: all-white; white with a drop of red; red with a drop of white; and all-red: the union of white semen and red blood that the ancients thought were the start of procreation. And the progression from pale winter to the colorful fruitfulness of fall also betokens the growing-forth of life. The theme of Fours embodies the Four Worlds of Kabbalah: Action, Emotion, Intellect, Spirit.

There is much more to learn about this moment that so richly intertwines the mystical, the ecological, and the political.  I helped bring together the Tu B’Shvat Anthology called Trees, Earth, & Torah (available in paperback from the Jewish Publication Society at 1.800.234.3151) that traces the festival through all its own flowering across 4,000 years of history.

On the evening of Thursday, January 14, I will lead a teleconference seminar on the meanings of the Festival. All are welcome. To see what to do in order to take part, please click here.

I look forward to speaking with you, “seeing” you.

You can also click here for Rabbi Waskow’s full essay on his Shalom Center Home Page and comment there. Share your thoughts about AVATAR, sacred trees, Tu B’Shvat, and corporate behavior!  The information in how to take part in the teleconference is also available there.

I am completely in agreement with Rabbi Waskow, and although I have already seen the film, am ready to go back again with an interfaith group. 

UPDATE 3/11/2010 - see War of the Worldviews: Why Avatar Lost,  Bron Taylor
Na’vi and Goliath: Palestinian Protesters Dress as Avatar Underdogs,  Shalom Goldman