Avatar (2009) is a strongly spiritual and meaningful film. In broad terms, the storyline is a ‘love story’; however there are many underlying spiritual and moral values intertwined throughout the duration of the film. Some people watching this film for purely entertainment purposes may not recognise the spiritual and moral significance, as a deeper understanding of these values is required. This textual analysis of the film, Avatar, will describe what it is about and will then go on to develop an argument as to the spiritual significance involved in the film. In this argument, several key concepts will be introduced in order to explain this spiritual significance.
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To briefly describe what the film is about, it is centred around Jake Scully, (Sam Worthington) a paraplegic former marine. Jake is taking the place of his dead brother in the secret Avatar programme on the distant planet of Pandora. It is set in the year 2154 and the Resource Development Administration, is mining a rare mineral named Unobtanium on Pandora in an attempt to get to the bottom of the Earths energy disaster. On his arrival in Pandora, Jake meets botanist Grace Augustine, (Sigourney Weaver) who effectively manages the Avatar programme. It is explained that the air in Pandora is highly toxic to humans and therefore their consciousness’ are linked to an Avatar, which is genetically engineered from human and Na’vi (the natives of Pandora) DNA. Jake and Grace are to create a bridge of trust with the Na’vi in order for the mining operations to be expanded.
Upon entry into Pandora as an Avatar, Jake meets Neytri, (Zoe Saldana) a beautiful and highly gifted Na’vi. Neytri sees Jake as ignorant of the forest as a living and nurturing place. Jake is invited to join Neytri’s clan to learn their ways. He is amazed by the beauty and mystery of the flora and fauna in the forest and the magnificence of the ancient Willow tree, named the Tree of Souls. This is a large part of the spirituality of the Na’vi as it is the Tree of Souls which allows them access to the psychic spirits of their deceased, which is how the Na’vi communicate with their ancestors. As the film progresses, Jake becomes a part of the Na’vi world and less a part of the human world. The lengthy battle scene near the end of the film shows his change of heart when he fights against the Resource Development Administration in order to help the Na’vi protect their land and most importantly, the Tree of Souls. This story is the journey of an ordinary man who is transformed by his encounters with the ancestral teachings and environmental activities of an unfamiliar race (Brussat & Brussat, 2009).
According to King (1996), there are many ways of describing what spirituality is and how it works. However, King is conscious of the fact that spirituality may mean something different to every person. It is concluded that spirituality
“is more firmly associated than religion with creativity and imagination, with change and with relationship. It is less associatedâ€¦with hierarchies of gender, race or culture. It indicatesâ€¦a valuing of human experience and expression through art and music, through a response to nature and ethical idealsâ€¦It can embrace secular therapies and cosmologies as well as concerns with the environment” (p. 345).
This sums up the long ranging ‘definition’ of spirituality very well, and can relate back to the film Avatar. Clearly, the Na’vi are spiritually connected with nature in a large way, the care about the environment around them and desire to keep it in a natural and untouched state.
Avatar is an indefinitely spiritual film. As stated in lecture, a spiritual text may feature one of many things; in Avatar’s situation, these features are: the spiritual journey of Jake throughout the film, where he finds out what he values most in life; the transformation and reorganisation of Jakes life; and a crisis situation where the Resource Development Administration attacks the homeland of the Na’vi. All of these points are an indication of a spiritual film. However, it may take some thought to realise the intensity of the spirituality of particularly the Na’vi. Therefore, it is possible to say that Avatar is an implicity spiritual film; which in broad terms means that there are powerful religious symbols which we are able to see in our unconscious or preconscious thoughts (Greeley, 1988). The maker of an implicitly spiritual film does regognise the role in which ideas of religiosity and narratives have in forming societies. (Hardy, 2010).
The Na’vi value harmony, simplicity, community and the spirit of nature, which captures the essence of what the Na’vi are all about. They believe that everything is alive and conscious, which includes the animals, insects, trees, seeds, water and leaves. It is made clear throughout the film that the Na’vi also believe that signs are all around us in nature and in experience and that it is important to listen to the spirit in nature. The Tree of Souls is most likely the most significant spiritual part of the Na’vi world. It is a place of prayer and the Na’vi bond with it, calling upon its help when the occasion arises. The Na’vi place their faith in the Tree of Souls, as a faith based ritual. Healing is an act of the community, with help asked from the divine. An example of this expressed throughout the film is when Grace is dying. She is taken to the Tree of Souls and a ritual takes place where she must pass through the eye of Eywa. In this case, she does not pass through and therefore, she passes away. Eywa is the term used to describe the guiding force of the Na’vi, and it is their belief that all living things on Pandora connect to Eywa. In other words, Eywa is in a sense, their religion. For example, the seeds of Eywa from the sacred tree are considered to be a very sacred spirit to the Na’vi (James Cameron’s Avatar, 2010).
In a way, the film Avatar, turns viewers against their own kind – the human race – as it shows the selfishness and destructiveness of the Americans (Wickham, 2009). They destroy both the living and the non-living things in the natural world in order to gain financial success. This also mirrors much of what is happening in society in the real world, for example, the new proposal by the New Zealand government to mine natural and untouched areas around New Zealand such as the Coromandel, Great Barrier Island and Paparoa National Park, which is home to wildlife, flora and fauna.
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This film is both mythological and ideological as there are components throughout the film which fit into the category of both, however, it is a mainly mythological story. There are elements in Avatar which guides the Na’vi culture at an intense and spiritual level, especially in relation to Eywa and the profound relationship they have with it. Mythological form may also involve society shaping myths and a hero or characters journey that exemplifies integrity, virtue and morality. In this case, Jake goes on a journey of self discovery, and decides to change sides after witnessing the Na’vi way of life. Here we see the change in Jake, as he gives up the promised chance to walk again out of his wheelchair, and makes the decision to demonstrate his virtue by choosing to help his newly acquainted friends fight for their land against the Resource Development Administration. To finish off his journey, Jake eventually chooses to transfer his consciousness to his Avatar self. In a ceremony ritual similar to Grace’s, Jake passes through the eye of Eywa and wakes up as his Avatar self. It is also demonstrated through the story that shows how the values of the Na’vi – their land – are challenged by the antagonists, however, through unity and goodwill, the good ones triumph. Mythological form uses abundant cinematic processes and a wide range of techniques to make the storylines clearer, more exciting and more entertaining. This is a definite component of the film Avatar, as it was released as both a three dimensional and two dimensional film. In the three dimensional version especially, special effects are used to create a sense of closeness and vulnerability for the viewer, as we are able to see the world from the perspective of the Na’vi and not the humans. The restorative structure of the storyline shows that all issues are able to be resolved eventually. In this sense, we see that the proper moral power in which the Na’vi employ, will almost always win out over the greed and selfishness of organisations such as the American Resource Development Administration (Hardy, 2010).
The ideological side of analysis is much the same as mythological form, but is much more disapproving of socio and religious patterns being investigated. This is in relation to the fact that much of the storylines in Avatar are current news stories and issues facing society today as a whole. The film makers of Avatar may be attempting to show how they see issues in society today; many critics of the film may see this as being anti-corporate and pro-environmentalism. This is, in a sense, exposing the distortion of moral values by powerful groups in societies. For example, the American based Resource Development Administration mining Pandora (Hardy, 2010).
The film, Avatar, and more importantly the spirituality of the Na’vi, can be related back to transcendence. It is a possibility that the film can represent medium to great transcendence. This can be described as an immersion of your own identity into group activities, representing medium transcendence. Great transcendence is much more difficult to explain. It may be portrayed as a different view of the world and experiencing life in an entirely different manner of what is considered the norm. Great transcendence is generally created by some kind of religious experience (Luckmann, 1990). This is also associated with transcendental style, which comes from religious tradition. Avatar is a mainly transcendental film as it does in part focus on the unoriginal actions of everyday life. Abundant means are used throughout Avatar. It focuses on abundance being “sensual, emotional, humanistic, individualistic…they encourage empathy” (Schrader, 1972, p. 155). At the beginning of the film when Jake first enters Pandora as his Avatar self, there he has an obvious ignorance towards the environment and the land that is so precious to the Na’vi. Therefore, as we see Jake go on his journey of self discovery, we see a change in him as he discovers the power of spirituality in nature. This is when a climatic event takes place – the battle scene where the Resource Development Administration moves in on the homeland of the Na’vi – which in return helps Jake choose his path. In order to determine whether Avatar is a transcendental film or not may be up to the individual viewer. This is because it is the experience and response of the viewer which determines a transcendental film (Schrader, 1972).
Morality is a part of the film also, as the American Resource Development Administration refuses to believe that they are doing anything wrong by wanting to mine the area in which the Na’vi live, for purely financial gain. There seems to be no sense of moral values or ethics involved with their selfish need for power and money. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is the chief of security for the Resource Development Administration and has no regard for indigenous life forms. It is the opinion of Brussat & Brussat (2009) that there are many relations in Avatar to recent US imperialism such as the Iraq war, and the attitude of some corporate leaders that they will do anything to take control of land and resources necessary for their profit making.
In conclusion, the film Avatar is a largely spiritual film, regardless of whether it has to be searched to find or if it is explicit to one individual. There are many features in the film which points towards this being a spiritual film. For example, the spiritual journey in which Jake Sully undertakes throughout the duration of the film in inherently related to a deeper spiritual sense. In addition to this, the Na’vi have a strong spiritual – and physical – connection to the land and all living things. Eywa is also an influential part of the spirituality of the Na’vi as it is known as the guiding force for every living thing on Pandora as everything is connected through Eywa. There are several concepts discussed in lecture which can relate to the plot and underlying spirituality and values throughout the film. For example, mythological and ideological form, morality, values, transcendence and transcendental style and also the idea that spirituality can mean different things to different people.
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