The big blue Jesus: A thought on Avatar

There’s been some discussion recently on the racist logic of the incredibly impressive film Avatar. I completely agree with the critique in Aaron’s post, but I’d like to add something else that jumps out at me as a student of theology: contrary to one of Ross Douthat’s recent absolutely valueless columns, this thing reeks of Christianity, with Jake Sully cast as (an at first reluctant) Jesus.

As one of the “sky people,” Jake takes on a Na’Vi body and becomes literally “one person in two natures” (two sets of DNA). He has his own temptation in the desert, with the devilish sadistic colonel offering him his legs back if only he will turn against his official mission and follow the colonel. When he is unplugged without going to sleep first, he is accused of having a demon. I’m sure there are many more parallels, but those are the ones that jump out at me.

This is a specifically supercessionist version of Christianity, however. The only way to be saved is to renounce one’s human roots, with only a small remnant of humans allowed to participate — the rest are cast off into the darkness, never to return. Recast the human/Na’Vi distinction as Jew/Gentile, and this sounds pretty familiar.

Since it’s the day after Christmas and I just got back from the movie, my ability to take this much further is limited right now — perhaps we can discuss in comments, and maybe the opportunity for a more developed follow-up post will present itself. For now, though, I’d like to suggest that the fact that this film follows both a racist logic (in its romantic mode) and a (supercessionist) Christian logic is no coincidence and that this is something that race-focused critiques of the film need to take into account as well.

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15 Responses to “The big blue Jesus: A thought on Avatar”

  1. Chris TerryNelson Says:

    Along the same lines, the movie struck me as dualistic, especially with Jake’s *spoiler* decision to leave behind his own body in favor of the Na’vi body (it was never made clear that this was somehow medically necessary, like it was for Sigourney Weaver’s character). The movie ended up being not about transformation but about complete replacement, kicking the old body and the enemy out for good.

  2. A Christmas Meditation on “Avatar” | Commentary Says:

    [...] couldn’t agree more with Adam Kotsko’s thought re: the film Avatar in which he observes that critiques like that of Ross Douthat, which simply [...]

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    Isn’t his official mission, though, to work for the colonel — albeit in a apparently clandestine fashion? It certainly seemed that way, since the only people not in on Sully’s role were the scientists.

    Re: the racist logic. I’m afraid I just don’t get it as racism to wring one’s hand over. There is, after all, a strong, very longstanding narrative tradition where the ‘outsider’ comes out ahead of the ‘native’ — it even works the opposite direction, too, in other stories, where the non-human shows humans how to be more human, etc. Granting the ‘racist’ logic, though, if one must, it seems that if nothing else its application here is peculiar in that it goes an extra step and depicts not merely the ‘transcending’ of race (the liberal dream, as plainly depicted in Dances W/ Wolves, for example), which serves only to counter-intuitively prop up the logic, but more interestingly tries to highlight a possible immersion in the immanent/ecological relationships that the logic typically abstracts away. (Though, I should note, this isn’t to say the movie is 100% successful or artful in doing so, as it is riddled with formulaic cliché. But, such is the nature of the Hollywood beast.)

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My understanding is that he was brought on board simply to replace his brother as one of the science people, and then the colonel, seeing an opportunity in having a Marine embedded in the science team, took him aside and made a secret deal with him. As in, it was never the science team’s explicit mission to supply military intelligence, or at least not battle-type intelligence.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It does seem heavy-handed to call it “racist,” since it’s not racist in the obvious way. And I think that SEK, non-surprisingly, presses his case way too far in the post Aaron links — it seems perverse to fret about how the Na’Vi are racist against the humans or something. I think that the remaining racist aspect is that it’s the white guy who needs to lead them. And it’s not like he uses his knowledge of human society to any particular advantage. What special insight does he bring other than “mass as much of your forces as possible”? I daresay the jealous boyfriend guy could’ve come up with that.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    I was under the impression, though, that the science team wasn’t too fond of having Sully on the team, and that the decision to do so was more of an executive decision. If so, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think the colonel and the head of the mission identified him ahead of time as somebody who could be their eyes inside the science team’s domain. So, you have your official public reason for bringing him on board; and then official ‘official’ reason for doing so. (The prevalence of that dynamic is a little interesting: where the Na’Vi are ostensibly using Sully to learn about humans; the humans, to learn about the Na’Vi; the military/executives, to keep the scientist pansies at bay while gathering intel about the planet itself. To some extent Sully has his own network, though it is decidedly less interesting, his sympathetic contacts back at the base to know what’s happening there, after they make their break; and the helicopter pilot who provides some insight into the tactics that would be brought to bear on the situation.)

    I thought about that ‘remaining racist aspect’ for a while, too. And I was a little troubled by it for a while. But ultimately decided that Sully is ‘chosen’ because he is, in his own words, ‘an empty glass’. I’ve read some reviews upset that this celebrates a George Bush, Jr. mentality, and to some extent I guess it does, but I think this misses the extent to which Sully’s “emptiness” actually evolves into something more than just reactionary action. (a) He doesn’t have the same connectedness to the objectification of science. He’s not interested in ‘taking samples’, and thus is surprisingly more open to a more radically involved interaction. Thus, his induction into the people, and Sigourney Weaver’s position as more of a humanitarian observer/helper. (b) He doesn’t have the same connectedness (connected to his history or identity) to the tree, for example, and knows that they cannot have their fight then and there — that would it would be suicide. As it turned out to be. Far better to abandon the tree, and gather all of Pandora’s forces. (The dumbest part of the movie, btw, besides the climactic one-on-one fight with the colonel, was where he admitted his original mission to them, right when the attack is most imminent. This is what I mean about the formulaic cliches — it’s as though Cameron had to pack his film with every single one.) (c) He also didn’t have the same connectedness to the myth about the figure who rode the huge dragon (whose name I forget), and was thus impulsive enough to give it a go. This isn’t to say nobody else could’ve done it — but rather that nobody else would’ve dared. Only in this, I would say, was ‘chosen’. Beyond that, you’re right, he didn’t offer much of a leadership strategy. And, as I think of it now, that might actually be to the film’s anti-racist credit, no? — i.e., that he didn’t waltz in and solve their problems with special insight.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think you’re convincing me. I still also think the Christological stuff is interesting and perhaps underexplored, though I wouldn’t necessarily take it in the direction that the trackback post above does.

  8. Robert Says:

    How about the theme of the surrogate? It strikes me, from the Christological perspective, that the fact that Jake comes to Pandora as a replacement for his brother is significant. The second Adam and all that.

  9. zunguzungu Says:

    In a lot of ways, “racism” is not the right term of art for this movie. I *do* think you discard Scott’s point a little hastily; for instance, I think it’s important that the Na’vi only interface with their environment through physical, bodily linkups: they not only don’t “know” their environment, but the primary teaching that Jake has to absorb is how *not* to know (how to swing from trees without letting his brain get in the way or whatever). THe movie positions the Na’vi as a people very, very poorly situated to deal with anything unknown; anything that doesn’t have a built-in braid hook up (or the metaphorical equivalent) will be alien to them in a very particular way.

    But this is why the narrative is less about “race,” in an American sense, than about dehumanizing the Na’vi, aligning them with a fantasy version of nature (while the the humans get to be humans). Humans get to use, manipulate, know, change, and transcend the mere physicality of the given environment; the Na’vi (like so many “primitive” peoples) are seen to be a product *of* the environment that’s given to them, and as such, unable to be anything but natural.

  10. Brad Johnson Says:

    Employing the structure of that same logic, it seems to me that humans are unable to be anything (on Pandora) but artificial. They employ exoskeleton machines as their machines of war; they require oxygen masks; and then, of course, the avatar technology, etc. The only way, it seems, that humans get to be humans on Pandora at all is that they die without their artificial mediation.

    I trust a sequel is in the works already where the some of the Na’vi learn to be more than “natural,” upon realizing they are sitting on top of a rock that they could sell to the humans.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I suppose you could even say that the willingness to explicitly ask Eywa for help relies on the human tendency to instrumentalize nature.

  12. Timothy Sommer Says:

    Since I just got back from seeing the movie, I can identify some more Christian themes:
    -Sigourney Weaver’s name is Grace Augustine and when Sully prays he explicitly prays to Grace.
    -When Princess Neytiri realizes Sully is chosen/special all the glowing jellyfish-things land on him he’s situated in a cross-like posture.
    -He could be read as the second-Adam (after his dead brother).
    -He is initially saved by submersion, which could be read as some type of baptism.
    -They Na’vi philosophy is that every can be ‘born again.’

  13. Theological Criticism of Films | Commentary Says:

    [...] in my thinking to produce the following reflections: recent discussions of Avatar, notably at An und fur Sich, Bruegemann’s Old Testament Theology, and the essay by Hauerwas that I read on the toilet [...]

  14. Daniel Says:

    After Jake dons the messianic “Last-Shadow Rider” identity – a veritable ascension in the eyes of the Na’vi – and sends the witnesses of this event to spread the good news and the call to battle. What follows is strikingly similar to aspects of “The Woman and the Dragon” myth of Revelation 12 and Hellenistic, Babylonian, and other ancient mythologies. Ultimately, each version of the ancient tale employs a child-savior, a women who births the savior, and a serpent/dragon figure who attempts to end both the mother and the child’s life. It’s not difficult to see the figures of Jake, Neytiri, and the Colonel (more specifically the Colonel’s ship – Poppa Dragon) in the same light.

  15. jvhillegas Says:

    I just recently (and finally) watched Avatar, and appreciate this and other commentary on the movie.

    There are many fascinating threads of analysis that begin and/or course through the movie Avatar, but I’m not convinced that framing this analysis in terms of Christianity/Christology is necessarily very productive. Why? Because Christianity itself is an amalgam of symbols that have their roots and periods of efflorescence centuries and millennia prior to ca. 32 A.D. Therefore, it seems to me that rooting one’s analysis in Christianity unnecessarily truncates paths of potential resonance (and relevance).

    Not to come across as too simplistic, but a fruitful starting point for analysis seems to me to be with Campbell’s articulation of the narrative of the hero (to start, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hero_with_a_Thousand_Faces). With this in mind, after viewing Avatar I asked myself: 1) Why is it that this basic hero narrative is still central to so much storytelling? 2) Why is it that the American, epic, Hollywoodized iterations of this story always center on a white male (see also Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Matrix, etc.)? 3) Why is it that the American, epic, Hollywoodized iterations of this story pivot on a grand battle scene, suggesting that violence in the face of violence is justified?

    Seen in this light, it seems to me that the Avatar version of the hero narrative and the Christian version are “fruits” on two branches of the same tree, and it might be more useful to analyze that point of the tree where these branches come together rather than try to bridge the gap between the two “fruits.”

    Anyway, I’m still working through this analysis myself, and appreciate the thoughtfulness of this post and the comments.


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