Three parts Dances With Wolves and one part The Matrix with a dash of Cameron’s own Alien, Avatar is not normally the sort of movie that I’ll make a point to see. It’s not that I’m a movie snob, it’s just that (… well, maybe I am a snob) that the trailer wasn’t all that appealing and none of the reviews nor was the word-of-mouth particularly convincing. The sum of it wreaked “commercial” to me. Added that 3 hours is hard to come by these days, it was easy to avoid. However, in the case of Avatar we’ve got a phenomenon that’s only seen every now and then. The way it screamed by Titanic for the all-time box office record for gross receipts was shocking. When that happens I think you’ve got to answer the question, Why? What makes one movie every 10 years or so such a cultural phenomenon? What is it that touches us so deeply about Avatar?
The story itself is not the star. With the direction in Cameron’s hands the goal of the story is this: just make sense. The heavy-handed political statements, at least in my opinion, were distracting. Regarding the performances, with due respect to Giovanni Ribisi, only Zoe Saldana made any sort of impact for me personally. She played Neytiri— the love interest, and Pandora guide, of protagonist Jake Sully. Everyone else, including Sam Worthington, were just stand-ins—more resulting from writing than their mastery of their craft. A pastor friend of mine tweeted that while Avatar was a great movie, its message is a dangerous one. With more than hints of Gaia, New Age-like thinking, and mysticism, I understand where he’s coming from, but this wasn’t any more of a problem for me than buying into The Force in Star Wars.
So after all that I’ve got to say that the star of Avatar is Pandora. And what touches us so deeply is not the special effects and visual delights of Avatar, but rather the evolving romance between Pandora native Neytiri and US Marine Jake Sully. These two elements work in concert to create, what is for stretches of Avatar, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Pandora is actually alive with both beauty and danger. Its intrigue invites us into a dreamscape reminiscent of Eden in its never-ending beauty, mystery, and its layers of life to be discovered.
Jake Sully is a warrior without equal, but even he needs a guide into the depths of Pandora. There is love and beauty to be found. But just like in life, to find extremes of either requires risk. So on one level Neytiri is Virgil to Sully’s Dante. And somehow this is believable. It could be that the believability finds its origins in Genesis—Genesis 2:18 to be exact. It is here that God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper for him.” I’ve read that the word for “helper” here is better translated as “lifesaver alongside.” Or as I would rather translate it: “warrior with.” Just as Eve was created to be Adam’s “warrior with,” Sully and Neytiri also enjoy a relationship predicated on romance, adventure, and devotion. Theirs is a desperate partnership of sorts. The idea of Sully and Neytiri exploring all that is the locus amoenus of Pandora together as warrior and warrior-with strikes a chord at the deepest levels. It’s also an image very difficult to duplicate in today’s world thus the success of the fantasy world of Avatar.
So it could be that Avatar taps into our heart’s recognition of the greatest story—the story of Eden. The original story. It could be that our hearts, collectively, have the capacity to recognize the epic story of the Garden of Eden that has a cameo here in Avatar. It could be that the appeal of Cameron‘s Avatar is due not to anything that Cameron has done so much as the door that Eden’s recollection opens into all of our souls; our longing; and our desire. Could be.