Criticisms of Avatar, the movie, is getting a bit too much. There are all these reviews online, most of them describing the movie's story as unimaginative and cliched. And now the Vatican news agencies have joined the bandwagon calling the movie "simplistic" and promoting nature worship as a substitute for religion. (Wonder what Zizek has to say on these developments. There must be some major ideological issues going on here.) Avatar's story, despite all its "simplistic" and "racist" overtones, raises thought-provoking and philosophical questions that are good for our capitalistic society. I am not sure if most people miss these subtle messages or if these topics are just too sensitive to be taken up. Avatar is a welcome story, as far as I am concerned.
As for the Vatican's dismissal of nature worship, I think the comment operates at a disturbingly deeper level of racism than Avatar showing a white man as the rescuer of the natives. Religious leaders, please stop saying this or that religious practice is bad or "primitive." That doesn't make you any better. Don't hate, appreciate. Avatar has done a great service to the environmental movement and the cause of indigenous peoples of the world. I don't think a single film or educational material on these topics has ever reached (and touched) so many people in such a short period of time. People now have some ideas about aspects of Native American, African, Maori and other wisdom cultures of the world. Our world. It's unfortunate that many people today continue to see indigenous cultures, just like the human invaders of the movie, as "tree hugger crap" or in the words of Vatican media, "nature worship."
One of my favorite books is Ian Baker's Heart of the World: Journey to the Last Secret Place on Earth. In the book, Baker describes how Tibetan tribals of the Eastern Himalayan region of Pema Koe hunt Takin, an endemic animal, and offer ritual prayers believed to liberate the soul of the animals into a blissful heavenly realm. This story resonated when Neytiri, the Na'vi girl who saves Jake, the protaganist, from a wild dog-like animal and prays after killing the animal. Praying for a deceased soul is not nature worship. Perhaps the Na'vi people doing their ritual around the sacred tree is more along the lines of what the Vatican doesn't appreciate. See this clip from the movie Baraka, I think the sacred tree ritual is inspired by the Balinese Kecak ritual:
There is more than one way to skin Avatar: a love story, a white man-goes-native story, or an ecological saga. I think James Cameron is great film maker. His greatness is using the spectacular visuals to tell a story that will sell at the blockbuster, a love story of course, but one that is also deeply thought provoking and pertinent to our capitalistic society. The destruction of sacred ancestral lands of indigenous people for natural resources happens all the time today. Based on this realist premise, Avatar also raises fundamental moral and philosophical questions facing humanity and science. How alienated are postmodern humans from nature and spirituality? Can scientific technology ever grok the interconnectedness of nature? Towards what ends are the best of scientific knowledge and technology used? Why do wars happen in today's world? Who and what suffers in war?
Some critics don't like the story's resemblance to the American invasion of Iraq, especially the colonel saying that they will "shock and awe" the Na'vi people by bombing them into submission. That was not very subtle, alright, but that's exactly why it is good. Isn't it great that an American film (although the director is a Canadian) can be so openly critical of its government's imperialistic policies and actions? Can you imagine a mainland Chinese film criticizing China's invasion of Tibet?
Speaking of China and Tibet. It is interesting to read about Chinese reactions to the movie. Chinese viewers sympathize with the Na'vi people because the destruction of the Na'vi Treehome reminds them of local Chinese government using violence to forcefully evict residents from their homes for redevelopment, such as construction of Olympic stadiums or dams. As an analyst of Tibetan environment and development issues, I cannot help but compare the Na'vi's to the plight of Tibetan nomads and farmers. It is almost like the story is inspired by the Khampa farmers who fought against a Chinese mining company and armed security forces to save their sacred mountain, Ser Ngul Lo, from being mined for gold.