‘Avatar’ Franchise Expands Ideas About Spirituality Beyond A Western, Christian Lens

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(REVIEW) The “Avatar” franchise — created by blockbuster director James Cameron — contains two of the highest-grossing movies in history. “Avatar” was released in 2009, and after earning $3 billion in sales, it became the highest-grossing movie of all time. “Avatar: Way of the Water,” which made its debut in December 2022, is third on the list at $2 billion, right under “Avengers: Endgame.”

Despite that, and the fact that the first movie was released 14 years ago, I just recently watched these movies for the first time (because I wanted to see “The Way of Water” in 3D at the theater). And “The Way of Water” is coming to Disney+ and Max (formerly known as HBO Max) on June 7.

For others who have gone 14 years without watching a single minute of the first “Avatar,” here’s the basic premise: in a futuristic world, a paraplegic ex-Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent from Earth to the moon Pandora. His mission is to become “mind-linked” to the body of an avatar that resembles the Na’vi — the race native to Pandora — in order to gain their trust. He gains that trust with Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), the daughter of the chief of the Omatikaya clan. 

The Omatikaya are forest people strongly connected to their deity, Eywa. Of course, that trust is broken when money hungry humans, or “Sky People,” roll in and shoot down the Omitakaya’s Hometree, the center of their spiritual life and where their deity resides. Jake is seen as an enemy until he conquers a legendary banshee that only five Na’vi have managed to bond with and control; from that point, Jake is seen as a divine messenger or savior, and he unites many Na’vi clans to fight against the Sky People. Jake chooses to become permanently mind-linked to his avatar body, and with Neytiri, lives his new life as a Na’vi.

Unsurprisingly, these movies contain a plethora of themes: spirituality, environmentalism, colonization, xenophobia and capitalistic greed — among many others. 

The movies are also exciting action epics with incredible visuals and great storytelling. I wish I’d seen them sooner. 

Unfortunately, I was only eight years old when the first movie was released, and all excitement for it was immediately shot down by my nondenominational Christian parents. I wasn’t allowed to watch it because it was apparently “demonic” and full of “woo woo nonsense.” My parents weren’t the only ones who thought this. In fact, multiple Christian movie review sites were quick to condemn the movie and its messages as pro-environment, anti-capitalist and anti-military.

One such review strongly stated, “Ultimately, AVATAR is bad news. What the people in the movie need to deliver them from their greed and the aliens in the movie need to deliver them from their severe groupthink is the loving salvation available only through the true God, Jesus Christ.”

Reviews like these that got into the heads of some Christians and made “Avatar” out to be a propaganda-like film. Unfortunately, the kinds of Christians who protest like this hold onto black and white thinking because they sadly cannot handle anything beyond their own faith practices. It is too foreign to them, too bizarre, which scares them. 

It’s not surprising or uncommon though — just look at European colonization and the spread of Christendom. Some “Missionaries” were so appalled by the unfamiliar spiritual practices of natives, that they proceeded to whitewash entire people groups out of fear in the name of Christ. This led to those natives being stripped of their culture, names and livelihoods.

History is complex, yes. Not all indigenous groups are peaceable or non-violent. Some have committed genocide on others. Some have enslaved others. No religion has a perfect record on human rights – from caste systems to colonialization to sex abuse scandals. Civilizations clash. Cultures clash. Religions clash. Critics and fans of Avatar might both consider this as they reflect on the story, themes and messages in the film.

Cameron based the world of the Na’vi on multiple cultures and religious beliefs, including Indigenous groups and Hindu mythology. The Na’vi were originally given blue skin because Cameron’s mother once had a dream involving a 10-12 foot tall blue woman — something he tried incorporating in a screenplay he wrote in the 70s that was never produced

In Hinduism, gods Shiva and Vishnu and avatars Rama and Krishna are notably depicted with blue skin. According to Hindu symbolism, blue represents “the infinite and the immeasurable.” It’s a color associated with the cosmos, and seeing how the word avatar literally means “descent” in Sanskrit, an avatar could be thought of as the cosmos wrapped up in a bodily form.

Particularly among Indigenous groups on Earth, a sacred connection to nature is common. The way of nature is not linear, but rather cyclical — the earth gives to us and we are to take care of it the best we can — in a constant state of flow. For instance, the Māori people of New Zealand have a deep connection to the world through kaitiakitanga, which means “guardianship and protection.” It is the Māori way of managing the environment, which the people have followed for centuries. This includes taking only what they need by hunting and fishing solely for food, not sport. 

Similarly, the Na’vi are connected to Eywa and have respect for her and the lives of other creatures. The scenery is gorgeous, especially at Spirit Tree, where Jake tried explaining to Eywa what horrors his home planet Earth had seen. He told her to look through his memories and see that “there was no green there,” that the Sky People killed their mother and would do the same to Eywa if they got the chance — by mining Pandora to destruction for the valuable compound unobtanium, which exists in large quantities under the Hometree.

A similar incident is on the verge of happening in the U.S. On March 21, Apache protestors gathered outside of a court in Pasadena, Calif., to fight for the protection of Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, their sacred land in Arizona. A mining project that began two decades ago and is being advanced by the Biden administration would destroy one of the most sacred Apache religious sites in the American Southwest. 

This land has been used by members of the Apache Stronghold for millenia for their spiritual ceremonies. Some of these ceremonies can only take place on that land, like the sunrise ceremonies celebrating the coming of age of young Apache women. It is a place the Apache believe is blessed, a place where medicinal plants grow and a place where Ga’an — guardians or messengers between the people and Usen, the Creator — dwell. 

Chi’chil Biłdagoteel is alive to Apache people, as emphasized by Vanessa Nosie, Leader of Apache Stronghold. 

“In order to protect our women, we protect Mother Earth because She gives life to us, just as we give life to our children,” Nosie said.

Eywa is the mother of the Na’vi, giving life to all, including the flora and fauna. This theme is strongly emphasized in “Avatar: Way of the Water,” which begins with the introduction of Jake and Neytiri’s children and happy home on Pandora.

The Sky People return, hell-bent on continuing their mining — and hell-bent on destroying that happy family. They flee the forest and seek refuge amongst the oceanic Metkayina clan. There, Kiri and Lo’ak — the middle Sully children — have an intense, personal connection with the flora and fauna they find in the waters. 

Kiri’s connection to Eywa’s flora in particular is so strong, she ends up having a deadly seizure. Because of this, she feels like a freak, a fish out of water if you will. Her adoptive brother Lo’ak feels the same, an outcast always getting into trouble, always in his older brother Netayam’s shadow. When living with the Metkayina, Lo’ak gets tricked by the son of Chief Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and is left stranded past the reef, almost getting killed by a ferocious akula sea creature. 

Lo’ak is saved by Payakan, a lone, outcast tulkun. They bond and become friends, communicating with each other. As whale-like creatures, tulkuns are are practically family to the Metkayina, as they are spiritually connected. The Sky People have of course made their way to Pandora’s oceans, where they hunt tulkuns for amrita, a golden substance that comes from a gland in their brains. Apparently, amrita completely stops the aging process in humans, and a single vial would sell back on earth for $80 million. 

The tulkun exhibit emotional behaviors similar to whales, and that’s not an accident. Whales are being hunted in oceans here on earth too. Norway does legal whaling as a member of the International Whaling Commission. In 2022, Norway killed 560 whales, the highest number in the last six years. Some whales suffer up to 25 minutes before dying, and around two thirds of whales killed were female, nearly half of them being pregnant. In Norway, whale meat is sold as duck food and exported to Japan. However, whale meat isn’t even widely consumed in Japan anymore either, so the whale that’s been piling up isn’t even getting eaten.

Research has found cells in some species — the same as those found in the brains of humans and certain primates — that correlate with emotions like empathy. Some scientists even point to whale behavior that mimics an expression of grief. 

“Avatar” may be a film franchise about a fictional planet, its fictional people and its fictional colonizers, but it intentionally references injustices on Earth as well. Greedy human hearts didn’t care that shooting down Hometree could kill or displace the Na’vi living there, and the greedy human hearts don’t care that destroying Chi’chil Biłdagoteel means taking away coming of age ceremonies for Apache women, killing a sacred tradition. 

Rapacious human hearts hunted tulkun for their brain secretion that was worth millions, and rapacious human hearts sickeningly hunt whales for meat that may not be eaten, murdering pregnant whales for no reason. Pandora and Earth are sadly not that much different. But perhaps like the Na’vi, we can be more mindful of the planet that we live on, and begin to heal. 

I think Wendsler Nosie Sr. of the Apache said it perfectly: “The only loyalty I have is to what God gave the world. It’s what God gave us – that’s where our loyalty should be. It is so true there has to be a new narrative, a new birth. What we call healing.”

Brianna Jacobs is a recent graduate at The King’s College in New York City, majoring in journalism, culture and society. She is also a spring 2023 intern with ReligionUnplugged.com. She’s previously reported and managed social accounts for The Empire State Tribune.





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