The Anatomy of a Culture

Religion and science in James Cameron’s Avatar

By Emma Calabrese, editor; illustrations by Andrea Tudhope, editor

After seeing Avatar, I left the theater amazed by the 162 minute whirlwind of color and special effects. Yet something about director James Cameron’s story left me uncomfortable. Cameron’s fictional planet, Pandora, is a kind of Earth on acid—the colors are brighter, the wild animals are bigger, the natives are more exotic, and the imperialists are meaner. Through his native Na’vi people, Cameron portrays a peaceful culture threatened by the greed and technology of invading humans. The situation is rife with political parallels to our own world and, in the end, Avatar becomes a story about the evils of imperialism and the value of respecting and embracing another culture.

It’s a wholesome message, until Cameron complicates things with science.

An important aspect of the conflict between the Na’vi people and the humans who invade their world is Cameron’s insistence that the Na’vi’s religion be backed by scientific fact. Indeed, Cameron’s treatment of science does more to validate our own Western values than those of the cultures upon which the Na’vi people are obviously based. Important to hero Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) journey is his discovery of the value of the Na’vi’s customs and belief system, reminiscent of Native American religions in its premise that humans, animals, and the earth itself possess interconnected souls and lives.

Cameron adapts the philosophy of animism—the belief held by many indigenous peoples that living organisms as well as inanimate objects possess souls—for his own Na’vi people. While Native American beliefs vary greatly by tribe, the religion that Cameron creates for his Na’vi is a kind of generic animism-based belief system that plays on popular conceptions of Native American religion. Cameron then goes on to do something that is only possible in his own fictional universe: he legitimizes this belief system with scientific explanations.

The history of European imperialism in the Americas is fraught with a long and often cruel struggle to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The Europeans’ determination to “civilize” the Native Americans led to years of widespread displacement in the nineteenth century, as Native Americans were assigned to reservations run by Christian missionaries—not to mention the Europeans’ mass decimation of Native American populations across the continent through genocide and disease. Cameron skirts the issue of religious tolerance by backing the non-Western Na’vi belief system with Western culture’s favorite alternative to Christianity: science.

Jake does not need to confront the moral question of how to defend a culture whose beliefs are perceived as illegitimate by his own culture, because science tells us that, on Pandora, animism is factually correct. Jake’s embracing of the Na’vi belief system and his consequent rebellion against the human imperialists threatening to harm the Na’vi is nothing new—just take a look at Pocahontas. Where Cameron’s vision begins to deviate from this age-old story—and where I become uncomfortable—is in his validation of animism through scientific research and fact.

Cameron’s Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a scientist whose research proves that the Na’vi’s belief system is scientifically legitimate, a revelation that Cameron evidently hopes will endear us to the Na’vi. But why should we feel entitled to the sense of comfort that scientific explanations provide? Dr. Augustine uses science to validate a culture that should not need validation. It should not matter whether or not the Na’vi belief system is provable. Cameron, in giving his audience a fact-based reason to root for the preservation of the Na’vi people and Pandora itself, undermines what should be the point of it all: that it is not our place to destroy a culture and a land that are not our own.

The circumstances of Dr. Augustine’s death effectively demonstrate this point. In an attempt to save her from a gunshot wound, Jake and the Na’vi place the doctor at the base of their most sacred place of worship, the Tree of Souls, in hopes that it will heal her. As Jake carries her toward the tree, she murmurs weakly, “I’ve got to take some samples.” Cameron emphasizes the science—indeed, the potential for objective research—of this sacred place to highlight Dr. Augustine’s unresolved interest in its biology.

Cameron attempts to provide us with a touching resolution by giving Dr. Augustine what she desires as she passes away: an encounter with the very soul of Pandora and the connector of all its inhabitants, Eywa. As she slips into death at the base of the tree, she says of Eywa, “Jake…I’m with her…she’s real.” We get a sense of satisfaction out of the closure these words bring—a closure that stems from solid, scientific proof. Dr. Augustine dies in peace, and it is not a peace brought on by gratitude for the acceptance that the Na’vi have extended to her, or by her participation in something spiritually meaningful. No, it is a more cerebral peace.

Cameron frames this quasi-spiritual experience as a matter of scientific discovery that might be touching if it weren’t so clinical. His thematic progression almost demonstrates the value of respecting and embracing a culture far removed from our own Western one, but he chickens out when he turns a matter of accepting cultural differences into something that is scientifically justifiable. The real-ness of Eywa should not matter. Who are we, as an audience, to gauge another culture’s worth through our own conceptions of what makes a belief system valuable? We’ve been doing it for centuries, and Cameron encourages us to do it again even in a film that purports to encourage cultural understanding and acceptance. Cameron assumes that, for us to root unequivocally for the preservation of Na’vi culture and religion, we need science and data. In a country steeped in centuries of intolerance and cultural imperialism, we have no right to demand or expect these justifications, and Cameron’s story would be more powerful without them. ∼

The Anatomy of a Culture


1 Comment

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One response to “The Anatomy of a Culture

  1. Though I would’ve loved it much more if you added a relevant video or at least pictures to back up the explanation, I still thought that your write-up quite helpful. It’s usually hard to make a complicated matter seem very easy. I enjoy your weblog and will sign up to your feed so I will not miss anything. Fantastic content

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