Environmental Despair, Existential Dread, and Religion In Avatar

Over the years, there has developed a consensus that Avatar is about religion: the film is compelling because it brings about a certain religious experience. I would argue that the reactions to Avatar could be characterized as hierophany, or a manifestation of the divine. For many, it was a sacred moment that redefined their environmental self-perception. Ivar Hill, in his CNN article “Audience Experiences ‘Avatar’ Blues,” discusses his experience watching the film. 

“One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality,” Hill said.

When Hill saw Avatar, he experienced a realization — the sacred revealed itself in Pandora, or more specifically, the Tree of Souls, which is a virtual axis mundi or a celestial pole linking the sacred and profane worlds. Hill’s impact on Earth suddenly struck him so deeply that he plunged into depression. As with Avatar protagonist Jake Sully, the Tree directly communicated with the Hill and the rest of the audience. But how is his experience distinctly religious? 

What is the message portrayed through this hierophany? In “The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” Greer discusses how “every previous civilization that has fallen has taken centuries to collapse, and there’s no reason to think the present case will be any different.” The apocalypse myth is so prevalent because of its inevitability. History has proven it and will continue to do so. 

Thus, Hill’s hierophany is apocalyptic: the sacred attempting to warn the profane. He is one of many who has experienced similar hierophanies watching Avatar

One moviegoer said, “Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it.”

Another commented, “I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don’t have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world.”

The hierophanies that moviegoers experienced were less about Pandora’s beauty and more about Earth’s deterioration. They realized the Earth was once Pandora, and possibly their own actions contributed to its exploitation. Rather than Jake Sully, they are all members of the Resource Development Administration. And, perhaps, some are antagonist Miles Quatrich too. Therefore, Avatar wants to make its audience aware of the impact of their actions and create a collective hierophany. 

There are in fact parallels that could be drawn between Avatar and the Bible. Like in Genesis, “avatars” are not products of human reproduction. Rather, scientists form them in a large, cylindrical test tube. It is a retelling of the creation myth but warped with disguise. Like Adam, Jake Sully is not of dust but deception – he is of both man and serpent. To explain this further, Jake initially enters the Omaticaya clan with impure intentions. He is deceptive, like Satan, wanting to exploit the indigenous population for his gain: he wants to get his legs back and gain intel on unobtainium.

Simultaneously, like Adam, he enters Pandora and the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Souls, innocently unaware. His “fall” is just as devastating as Adam’s. The humans, either as a message from God or Satan, mutilate his family, and he is for a short time cast out of his Eden. There is no singular moment of original sin like eating the forbidden fruit, but Jake’s continual lying to the Omaticaya clan represents his “sin.” Regardless, Jake Sully’s experience echoes many creation stories, from his divine birth to his acts of sin. 

As I previously mentioned, in Avatar the Tree of Souls functions as Eliade’s axis mundi connecting the profane and sacred. It typically presents itself as a tree, mountain, or any area with a high elevation. Like Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, the Tree of Souls connects the profane – the Na’Vi – with the sacred Eywa. 

The Omaticaya clan can directly communicate with Eywa through the tree, but natural order still exists. In essence, Eywa cannot stop all suffering. Moments like Jake and love interest Neytiri’s bond are made even more significant as a result of location — it implies a level of sanctity in their relationship. It provides and takes life while maintaining its position as the religious “heart” of the community. 

Moreover, the tree has the power to protect itself, illustrated by its listening to Jake’s prayers and its ability to send animals to save its sanctity. It is a sacred site connecting all aspects of nature, Eywa, the Na’Vi, and even the human realm, which is signified by the entering of Jake Sully into its grounds. While Avatar might seem like a science fiction movie, its effects on the broader public were palpable. Whether we call their reactions existential dread, fear of ecological devastation, or faith in a religion, is a separate question. Regardless, the film will continue to captivate watchers for years to come.

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