Vinoth Ramachandra

Incarnation vs Avatar

Posted on: April 23, 2010

I finally got around to seeing James Cameron’s Avatar. No doubt watching it on a computer screen cannot compare with the full 3-D experience in a cinema. As a cinematic work it is awesome in its visual power. But behind the special effects and fantastic computer simulations, what is the message the film conveys? This is not easy to answer. Many critics have lambasted it for purveying the stereotypical Hollywood caricature of non-Western societies and the patronizing “white Messiah” complex. But there are more interesting issues to do with Cameron’s fascination with technology, well brought out in a recent article about him by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books.

Many of Cameron’s films have to do with the violent encounter between human (Western) and alien civilizations, the allure of the monstrous and the desire to transcend our human limitations even to the point of exchanging our physical bodies for new ones. Homo Sapiens is too  ordinary, ugly or drab a species for Cameron’s taste. In his first movie The Terminator (1984), the one that made his name as a writer-director of extraordinary technical and imaginary power, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a member of a race of apparently invincible, human-hating cyborgs who returns to the present in a human shell to assassinate a woman who will give birth to a man destined to lead humanity in a rebellion against the cyborgs. (The film seemed designed for Schwarzenegger whom most of us have believed was a cyborg anyway). As the film progresses, this creature loses more and more of his human limbs in fights with the woman’s protectors; and eventually springs out of an explosion as a chrome skeleton that devastates everything in its path.

Our relationship with technology is the issue at the heart of Avatar, just as it was with most of Cameron’s earlier films His heroes and heroines become more and more machine-like in their war with machines. Human beings merge with machines to acquire superhuman strength. Aliens (1986), another film he wrote and directed, has Sigourney Weaver battling the alien dragon queen by strapping herself to a giant forklift machine whose massive pincers she is able to manipulate with her slender arms. In Avatar, the crippled marine Jake Sully is transformed into a sleek, surefooted, athletic Navi by being strapped into a sarcophagus hooked up with special electronics that controls his brain.

On the one hand, there is a clear, anti-capitalist, anti-technological message. The bad guys are the military-industrial corporate world that wants to plunder the Navi of their rich mineral resources. They are symbolized by monstrous helicopter gunships and heavy mining machinery. Jake is, initially, a spy for this corporate world which is manipulating science for its own ends. This is before he falls in love with a Navi woman. The Navi are portrayed, in contrast, as a society wholly in tune with nature: pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers who solemnly apologize to the animals they are forced to slay.

On the other hand, the Navi are not simple “primitives”. At one point in the film the chief scientist declares in awed tones that their goddess Ewa is nothing less than “a global network”- to which the Navi are connected by organic cables able to upload and download consciousness itself. The Navi represent the perfect synthesis of flesh and machine, technology and religion. The heroes are both pre-civilized and hyper-civilized, technology is Saviour as well as Destroyer.

At the end of the film, while Jake’s avatar has led the Navi in victorious revolt against their imperialist aggressors, his dying human body is brought back to Pandora. In a religious ceremony, Jake’s human consciousness is uploaded permanently into his Navi avatar. His humanity is shed forever as Jakes now becomes a permanent member of the new, suffering-free world of Pandora.

This is, essentially, the vision of Posthumanism (sometimes also called Transhumanism), which is the Gnosticism of the twenty-first century. The human species thrown up by natural selection is an embarrassment. It has to be modified in the name of freedom, the freedom to maximize our latent potential. The human has to be re-engineered through technology, and whatever means- from genetic enhancements to nanotechnology- can serve this posthuman project must be promoted.

The biblical message of Incarnation points us in a different direction. The Word embraces human flesh, affirming our creaturely finitude and temporal nature. It is in frailty and vulnerability that God chooses to reveal his power. It is as if Ewa herself (the goddess of Pandora in Avatar) chose to enter Jakes’s world in Jakes’ broken body in order to transform our attitudes towards people such as Jake. Christians share with posthumanists the belief that humans should be transformed. But we profoundly disagree over the purpose and source of that transformation. The healing of our disfigured and broken humanity is brought about through a transformation effected from beyond- but this eschatological hope of resurrection is never a cancellation of our embodied humanity.

The cyborg is the posthumanist’s icon. It symbolizes the erasure of the borders separating the organic from the mechanistic, the natural from artifice, thereby giving it greater control over time and space. As the bioethicist Brent Waters notes: “Despite the best plastic surgery, technological enhancements, and spin doctors money can buy, celebrities grow old; they lose their allure, and their talents fade. Unlike cyberspace, finite borders are not entirely malleable, and ultimately time cannot be made virtual.”

12 Responses to "Incarnation vs Avatar"

Great review Vinoth. I am not sure 3D offers anything fresh to movie making; it seems to me to be the filmic equivalent of a pop-up book. You probably missed little, I think, on a laptop screen.

I was very surprised by the readings of Avatar that saw it as “environmentalist” or “anti-capitalist”. You have give me an excellent language to understand my difficulties with that view by connecting the movie to gnostic transhumanism.

For me, the fact that Jake manages to subvert the ancient Na’vi religion and crack open a personalist stance towards their Mother God is the key turning point in the movie’s rhetoric. It fails as a critique of capitalism or the West or militarism or any of the other things people might think it is because at the end, the rugged individual does not simply conquer the challenges he faces, he doesn’t simply get accepted and lauded as a hero in this alien culture, through his sheer determination he manages to actually reshape their most profound beliefs, creating a whole new religion for the Na’vi where they interact personally with a concerned Mother God. It is the ultimate modernist, Western, Capitalist fantasy: the individual can overcome every challenge, physical, cultural, militaristic and *even* convert God from a Deist to a Theist!

Keven, I hadn’t picked up the “personalisation” of the Navi religion. Interesting. As for having an “anti-capitalist” message, it would be very strange indeed if Cameron were to celebrate the virtues of pre-technological societies. His massively successful techno-blockbusters have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. They have been funded my mega-corporations and use the most sophisticated computer technologies available.

I appreciate the insight Vinoth! I knew there was an obvious flaw to the evangelical Christians (sadly often in North America) who critiqued it as “anti-Capitalist” and “environmentalist” (as if they are two things that are inherently dubious).

Professor Ramachandra, (a bit off subject but I have no other way of communication with you) I’m trying to understand how darwinism fits in the Genesis story. I do understand that it depends on “how” one reads Genesis (literal or not). Can you point to me some good resources on this matter? It seems that Darwins theory is a logical one (in certain areas) and one can hold to it and be a Christian (a lot of criticism for this, especially in this part of the world). So, what are some great resources that you have read in the past that were helpful.

Jeremy, the book “Can we believe Genesis today?” by Ernest Lucas might begin address your questions. (It is on Amazon and the like.) He give a light introduction to the science but focuses mainly on the exegesis (the intended meaning) of Genesis.

By way of taste, you can listen/ download talks by Lucas at the Faraday Institute (see link below). Just do a search under his name and select “speaker”.

Alternatively, if you want to hear a little more, select evolution as the “subject area” (the first drop down bar) to get more on the topic. Amongst others, Denis Alexander and Simon Conway Morris are well respected in their field and usually have something interesting to say.

Additionally, you may wish to check out the Biologos Foundation website. (Brainchild of Francis Collins –

Or you can try reading the Wiki page on “theistic evolution”. (This is what the Biologos Foundation subscribes to only they don’t like the name theistic evolution. It all there on their site.)

Finally, there is some fascinating history of science talks about the historic reactions from Christianity with regards to Darwinism (often it was seen as harmonious), the Scopes Trial and the rise of young earth creationism which was as recent as the 1960’s.

Again, go to the Faraday Institutes’s website bellow and look for talks by Ronald Numbers and hit “speaker”.

There are load of resources out there. Hope these have given you some ideas.

Great review, a perspective that hadn’t occurred to me. Thanks, brother Vinoth.

Hello Mr. Vinoth!

I read your books, so it brings me delight that I can ‘connect’ (an Avatar concept by the way) with you via this blog.

It’s curious how the films you mentioned (Aliens, Terminator, Avatar) were all films that I liked, but never did I realise they came from the same director! Indeed, it is interesting how you found common factors (e.g humans and technology) in all the 3 movies.

In regards to the movie Avatar, I had thought that the movie was more of depicting the war America’s going through, as they contrasted the ‘bad guys’ seige for Navi minerals to that of the Americans seige for oil. Also, the lousy defense Navis summoned may be compared to the inferior technology Afghanistan wielded against the Americans. This interpretation, alas, may be very superficial, but I thought of just pointing it out if it wasn’t apparent.

What was intruiging was perhaps the portrayal that religion – or supernatural for that matter – was absolutely null and void in the realm of technology, vice versa. That is to say, technolgy and religion are entities that are distinct and cannot co-exist. In effect, the existence of technology seemed to be frowned upon with pessimism. That said, what is the future for technology with regards to religion?

Finally, what should the Christian perspective be in regards to transformation in a seemingly self-destructive world of destructive humans, as portrayed in Avatar? The director seemed to have a pessismistic outlook of the world today.

A brother in Christ,

Jeremy, try the book Origins by Loren & Deorah Haarsma. The associated website for the book is

As to what the intended meaning of Genesis 1 is, you may refer to the recent book by John Walton of Wheaton, The Lost World of Genesis One.

I find it funny that you should charge Cameron with a modern day version of gnosticism not so long after the man himself h released a film that pertains to show that Jesus was only a man which i’m led to understand – said in variant ways- was a central doctrine of the original Gnostics.

Thank you Vinoth for your insights, which are also instructive to Christians in our increasing reliance on technology in spirituality: our daily devotion and spiritual formation. You remind me that the ‘limitations’ in space and time of prayer, Bible reading, fasting, personal and corporate “unplugged” (excuse the Avatar allusion) worship, and doing justice in real neighborhoods, homes, and cities are more immediate to taking up the cross of discipleship, because of embodiment, than on-line daily prayer, on-line donations and cyber mass action.

I feel the same way you do. I think they would be taken seriously if they didn’t take their ideas to such extremes. They need to stop acting so crazy if they want people to listen to them.

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