Avatar - discussion guide
Author: Sophie Lister Keywords:
Empathy, incarnation, greed, environment, colonialism, home, spirituality
Film title: Avatar
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Cinema Release Date: 17 December 2009 (UK); 18 December 2009 (USA)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains moderate violence and intense battle scenes
In a future where the human race has set off into space in search of new worlds to plunder, a paraplegic marine called Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is posted to the forest moon Pandora. Here the natives, the tall blue-skinned Na’vi, have long resisted the miners trying to plunder their home for the valuable mineral Unobtainium. Jake joins a team of scientists led by the tough Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) on an unusual mission. Inhabiting an artificially-grown alien body or ‘Avatar’, he must go among the Na’vi, learn their ways, and win their trust.
Under secret orders from Colonel Quaritch (Sam Lang) to manipulate the Na’vi into leaving their home, Jake is determined at first simply to get the job done. But as he immerses himself in his new life, he begins to fall in love - with his Avatar body, with the Na’vi way of life, and with chieftain’s daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). As tensions escalate between invaders and natives, Jake must decide once and for all where his loyalties lie.
Avatar was first conceived by Titanic director James Cameron fifteen years ago, inspired by the science fiction books he had loved as a teenager. He penned the script back in 1995 and first considered making the film as a follow-up to Titanic. But it wasn’t until Peter Jackon’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that he decided technology had finally caught up with his vision. The first two years of the four-and-a-half-year filmmaking process were spent almost entirely on technology development and design, as Cameron tried to find ways to put his ideas on the screen. He says that he ‘basically sat down and put everything in this that I ever wanted to see in a movie.’ 
With an alleged budget of around $280,000,000, Avatar is the most expensive film ever made. It was well-received by audiences - taking 1 billion dollars worldwide in a record-breaking 17 days - and largely by critics, who praised its visual richness, if not its script.
Questions for discussion
Avatar was preceded by a lot of hype about its groundbreaking visuals. Did you feel that the use of CGI and 3-D technology contributed towards the story? What do you think the director wants us to see and feel about the world of Pandora that couldn’t be achieved with conventional filmmaking methods?
‘All I ever wanted was a single thing worth fighting for.’ – Jake
What motivates Jake to accept the posting on Pandora? What is it about his character and his situation that makes it attractive to him initially? What are his reservations?
The scientist leading the Avatar project is called Grace Augustine. Augustine of Hippo was a highly influential first-century Christian thinker who emphasised the importance of Christ’s grace. He also developed a theory of ‘just war’. What might be the significance of her name, given the nature of Grace’s project? What is her approach to her work and to the world, and how does this change throughout the film?
How would you describe the culture of the Na’vi? What aspects of their beliefs and practises might seem attractive to us? Which real people in our world might they represent?
Avatar has earned both praise and criticism for its portrayal of native peoples. The Na’vi are undoubtedly the film’s heroes, but on the other hand they must be led into battle by a ‘white Messiah’. Do you feel that Avatar’s racial message is positive, or are there underlying problems?
‘When people have s**t that you want, you make them your enemy.’ – Colonel Quaritch
How are the film’s villains presented? What comments do you think the director might be making about colonialism and military intervention? To what extent did you find his exploration of the issues satisfactory?
The film clearly has a strong environmental message. Do you think it helps us to engage with the problem of corporate greed and its impact on the natural world? Does it offer us any solutions? How should we be challenged as individuals?
‘This is our land!’ – Jake
How does the film deal with the concepts of home and belonging? Do you think that we engage with stories about people like the Na’vi because we long for the kind of spiritual ‘home’ they enjoy? Why/why not?
Pagan spirituality seems to offer a return to such a ‘home’ through an engagement with nature. The Bible, on the other hand, states that we need peace with the creator and not just the creation. Why might nature-worship appear more attractive than a personal God? What might Jesus offer that nature-worship cannot?
How does the director convey the change that begins to occur in Jake as he assimilates into Na’vi culture? Which moments are particularly significant as he begins to change his mind about his mission?
How can the concept of an ‘Avatar’ help us to understand ideas of empathy and engagement with others who are different from ourselves? What does it cost Jake to fully identify with the Na’vi?
Jesus, in coming to earth as a human being, ‘gave up his divine privileges, taking the humble position of a slave’ (Philippians 2:7). What similarities are there between Jesus’s human incarnation and Jake’s Avatar? What differences are there? What did it cost Jesus to fully identify with the human race?
Jesus’s personal experience of being human enables him to sympathise with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). How does this challenge your perception of what God is like? What difference might it make in your life if you could be sure that God had walked in your shoes and understood what you were going through?
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Author: Sophie Lister
© Copyright: Sophie Lister 2010
Unless stated otherwise, Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation (NLT) copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.