|‘Up in the Air’ beats ‘Avatar’ in moral box office|
George Clooney searches for meaning and human
connection in the new movie “Up in the Air.” UMNS Photo courtesy of
A UMNS Commentary
By David Briggs*
Jan. 12, 2010
One holiday movie features a corporate official whose job is flying
around the country firing people. He holds up his lack of commitment to
others and pursuit of transitory pleasure as an ideal.
A battle scene in “Avatar”
UMNS photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Another -– a box office gold mine -– is a fantasy in which
inhabitants of a distant planet battle a corporate-military plan to
strip mine their native habitat for precious minerals needed on Earth.
So which of these two fixtures at local multiplexes -– “Up in the
Air” or “Avatar” -– offers more resources for moral reflection?
No contest. “Up in the Air.”
Despite its sexual content and R rating, the movie starring George
Clooney offers a far more compelling and artistic vehicle for exploring
the human condition.
If it were all about technological mastery, “Avatar” would win hands
down. In no small bit of irony, the movie offers breathtaking special
effects, while leaving behind a massive carbon footprint as the most
expensive movie ever made to preach about the simple life. The hundreds
of millions of dollars poured into this film delight viewers early on
with beautiful colors and lush scenery on the fanciful planet Pandora.
But unlike, say, C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” this movie
does not tell a story that engages hearts and minds after the final
scene. The cardboard characters, clunky dialogue and lack of editing in
the 160-minute film leave viewers at the mercy of James Cameron, who was
the writer and director as well as a producer.
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the movie is one which several
secular critics have noted: the revival of the myth of the “noble
savage” who needs to be saved by the white man.
In “Avatar,” not only does it take an ex-Marine to rescue the native
people, but the white, male hero quickly picks up centuries of native
traditions to become the best of the best in the skills Cameron
attributes to the Na’vi tribe.
In the wake of the recent shootings by a soldier at an Army base,
some viewers, as I did, also may find it disturbing how the hero so
easily betrays his fellow soldiers, leading them to their deaths in a
mission Cameron none-too-subtly tries to relate to the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the end, “Avatar” falls into a standard Hollywood genre: the
revenge fantasy in which violence is the answer, and the manipulation of
individuals into simple categories of good and evil robs everyone of
“Up in the Air,” in contrast, does not hide the human imperfections
of its main character. Clooney’s character celebrates a life of
first-class travel and perks, and casual sexual relationships. This lack
of human attachment makes him ideal for the job of delivering the
corporate ax. He ignores the human emotions of the devastated people
before him with prepared responses that move the line along.
There is no preaching, nor are there clumsy messages in place of
character development. The characters and events that enter his life – a
young, idealistic protégé, a woman he cares about and the wedding of a
younger sister – naturally cause him to begin to question the path he
has chosen in life.
The power of this movie is in the self-discovery of the painful
emptiness and loneliness of a life unconnected to others.
For Christians, “Up in the Air” offers an excellent opportunity to
engage spiritual seekers with an alternative that responds to the
universal longings for love and meaning in life.
The assurance of eternal, unconditional love frees us to love our
neighbor as ourselves.
As we start a new year, how much better to reflect on human and
divine love than to see salvation in revenge fantasies like “Avatar”
that tend to darken, rather than lighten, the soul.
*Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or
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