Home > Our World > News > News Archives by Date > 2010 > January 2010 > News - January 2010
‘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 Paramount Pictures.

A UMNS Commentary
By David Briggs*

Jan. 12, 2010

A battle scene in “Avatar”
UMNS photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox. 

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.

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 their humanity.

“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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

Related Articles

'Avatar': Science, Civilization And The Noble Savage In Space

Avatar and race politics (spoiler alert)

A pastor ponders “Up in the Air”


“Up in the Air” review

Avatar movie review

Comments will be moderated. Please see our Comment Policy for more information.
Comment Policy

Ask Now

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add this address to your list of approved senders.

Would you like to ask any questions about this story?ASK US NOW