Avatar is one of those movies it’s easy to have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it’s visually stunning. A lot of effort went into its making, and that shows. Avatar takes us to another world that seems nothing short of magical compared to our own. Hell, it’s even got dragons and floating mountains. On the other hand, though, the story sucks. The characters are underdeveloped, the overall message is both racist and ableist, and despite giving us an expansive world with its own peoples and cultures, the movie never adequately explores its own characters.
All too often, Avatar got caught up in its own message—environmentalism, which is not a bad message to have—but the movie never found a good balance between telling a story and preaching a lesson. None of that is more apparent than its take on religion.
In Avatar, the native inhabitants on the planet Pandora are called the Na’vi. The Na’vi are a peaceful group of catlike, blue-skinned humanoids, who are rarely at war and always respect nature above everything else. The goddess they worship is called Eywa, whom they sometimes refer to as the Great Mother. Eywa governs all the Na’vi people over the entirety of their planet and even the animals worship her. She is a constant in their lives, and due to her continued presence, the Na’vi are concerned more about worshiping and living in harmony with her than they are with other pursuits. Because of Eywa, the Na’vi don’t feel the need to further develop their technology in ways that we would consider advanced, and as a result, when humans first come to Pandora, the Na’vi are treated as little more than ignorant savages, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The Na’vi are governed by Eywa, spirits, and believe that all their life energy is borrowed and must be returned one day. But the movie takes their religion a step farther. More accurately, the Na’vi don’t believe that Eywa is real so much as they know she’s real. Eywa is a biological presence on their world that they and the animals can literally talk to and hold whole conversations with. We discover that Eywa is a system of plants covering the planet and that she can connect to every animal and person through neuro-conductive antennae. And indeed, the natives and all the creatures have tail-like growths coming out of their own heads that they can use to literally plug themselves into Eywa and talk to her. The Na’vi never experience doubt in their own faith, because Eywa is always right there. They never worry about dying, because their connection to Eywa keeps them living forever. And at one point in the movie, the characters Neytiri and Jake even listen to dead Na’vi when they go to speak to Eywa. Another character’s dying words are, “I’m with her. She’s real.”
Eywa is a force that none of us in the audience can relate to, and as such, using her to get across the message of environmentalism is one of the reasons the movie fails. Avatar doesn’t tell us to respect nature because that’s the right thing to do. It tells us to respect nature because nature is a living entity governing us. Though there are Pagans and Wiccans who do believe that nature actually is a living entity, their beliefs are still founded in an unprovable faith. But Eywa isn’t about faith at all. Eywa is a living entity that turns out to be a scientific provable reality for the Na’vi people. So while Eywa is something we’ll suspend our disbelief in during a movie, most people are not going to apply that to the real world, which is clearly what the movie wants. Our main character Jake tells Eywa at one point in time that the Great Mother on Earth is dead, because we humans killed her. But there was never a point in time when our whole planet was connected via neuro-conductive antennae. Eywa is a living biological force that you can literally study. That is not true of religions in the real world.
All this wouldn’t be a problem, but when it comes down to it, worshiping Eywa has less to do with developing the Na’vi as a people and exploring who they are than it does with that damned aforementioned message of environmentalism. I cannot think of any religion here on Earth that has undeniable scientific proof for being real. Most religions are about faith—believing when there is no proof. When you watch Avatar, the Na’vi are clearly based on Native American and African tribal cultures—or rather, they are based on a misinterpretation of those cultures by white people—and the same can be said for their religion. Even worse, from what I can tell, though Native Americans and African tribal groups are clearly the inspiration behind the Na’vi, it doesn’t look as though the Na’vi are meant to represent any one culture, but rather lumps them all in as a whole. As such, both the Na’vi and their religion literally feel like stereotypes as imagined by white people.
Eywa could have very easily been a neat commentary on religion, or even used to further explore the Na’vi. But for something that has such a huge presence in the movie, we learn very little about Eywa and the belief systems surrounding her. Yes, we know the Na’vi respect nature because of her, but what else? We see them perform rituals and they worship at sacred places that hold religious significance to them, so we know that this can easily have the makings of an advanced religion, but we never learn what significance those rituals have when it comes to Eywa. At one point in the movie, Jake is formally accepted among the Na’vi as being one of them. During the ceremony, they cover him in white body paint and all the tribe members put forward their arms to touch his shoulders. The touching clearly symbolizes how that they are all connected to Eywa and now Jake is too, but what about the body paint? This is the only time we ever see it. As we can assume all Na’vi are automatically considered Eywa’s at birth, they themselves never go through this process, or at least we never see them. This is something that only former outsiders can experience. But until recently, outsiders didn’t even exist on Pandora. As a result, the body paint is never given any purpose or meaning. It’s applied to Jake’s body in a very specific way to form specific patterns, but what do those patterns mean? Does the color white have any sort of symbolic significance? As far as I’m concerned, it’s there to look tribal.
Because of Eywa’s nature, no one can doubt she exists, and for me personally, that does take away from the story, because belief in her is not grounded with faith. But I don’t think Eywa herself is completely unsalvageable as a deity, regardless of her physical presence in the world. We simply don’t learn anything about her outside the environmental message. Avatar ended up having a lot of problems, but for such a huge part of the story, it’s a shame that Eywa wasn’t more thought through or fully developed as a religion.