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Spirituality of the 5 Elements, in 5 Movies: Fire, Water, Earth, Air, & Beyond


the five elements in five movies - nature spiritualtiy in film

I love movies, and I love Nature. So it lights me up when I encounter movies that speak to the unmatched beauty, power, and wisdom of Nature.

 

As Earth Day approaches, I’ve been especially jazzed about seeing art – and life and spirituality in general – through the prism of the Five Classical Elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Air, and the Beyond. Naturally, my fascination has extended to the art of film, and how these elements inform storytelling in cinema.

 

Many movies – probably the best ones – incorporate Nature Spirituality. In a few special cases, you can find Five Elements woven directly into fabric of the story. They are present in:

  • the themes and characters

  • the aesthetic and filmmaking style

 

I’d love to share about how five famous films relate to each corresponding element. These are just some of many examples, and I’d love to hear from you if you have others! I hope this little thought-piece can help you gain a deeper appreciation for the spiritual messages and the vitality of Nature in cinema:

  • FIRE in Oppenheimer

  • WATER in Avatar: The Way of Water

  • EARTH in Nomadland

  • AIR in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

  • THE BEYOND in Arrival

 And I’ll try to avoid spoilers as we go!


oppenheimer movie poster, fire

Fire in Oppenheimer

 

First, it’s important to acknowledge this movie is a cautionary tale, as are most stories about fire. Do we have stories that celebrate fire? The Lord of the Rings movies certainly do – here’s a great video about fire in those films. Additionally, check out my article on the elements as depicted by America’s great landscape painters, where we applaud fire as a life-giving force.

 

Oppenheimer, winner of 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture for 2023, is a sort of epic parable about fire. As a nod to this, the title of the book that the movie is based on, the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, is called American Prometheus.


prometheus stealing fire

In ancient Greek myth, Prometheus was the titan who stole fire from the gods, to give to humanity. The gods understood that once humans had fire, we would try to create our own reality, rather than simply accept the one we’d been born into. Some gods even said that, rather than humankind using fire to create civilization, we’d use it to destroy ourselves. For Prometheus’ crime, he was chained up and tortured, to be eaten alive by an eagle for eternity.

 

This is an apt metaphor for Oppenheimer’s life and the eponymous movie. Throughout Oppenheimerwe see a man consumed.

 

At first as a student and scientist, he is consumed by an obsession with the awesome power of atomic physics. He is wracked by terrifying visions of the vast energy stored within the atom, and what would happen if this energy is unleashed. He finds it all haunting, yet irresistibly beautiful too. As his mentor, Nils Bohr, puts it, he can “hear the music.”

 

Soon, Oppenheimer is leading the Manhattan Project, using this new scientific knowledge to develop the atomic bomb. True, the justification is that the bomb is needed to end World War II and save his fellow Jews in Europe. But we see how much the obsession itself drives him: to turn the science into technology, then to see what the technology is capable of.

 

Of course, he and we see what it’s capable of, and we hear Oppenheimer’s immortal words quoted from the immortal Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” For the rest of his life, the man was haunted by what he had done.

 

The parallels here with the Prometheus myth are obvious, but what about the parallels between the movie and the raw element of fire?


As far as the aesthetic and technical aspects of the movie, each scene feels like it’s building an unstoppable momentum, like one fuse lighting another lighting another. We jump between timelines and characters, as if following sparks jumping among piles of tinder. Like wildfire, the pace is relentless, a 3-hour crescendo to the single loudest roar that anyone’s ever put into a movie so far.

 

oppenheimer brooding inspecting the bomb

The special effects also portray fire throughout the film in a unique way. We begin with Robert’s visions of electrons spinning at light speed – fire on the micro level. We end with the macro: the conflagration of the Trinity Test, and images of what the world has become, and could become as a result. And in the middle we see the bomb. Whether it’s being assembled or detonated, it looks like an object born in the bowels of a volcano. It is utterly inhuman, outside our real understanding and control.


By nature, fire is consuming, and consuming more than we bargained for. It spreads seemingly of its own will, growing irresistibly. Fire always wants more.

 

Further, each human, and all humanity, contains this driving force of fire, a hungry life-force energy that powers us forward. This fire-hunger can be beautiful and creative, as long as we can temper and direct it. If we can’t, it can be terrifying and destructive.

 

oppenheimer watching the bomb test

In this light, the story of Oppenheimer likens science and technology to fire. These are venues for our insatiable hunger to know, to test, to push the limits, to keep expanding. This fire is indeed how we create civilization – the dream of science and technology is to make a better world than the one we’ve been born into. But if we aren’t careful, if we let the obsession get the best of us, let the blaze grow unchecked of its own accord, this fire can also be how we destroy the world.

 

Oppenheimer also conveys how war throws fuel on this fire, and is a form of fire itself. War has a tendency to burn into everything in its path. It ignites accelerated progress in science and technology, yes. But, in spite of the creators’ intentions to the contrary, war sweeps their creations into the engulfing imperative of total victory. War feeds on itself and rages on, until it has flared itself out. Even if it takes a final, climactic inferno.

 

So what’s the spiritual message here? Fire, and the fire within each of us for more and better, is an incredible gift. Yet, with great power comes great responsibility.

 

It’s also worth wondering, if the downsides of science and technology can spread like fire, why can’t the upsides? If war can gain such momentum, why can’t peace? It’s all a matter of what we do with the fire, how we choose to direct it.



avatar the way of water movie poster, water

Water in Avatar: The Way of Water

 

The Avatar movies get lots of attention for lots of different reasons: the visual effects, the environmentalist message, etc. But one of the las things that people usually think about is the characters.

 

Especially in the case of Avatar: The Way of Water, I think this is too bad. The characters in this movie – particularly the new characters, the kids – have something really interesting and compelling to say, a surprisingly profound message that’s easy to miss. The kids carry the soul of the movie, which is right there in the title: What is this “way of water,” and why is it important?


the family in avatar the way of water

First, a little background. The main characters in the first Avatar are Neytiri and Jake. They are warriors at heart – they have dedicated their lives to fending off incursions by greedy humans onto their planet, Pandora. This fighting spirit is still very much part of their identities in the second Avatar.

 

But now we’re introduced to their four children. Thanks to their parents winning so many battles, these kids have known peace their whole lives. That is, until the beginning of the movie, when the family has to leave their forest and go into exile, hiding out from soldiers who are hunting them. They make a new home in a village on the ocean.


While Neytiri and Jake try to keep up the life they’ve always known, it’s a different story for the kids. They spend all their time learning the new ways of the water and its creatures. They get used to holding their breath, exploring underwater, and befriending everything from alien-whales to alien-coral. They end up becoming mystically bonded with their environment and fellow beings.

 

When threats finally begin to arrive at the village, Neytiri and Jake handle the situation the way they always have: grab weapons and prepare for war. But through it all, their kids try to exemplify a different way for their parents to approach things. They challenge the adults to let go of their adversarial mindset, and instead embrace a more harmonious, heart-centered way of responding to life, in tune with the sea.

 

It’s OK to be exposed and out of your element. Vulnerability is a strength, and it leaves room for Nature to help you out. Go with the flow. Trust that life wants to carry you and surprise you with good things, and let it.

 

avatar the way of water swimming with tulkun whale

The filmmaking style intentionally echoes this philosophy. Despite the fact that so much turmoil is at their doorstep, throughout the movie we see many long, lingering sequences of kids just doing kid things. We stay with them, immersed (literally) in play and discovery that’s seemingly inessential to the larger, high-stakes plot… until it’s not. Yes, one reason the filmmakers do this is to show off how cool their special effects are. But it’s more so that they are showing us there’s another, more subtle and spiritual way to engage with life and adversity.

 

The element of water is a uniting force, connecting, nourishing, and supporting all forms of consciousness. We, like all other living things, are mostly made of water, and we carry the memory of its gentleness in our hearts. Thus we always have access to this water-nature, this way of water.



nomadland movie poster, earth

Earth in Nomadland

 

Nomadland, winner of 3 Academy Awards including Best Picture for 2020, is all about the potential the earth holds for healing.


nomadland morning camp fern

The story follows Fern, a woman who has recently endured some major losses: the death of her husband, unemployment and the total economic collapse of her hometown, and the realities of aging. Struggling to accept the pileup of all these at once, and unsure where else to go, she opts for van-life. She buys a vehicle, wanders the country with it, and finds seasonal work and friends among the loose community of fellow “nomads.” Like her, most of them are also grieving for a variety of reasons, or resisting grieving, or doing both at the same time.


Did these nomads, including Fern, intentionally choose this way of life, because of the freedom of being on the road, the peace of living closer to the land? Or are they running from something? Are these people strong, or shattered? The movie is nonjudgmental, leaving these as open questions, at most saying, “well, yes-and.”

 

nomadland fern badlands

Rather than encouraging us to draw too many conclusions about the nomads, we’re instead invited into the day-to-day earthiness of their lives. We’re invited to hear their stories in their own words, hear their homespun philosophies as they make meaning of their situations. Nomadland challenges our current culture, which is so fixated on labeling people. The movie instead invites us to see the nomads simply and plainly as human, and invites us to consider, too, that maybe all humans are nomads.

 

We all wander through life, getting lost and found, trying to make sense of our hardships and hold onto the good things that come our way. Each one of us is looking for true freedom and peace. And each one of us is also running from something. We’re all strong, until we get shattered, and shattered until we find that we can be strong again. Through it all, each one of us is a child of the earth, living a life that’s inherently meaningful and dignified. Nomadland puts a fine point on this message.

 

nomadland fer and swankie desert

As well as this message: For certain kinds of grief, and for a pileup of grief, the best healer – and maybe the only one – is the Earth itself.

 

Chances are, at some point in our lives, our grief will grow too big for us. Pain can become too much for us to hold, too much for our belief system or support system to hold. We have to take our grief out into the only place big enough to hold it, to really hold us. Like Fern, we have to take it out onto the wild earth.

 

Like Fern, deep down we know we need to process our pain. But every other way to do that is too fast, or too incomplete. The slow, steady element of earth is the only thing offers to move at the speed of our grief, and the only thing all-embracing enough to offer complete healing. Maybe not anytime soon. But gradually, and someday.


The way the movie is filmed drives this home. We see great expanses of the American West. The arms of the horizon stretch out wide enough to contain Fern’s pain – while we watch her, tentatively trying to rest in the bosom of a valley. We notice fingers of mountaintop in the distance – while we focus on a circle of nomads, sitting in the palm of the earth.

 

One reason the nomads choose to live the way they do, is that modern culture doesn’t know how to accommodate our needs for slow and steady and all-embracing. We have much to learn from this wild land we call home. In terms of how to care for grief. In terms of how to accept all children of the earth without judgement. And in terms of how to, as one nomads put it, in a phrase with many meanings, “see each other down the road.”



crouching tiger hidden dragon movie poster, air

Air in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

 

In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, winner of 4 Academy Awards including Best International Film for 2000, personalities spar like clashing winds, often at sword-point.

 

On one side of the drama we have the two great warriors, Shu Lien and Mu Bai. They are unyielding in their moral code and sense of responsibility to the greater good, so much so that they won’t admit to the disruptive truth that they’ve been in love with each other for years. The movie revolves around them trying to retrieve a legendary sword, stolen by the troublemakers on the other side of the drama: a witch, Jade Fox, and her pupil, the rogue martial artist, Jen. Along the way we get to watch some of the greatest duels ever filmed, nail-biting battles of wits, wills, and weapons.

 

And it’s not only fists that fly – it's the fighters themselves! In one unforgettable scene, Mu Bai and Jen face off while soaring among the treetops of a bamboo forest, the air whipping all around. Throughout the movie, we see such associations between the presence of the wind, the ability to fly, the knowledge and skill required to wield a sword, and the mental sharpness required for combat.

 

These correlations are no coincidence. The filmmakers understood that there's an intuitive connection between all these motifs – that they all rhyme with the acrobatic element of air. What’s as wily as a gust of air? The mind. What’s as swift as thought? A blade. What moves with the grace of a flashing sword? The wind of course.


crouching tiger hidden dragon jen and shu lien duel

Through gorgeous choreography and set-pieces, sweeping camera angles and music, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon shows us how these forces belong together, in a single lyrical portrait. And even for those of us who aren’t master martial artists, the movie encourages a deeper appreciation of what human beings are capable of when we train in the ways of the air.

 

In terms of mental discipline, flight, and fighting prowess, Shu Lien and Mu Bai might have the upper hand. But there’s another capacity where they can take notes from Jen. Jen is also in a taboo love affair, with a man named Lo Dark Cloud. But rather than repressing her love, Jen lets it carry her away like a mighty wind, breezing past the rules of propriety that would bind her. More and more, Shu Lien and Mu Bai have to ask themselves whether they, long ago, should have done the same thing.


crouching tiger hidden dragon jen and lo dark cloud

Sure, this is a fantasy film, full of the supernatural and stylized. But it’s hard not to wonder – what would happen if, like these characters, we made a forthright attempt to harness the power of elemental air within ourselves? Maybe we’d be able to think and move like the wind. And what if, rather than censoring our longings for love, we let love carry us away? Maybe we could even fly.




arrival movie poster, beyond

The Beyond in Arrival

 

Few movies even attempt to explore overtly spiritual themes, and even fewer dare to take us to the edge of our understanding of reality. Arrival is one of these rare movies, one that reaches into the Beyond.

 

What is this “Beyond?” Other than simply being beyond the other four elements, what is this fifth one?

 

I’ll offer more ideas about the Beyond and the other elements at the Earth Day class I’m teaching coming up at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality. Until then, you can check out my article on how painter Georgia O’Keeffe depicted this fifth aspect of Nature, and read on about Arrival.

 

The movie actually offers multiple possibilities on what the Beyond is about, but only one that we can really discuss without getting into spoilers... and that is what we might call the combined element of language-and-consciousness. Let me explain.


arrival on the alien ship

Arrival begins with aliens coming to Earth, unannounced. Louise, a linguist and professor, is recruited by the military to help humanity communicate with the visitors.


We can see the aliens, but they don’t seem to be saying anything. Why are they here? What do they want? Do they have good intentions or bad? It’s Louise’s job to learn their language and find out. In the process, the movie portrays just how elemental a force language is, and how it goes hand-in-hand with the elemental force of consciousness.

 

As Louise makes clear, alien translation is no easy task. There are all kinds of basic assumptions we humans will take for granted when constructing even a seemingly simple question, like “what is your purpose on Earth?” We don’t know if these aliens even understand what a question is, how it works, the expectation of a response. Maybe the notion of “purpose” doesn’t even make sense to them. So, to figure out their language, Louise also has to simultaneously figure out their underlying psychology. BUT the movie takes it even a step further…


arrival louise translating

In order to have a conversation with someone else – whether alien or human – you have to be familiar with what you share in terms of the basic structures of your psyches. This means understanding your own psyche too; to address another self, you need to have your own sense of self. And to do that, you need to be able to narrate an inner “Story of Your Life” (which is actually the name of the short story the movie is based on). Thus, for Louise, in order to rise to the challenge of learning how the aliens view the world, she also has to reevaluate how she views the world. She has to experience the story of her own life in a new way.

 

To say more about what unfolds for her around this would get into spoiler territory. But we can consider what happens with people who don’t approach the aliens the way Louise does.

 

Characters who aren’t reflecting on their own inner stories and worldviews – such as some of the stuck-in-their-ways military officers – have a tough time imagining what’s happening in the minds of the aliens. As a result, they don’t even know where to begin a conversation. And rather than try, some would rather just start launching missiles.

 

The movie shows us some telling juxtapositions: people in camo frantically reacting to the situation, while Louise tries to take her time and consider things thoughtfully. They are scrambling to manage what they mistakenly perceive as the new reality. Meanwhile, Louise is using a whole new level of language and consciousness to actively create the true new reality.

 

Enough of the officers know aggression is a bad idea, which is why they recruited Louise to try to get the aliens talking first. But the threat looms large of a communication breakdown precipitating violence. And it’s all because of kneejerk resistance to what Louise learns to do: Reimagine one’s own use of language and mode of consciousness. Look within to understand one's own life story. And see what the Story of Your Life can teach you about the Story of All Life.

 

arrival louise reading logograms

If we want peace rather than conflict in our lives, this self-reflection is where we have to start. And if we want to engage with the Beyond, Arrival’s exploration of new possibilities for language and consciousness can help us out.

 

The movie also posits other possibilities for what the fifth element of Nature might be, like time, fate, freedom, and love. But it’s tricky to get into discussing how these play out in Arrival without ruining the movie… so I urge you to watch it and see these themes play out for yourself!

 

For that matter, I urge you to watch any movie on this list you haven’t seen, and re-watch the ones you have. And no matter what, I hope after reading this, you start to see Nature Spirituality, the Five Elements, film, and the combination of these in exciting new ways.

 

We humans and our art are part of Nature. When you remember that, it can deepen your appreciation for the whole created world. It can deepen your appreciation for the beautiful creations people have made. And it can deepen your appreciation for the fact that you, too, are a beautiful creation, embarking on your own incredible “Story of Your Life.”

 

And… action!
 

Thank you for reading! Please share around!

 

For a deeper exploration, again, I invite you to the upcoming class I’m teaching…





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