James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) isn’t just a little like FernGully: The Last Rainforest (Bill Kroyer, 1992). It’s a lot like FernGully. Further, the visual splendor and themes is highly reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films, most notably: Princess Mononoke (1997), Laputa: Castle In the Sky (1986), and my favorite, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Miyazaki is too under-credited for pioneering themes of environmentalism, spirituality in nature, and the horrific impacts of mechanized war, in film. Anne McCaffrey has written a feminist, lush series of 19 books collectively known as the Dragonriders of Pern exploring the telepathic bond between humans and flying dragons.
Let’s not kid ourselves on the originality of Cameron’s storytelling. The often clichéd and predictable dialogue could have used a lot of work. Reviewers are already wondering whether costly 3D imagery (if you saw it in 3D) is the future of blockbuster filmmaking and lamenting on the demise of storytelling.
But when has a blockbuster film not concentrated on amazing visual effects and epic scenes? Granted, it’s not always at the expense of storytelling. My Sitting Pugs colleague can comment far more knowledgeably here. I’d say the first real, expensive, blockbuster film ever made was Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), which cost $3.9 million, a staggering amount at the time.
I’m not trying to compare Avatar with this great classic, which also had great storytelling. Yet it is the scene of Atlanta burning I recall the best. Remember Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1962)? Probably not. I do. I’ve seen it at least three times. In 1962, the film cost $44 million. Adjusted for inflation, it is still the second most expensive movie of all time, out-budgeted only by Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). I remember Cleopatra not for a particularly witty script or original story (it’s historical after all), but for two things: Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes and magnificent presence, and the scene where she arrives regally into Rome on an enormous barge.
Cameron has made excellent science fiction with stellar special effects, lovely dialogue, and solid character-building, in one of the best science-fiction films of all time: The Abyss (1989). Just not this time. Avatar should not be dismissed. Far-from. It’s a visual delight, stunning, especially the bioluminescent parts. The themes, even if done before, are still powerful.
What has perhaps not been done before as much is a rather explicit commentary on U.S. intervention in Iraq, the strategy to win the “hearts and minds” of “indigenous” peoples, and the apparently freewheeling and unapologetic reign of private military contractors like Blackwater. Oh my bad, the company is now called Xe Services LLC. This critique is necessary.
As for arguments on imperialism, I am currently reading Niall Ferguson’s Colossus (2004) and will report next week.
1. There’s going to be a Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (?!?!).
2. In an example of breaking the fourth wall, art imitating…art, and shameless plug, an early December episode of Bones featured a tangent involving Hodgins, Sweets, and Fisher (Joel David Moore) alternating places in an hours-long line for a special sneak preview of Avatar. Moore plays a more upbeat version of a scientist in the film, as Norm Spellman. Avatar-ish in and of itself.
3. Avatar is a Sanskrit-language word and refers to an ancient concept in Hinduism which translates roughly to “incarnation” though is more complex, involving notions of spirituality, death, rebirth, and evolution. The film does the concept sufficient justice.
4. Anyone want to take a bet on Cameron’s favorite color?