Great science fiction films are few and far between, so it was with great anticipation that I went to see Avatar on opening night.
I had been looking forward to this film since 2006 when James Cameron began working on the script. My expectations were significantly heightened after learning that Cameron, the director of Aliens, the first two Terminator movies and Titantic, was drawing inspiration from Japan -- namely through such directors as Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away).
I was particularly interested to see if Cameron could pull of the Miyazaki. As fans of his films know, there's nothing quite like a Miyazaki picture; they are as delightful, provocative and as imaginative as they come. Not since the early days of Disney have animated films been so good. Miyazaki weaves a magical touch that has eluded Hollywood since their Golden Age (think Pinocchio and Snow White).
After watching Avatar, I can honestly say that Cameron gave it a good shot. The Pandoran jungle was as atmospheric and alive as anything that Miyazaki has ever produced. The 3D element added an immersive and visceral component that was particularly powerful; there were times when I truly felt lost in the jungle alongside Jake and Neytiri. The bioluminescent forest was truly jaw dropping.
Further, the tastefulness and care with which Cameron added the CG elements is unparalleled (with a tip of the hat to Lord of the Rings). This is the kind of film that George Lucas could watch but not have the slightest clue as to why Cameron's CG works and his does not. Cameron, unlike Lucas, has learned to weave the fabric of all on-screen elements into context such that nothing is superfluous and everything adds to the entire composition and story. Where Lucas works to bash viewers over the head with a 'look what I can do!' approach to movie making, Cameron has taken a more thoughtful and artistic course.
Take, for example, the floating seeds that land on Jake when he first meets Neytiri. I was genuinely moved by the delicacy and beauty of each tiny seedling as it floated through the air. Moreover, my feelings were heightened after learning about the sacred status of the seeds and the implication to the story. This is exactly the kind of aesthetic moment I imagined when I thought about the potential for CGI back when it was first introduced so many years ago.
In addition to the visual elements borrowed from Japan, Cameron also dipped heavily into one of Miyazaki's most famous films, Princess Mononoke. Indeed, one could say that he borrowed perhaps a bit too greedily. Rarely does imitation of this sort lead to anything deeper or superior than what was provided by the original.
Specifically, both films feature a majestic and beautiful forest teeming with a life that's intimately interconnected with itself and an ethereal spiritual realm. And both feature a nature that is under threat. The balance of the natural worlds are in jeopardy from greedy miners who are consuming its resources at an alarming rate. The miners are in turn threatened by an outsider who, after learning the ways of the forest, has come to protect and preserve it at all costs. Ultimately, the creatures of the natural world are forced to band together and deal directly with the parasitic elements. Even the character of Neytiri is a close parallel to San; both are deeply connected to the natural world, borderline feral and ride on the backs of wolves.
Interestingly, Princess Mononoke was Japan's top grossing movie until Cameron's Titanic usurped it from that position in 1999. This certainly looks like a case where if you can beat them, you should still join them.
Princess Mononoke wasn't the only story co-opted by Cameron; aside from the Miyazaki touches (both graphically and narratively), Avatar closely resembles another classic story, Frank Herbert's Dune. In fact, Avatar is essentially Dune -- Cameron simply replaced the desert planet with a jungle and removed all the depth, complexity and profundity that made Dune the classic science fiction story that it is.
Again, the comparisons: A young man arrives on a strange and inhospitable planet occupied by hostile natives -- natives who are perfectly adapted to the planet and live in harmony with it. The young man's civilization is there to exploit the planet for a precious resource and at the expense of the planet's ecological balance. Our hero, awkward at first, learns the ways of the locals and eventually 'goes native.' He finds a girlfriend among his new clan and is accepted and revered by the natives on account of signs that point to his unique purpose and status. The hero-messiah then starts to exceed the abilities of his new comrades -- there's even a test of manhood involving the taming and riding of a dangerous animal. In the end, the hero leads a charge against the outsiders by banding together natural resources and the local population. They eventually win and drive the outsiders out.
Now, while this certainly describes the general plot of both stories, Herbert's universe is filled with intelligent and provocative commentary that touches upon such themes as ecology, evolution, commerce, politics, religion, technological advancement and even social Darwinism. The best that can be said of Cameron's adaptation is that he got the environmental message across. But where Herbert's discourse on the environment was treated with subtly and complexity (including the issue of terraforming), Cameron chose to bang his audience over the head with a blatantly overt, simplistic and ridiculously biased sledge hammer.
In Avatar, Cameron rekindled the tired and cliched "noble savage" myth and set it in space. It was an effort that seemingly attempted to romanticize Stone Age culture and promote a Gaianist agenda. The film was anti-technology, anti-corporatist, anti-progress, and dare I say anti-human.
Gaianism in space? Really, Cameron? That was the best story you could come up with on a $237,000,000 budget?
Okay, some credit where credit is due. Given that the story is, whether I liked it or not, a Gaianist treatise, I did appreciate how Cameron achieved the sense of interconnectedness between the characters and Pandora. The ability of the Na'vi to link with other animals in a symbiotic fusion was very cool, as was the ability to upload conscious thought through the very fabric of the planet (a nice interplay on the high-tech/lo-tech theme knowing that the humans were also dabbling in mind transfer). I also liked how the humans could not breath the air of the planet, a strong hint that they truly had no business being on Pandora. The natives, on the other hand, were at complete peace with their environment.
So, overall some very mixed feelings about Avatar. The graphical and aesthetic achievements were certainly impressive, and for that it's a must-see film. And for those with a pronounced environmentalist bent, you will likely swoon over this movie. But if you're looking for a story with depth, complex characters and some challenging commentary, you're going to have to look elsewhere. And in this sense, the movie is a significant let down. One that I'll gladly watch over and over again.