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Sunday, December 20, 2009

All Energy Is Borrowed: A Review of Avatar

by Gary Westfahl


All right; the special effects in James Cameron's Avatar are indeed dazzling, and one can regard the film as ground-breaking in demonstrating, more so than any other recent film I know of, that computer animation can not only hold its own against live-action film but might actually replace it. Yes, 500 million dollars invested in the latest technology does enable a filmmaker to make twelve-foot-high, blue-skinned aliens generated through performance capture just as sympathetic and involving as skilled actors filmed in the ordinary fashion. Still, after filmgoers have emotionally experienced those aliens' agonies of defeat and thrills of victory, some will feel compelled to actually think about the story that has enthralled them for almost three hours, and they are the ones who will feel less inclined to celebrate Cameron's achievement.

Prior to the film's release, the internet buzz was that Avatar was a ripoff of Poul Anderson's classic novelette "Call Me Joe" (1957), and admittedly there are some significant similarities: both stories involve paraplegic men who assume mental control of artificially created alien beings designed to survive on harsh alien planets, decide that they prefer being active aliens to being handicapped humans, and eventually choose to be aliens all of the time. But Anderson's novelette took place on Jupiter, not a distant world named Pandora, and featured a newly created sort of intelligent being introduced to an environment without intelligent life, not an enormous humanoid crafted to resemble, and mingle with, members of an indigenous intelligent species. Thus, even if its basic concept is not entirely original, the film does take it in a different direction. Yet the film also recalls Anderson's work in a broader fashion: one of that author's many talents was filling his alien worlds with memorably distinctive flora and fauna, as indicated by one evocative passage from "The Queen of Air and Darkness" (1971): "Blossoms opened, flamboyance on firethorn trees, steel-flowers rising blue from the brok and rainplant that cloaked all hills, shy whiteness of kiss-me-never down in the dales. Flitteries darted among them on iridescent wings; a crownbuck shook his horns and bugled." Here, although the larger, dinosaur-like creatures that inhabit Pandora are mostly things that we have all seen before, Cameron additionally provides his world with many smaller and subtler forms of bizarre alien life — such as tiny purple lizards, floating fluorescent wisps, and spiraling plants that contract into a bulb when touched — that represent precisely the sorts of extraterrestrial life that Anderson might have envisioned and described.

Anderson is not the only science fiction writer that this film brings to mind: its larger-than-life warsuits, manipulated by soldiers inside of them, are reminiscent of predecessors ranging from the fighting suits of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) to those in the Gundam Mobile Suit anime series (1979-1980), and a key subplot, depicting how members of the Pandoran race, the Na'vi, form a lifelong mental bond with large flying creatures that they then ride upon, seems lifted right out of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (1968) and its many sequels. Still, the science fiction story that most closely resembles Avatar has to be Ursula K. Le Guin's novella "The Word for World Is Forest" (1972), another epic about a benevolent race of alien beings who happily inhabit dense forests while living in harmony with nature until they are attacked and slaughtered by invading human soldiers who believe that the only good gook is a dead gook. In sum, recalling the old Hollywood axiom that stealing from one source is plagiarism while stealing from several sources is research, one can say that James Cameron's Avatar is well researched. Or, as Cameron might defend himself, quoting one of his platitude-spouting Na'vi, "All energy is borrowed, and someday you have to give it back."

When you follow in the footsteps of giants, though, you may also replicate their mistakes, and this enormous exercise in borrowing-and-giving-it-back is particularly striking in the ways that it echoes both the virtues of Le Guin's story — a richly developed alien ecosystem and culture — and its major flaw — a one-dimensional portrait of an implacably evil military commander which engenders a one-dimensional and unpersuasive message about saintly savages being oppressed by scientifically advanced warriors. The problematic and uncharacteristic didacticism of her story was recognized by Le Guin herself in the "Afterword" she wrote for its original appearance in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), wherein she complained that in creating the story she had been forced by her muse to "moralize," even though "I am not very fond of moralistic tales." Of course, while Le Guin was writing, the still-raging Vietnam War was very much on her mind, and "The Word for World Is Forest," like Avatar itself, invites consideration as a parable about that conflict. Yet emotions that were appropriate in 1972 can seem anachronistic in 2009, and while one might posit that all filmmakers who matured during the Vietnam War must someday deal with that subject in their work, Cameron is entering the game rather late in his career, which makes his state-of-the-art film seem curiously old-fashioned in one respect. Bluntly, a character like Cameron's Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who calls the natives "roaches" and is eventually observed grinning in glee as he kills yet another alien, might have been acceptable thirty years ago, but he must be regarded today as nothing more than an outdated and offensive stereotype; Vietnam was one thing, but whatever else occurred in Iraq, there were no psychopathic American colonels fiercely dedicated to the genocidal slaughter of its citizens. (And a brief reference to "shock and awe" tactics cannot conceal the fact that this film is all about Vietnam and has nothing to do with the Middle East.) One might posit, perhaps, that this film was intended as Cameron's belated apology for Aliens (1986), a film that appeared to glorify all-out war against beings that didn't look like you — which might explain why he summoned Sigourney Weaver, the chief alien-killer in that film, to here play Dr. Grace Augustine (whose very name announces graciousness and nobility), a compassionate scientist who opposes military action against the aliens on this world.

As another similarity, Le Guin's story, like Avatar, is moralistic about not only the oppression of native peoples, but thoughtless destruction of the environment as well. In this case, the violent elimination of the aliens on Pandora is primarily motivated by a desire to gain access to rich deposits of a valuable gravity-defying metal (and hey, if you want to demonstrate your complete contempt for scientific plausibility, you might as well call this impossible, McGuffin-like substance "unobtainium"). We are told that in the twenty-second century, humans have already despoiled their own planet — "there is no green there" because "they killed their mother" — and Earth is later described as a "dying world." The hoped-for happy ending to Avatar is that the human race might be stopped before they can utterly ruin a second planet. If these environmental concerns seem more contemporary than condemnations of the Vietnam War, they are ultimately just as clichéd, and the best commentary on the merits of this theme is provided by Cameron himself: when the alien-inhabiting Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is first being instructed by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in the wise ways of her people so as to earn acceptance into her tribe, he responds to one of her lectures by thinking, "I hope this tree-hugger crap isn't on the final." Soon, however, Sully has swallowed all of her tree-hugger crap hook, line, and sinker, and knowing that "the wealth of the world is all around us," and that there is a "network of energy that flows through all living things," Sully is properly indignant that the human settlers on Pandora would strive to destroy the Na'vi's sacred tree to do some mining, and he joins his adopted people in resisting their efforts.

If these stale sentiments do not seem as offensive as those in the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still (review here), that may simply reflect the fact that Cameron has placed them in a more intriguing setting and chosen actors more talented than Keanu Reeves to deliver them. What is disturbing is that Avatar marries its argument against ravaging one's environment to an argument against scientific progress itself. The film's position could not be clearer: Living off the land in a forest is good; living in a protective metallic shelter filled with scientific devices is bad. Killing animals with a bow and arrow is good; killing them with machine guns is bad. Riding through the air on the backs of pterodactyl-like creatures is good; riding through the air in futuristic helicopters is bad. Using scientific methods to turn you into an alien is bad; hoping that a magical goddess in a tree can perform the same trick is good. The only value of machinery is that, in a pinch, natives are allowed to temporarily employ guns and grenades in order to destroy the people who brought them and restore the planet's preindustrial tranquility. And this has to represent the ultimate irony of Avatar: James Cameron has spent half a billion dollars on the most advanced technology available in order to argue that we all need to abandon advanced technology and return to the simple lifestyles of ancient Native Americans and other noble savages. Well, if that's the way you feel, Mr. Cameron, why don't you abandon filmmaking and go live with the natives in Papua New Guinea, where you could assist them in staging the rituals that help to make their simple lives so much more satisfying than ours?

Cameron also conspicuously stacks the deck in arguing for the benefits of living naturally: when Sully first enters the Pandoran forest, the film acknowledges that nature is filled with both wonderful and terrible things when Sully is almost killed by two gigantic predators and by smaller dog-like animals. However, once the Na'vi resolve to teach Sully about their idyllic lives and benign philosophy, these dangerous animals completely vanish from sight, the forest is re-envisioned as a lush paradise, and the only perils involve the Pandoran habits of running madly along narrow tree branches and leaping across chasms (which would logically result in most natives dying from fatal falls well before they reached adulthood, but hey, this is a movie, and having them move with more reasonable caution would be much less exciting). Then, just when you have entirely forgotten that this wondrous forest was ever home to horrible monsters, all of them abruptly reappear — because it's revenge-of-nature time, and now they are the good guys since they are trying to kill humans instead of aliens.

A related irony is that the philosophy being espoused in this movie — give up your scientific devices, simplify your lifestyle, find happiness in everything that is natural — was once epitomized in the phrase, "Small is beautiful." Yet in Avatar, more often than not, large is beautiful. As if convinced that audiences would only feel they were getting their money's worth if everything was big, big, big, Cameron has focused his creative energies on one enormous construct after another: huge warplanes, towering fighting suits, twelve-foot-high aliens, monstrous trees, dinosaur wannabes, an immense waterfall, huge floating mountains . . . . After a while, your mind becomes numb, these objects no longer impress, and you long for more of the aforementioned little touches of the outré that were observed earlier in the film. Frankly, Cameron should have spent more time on rainplant and flitteries instead of flying tanks and thundering triceratops. (Yet this tendency toward gigantism may also be a subconscious byproduct of undertaking to make an incredibly expensive film that surely represents one of the most mammoth projects in the history of cinema; indeed, so many people contributed to this production that, for the first time I can recall, the closing credits did not place every name on its own line, but crammed related names together into paragraphs. Clearly, it would have taken much too long to list them all in the usual fashion.)

If there is a theme in Avatar which is not entirely threadbare, it lies in the notion that it will someday not only be possible, but even desirable, to give up one's natural identity and assume an artificial identity. Traditional narratives often argue that people should accept who they really are and should not try to be something they are not, as illustrated by stories like the Twilight Zone episode "The Trade-Ins" (1962) and the film Seconds (1966). But here, Jake Sully comes to reject his real life as a partially paralyzed soldier and embraces a new unreal existence as an athletic alien: mentally returning from one experience in the forest to his human base, he says that "Everything is backwards now. Outside is the real world; back here is the dream." Crafting and inhabiting a dream world, then, is being celebrated, not chastised. It might have been more interesting if Avatar had posited that all of the Na'vi, not just a few agents like Jake Sully, were originally created by human scientists as convenient devices to explore a hostile alien world, although they soon went entirely native and were inspired by the new environment to develop their own distinctive culture and beliefs; this would have made the entire race the embodiment of a human dream and might have made the unlikely pleasures of the Pandorans' lives, and their evident mimicking of the practices of pre-technological humans, a bit more palatable.

In addition, the process of profitably reinventing oneself undoubtedly had personal relevance to James Cameron, since Avatar represents his return to feature film directing after a twelve-year hiatus, and there is evidence that he regarded the task as his own rebirth as a new kind of film director. Prior to being formally accepted as a member of the tribe, Jake comments that "Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn a place among the People." I wasn't keeping track of every single date in the small print at the bottom of Jake's video reports, but I believe that Jake's initiation and second "birthday" was exactly, or almost exactly, the two-hundredth anniversary of Cameron's own birthdate of August 16, 1954. And while I would not be enthusiastic about seeing another film like Avatar, Cameron's record as a director indicates that he rarely chooses to repeat himself, and he may be capable of next producing a film that would blend the technological breakthroughs of this one with a more original and meaningful story — that is, if Avatar is successful enough to earn him another 500 million dollars to play with.



Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays -- Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell -- the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.











Directed by James Cameron

Written by James Cameron

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonzo, and Dileep Rao

Official Website: Avatar Official Movie Website


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31 Comments:

Blogger Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW said...

I think this reviewer missed the point of this film. Sorry. This is not a film about good vs. bad but connected vs. unconnected. Go back and look at the film with this lens, if you can, sir. It is interesting how all the male reviewers have neglected to mention the unusual central role of female characters in this movie. I, for one, applaud James Cameron, his immense achievement technically, morally and spiritually in challenging age old movie patterns. When have we ever seen the indiginous people win and the whites sent home packing? About time.

December 21, 2009 12:17 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I trembled when I heard a Star Cruiser. Now, I got dizzy looking down a branch.

I definitely want to see the Director's version. It is clear that Cameron avoided an intermission by putting together a 2.5hr version.

Excellent review--thumb up. It got me to revisit Avatar and examine my values. As a left leaning tree hugger, Latte drinking liberal, I wish Cameron in the future presents honest characters not like the over the top General. (Lang).

December 21, 2009 6:49 AM  
Blogger josh_swank2 said...

I love movies for entertainment and watching them open my childrens imaginations. And this movie was aces in both departments. Loved it!!!! Leave the basement and find some joy in things Gary (pretentious geek)

December 21, 2009 8:29 AM  
Blogger Carlo said...

I agree with Susan. I read all the hype, I was cynical but hoping for something new in the film adaption of a Science Fiction adventure fantasy. What happened was the closest upload into a parallel universe I ever had. Absolutely outstanding other worldly escapism. I agree that it reflected and resembled Leguin's book, but other book references were just a passing thought, as most of the items addressed were mainly Universal and Timeless themes, that may have seemed way too familiar to some. I applaud Cameron to portray some of these authors ideas finally into film, and done so in an astounding and visceral way.

December 21, 2009 11:32 AM  
Blogger roberto said...

When I saw the movie, I got the Le Guin reference--a novella which is more like a comment on what the US has done to the Native-Americans and which simultaneously worked as a criticism of what the US were doing in Vietnam. Cameron's Indians with their Mohawk hair and bows and arrows are recast as aliens in a dense tropical forest that brings together images of Vietnam with the Bush-era rethoric of "preemptive atacks," "winning hearts and minds," "fighting terror with terror." Indeed, Vietnam is there not only in the jungle but in the gear--double-rotor helicopters that resembles the Hueys, and M60 machine-guns futuristicly redecorated. And Iraq is there not only in the Bush-lingo but in images of a mercenary army under the control of a Big Company (and Big Companies are there in "Terminator I & II," "Aliens," and even "The Abyss"), and of a war for mineral resources. So much so that the other wars mentioned in the movies and fought by the Marines had Venezuela and Nigeria as theaters--two Third World nations that are important producers of OIL. Is there a continuity between the Indian Wars for territorial control and national formation, Vietnam for ideological purposes and global presence, and Iraq for natural resources? Cameron seems to believe that. And I don't see an opposition between technology and magic, but between honor and the lack of it. And we could bring in the memory of "The Last Samurai", as my brother did when he saw "Avatar."

December 21, 2009 3:41 PM  
Blogger starpuppy said...

Gary,
I was totally blown away by this film. Avatar is one of the best sf movies I've ever seen. Why can't you go to a film and enjoy it, and drop the pompous fanboy attitude?

December 21, 2009 5:35 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

I appreciate this review, I think it captures most of the criticisms I had after watching Avatar. Visually stunning, yes, but the story can be summed up in a mere few sentences.

(Future soldier inhabits body of doppelganger to infiltrate primitive culture, quickly becomes subsumed by it and leads a battle against the army that sent him there. The End.)

As someone who was expecting a tour de force look at the future, I was surprised by how the primitive culture was so singularly extolled here. Green & Anti-War themes may be timely right now, but at the expense of the dimensionality of the characters?

A tremendous technical achievement, to imbue real human emotions into a fantastic race. It touches upon important spiritual themes, yes. But there's so few calories in the plot it left me hungry afterward.

December 21, 2009 7:26 PM  
Blogger Kartik Chandran said...

Dude, it's a frickin' Hollywood megabuster, and an awesome one at that, not a social treatise. Get over it.

December 21, 2009 8:07 PM  
Blogger Kartik Chandran said...

I can see this turning into a PhD thesis somewhere...

December 21, 2009 8:08 PM  
OpenID annmlynn said...

Did we watch the same movie?

The film wasn't about natural living vs. technology. The primary conflict was more like the search for understanding vs. blind greed.

The Na'vi didn't need the kind of technology the humans used, so Sully didn't use more than the avatar equipment when he was with them. That is, until he *needed* to use more.

"Yet emotions that were appropriate in 1972 can seem anachronistic in 2009"

Every time I talk to someone who's fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, I recall the Vietnam veterans from my childhood. Some "emotions" from the 1970s are still relevant. That said, the movie didn't strike me as a message against strong military types.

Colonel Quaritch was a convenient villain, but his motivations were also well established. He put a great deal of pride in his survival skills and saw the planet, overall, as an incomprehensible enemy that could beat him.

This review seems to carry a stronger political message than the movie did.

December 21, 2009 11:54 PM  
OpenID wageyourownwar said...

I think you might familiarize yourself with the term mimesis and what it entails. The bulk of this review seems concerned with discussing the ways in which Cameron has borrowed from previous work in the creation of Avatar. To what extent is anything positively prime?

@ Roberto and his point of the North American genocide of the indigenous- I am very much with you. The film, to me, is a much stronger parallel to that even than it is Vietnam. The reviewer has now acknowledged this. Then again, a majority of Americans are oblivious that this genocide has even occurred.

December 22, 2009 10:52 AM  
Blogger Crotchety Old Fan said...

Fortunately for Cameron and his production company, there are a lot of people who "just go to watch a movie, dude".

Fortunately for the real science fiction community, there are people like Gary who strive to introduce a little intelligence into their viewing and are able to present it through a long lens of intimate knowledge and experience of the genre.

Unfortunately, there are far more who have 'gotten over' any intellectual interest in SF film than there are Garys, and we will all continue to get thinly veiled, poorly told, vaguely moralistic and scientifically nonsensical "blockbusters" like Avatar.

December 23, 2009 2:31 AM  
Blogger Yama Comma said...

Interesting. The reviewer here has said "this is my interpretation of the film" and then in effect goes on to say "and my interpretation makes it really suck." Aside from the basic thesis of the review (which I find both black and white and anachronistic), he has at least written very well. Pat on the back.

December 26, 2009 12:29 AM  
Blogger kyle said...

Thanks, Gary, on a number of counts.
I stumbled across this review because, having just come home from the film, I was curious if anyone else out there was noting the similarities to Le Guin's *The Word For World is Forest.* The connection you draw there is apt, as are many of your other points, but I think we'd do well to look further into the "borrowing" from Le Guin.
The protagonist in TWFWIF is an anthropologist. You know, like Le Guin's father, Kroeber? Like Sigorney Weaver's character? The notion of anthropology is that one can become a participant observer: someone who is both 'inside' the culture enough to interpret, and outside enough to have critical distance. It's a pretty cool idea; maybe the best stab yet at coming to real understanding across cultural difference. Understanding across cultural difference might be valuable if one's aim is egalitarian interaction. Or it might be valuable if one is looking for information to exploit in war against a people. Growing up in Northern California (as I have), surrounded by the ghosts and treasures of extinguished peoples, and the shattered cultures of peoples popularly believed to be dead or dying, Le Guin saw both these potentials for anthropology quite vividly. My read on TWFWIF, and, frankly, most of Le Guin's novels, is of her amazingly sophisticated attempts to come to terms with the paradoxes of anthropology, from the relative remove of fiction-writing.
The "linking" technology in *Avatar* is a pretty great extension of the anthropological metaphor. What better way to be an insider and an outsider than to transfer one's consciousness into a different body. (I'm sure that the Lacanian crowd is holding back, for now, untill Zizek takes a first stab... but the possibilities are obvious). And, as the movie demonstrates, what better way to obtain the information necessary to utterly destroy and demoralize a colonized people than to become an insider informant?
What impressed me most about the "linking" in *Avatar* was that it isn't, in fact, the anthropologists who get to become effective participant observers. It's a "warrior" (a crippled warrior in fact). He's a outsider. He's not initiated into the discipline: he drives this home, explicitly, when the Na'vi tell him he needs an empty mind, and he says, "No problem." His interpretation hasn't been pre-structured by disciplinary assumptions (though it clearly has been structured by hetero-normative romantic assumptions about hot alien women). Sully doesn't learn the Na'vi language and customs in a naval post graduate school (as our contemporary officers-cum-anthropologists do when they gear up for the Iraq). He learns it by preforming it, on site, in a Na'vi body. The performance of that identity takes up a lot of the movie... for a reason, huh?

December 26, 2009 4:00 AM  
Blogger kyle said...

(part 2)

As to what war is lurking in Cameron's unconscious:
The relative lack of brutality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is just that: relative to the raping and pillaging common in Vietnam. Obviously, some of that brutality is still around, and the consciousness of the troops hasn't changed much at all (you can watch endless hours of sickening footage on youtube of marines gunning down Iraqis and calling them "cockroaches"). So, Gary, I think it's you that's being anachronistic here.
But you bring up a good point. *The Word For World is Forest* was, inevitably about Vietnam in part. *Avatar* is too. If we're to make recourse to Viet Nam to understand everything and anything about this generation of storytellers, we might as well go to the best Vietnam story: *Apocalypse Now*
Which is, of course, the other film that *Avatar* is greatly indebted to (not just thematically, but also formally--some of the cinematography is straight lifted). But if Cameron's story of a Western warrior who "goes native" is borrowing from *Apocalypse Now*, it's also of course borrowing from *Heart of Darkness*
And that's just the thing, Gary: all these stories are the same. Even Le Guin, who faces the paradox of anthropology head on, can't ultimately escape having been born and raised in our particularly f-ed up culture. All the stories that the west tells about war and colonization are strikingly familiar because, guess what? Their told in the west!
But that's just what this movie gives us a metaphor for grappling with. The film is hopeful not simply because the Na'vi win the war, but because the participant observer gets to stop being an observer...and simply participate. That's freaking great.
My complaint is simply that they shot this thing in New Zealand and give not the slightest shout out to Maori resistance. Given all the other visual traditions squished into the way that the Na'vi are represented, wouldn't some sweet *moko* be in order?

As for the many folks who would prefer to spend 2 1/2 hours watching special effects, and never be pressed to think, never be asked what that world might say about this world: what exactly is it you think Sci-Fi is for? Didn't it start as a way to get critical distance on problems too difficult to put in everyday language? Aren't those its greatest moments?
Or, put simply, SF is made by and for us pretentious geeks. The only reason we have to share it with you assholes is that geeks like Cameron run up half-billion dollar production costs. Le Guin will never be at fault for that, and maybe that's why you'll never understand what the stakes of Science Fiction really are.

December 26, 2009 4:01 AM  
Blogger Mr Math said...

This critic Gary has no concept of reality. I have been in the mining industry for nearly 20 years, and this movie really hit a chord with me. I do not think Gary has any idea of the real people that work out there, which are similar to charaters in the movie. The corporate guy is a dead on ringer to my current boss (an american who loves golf, makes $300 an hour is the most arrogant person I have ever met!!!). Then there is the character 'Colonel Miles Quaritch', who actually reminds me of a couple of people I have worked with! I deal with sacred aboriginal sites, but those are always an inside joke to the designers / engineers, then during construction they plow through landscape to create hundreds of Kilometers worth of pipelines. They will take a quick detour to go around the sacred site, but will probably annihilate homes of other animals which live 10 meters close by. My best friend is a ex-truck driver, also in the mining industry. He has many stories of digging up the land when he was working for an open pit mine. No remorse, trees go down. Gary needs to know that this happens. He seems to have lost touch by sitting in front of his computer for too long as a fairy "movie critic". Avatar is brilliant. Some people who are obviously city dwellers, looking at their computer screens all day, have lost touch with reality. Go work for a mining corporation for a few year mate, get a real opinion!

December 26, 2009 5:15 AM  
OpenID benwa4u said...

I didn't get 30 minutes into Avatar before seeing the Le Guin commonalities, right down to the tough-guy colonel. After seeing the film, I sent straight home and searched the interwebs. I found several hits with "ursula le quin avatar", but each time I clicked through, I couldn't find the content that I could see on the google search hit page... until now (this article). I'm glad that I'm not alone in these thoughts. The book and the film or more than just similar.

December 26, 2009 6:52 PM  
OpenID interrociter said...

Gary keeps going on about the movie belaboring the good/bad dichotomy--e.g. nature good, technology bad. He's missed the point. It's not about good and bad. It's about right and wrong.

December 30, 2009 10:24 PM  
Blogger Hans Dunkelberg said...

Avatar is not a ripoff of Poul Anderson`s novelette "Call me Joe" from 1957, but one of Anderson`s narration "Memory" (first titel: "A World Called Maanerek") from the same year. This work already contains all main elements of the plot of Avatar: the military of a future highly engineered mankind wants to exploit the raw materials of a planet inhabited by more primitive, but still technically noteworthily equipped people; they send a soldier to one of the local tribes to explore its habits and to convince them of the uselessness of resistance (for the sake of avoiding all-too big public uproar through a forceful conquest) and manipulate him by futuristic medical means so that he begins to have a new identity; he falls in love with a girl of the primitives; his comrades fetch him out of their world forcefully; but he stays the friend of the natives in his soul and frees the girl, who`d have to suffer otherwise, with a little number of followers he finds among his former comrades.

January 4, 2010 3:00 AM  
Blogger Hans Dunkelberg said...

Replenishment: More elements taken over by James Cameron from Anderson`s "Memory"

Cameron also takes over the large archaeopteryxes onto which the hero jumps from above; the name "Torrek" of the hero, which reappears in the denomination "Toruk Makto" of a man who is able to ride one of those birds; the fight of the hero with single exemplars of these; his jump from a big height into the water; the woods, the general character of the local tribe, which is similar to that of a primitive people on the earth; the fact that the natives use bow and arrow; the arrogance of the military invaders in matters of the natives.

January 4, 2010 3:07 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

I find myself disturbed by the cynicism and faux sophistication reflected in this review of a movie that effectively gets across some significant ideas for our time. The notion that there is a "network of energy that flows through all living things" and a "sacred tree" (Axis Mundi) at the center of the world are not new, but neither is war or the pursuit of love. To call the underlying motif of a society, and conflict, dedicated to the preservation of ecological harmony "stale sentiments (that) do not seem as offensive as those in the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still (review here), that may simply reflect the fact that Cameron has placed them in a more intriguing setting and chosen actors more talented than Keanu Reeves to deliver them."

Whew. If these filmmakers weren't able to communicate to people like this any more than "stale sentiments", I'm glad I'm part of the (stale and obsolete) Vietnam generation, and don't have to live through the times that are coming.

January 4, 2010 5:10 AM  
Blogger Osg said...

Hey, I think Cameron just lifted the script I sent in 2006 to Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers!!!

Only that in my script, the poliphemians are a civilization of bastards, which want marines and pandorines to anhilate each other, and have the ore for themselves. Don't know if he kept that, haven't seen it, prefer not to, I'd be too ashamed (think that they could even sue me if I do a P2P!). I got inspiration from the stuff I did in Oslo concerning ETA + CIA, but it's a higher degree motif: it's a perverted variation of Johimbo or Per un pugno di dollari. I heard they done it more like indians versus cow-boys. Anyway I got what I deserve "why wait for them to do it their way when we can just seize it and do it better", they seized my script and did it their way. The law, as always, of the stronger (in Tibet they call it kharma).

January 7, 2010 4:24 AM  
Blogger The Third Man said...

I think the review, and a few others like it, are looking to deeply into a shallow puddle. The derivative nature of the plot, and also the shameless self-plagiarism of Cameron's earlier material, simply tells me that these things were not forefront in the directors mind.

The argument that Cameron is contradicting the lesson being put forth in this movie requires that we believe Cameron is so thoroughly ignorant of the prior literature and film that he thought for a moment such a lesson was either timely or even remotely original. "Dances With Smurfs" is quite apt, and doubtless it crossed Cameron's mind long before a single frame was shot. But he didn't care, and neither should we. The aim of the movie, and I was under the impression that he had said so much himself, was to create a spectacle and, as George Lucas attempted with the Star Wars prequels (dumping film and going digital), challenge the film industry to move forward.

That most of us came out of the theatre feeling like we had seen something special, despite the fact that closer inspection reveals the shallow basis of that feeling, is surely a testament to Cameron's success as a film maker and the efforts of a solid cast.

Sorry, but you would have to be a flaming idiot to think that Jimbo wants us all to go back the trees on the basis of this movie.

Besides, since when has plot and morality served as all important metrics of art, let alone entertainment? Hell, subscribe to the standard laid forth in some of the critiques of Avatar, and you would have to bin every shred of art created prior to the renaissance. Hell, what were the plays of Shakespeare if not a slew of dressed up derivative plot lines replete with some dodge and/or cloying moral lesson? So he used this slop as a vehicle for poetry; Cameron used the same slop to create a visual sensation that certainly succeeds in flooring the audience like any contemporary piece of visual art I can think of.

Avatar was a good romp, and one final point to emphasis is that it was movie, not a book. Even with the runtime of a little under three hours, it was still having to nimbly bounce through its plot and time-saving rate to get through its acts, and had little time for the kind of heady philosophical ramblings that one can expect from printed Sci-Fi.

January 7, 2010 9:35 AM  
Blogger Lamont Cranston said...

>>but whatever else occurred in Iraq, there were no psychopathic American colonels fiercely dedicated to the genocidal slaughter of its citizens.
I would recommend you do some reading about the Assault on Fallujah.

January 10, 2010 9:22 AM  
Blogger Earth said...

Avatar is closest to the Pocahontas story as told in the latest Disney version, with a futuristic swist. Aliens come to exploit place. John Smith falls in love with native, etc.

Also references to Generals, Viet Nam, and familiar wars are not quite right. This was a corporate army of mercenaries fighting for a mining company, not USA or Earth.

January 11, 2010 11:42 AM  
OpenID igorium said...

Missed a spot. Quite a large one, actually:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jesus_Incident

January 13, 2010 12:53 PM  
Blogger Osg said...

There's alot to learn from sci-fi

Dudincev, Efremov (beauty will save the day), Dneprov, Kazancev, Asimov ( ;-), and the Strugacki brothers, Bulgakov (I mean Mikhail Bulgakov, enormous influence on me, there's another Bulgakov who wrote Jurasic Park, only that like 50 years before Michael Crichton), Tolstoi (Aelita queen of Mars), Ilja Eremburg's D.E. Trust (it seems that the Pentagon has read it), Obrucev, Beljaev (the Pentagon studied his works too), Dolguzin, Nemcov, Gurevic (check his awesome idea to transmit energy around the world wireless)

So I guess it's not Cameron plagiating them: the russian masters were already in my original script (even though I have not read all of them)

January 15, 2010 5:00 AM  
Blogger roberto said...

>>Also references to Generals, Viet Nam, and familiar wars are not quite right. This was a corporate army of mercenaries fighting for a mining company, not USA or Earth.

Indeed, mercenaries don't carry national flags on their shoulders--or do they?

January 15, 2010 8:17 AM  
OpenID AshleySassyPants said...

Dear lord, you're an idiot. This isn't about the military, they were "hired guns". It's a play on our country, forcing our way into countries under the pretense of "diplomacy" and "Democracy", when all we really want to do is rape them of their resources. Um... Iraq? The second largest reserve of oil in the world? Yes, let's create a fallacy of Saddam's involvement in 9/11 so we can bust in and take over and control the oil.

And it's about the environment, about fighting back to protect. It's a wonderful film, a wonderful message, even without the dazzling effects.

Please, do your damn research, and not just about directors and movie history. You certainly DID miss the point. You disgust me.

January 19, 2010 8:16 AM  
Blogger takver said...

The other Ursula Le Guin story that has strong similarity to Avatar the movie, besides 'The Word for World is Forest' - is the short story 'Vaster than empires and more slow' about a planetary plant intelligent consciousness. These two stories between them account for the major plot ideas in the film.

And the mating between Neytiri and Jake's avatar brought memories of the exploration of alien sex and biologies by Naomi Mitchison in her 1962 book 'Memoirs of a spacewoman'.

Perhaps we might find out in a sequel that the Na'vi and humans are all descended but adapted to specific environments from a progenitor race to fit Le Guin's Hainish universe. But I wouldn't count on it!

February 21, 2010 7:22 AM  
Blogger dariorana said...

Thank you for explain the literary precedents of the film, but please, the second (and larger) part of the review don't make any sense! I've not enjoyed Avatar so much (yes, I liked 3d special effects), I don't want to "protect" the film or the director, but there is no anti-tech ideology beyond the movie, no condemn of technology by itself, no acritical apology of pre-industrial cultures. There are no critical intents, nothing more: it's a problem? I think yes, but it's not the point of the film. Please, go to the cinema again.

March 1, 2010 1:46 PM  

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