The people who complain about Avatar’s story being “Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully” are like people who claim they don’t like John Goodman because he’s overweight. Goodman’s weight serves his persona as the lovable and funny guy who could very well be your zany Uncle. Ignoring his dominating screen presence and talent just because he doesn’t look like a typical handsome leading man is flat-out dumb. Avatar’s simplistic story serves it’s themes and visual splendor. We don’t need a twist ending where everyone is a robot for a movie to be good, it’s fine to sometimes just have something standardly play out in front of you just so that you can further appreciate what extraordinarily is being done. I don’t need John Goodman to lose 200 pounds and have a shirtless scene to appreciate what he’s doing while watching an episode of Roseanne.
After Avatar had finished, I had felt a sense of amazement that I hadn’t felt since the first time I had heard Bros by Panda Bear from his 2007 album Person Pitch. I’m not just making a hipster-ish analogy here, but I genuinely think both works of art are comparable. I’m going to quote a section of Pitchfork’s Person Pitch review to further prove my point :
“I still haven’t talked about the 12-and-a-half-minute “Bros”, the astonishing track that serves as the album’s centerpiece. It’s here that Person Pitch’s repetition and DJ’s sense of timing are most apparent, while Lennox’s songwriting hits a melodic peak. The first few bars turn to the golden age of 60s and 70s radio, with some rattling percussion chipped from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and a chiming acoustic guitar that could be pulled from the Beach Boys’ “Girl Don’t Tell Me”. But as the loops pass on “Bros”, the song begins to seem like a glorious travelogue, a journey along a path where all the music’s influences are visible along the roadside: the Wilson Brothers in their pinstripe shirts, or the queasy phasing and random sound effects– a subway, people on a roller coaster, a baby crying– of Lee “Scratch” Perry. When Panda begins to chant halfway through, we hear an echo of his main band, and when the neo-Latin piano comes in during the latter portion, transforming the track from internally-focused meditation to outwardly-beaming celebration, we get an image of Derrick May’s classic techno anthem “Strings of Life” busting into a DJ set to make everyone go crazy.
“Both Bros and Avatar are similar journeys. Like how the reviewer stated that Panda Bear takes us on a travelogue of all his musical influences, James Cameron guides us through all his classic character archetypes and story tropes. Does Panda Bear lose points for harkening to other artists? No, he doesn’t, he gets a freakin’ 9.4 from Pitchfork (a high honor). Cameron weaves you through his own net of familiarity but still creates something beautiful. As Bros progresses you get a feeling of awe as an artist reaches his peak by creating something so technically ambitious and complex, but are you going to complain to me because Panda Bear didn’t create a new genre of music?
At the end of the day, it isn’t really Kevin Costner or whoever made Ferngully that influenced James Cameron the most; what really is the main influence on the themes and aesthetics of Avatar are the films of Terrence Malick. I know some cinephiles will instantly disagree with me because “TERRENCE MALICK USES ACTUAL NATURE AND JAMES CAMERON JUST ENTERED DIGITS INTO A COMPUTER”. It’s time to use another source that can prove my point. This is a video on electronic music featuring a young Trent Reznor. Many good points on the relationship between technology and art are made.[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJYBx5NJULY[/youtube]
As the TV commentator says, the computer is only as good as the programmer. What Cameron has done is art. Creating the world of Pandora and making it as vibrant, believable and beautiful is just as impressive as Malick’s use of natural lighting. I will get the complaint that I’m a hypocrite for celebrating Cameron for his use of CGI while criticizing Lucas for what he did with the Star Wars Prequels. But I judge not through the process, but the end result. Simply put, Naboo does not compare in any shape or form to Pandora. Would you honestly tell me that the plastic-y Gungans are as realized as the Na’vi? No you would certainly not. We all damn Lucas for his over-reliance on CGI, but if he had used all the computers in ILM to create something as beautiful as Pandora then we would have no issue. It’s about using CGI because it can evoke something that’s impossible within the real world, not just using it because it’s cheaper and less time-consuming than a set.
In a year of blockbusters such as Wolverine and Transformers 2 where the only thing running through the minds of the filmmakers are “We’ve got a June 20th release date, let’s just get this done so that they don’t have to change the dates on the M&M’s tie-in bags”, Avatar was a reminder that there is indeed an artistry to an event film. We are meant to see these and actually be wowed and taken somewhere special. We should do more than just say “Let’s go see (insert generic summer movie) next week!” when it ends.
What’s important in Avatar is the journey, not the destination. While at times it may be a perpetrator of the three C’s : Contrived, Cheesy and Clunky; they are massively outweighed in the end. I was fine with Na’vi basketball because I got to see Jake tame the banshee. I was okay with the clunky voice-over because I got to see Jake and Netriyi make love under the Pandora trees. I can take flaws if what surrounds them is something as beautiful as Avatar.