It’s best to approach Avatar as if it was the beautiful awe-inspiring result of a megalomaniacal potentate, like the Taj Mahal or the Forbidden Palace or the Bellagio Hotel. The irony of a $300 million dollar project (with tie-ins to produce countless plastic figures with McDonald’s) that celebrates a nature-loving society prevailing over a greedy corporate one hasn’t been lost on some of my more perceptive friends (Menton 2009).
The environmental impact of such a colossal undertaking undermines the message of the movie. And that doesn’t figure in the inevitable explosion of materialistic consumption of video games, action figures, key chains, and probably a new wave of consumers hungry for 3D TVs.
Yet what can I say. You have to watch this movie. And you have to watch it on an IMAX screen in 3D. For the same reason people visit the Pyramids or Angkor Wat. Not only is it a fascinating work of art, it’s a game changer. It will probably change the way blockbusters will be made.
On a more analog scale, I felt the same way with James Cameron’s earlier epic, Titanic. Like Titanic, I went in ready to critically watch the movie like I always do and I was wary of the hype. By the end I was so absorbed in the film that I entered that rare cinematic nirvana of total escapism, of being lost in the story.
The basic plot isn’t particularly original. It’s the old story of the evil tag team of a corporation and the military attacking a noble tribe with their good scientist allies. It’s simplistic and idealized but it’s also compellingly archetypal. And there are enough twists and variations on the formula to be thoroughly engrossing.
What makes the movie really compelling, however, is the richly detailed imagined world, Pandora. The animals and plants were a mesmerizing safari. The wonder of constructing a totally new world reminded another one of my perceptive friends of the works of Hayao Miyazaki (Shibayama 2009). So I dedicate the rest of this review to pointing out similarities between Avatar and the movies of Miyazaki.
The premise of industry versus nature was brilliantly treated in my favorite Miyazaki movie, Princess Mononoke.
In it, one of the main characters is a strong and fierce young warrior woman who battles a gun manufacturer who has denuded the forests. Strong young women and girls are a theme throughout Miyazaki films.
The other main character is a courageous young man, an outsider who helps mediate between the two worlds.
Another similarity is that both movies had sacred groves in which people were healed in the same way, with tendrils from the trees attaching themselves to the sick person.
Laputa, Castle in the Sky
In Miyazaki’s first major film, Laputa, a floating island features prominently in the film. Avatar had an archipelago of them. A massive tree is the central feature of Laputa’s island, just as a gargantuan tree houses a whole tribe in Avatar.
Laputa also has a young boy and girl as the heroes of the story, bravely fighting against a militaristic society employing giant robots. Large robots also figure prominently in Avatar, except these are a lot like the robots in the Matrix series, with a human pilot inside.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Flight is a major theme of Miyazaki films, but his creations tend more towards the mechanical— fantastic airplanes, dirigibles and gliders like the one the eponymous heroine in Nausicaa uses. In Avatar, the Na’vi fly on something much cooler, dragon-like beings.
Also in Nausicaa, the young courageous heroine helps her tribe of wind farmers fight against a ruthless militaristic occupying government.
Is it too obvious to point out the blueness of her outfit strangely similar to the hue of the Na’vi?
One of the more interesting notions in Avatar is that all the planet’s inhabitants are plugged in to a central planetary consciousness. They can literally plug themselves in, tendril to tendril, as if connecting to the internet, and access all the memories of past generations. I noticed a similar plugging in to a communal consciousness of the messianic Nausicaa, who is able to communicate and placate the creatures of her world.
It’s probably no accident that there are so many ties between the two directors. Any serious filmmaker would be familiar with Miyazaki’s works, and I’m confident Cameron was influenced and inspired by him. I’m wholeheartedly for good art begetting good art so I’m happy to see Miyazaki’s influence in as many films as possible.