SOARING ON THE WINGS OF MYTH:
James Cameron’s AVATAR revels in the grand traditions of fantasy
The other day I slipped on a pair of 3-D glasses and was transported to a primordial world of alien beauty and high adventure. I was watching James Cameron’s new film AVATAR, which has become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Much has been made of the film’s absolute perfection of special effects because Cameron creates a fantasy world that is truly believable. Thanks to his breakthroughs in computer-generated imagery and sheer breadth of imagination, AVATAR is more than a mere film… it’s an EXPERIENCE.
Comparisons to other blockbuster fantasy/sci-fi films are inevitable. Everything George Lucas attempted to do in his three STAR WARS prequels, Cameron actually succeeds at, i.e. building a fully realized and eminently believable fantasy world that is breathtaking in scope and packed with sheer wonder. But that perfection of simulated reality, that ability to make the fantastical seem genuine was NOT what I enjoyed most about this movie.
All the visual flair would be meaningless if the film didn’t draw upon the classic power and inspiration of the great fantasy tales. AVATAR is a fantasy fan’s ultimate cinematic experience. The fact that this fantasy is wrapped in the guise of science fiction only makes it more appealing and marktable to the average moviegoing audience. Both sci-fi and fantasy fans will be enraptured by the AVATAR experience.
Cameron’s inspirations for AVATAR span the gamut of everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ BARSOOM (John Carter of Mars) stories to Lucas’ STAR WARS (which were inspired by FLASH GORDON comic strips, among others), to the deep myths of the Old West, stone-age adventures, Jungle Tales comics, American Indian mythology, and wraps it all in a lush visual style worthy of the master Frank Frazetta himself.
One of the tropes Cameron plays with in this story–to great visual and emotional effect–is the riding of winged creatures by the Na’vi alien warriors.
AVATAR utilizes the classic fantasy concept of the fantastical winged mount better than any movie that has come before it. In some ways it takes what Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi tried to do in their legendary animated film FIRE AND ICE and brings it into three-dimensionality. In FIRE AND ICE there is an unforgettable key sequence where the hero and his allies leap on the backs of trained pterodactyls and mount an aerial invasion of the evil Nekron’s frozen empire. Tribes of savage beast-men pelt the pterodactyl riders with boulders and arrows, but our heroes manage to gain the inner sanctum where the final doom of Nekron is delivered. It seems almost certain that Cameron has seen FIRE AND ICE and is a Frazetta fan. Just as it seems more than likely that this FIRE AND ICE sequence was inspired by Frazetta’s painting “Thor’s Flight,” wherein a warrior rides a pterodactyl over a flowing river of magma–an iconic image from the Master of Fantasy Art.
In AVATAR the Na’vi capture and “bond” with their pterodon-inspired mounts, soaring among vistas of floating mountain-islands and eventually battling the forces of facist earthling technology to save their planet from environmental holocaust. These flight/battle sequences are pitch perfect…they will take your breath away as you watch…no, experience…this movie. Cameron has made a career out of making the impossible seem possible, and AVATAR may be his greatest achievement in that vein.
The planet-world of Pandora is perhaps the most real, the most immersive fantasy construct ever put on film. It evokes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic John Carter of Mars series with its fathomless jungles, supernatural wonders, noble savages, and bizarre creatures. Cameron even provides Pandora with lighter-than-earth gravity, a concept Burroughs used to explain John Carter’s great strength on Mars/Barsoon. It’s a nod to ERB that old-school Barsoom fans won’t miss.
The flight of the Na’vi warriors on their winged steeds is a great metaphor for AVATAR itself: When you buy your ticket and “strap yourself in” to that theatre seat, you’re on a wild ride akin to clutching the horns of an alien beast as it soars thousands of feet into the air or plummets toward the steaming jungle. Many years ago as a young reader I thrilled to the flight of Elric’s Melniboneans on their dragon mounts; the Tarnsmen of Gor on their massive warbirds; Tolkien’s giant eagles sweeping hobbits away from fire and wolves, the Ringwraiths on their screeching Nazgul flyers; and tales of the mythical pegasi and other flying beasts. AVATAR perfects that dream of fantasy flight onscreen. It’s only one element of the film’s visual wonder, but it is an essential one. The ride of a lifetime.
On a purely story level, AVATAR has its flaws. Any movie that costs several hundred million dollars has to include a broad appeal to recoup its investment. So Cameron’s script sticks to the archetypal (simple) character arcs and plot twists that we’ve seen many times over. However, he mixes them in a pleasing and engaging manner–like the bard who tells an ancient tale in a totally new way. If you’ve seen DANCES WITH WOLVES you will recognize the heart of the drama here: White man (earth man) joins a Native culture (alien culture) and falls in love with it, literally and figuratively, and turns against his white (earthling) patrons.
What is most interesting about the story (Spoiler Alert!) is that it turns the classic American Myth on its head. We all know that in the eternal legend of “Cowboys vs. Indians” the cowboys won. The tragic and brutal genocide of Native American cultures that occured during the settling of the New World is reversed in AVATAR. The besieged native culture, the Na’vi, turns the tables on the high-tech human invaders and takes back their planet. The “Indians” finally get to win! On one level this is extremely satisfying…a message that love, hope, and nature will triumph over greed, materialism, and corruption. On another level, some may find it too much of a “happy ending.” But this is a fantasy in the grand sense–you should be expecting a happy ending when you enter the theatre. Cameron does his best to deliver EXACTLY what you’re hoping for when you pay for your ticket. And he delivers.
One doesn’t go to this type of movie looking for depth of character, unique plot, stunning dialogue, and brilliant thematic context. It’s merely an adrenaline-pumping, pulse-racing, eye-popping adventure. But it does have heart, and it’s truly an ALL-AGES fantasy masterpiece, with an ecological/moral subtext. As convincing as the battle scenes are, the gore is kept to a minimum, and the basic good-vs-evil at the core of this story is something every human will respond to–especially when bombarded to the point of sensory overload by the film’s amazing visual accomplishments. AVATAR isn’t Shakespeare…nor is it trying to be…but it is a damn fun time at the movies. And it might well be one of the fantasy genre’s greatest triumphs this decade…at least on film.
I can’t help but wonder how AVATAR’s success will pave the way for the much-rumored JOHN CARTER OF MARS movie (being done by Disney with Pixar animation), and the ELRIC movie which keeps being mentioned. AVATAR has to be the greatest achievement in putting pure fantasy on film since Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS epic. Of course, AVATAR doesn’t have the literary depth and emotional power of Tolkien…but Tolkien didn’t write it. It was written to be a Great Fantasy Film, not a book. And it is.
My advice is to be sure and see the 3-D version. You’ll thank me later.
-Who Is This Guy?-
I’m John R. Fultz. You might have seen a couple of my stories in the last two issues of BLACK GATE (“Oblivion Is the Sweetest Wine” and “Return of the Quill”). I have at least two more tales schedule for future BG issues. My work has also appeared in WEIRD TALES, SPACE AND TIME, and various comic books including ZOMBIE TALES, CTHULHU TALES, and my own graphic novel PRIMORDIA.
In the future weeks I will be premiering an exclusive webcomic right here on BLACK GATE.com, a dark fantasy that I wrote and illustrated called SKULLS. You’ll meet the mysterious Necromancer and learn how he gained mastery over Life and Death…and how he lost his humanity pursuing the secret of ultimate power. SKULLS was originally self-published as “Necromancy: A Dark Romance” several years ago on an extremely limited run. I look forward to prying it from the vault and remastering it for BLACKGATE.com…unearthing a macabre vision from the musty vault of the millenial angst and unleashing it on the digital world of 2010. My intention is to run the entire original graphic novel here in several-page installments, then perhaps keep the story going based on reponse and resources. So I’ll be eager for your feedback, BG Readers!
I also have a story coming up in the DAW horror anthology CTHULHU REIGNS, a look at what happens after Lovecraft’s most famous god-monster rises up from the ocean floor to reclaim the earth in the name of the Old Ones. I’ll be running here, along with SKULLS and other articles, some mini-interviews with the authors who have contributed to CTHULHU REIGNS…to prepare the way for the horrendous coming of the Many-Tentacled One.
“These are speculations, possibilities, forebodings, based on dreadful, ghastly, mind-numbing hints from the beginning of time and the furthest depths of space…what these stories do is go bravely where few others have, following the Cthulhu Mythos to its ultimate, logical conclusion.” That’s what the anthology’s editor Darrell Schweitzer has to say about it. The monsters are coming…
So please check in right here every Wednesday for the unfolding of the dark fantasy epic SKULLS, as well as lots of other great stuff. And please make your opinion known on the comments page. Cheers! –John R. Fultz