Going beyond the obvious comparisons with "Ferngully" and "Dances with Wolves"
By now many of you have seen James Cameron's epic "Avatar" and marveled at its breakthrough 3D immersion technology. Visually, the movie is beyond breathtaking. Perhaps it can even be compared to the advent of widescreen in movie history.
Plot-wise, however, it is a simple, old-fashioned and perhaps overly familiar adventure, bringing to mind a range of stories from "Pocahontas" to Miyazaki's "Nausicaa" and "Princess Mononoke". Some see this as a drawback, others praise the straightforward approach to story-telling and dialogue - after all, it's one less thing to distract you from the awesome spectacle that unfolds on the screen.
"Yes, it is predictable in a way that roller coaster ride is predictable", says one reviewer. Likewise, it's even possible that the main character was intentionally made somewhat bland and toned down in personality, so that any viewer could identify with the main hero - seamlessly inhabiting his "avatar" to explore the glorious new world of Pandora.
It is not our intention to argue how and if the plot of "Avatar" could've been made better or more original. After all, it is an old-fashioned fairytale; a personal dream of maestro James Cameron many decades in the making.
Instead, we are going to list some possible influences from obscure and even forgotten classic science fiction sources that came to our mind while watching "Avatar" - there is no telling if James Cameron read any of them or was influenced by any particular tradition, but it was a good fun to find out and remember the jolly good reads that they are (see if you can remember any of the stories mentioned below, or if you can think of other ones):
1. Robert F. Young - "To Fell a Tree". First published in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1959, this obscure and rarely reprinted novella is perhaps the closest to the plot of "Avatar".
A giant tree sacred to humanoid natives razed to the ground by the greedy, crazed human military outfit - the parallels are too many to recount here. Robert F. Young's prose is powerful and efficient, and the ending evokes similar emotional response to that of "Avatar". It is also a criminally under-rated piece of fiction - we can only rejoice that "Avatar" brings it to life to beautifully - but it's also sad to see top-notch science fiction stories by Robert F. Young remain out of print and uncredited for so many years.
The idea of "projected consciousness" into the bodies of natives on hostile planets was also explored at length in classic science fiction. Here are a few examples:
2. Poul Anderson - "Call Me Joe" First published in Astounding Science Fiction in April, 1957. Read more detailed analysis here.
"Like Avatar, Call Me Joe centers on a paraplegic — Ed Anglesey — who telepathically connects with an artificially created life form in order to explore a harsh planet (in this case, Jupiter). Anglesey, like "Avatar"'s Jake Sully, revels in the freedom and strength of his artificially created body, battles predators on the surface of Jupiter, and gradually goes native as he spends more time connected to his artificial body."
3. Ben Bova - "The Winds of Altair" First published as a novel in 1973. Six-legged beasties, remote-control "avatars", greedy terraforming humans.
"The classic SciFi novel tells the story of humans trying to terraform the planet of Altair IV, where they cannot breath the air. The natives of this planet are a cat-like race and humans are able to transfer their minds into these cats in order to explore the planet safely. Throughout the course of the novel, the main character inhabits the body of one of these cats (just like in Avatar) and grows to side with the natives against the Military in the story." (source)
4. Clifford Simak - "Desertion" First published in November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Same idea: human research team on the surface of a hostile planet needs to inhabit "avatar" bodies more suitable to environment. One small problem - those who were sent did not come back, but "deserted" and remained behind, choosing a more liberating alien culture.
Another work very similar in plot and feel is actually an award-winning piece by a well-known writer:
5. Ursula K. Le Guin - "The Word for World is Forest" (more info). Published back in 1972, in Again, Dangerous Visions, it was even a winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for Best Novella.
Similarities? Well, how about a forested planet with the deeply "connected" natives, a human military raid on a huge tree-city and a subsequent retaliation of natives... some scenes seem incredibly familiar, even though Le Guin plot is markedly deeper and more sophisticated. We highly recommend seeking out this book if you thought the plot of "Avatar" was one-dimensional - it should fill in all the details you would ever need.
Other visual and atmospheric clues (no similarities with the plot):
6. Harry Harrison - "Deathworld" First published in Astounding Science Fiction, January-March 1960. A militaristic gung-ho colonization with disregard for complexities of native life. Top-notch depiction of tough space marines as only Harrison can do it. Extremely hostile life-forms populate that planet: Avatar's quote "everything that crawls, flies or squats out there... will want to kill you" seems right at home with "Deathworld". Highly recommended as a great adventure read.
7. Some other wonderful examples from the Golden Age of Science Fiction also come to mind: "Exploration Team" by Murray Leinster; hilarious interactions between human military colonization force and natives in various stories by Eric Frank Russell ("...And Then There Were None", "Somewhere a Voice", etc.) Various jungle planet environments were nicely explored by Robert A. Heinlein in his juvenile-fiction novels, and also in Bob Shaw's "Who Goes There?".
(on the right - Magazine of F&SF with Robert F. Young's novella "To Fell a Tree")
8. Anne McCaffrey - "The Dragonriders of Pern" series. This is an obvious allusion to exhilarating sequences of taming and riding on dragons - very analogous to the thrilling winged-beast taming in "Avatar".
9. Na'vi - Dark Elves, anyone? Or if you'd like, "Elfquest" (more info). A cult comic series started in 1978. There are very broad visual similarities, but I can't stop thinking of dark elves when I look at na'vi ways and romance.
10. The interior and exterior views of the spaceship which brings Jake Sully to Pandora reminds me of Alastair Reynolds "Revelation Space" light-hugger ships (significantly scaled down, of course). The opening sequence can easily serve as an opening for hypothetical "Chasm City" movie, for example. The flying mountains and islands are also a feature of Alastair Reynolds great story "Minla's Flowers".
So here is a brief list of possible influences on visual creation of "Avatar" and examples of classic science fiction that elaborate on the (very basic) "Avatar" plot. Let us know of other similarities you've noticed - after all, just like the case with "Star Wars" we are witnessing the birth of yet another mythology, and it is only proper that we should honor the original sources of this particular science fiction tradition.
For more details on Pandora's gorgeous world visit Pandorapedia site.
BONUS: do you remember the wonderful tiny helicopter-like creature that lit up the night on Pandora? It turns out to be the design of Leonardo da Vinci, no less:
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