Allysen and I finally got to see Avatar in 3D today. We both loved it. The 3D effects were wonderful—but it wasn’t just a matter of great special effects. It was a good story well told (familiar, to be sure), with believable characters and—above all—fabulous world building. The landscape and the creatures were mesmerizing. The banshees (read: dragons) were terrific, and who could not love the hammerhead rhinos? To some extent, it was even scientifically plausible; the world-wide nervous system, although it sounded a lot like the Force when first introduced, actually made some sense. The floating mountains were more in the Miyazaki fantasy realm, which I suspect was not a coincidence.
It was fun to run a mental tally of all the sources that the movie clearly owes a debt to. Native American (and probably African) tradition, of course. Dune. Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books—and for that matter, a whole tradition of dragons in fantasy and SF. Dances with Wolves. Pocahontas, the animation? I won’t call it a debt, because I doubt Cameron has ever read my books, but the avatar couches reminded me of my own rigger stations, and the Tree of Souls brought to mind the Tree of Ice in my second Chaos book, Strange Attractors. Call it a resonance. And now there surface contentions that Cameron borrowed liberally from the books of Russian SF novelists Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. He clearly borrowed liberally from many worlds of literature and film. He even borrowed from himself: I think I recognized that corporate exploitation type from Aliens, as well as the hotshot lady pilot. And of course the mechanical walkers.
Did these connections detract from my enjoyment? Not at all. I felt that they were part of a great tradition of art building on art, as well as on life. Some critics have accused the film of following the less admirable tradition of allowing big budget special effects to overwhelm any concern about good storytelling. That’s often true—but not so much this time, I think. The story, if not terribly deep or original, was nevertheless honest and moving.
One of my favorite SF movies prior to this is also a Cameron film: The Abyss. It wasn’t altogether successful, but one thing it did beautifully was to create a sense of working and living beneath the sea. It overlooked a few things for the sake of dramatic license, but it got a lot of it dead on. (I’ve spent time underwater as a scuba diver.) It’s that world building thing. Some people demand scientific accuracy in world building. I demand believability. I want to be convinced. And in Avatar, I was convinced.