Something Looks Familiar… Déjà Vu in “Avatar”

23 December, 2009 4 comments
Avatar - Jake Sully

Photo: Courtesy of Fox

A Film Review by Patricia Lim

(Warning: may contain spoilers for Avatar and several other movies)

I just came back from watching Avatar. While watching at different points in the movie, I was reminded mainly of Pocahontas. Mel Gibson, who plays John Smith in Pocahontas, is of Australian origin, like Sam Worthington (he plays Jake Sully, the main character in Avatar). Like Worthington, Gibson, when playing John Smith, attempts to speak in a different accent than he’s used to. Like Jake Sully, John Smith is touched by the peaceful, nature loving lives of the natives; he is also touched by the hottest girl in indigenous-land. Also like Jake Sully, John Smith says at one point in the movie, “I’m talking to a tree.” [Ed. note: John Smith actually says, “That tree is talking to me.” Enh, semantics. ]

Here’s a couple more movies that I was reminded of! These movies seem to be similar in some ways. See if you can spot them!

The Forbidden Kingdom – Michael Angarano plays a modern day American who is magically transported to ancient China. While there, he receives martial arts training from Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the form of a 5-10 minute training montage. It is discovered that he is the Chosen One, the answer to a prophecy. In the course of the movie, he manages to kick the butts of many many Chinese foot soldiers who would presumably have trained throughout their lives for far more than a 5-10 minute training montage. Oh yeah, and he wins the heart of the hottest girl in all of ancient China land.

The Last Samurai- Tom Cruise plays a US Army captain in the 19th century. He integrates himself with the Japanese samurais, wins the respect and admiration through his warrior skills, and, aw yeah, he wins the heart of the hottest girl in all of 19th century Japan samurai land (who also happens to be the widow of the samurai he killed earlier in the movie).

Dances with Wolves – Kevin Costner plays a sensitive Civil War-era lieutenant who is posted in the American frontier and ingratiates himself with a group of Lakota. He earns their respect by saving a herd of buffalo. He manages to win the heart of the the hottest girl in indigenous frontier-land, who happens to be white (?). Well that’s different.

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(ok starting now, spoilers definitely do abound)

So what did I think of Avatar? My level of irritation and annoyance with the storyline and dialogue seemed to increase with each cliche-driven “plot twist”. White guy enters an exotic other-culture. Is awed by the culture and the people (usually peace and nature-loving yet impressed by warrior stuff) – they sure are noble! Training montage. Earns the respect of the other-culture warriors. More importantly, wins the heart of the other-culture top hot girl. Is discovered to be the chosen one in the other-culture mythology (?) who will save other-culture from his own kind. Credits roll over with a overwrought ballad that I originally thought was sung by Celine Dion, but was actually sung by Leona Lewis.

On the other hand, I must say that the special effects were great- the best I’ve ever seen. It’s obvious that James Cameron and his team are a creative bunch in the care that’s shown with the design of the Naavi landscape, the wildlife and the cool looking “DESTROY!” military warfare technology. I would agree that this film should be considered a visual masterpiece.

But the story itself…and yet, but for the visual masterpieceness! I’d give it one thumb up and one down (yes, I do have two thumbs), but strangely enough, I will heartily recommend that you watch it in the theatres because if any movie was made to see on a gigantic movie screen with 3D glasses, this is the one to watch. However, I will go so far as to unrecommend buying the DVD.
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I don’t know that much about aboriginal/indigenous stereotypes, but an interesting website about portrayals of aboriginals in the media is located at the Media Awareness Network, Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People.

A blog entitled When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”? from ion

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4 comments

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4 comments

Marisa 5 January, 2010 at 1:46 pm

I like your commentary, very interesting points.

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rabblerouser 7 January, 2010 at 1:14 pm

Personally, I have no problem with a story that has been “done before.” It sounds like perhaps you are too concerned about its similarities to other movies.. which seems a little unfair to the movie as a whole. While the themes may be familiar, the execution is usually what truly counts. Did you find the characters hard to relate to, or unbelievable in their behavior? Were the themes too shallow for your taste? Or was your only major issue the fact that it just felt too familiar?

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Patricia Lim 8 January, 2010 at 11:07 am

Thanks for your comments, Marisa and rabblerouser :).
@rabblerouser I think my issue isn’t just that the story was too familiar – I still enjoy my fair share of Disney princessy movies (altho Pocahontas isn’t at the top of the list ;)). I think it was the fact that it’s continuing a trend of storytelling that maybe we should move on or expand upon – a type of storytelling that’s just a little bit racist.

Here’s another article that has a similar type of argument – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/opinion/08brooks.html

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lence 27 January, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Maybe James Cameron used up his $500M budget for the special effects. Nothing left for a decent screenplay. Looks like a glorified screensaver to me. All flash, no substance.

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