Monday 3 May 2010


Well, we finally caught up with Avatar over the weekend (thanks for the screening, Ian) and it was curious experience after so many months of feeling that I owed a duty to my sensibilities to avoid getting sucked into the blue hole of hype surrounding the Most Successful Film Ever Made.

I freely admit, however, that I now rather regret having missed seeing it on the big screen in 3D, although I realise that I probably only feel like that because I viewed it from the comfort of Ian's sofa with ready supplies of pizza and wine and on-demand comfort breaks! I very much doubt if I would have felt quite like the same had I been trapped in a cinema seat for an unremitting three hours.

But that genuine whisper of regret came from the very real and beautiful strangeness of the Pandora environments created for the film and the equally tangible (even in 2D) of being inside that alien world.

On reflection, however, 'strangeness' isn't the right word because what I really experienced as James Cameron took me on a tour of Pandora's gargantuan forests filled with their amazing foliage and showed me those extraordinary floating islands with their populations of butterfly-dragons was a sense of familiarity that I, eventually, realised were straight out of those trippy Other Worlds which fantasy artist, Roger Dean, created by for - among other things - the albums of '70s rock band, Yes.

Yes: Keys to Ascension by Roger Dean
Just take a look at some of Roger Dean's breathtaking dreamscapes and tell me I'm wrong...

Hunting Dragon by Roger Dean

Morning Dragon by Roger Dean
Pause a moment there and take a closer look at that exquisite flying thing...

Morning Dragon (Detail)

Look familiar?

You bet!

And what about the floating islands of Pandora...

Floating Islands by Roger Dean

Sea of Light by Roger Dean
And the Tree of Souls...

The Guardians by Roger Dean
And the battle scenes with invading aircraft...

Nitro Function by Roger Dean
So much then for the look of the film, what about the characters and story? Well, frankly, I didn't give a damn about the characters who, to a blue-man and woman, totally failed to engage my emotions, while the gun-toting, marine-commander-bad-guy stomping though the forest in his giant robot-suit was simply a ludicrous cartoon version of rather more sophisticated movie caricatures such as Sterling Hayden's paranoid patriot, General Jack D Ripper, in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove.

And the plot? Several reviewers, I knew, had commented on the similarities between Avatar and Pocahontas - Disney's revisionist, eco-drama on the theme of American imperialism - but I kept being reminded of another, less well-known kid's film: an Australian animated feature made in 1992, entitled FernGully: The Last Rainforest.

Later, a quick browse of Google showed I was not alone in making this connection and that several YouTubers with way too much time on their hands had made some very amusing mash-ups combining elements of the two films. Here's one of several (with Avatar sound clips and FernGully visuals) to enjoy before the Thought Police have it removed...

Images: © Roger Dean uploaded from my flickr Photostream.


Bill Field said...

Hmmmm, Brian, a bit shocking that YES wasn't on the soundtrack with there being so much Dean-esque imagery. With the Iron Man 2 soundtrack being all hard rocking AC/DC, it seems like Avatar should be re-released in a YES Edition...

Unknown said...

I TOLD YOU you'd like it... and I still think it is worth seeing in the full 3d if you can ever face it.

Of course it's hugely derivative - Cameron is a bit older than me so he almost certainly had a few Yes albums knocking about from his teen years which will have inspired him and his graphics team (along with that other chap Matthews who did lots of 70s prog rock albums) but it doesn't matter because the whole of Pandora is so fully realised.

Everything in popular culture today has its roots in something from the past (Harry Potter of course, The Prisoner, Doctor Who you name it) as I think we like the reassurance of the familiar!

Brian Sibley said...

BILL - Well, I doubt Mr Cameron would want to point out the sources of his 'inspiration'!

POLKADOTSOPH - I didn't say I LIKED it!!

I don't so much mind people being derivative (a huge amount of all art forms have always been just that) as long as the perpetrators - and the rest of us - don't claim originality for them when they really don't deserve it.

However amazing Avatar may LOOK, the fact remains that it is three hours of dull, stereotypical characters playing out a tedious, poorly-written, utterly predictable little drama. Avatar is, in the end, a classic case of media over message.

Arts and Crafts said...

I see a strange "inspiration" in many succesfull creations. Is the problem of the publicity, now and in old times... Thankfully, some smart and sensitive people teach us the truth of things ....Thank you Brian!!!

Boll Weavil said...

Well, I shall sit on the fence as usual. I thought it was a load of old tosh. Of course, some of the artwork was good etc etc but, as a Cameron admirer, I always wonder, why doesn't he get decent writers ? Frequently his movies are techniquely fantastic but the dialogue and plot is not only (as has been suggested) derivative, its just plain childish. He obviously likes the 'big-film' simplicity of story and one liners that people can quote when they leave the cinema but sometimes, its just not appropriate (as in the case of Titanic) to be so flip. Getting in a decent script writer could convert some of his films into critical successes as well as commercial ones.Perhaps he doesn't care, he just wants the cash. Can't blame him on that. So would I.

Brian Sibley said...

EUDORA - I just hate it when people pass off old lamps for new.

BOLL WEAVIL - I just love it when you fence-sit!

Rob Cox said...

As usual I scrolled quickly through the text and images (Sorry Brian) and my immediate thoughts were - 'Those images are just like those on Yes albums!'!!! I loved Yes and their music and - probably - my favourite album of all time is their 'Back To The Edge' offering of many years ago.

I haven't seen Avatar - the hype put me off - so I cannot comment further but I will say - er - nothing!

Susan D-L said...

I haven't seen Avatar yet--I finally saw "Triplets of Belleville" a couple of nights ago so I'm a bit behind on my movie-watching--but I have enjoyed reading about it and its many influences/swipes.

The first thing I thought of when I read about the movie was the short story "The Word for World is Forest" by James Tiptree (Alice Sheldon).

But oh man, how could I have forgotten Roger Dean? I loved his work and bought two books of his illustrations and album covers back in the 70s. Which sadly, disappeared at some point during a move.

Great stuff--thanks for the memories!

Suzanne said...

Well, I was never tempted by what we in Belgium call the "Smurf movie"; and I'm even less tempted by 3D stuff.
Mr Dean's artwork on the other hand is an interesting discovery for me - I shall be googling that later on today.

Brian Sibley said...

ROB COX - No need to apologise - I've spent most of my life in the ephemeral world of journalism: I have had to live with being 'scanned' and, now, 'scrolled through'!! ;)

Another frequenter of this blog, ROGER, e-mailed to express some surprise at my having been a fan of Yes, but in my eclectic youth (I was lucky in not having anyone telling me what I ought or ought not to read or listen to) I bought all sorts of music and quite often because of the sleeve!

As a result of this visual flightiness, I bought everything from Yes and T Rex to Bach and Bizet - provided I liked the cover. Then I'd start getting to grips with whatever was on the round, black thing inside!

Roger Dean's images were always sensational (as I'm sure you know, he also designed the 'Yes' logo) and I remember my joy when Dragon Dream brought out the first books of his artwork!

SUSAN D-L - I'll track down the Tiptree story, thank you. And I do hope you find your Roger Dean books. I seem to remember, one year back then, I also had a RD calendar.

If you want to buy any of the books again, you'll find them on sale here.

SUZANNE - I think even people who didn't rate Avatar as a masterpiece of storytelling (was there anyone who did?) would say that the 3D element was at least worth the price of admission. Why it should be so hard (as BOLL WEAVIL says above) to couple technological wizardry with good writing and character development is beyond me...

For your browsing into the worlds of Roger Dean: here's a profile, some examples of his work and the artist's web-site.

SharonM said...

Yes - now you're talking, Brian. I loved their music and was fortunate enough to see them live several times - Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman - those were the days! And interesting to read on Wikipedia that they opened the Cream Farewell Concert at the Albert Hall. I remember watching that on TV with my brother and grandmother who was in her 70's.
As to Avatar, I can't say I feel compelled to watch something that is said to be visually stunning, but over-long and lacking in substance.

Brian Sibley said...

What's more, Mr Wakeman gave us Journey to the Centre of the Earth with David Hemmings and the LSO: my favourite album from 1974 - made four years before Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds!

Boll Weavil said...

Of course, for a great technical movie with fantastic script...just wait for June !

Good Dog said...

Ah, the wonderful Dragon’s Dream books. I’ve got a number on the shelves, like 21st Century Foss, along with various books from Paper Tiger like Philip Castle’s Airflow and Peter Jones’ Solar Wind. Blimey, that takes me back.

Do I dare say anything about Avatar? I certainly agree with Mr Boll that Cameron needs to get actual writers in that can deliver a well–crafted story rather than leach off other people’s work. You think he would have learnt after Ellison called him out over The Terminator.

There was an interview with Cameron in The Times where he described the film’s message as: “You’ve got your venal, corrupt and greedy human beings who represent the worst aspects of ourselves, and you’ve got the noble, spiritual, brave and beautiful Na’vi who represent the best aspects of ourselves.”

Cynical though I may be on the odd occasion, when I was reading the piece I thought, well Mr C, which side are you supposed to be on? Through almost every film (obviously barring the one with the iceberg) fetishizes guns to the nth degree, and revels in zesty, almost abstract, military jargon we’re supposed to see you as this peacenik?

The most hilarious comment of his, which appeared in an interview on the Entertainment Weekly website interview was his reasoning for this single disc release with no extras, when there’ll be an edition with all the usual bells and whistles, along with six minutes of additional footage, later in the year. This vanilla disc came out now because fans want to see the film and can’t wait until Christmas. Brilliant!

Because this uses additional resources, creates future waste, and makes even more money off the backs of the fans, I’d lump Cameron in with the venal, corrupt, and greedy. What a complete plum!

Bill Field said...

Oh my god- all of this talk makes me want to hunt for my old HAWKWIND albums! It still makes me laugh that Motorhead's Lemmy was their bassist!I love the mainstream weirdness of Pink Floyd and even Supertramp- but ROY HARPER seems to be the source or guru of most of the "spacey"breed of British rockers from the 60's and 70's. Listening to him was an epiphany to me way back in 1985, and still serves to inspire me.

Phil said...

A correction to Susan D-L's post:

"The Word for World is Forest" is by Ursula Le Guin, not James Tiptree!

axwgra: Pandoran expletive.

Brian Sibley said...

GOOD DOG - Good rant! :0 The DVD "Buy-it-now-and-we'll-sell-you-another-version-in-a few-month's-time" scam is utterly disgraceful!

BILL FIELD - Glad we could assist in awakening those memories! :)

PHIL - Thanks for the clarification.

ukjarry said...

If you wrote a science fiction novel or drew the artwork for a sf magazine or book between the late 1960s and the early 1980s then someone on the internet will stand up and say you’ve been ripped off by Cameron in Avatar. And they probably wouldn’t be wrong. Primitive native aliens revolting against military earth invaders – H. Piper Beam’s “Little Fuzzies” or Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest”. A paraplegic who remotely controls/inhabits an artificial body to explore an alien world? Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe”. Learning to fly dragons? Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragon Riders of Pern series”. The Strugatsky brothers who were Russian sf writers much translated in the late 70s have their vocal advocates. The list goes on and on. Which is actually lucky for Cameron. Steal from one source, it’s plagiarism. Steal from forty, and it’s research. And Cameron has prior form in sf. Depending upon which version of the first “Terminator” you watch there may or may not be some acknowledgement of the sf writer Harlan Ellison, since Cameron stupidly said in an interview that he’d based his story on two 1960s sf tv scripts by Ellison.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks for pointing us towards more possible Avatar sources and for reminding us about that Terminator story. If you're not up to speed with this controversy, you can get Harlan Ellison's version of events here.

Unknown said...

I'm with Brian regarding the story and with Sophie regarding the cinematic experience.

I am one of those who thought the film really needed to be seen in 3D, but have to confess that the film is just as immersive in 2D. It's the quality of the 3D that made me say it should have won the oscar OVER "Hurt Locker" (a rather ordinary film when all's said and done). I still think kids who saw this at the cinema will remember it as a highlight for many years to come.

But yes, the dialog and story are execrable. Cameron is full of himself, steals from elsewhere and is a hypocrite. The triple-dipping on the DVD/Blu-Ray is execrable, but it works. Best selling Blu-Ray of all time (by a huge factor) proves it works.

And one thing you really have to give Cameron credit for is his direction - especially on the action scenes. While Jackson and Bay resort to mindless fast-cutting, blurry shaky-cam which means you really can't make out what's going on (a cheap way of avoiding decent special effects?) Cameron makes it clear throughout what's going on. Watch all the action scenes in this film and you're NEVER in doubt as to what's happening. For that alone I think he deserves some credit.

Brian Sibley said...

I agree with IAN (even without having seen it in 3D) about the impact Avatar will have made on a generation of movie-goers - just as my own youthful impressions of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time are as vivid today as they were forty-two years ago.

You are right, too, to praise Cameron for his action-scenes. I occasionally had difficulty identifying one blue person from another (partly because of the addition of 'war-paint' during the battles and partly because I never really invested in them as characters) but I was never in doubt as to what was going on and the absence of nauseous unsteady-steady-cam work was a real boon.

As for the DVD heist: we (the shopping public en masse) are to blame for letting these greedy companies rip us off in this way. I remember an early example of this was the video release of The Lion King in 1995. The release was in conventional aspect ratio even though the film was shot in wide-screen. Nevertheless, 4.5 million tapes were sold on the first day and within, I think, two or three months along comes the wide-screen version and we bought it all over again.

Why don't we ever learn?

ChrisF said...

Actually my thoughts always were "Dances With Wolves" in space. Trippy visuals, though...