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Avatar, James Cameron, and Myth

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Director James Cameron took the stage at E3 this week to talk a little about his upcoming film Avatar, and the video game that will follow (click here to see video—and look for what appears to be some early promo art). Cameron talks up the film’s plot and production, and speaks at length on his partnership with game developer Ubisoft.

Production on the game follows similar lines Cameron employed when he commissioned Orson Scott Card to draft the novelization of The Abyss. As Cameron had given Card freedom to explore the narrative dimensions that a film just can't put onto the screen, the Avatar game will feature original characters that interact with the world of the film, and follow an original, wholly separate storyline.

Creating an original story that runs parallel to the film allows for enough creative divergence so as not to regurgitate the film, and Cameron’s talk allays any such fears. What is strange is that, in the months leading up to Avatar’s December release date, virtually all its publicity has skirted the edge of the actual product.

The auteur’s recent comments on the film seem to downplay the story for sake of pushing the technology used to create it, keeping any real look at the film behind a thick veil. Absent any other promotional material, Avatar’s biggest draw rests on the advent of “Stereoscopic 3-D,” an innovation said to create a fully immersive experience—dreaming with your eyes open, as Cameron said at E3.

Early production art that leaked out last week provided a small glimpse under the hood, but strangely recalls well-established hardware put to good use in other sci-fi productions, including Cameron’s own Aliens. What’s known of Avatar’s plot, and already noted by others, even appears to follow the rough beats of Dances with Wolves—a wounded soldier takes a mission to the final frontier where he meets an alien race, falls for one of the natives, and is forced to choose sides when the “military industrial complex” moves in to make trouble.

By themselves, plot and production similarities make for poor indicators (how many retreads of Shakespeare’s plays have seen success, and how many retreads did the playwright compose himself?), but taken together with the peculiar lack of promotion, it’s easy to assume the quality of the story may not have the strength to stand on its own terms. In essence, all indications point to selling the experience of the film over anything else.

Arguably, the experience is the touchstone of any James Cameron film. His films have consistently delivered iconic thrills and frenetic action, but they rest on something more intrinsic to storytelling and modern mythmaking. As critic Steven D. Greydanus notes, Cameron is “a master manipulator with a flair for crafting engrossing mass entertainment with an aura of significance and truth.”

J.R.R. Tolkien asserted that all myth contains splinters of “true light”—truth that would otherwise get lost in translation were someone to sit down and try to spell it all out for you. In other words, stories express the inexpressible; a facet that seasons much Cameron’s work.

Consider, for example, the enormous success of his previous film, Titanic. The overwhelming popularity of that film suggests that it taps a resonant chord among its audience. “To be this popular,” writes Neil Andersen, “a story must be touching a mythic nerve.”

Knowing how to put skin on themes and ideas goes a long way in selling an old story. Similar to Titanic, Cameron played with notions of destiny in conflict with free will, and the inherent value of human life, wrapped in a story that literally puts skin on its narrative vehicle—Terminator 2.

Cameron possesses a deft awareness of resonant archetypal themes; Tolkien’s splinters of true light, if you will. Though a committed humanist, Cameron’s devotion to myth cannot avoid brushing up against the eternal truths that, as Tolkien argued, myths inherently reveal.

Stories of frontiersmen forced to choose sides enjoy their time in the sun because they touch on shared mythical themes. In a season of remakes, reboots and retreads, sitting through Dances with Wolves in Space may not seem like a promising holiday movie outing, but Cameron has already shown aptitude for making something old look new again.

A trailer sure would do a lot to dispel any doubt, however.

Avatar opens December 18, 2009.

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