Avatar has already been compared to Dances With Wolves, but the film's production designer says it also has dashes of Tarzan and Apocalypse Now. He explains why aliens are perfect for "going native" stories, and talks James Cameron-Robert Zemeckis rivalry.
The LA Times' Hero Complex talked to Rick Carter, the production designer on Avatar. Carter also worked on Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture experiment The Polar Express (in addition to films like War of the Worlds and Jurassic Park. While many have described the plot of Avatar as "Dances With Wolves in space," Carter described the film to director James Cameron as "The Wizard of Oz meets Apocalypse Now." But he also told Hero Complex that adding a fantastical component to the traditional story where a character "goes native" in another culture offers a certain freedom in storytelling that doesn't exist when telling stories about an actual culture:
Take "Dances With Wolves." Although God knows it was a wonderful movie and did as well as any movie could hope to do, it still had to run in that middle ground between the truthful Indian existence, as perceived today, and what is acceptable to the Indian community and then still be a Hollywood-oriented star vehicle for Kevin Costner. There was a lot of lines to toe and issues of political correctness, almost, to tell that tale. Now if you go back and make a movie that tells the story and is free of that. ... Think of the imagery of the Johnny Weissmuller movies of Tarzan and the portrayal of Africans, which any of us watch today and we go, "Oh, that's a little cringe-making," but at the same time there was a wonderful freedom to Tarzan's existence and a freedom in the storytelling. By Jim picking a state of existence that does not exist and then all of the jumps of science — like combining human DNA with an alien DNA and projecting a character's consciousness into the new being — all of that creates a "there" where you can stage a story that you can tell with a real freedom. The three of four leaps that you've taken, if you make them credible, you can mirror back on those themes that you were talking about and say what you want about them.
Carter also compares working on Avatar to working on The Polar Express, and says that Cameron and Zemeckis' awareness of each others' projects helps drive technological innovation:
[T]o answer your question, of course, between Zemeckis and Cameron, yes, there's a tremendous awareness of what the other is doing. It's like Beatles and the Stones. And I'm so pleased that they are doing this; to be in their 50s and forging new avenues, to be taking risks and putting this much work in to it — and to be taking a certain amount of flack. Both Cameron and Zemeckis have remained true to their visions and gone places that people would rather they not go, in some places. Don't think that people haven't said, "Hey, Jim, can maybe you make a movie that doesn't cost so much and puts the entire studio on the line again?" And, "Hey, Bob, can you maybe give us something a little more safe commercially and maybe not push so hard and so far out there?"
With Zemeckis' latest motion capture project, A Christmas Carol, getting lukewarm reviews, hopefully Avatar will be the more successful half of that rivalry.
Jim Cameron vs. Robert Zemeckis? An insider's view of the rivalry [Hero Complex]