In the weeks since "Avatar" swept into theaters, moviegoers and critics alike have almost all agreed on two things: We've never seen something like this before, and we've all seen something like before. That is, the motion-capture action flick brings 3-D special effects unlike anything previously seen on the big screen, while the story line bears more than a passing resemblance to previous films, like David Lynch's "Dune" and Disney's "Pocahontas."
Perhaps no movie, though, has drawn as many "Avatar" comparisons as "Dances With Wolves," Kevin Costner's 1990 Civil War film about a soldier who bonds with a tribe of Native Americans. Even "Avatar" director James Cameron has acknowledged the similarities. So just how analogous are these two epics? Let's take a look.
Welcome to the Jungle
In "Avatar," Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) leaves Earth behind in 2154 to jet off to distant Pandora, a lushly untamed planet filled with danger and intrigue and populated by an indigenous population called the Na'vi. In "Wolves," John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) leaves behind American civilization during the Civil War to travel to the untouched Western frontier, where Native American tribes still flourish. Of course, both these native populations are under threat from aggressive white colonialists.
Scarred but Not Scared
Sully was a Marine until he lost the use of his legs. Now he's confined to a wheelchair. Technology to repair his injured spine exists, but the ex-solider can't afford the procedure. Sully's superior promises that if he completes his assignment, he'll be given the surgery for free. Army Lieutenant Dunbar suffers a severe leg injury that will require amputation — until his superior intervenes and hands over his personal doc to perform free surgery and ensure Dunbar still has two working legs.
In both "Avatar" and "Wolves," it's not long before the foreign white man takes a liking to the native culture he inhabits. Through the use of his Na'vi avatar, Sully frolics with the big blue humanoids, learning their at-peace-with-the-land ways and their language. So it is with Dunbar, who is taught the Sioux tongue and begins to appreciate their connection to nature. Sully and Dunbar bond with their new friends around the campfire and learn to hunt. Their relationships with animals — wolves and crazy flying creatures — help establish their connection to the new cultures. Each has a close bond with a horse or horse-like creature. The Na'vi and the Sioux eventually recognize them as part of their tribe. The men, in turn, choose to live with the tribe rather than their native people, who they come to see as barbaric and disconnected from nature.
Can't Help Falling in Love
Sully falls for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Dunbar falls for Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell). Both women act as their man's translator. Both relationships are taboo, so they must make love in secret. While the romances arouse anger when they first come to light, both tribes ultimately accept the pairings. During their journeys of love and adventure, Sully and Dunbar contribute voice-over narration, one through a high-tech video journal, the other with simple pen and paper.
Lead Us Into Battle
When the cruel industrialists decide to kick their conflict with the Na'vi into overdrive, Sully rouses his big blue brethren to fight the good fight. When the Sioux find themselves facing off against a nearby Native American tribe, Dunbar leads his adopted people — guns a-blazin' — into battle. Both the Na'vi and the Sioux triumph. At least temporarily. You just know those evil white colonialists are going to keep on fighting.
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