Avatar (2009): The Best Space Western Since 1977’s Star Wars

Cover of "Avatar (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Co...
Cover via Amazon

After a jokey morning with my daughter where she informed me that she and a mate had decided that I was battle-scarred enough to be Colonel Quaritch in Avatar, a viewpoint I laughingly agreed with, I started thinking about the film itself.

We went to see Avatar at the cinema. In all its 3D glory the film was stunning. The computer generated Na’vi looked real and the SFX looked brilliant. As the movie progressed I found myself becoming more protective of the native residents in the film. When the company destroys the symbol of their culture and a large number of Na’vi I suddenly realised that this was a western and the Na’vi were the cinematic representation of my Native American ancestors.

I was entranced.

I had not seen a science fiction film that so clearly showed its western roots since the original Star Wars. A film that also entranced  and excited me at the same time.

Luke Skywalker in his search for his father, his finding Obi-Wan Kenobe and learning the power and skills of a Jedi were just an updated fancy named scenario of a young man learning to be a gunfighter and leading the fight against a powerful enemy. It felt like a cross between The Magnificent Seven and Shane and any other western you could name.

Avatar was once described on Twitter by Kevin Sorbo as “Dances with Wolves in space.” I laughed and then immediately realised that he was right. The character of Jake Sully does study the Na’vi and becomes so enamoured of their way of life (not to mention the use of his legs again) that he actively defends them when Quaritch and his paid killers try to wipe them out.

James Cameron came up with the idea of the movie way back in 1994. He then sat back and waited for technology to catch up with his idea. I’m glad he did. The film in 3D was breath-taking if not a little headache inducing. The blu-ray was no less impressive and a lot easier on the eyes.

The plot is about a planetthat has vast supplies of a new element or mineral known as unobtanium (how’s that for a macguffin type name!) that humans are in desperate need of. A company (RDA) is trying to break down the resistance of the native people who call the planet home, the Na’vi. When all peaceful means fail the company sends their profession mercenary security force to annihilate the Na’vi.

On a side note, I wonder if anyone will ever invent a 3D system that doesn’t make you feel like a lifetime migraine suffer after watching it?

That Avatar is a western is beyond dispute. The planet with its rich deposits of unobtanium are just the Dakota’s and the black hills et al full of the gold that the white man so eagerly pursued. The resultant Indian wars that followed also mirror the Na’vi’s attempt to protect their home world.

Jake's avatar and Neytiri. One of the inspirat...
Jake’s avatar and Neytiri. One of the inspirations for the look of the Na’vi came from a dream that Cameron’s mother had told him about. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will openly admit that the cast (and crew) did such a good job in the making of this movie that I got swept away by the story. My brother actually got so swept away that when he watched the film in the cinema he got incredibly angry at the destruction of the tribe’s tree. He had to go into the lobby and cool down.

I was too busy being blown away by the performances and how the film looked. The 3D was so much better than any of the old-fashioned 3D that I almost felt  like I was in the film or at the very least surrounded by it. That combined with the incredibly talented cast made the movie an overwhelming experience.


Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephan Lang, Zoe Saldana (who made me fall in love with the first ever blue graphically created woman in cinema) and of course  Michelle Rodriguez playing the usual hard-ass tough fighter she’s known for. High words of praise are also reserved to the cameo of Wes Studi, the one real link between Dances with Wolves and Avatar. He really sells the part of the clan chief and his death crushed me.

Cameron is working on a sequel that will be out in 2015. Assuming we all survive the end of the world in December, I’ll definitely be watching it. I want to see how the Na’vi have grown since their screen debut.

I can’t wait. Of course the question does have to be asked. When so few people can make a decent modern western why is that James Cameron can make one that is so spot on, but in space?

It will also be interesting to see what the plot is this time around. The original film did indeed parallel Dances with Wolves to a large degree. Let’s hope that the new adventures of the Na’vi don’t turn into a parallel version of F Troop.

Cover of "Dances with Wolves"
Cover of Dances with Wolves

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, http://MikesFilmTalk.com Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

13 thoughts on “Avatar (2009): The Best Space Western Since 1977’s Star Wars”

  1. I never really thought of Avatar as a Western in space, but I’m convinced, it has all the elements of a western there, the cavalry soldier, the native americans, the rail-road, the girl.
    I knew of the Dances with wolves and Pocahontas connection too, which I can see so clearly. I think on the point of Westerns today, the genre has changed completely, if I;m honest they were simplistic in their narrative, stranger comes to town, solves the problems with his guns and rides off. They had to change with the times, Now dealing with issues, using the west as a setting more than anything. I hope Tarantino’s latest outing Django unchained is a game changer, he himself being a western fan, is he the new Sergio Leone? I don’t know, I’ve found he’s homager of film, making his mark in visual style, moving from one to another.
    Going back to Avatar being the first space Western since the days of Star Wars first hit our screens, I feel that if we are to have a western, we can only have it in the guise of another genre to really be engaged again, before we roll out the gunfighters in the west, spurs and all.


    1. Westerns started dying in the late 60’s (which is ironic as so many good westerns came out in 1969) after they started becoming “introspective” instead of the standard formula of a guy + a gun + a girl. The age of “I’m okay and you’re okay killed the western better than a high calibre bullet. Every once in a while someone will make a good one, but not often. Good Sci Fi films have always been at heart westernized stories in space. Kevin Sorbo pointed out the similarities to Dances With Wolves in a tweet and I’ll be damned if he isn’t right. I will be queuing up to see Django Unchained as soon as I can. I love Tarantino’s homages with a passion. In the mean time I’ll keep hoping for another “old fashioned” western to be made. One with spurs and nasty villain and a school ma-arm who’s just waiting to be saved. Cheers mate! 😀


  2. I agree that Avatar is a space western, but much of what is rehashed in Star Wars is distinctly Arthurian. Watch the original trilogy again with this in mind, and you’ll probably see Obi-Wan/Yoda as Merlin allegories. Obi turns over Luke’s father’s lightsaber (Excalibur was Arthur’s father’s sword) and initiates him into the ways of the Force (pagan magic). Yoda, who is a wise old mystic who lives in the woods, continues his training so he can duel Vader (Uther/Mordred), who reveals his true heritage–this is also strikingly similar to Arthur being raised by Sir Ector and not knowing who his father was (Uther) until he came of age. Arthur is also duped into siring Mordred with his sister, and Luke and Leia have a somewhat misinformed romance as well. This list goes on…

    Han Solo’s arc, on the other hand, does scream space cowboy loud and clear.


    1. Unfortunately most films now suffer from the ripping mode, very few are so blazingly original in terms of plot or story. The only thing that sets them apart is their method of delivery, casting and timing. 😀


  3. Avatar seems to catch a lot a flak these days, but I remain undeterred. I still love it, along with its western roots (maybe, because of it). Fine look at this, Mike.


  4. I love this movie. I saw it the day it opened (I was doing quality checks for movie companies, so I saw everything on opening day). I then took Garry to see it, and then we both saw it again and then i took the rest of the family and finally, bought the BR DVD. How it didn’t get the best movie Oscar has more to do with politics than the film. Cameron is not popular in Hollywood, so they picked his ex wife’s movie … which was the most unpopular”best movie” in Oscar history. Avatar should have won on innovation alone, but it was also wonderfully entertaining … which in my humble, plebian opinion, is an oft overlooked quality. For some reason, critics and award givers seem to think a movie needs to be serious and filled with Messages of Importance (aka dull). They forget we go to the movies for entertainment and fun.

    I saw it in theatre 4 times. Each time, when the creatures got together to take out the evil corporate exploiters, the audience stood up and cheered. You don’t see that kind of spontaneous reaction often. I’ve only seen it twice before in all the years I’ve been going to the movies.


    1. Audiences cheered when the Na’vi kicked RDA’s butt in England as well and I can’t begin to tell you how unusual that is in this country. I remember yelling at the tv screen when Cameron’s ex-wife won for her “message” film. But then the Academy Awards has always been political anyway. Great, great film. 😀


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