Avatar, one of the highest grossing movies of all time, to many viewers on the surface may seem like a science fiction or fantasy. It involves space travel, highly sophisticated technology, and many other staples of the genre. Why then, according to some critics, should the film be more akin to a western. Westerns involve cowboys and open field, such as those found in Giant, right? Although it would appear that Avatar and Giant are two completely different films, they actually contain numerous similarities. They both share elements of the western genera, share similar ideals, and follow the Hollywood form. However, they also differ in several key ways such as social context, technology, and marketing.
Before discussing the similarities and differences in genre between Giant and Avatar, it is first important to define genre. A genre is set of characteristics and norms common to a certain type of film. These common characteristics and norms may be split up into two groups; conventions relating to the setting, and conventions relating to the themes (Rick Altman).
Giant, as far as setting, represents the prototypical western. The setting of a “prototypical” western involves a large wide open field somewhere in the mid-west sometime between the late 19th and early 20th century. The open field is often unforgiving and dangerous, and the main character is a strong masculine cowboy. Like the prototypical western setting, the setting of Giant centers around Bick’s huge house on a half-million acre wide open ranch in dusty Reata, Texas, during the 1920s (and on). Bick is the masculine (and hard headed) cowboy who ranches on the dangerous field, which contains rattlesnakes and leads to the death of Luz. It in no way deviates from the prototypical western as far as setting. Avatar on the other hand, differs greatly from the prototypical western in its setting. It is set in the mid 22nd century on a lush distant moon called Pandora in another galaxy. The main character, Jake, does not represent the prototypical cowboy, as he is a disabled marine.
The themes of Giant and Avatar, however, are much more similar to each other and the prototypical western. The common theme of a prototypical western involves an individual’s ability to overcome the wilderness and the balance between his independence and his obligations. In Giant, Bick overcomes the wilderness through his cattle ranching. He struggles to maintain his independence as Jett’s rising oil industry threatens to overtake Bick’s traditional ranching, and is torn whether or not to sell some of his land and his way of life. Avatar also demonstrates these themes. In Avatar, Jake is sent into the wilderness of Pandora’s jungles, and struggles to survive. He later develops a mutual relationship with the wilderness (overcoming it), and the natives. Jake struggles to maintain his independence after the humans start logging and mining. He is obligated to support the humans who have provided him with his Na’vi body (and physical independence since he is disabled), however, Jake wishes he could support the Na’vi who he has grown close to (his moral independence). In the end, Jake chooses to support the Na’vi.
Giant and Avatar, independent of their genres, also embody similar ideals such as the corruption associated with greed. In Giant, Jett tries to work his way up from a cattle ranching hand, and, by a stroke of luck, finds oil. He works hard to develop the land and becomes rich. As a result of his wealth, Jett becomes more corrupt, condescending, nasty, and less hard-working. This eventually leads to his downfall and the collapse of his company as he gets drunk and makes a fool of himself at his own party. Jett and his company can be akin to the Resource Development Administration (RDA) in Avatar. The RDA are condescending towards the natives, and will stop at nothing to obtain wealth (in the form of unobtainium). Like Jett, the RDA’s greed gets the better of them as they attempt to remove the natives, and their agency is removed from the planet.
Giant and Avatar also embody similar ideals with respect to overcoming discrimination. In both Giant and Avatar, the main characters hold discriminating ideals. Bick discriminates against his Mexican workers, while Jake sees the Na’vi as “uncivilized”. Both these characters overcome these ideals of discrimination. Michal Ballard explains, “Giant is the story of one man’s journey from his domineering, racist, feudal posturing to one of genuine understanding and a readiness to accept the inexorable changes that are beyond his control” (Ballard). Like Bick, Jake also begins to overcome his previous ideals and begins to sympathize and defend the natives. Unlike Avatar though, Giant also deals with discrimination against gender. Leslie stands up for her independence as a women, while her children want to take up occupations contrary to their normal gender roles. Bick at first, rejects the changing ideals of gender, however, he grows to accept them. Unlike Giant, Avatar also deals with discrimination against the disabled. The RDA tries to take advantage of Jake by promising to give him his legs back if he does some of their “dirty” work for them. Jake later overcomes this discrimination by fighting back against the company.
Both films follow the traditional Hollywood form; including clarity, identifiable characters, unity, and unobtrusive craftsmanship. In Giant, Bick is a stubborn, hard-working, western cowboy with traditional values, while in Avatar, Jake is a rebellious, disabled marine trying to finish a job to get his legs back. Both characters are easy to understand, and do not act differently than they think .They are identifiable characters which the audience may sympathize with since both of them change to uphold higher ideals. Bick becomes more excepting of new gender roles and stands up for minorities, while Sully stands up for the disadvantaged (relative to the RDA) natives. Neither film skips chronologically, and neither film brings attention to the filming process.
Although Giant and Avatar are similar in genre, ideals, and form, they differ with regards how they depict their culture at the time. Giant tries to depict the change in culture over the 30 years which the film takes place. It encompasses the rise of the oil industry, growing wealth after WWII, changes in gender roles, and changes in racial/social statuses. Avatar, on the other hand, tries to depict the American counterculture at the time, dealing with American imperialism. Bron Taylor comments “Avatar metaphorically attacks all martial, colonial, and expansionist histories” (Taylor). In the film, a wealthy group tries to exploit an underprivileged society who have a stockpile of a valuable resource. The wealthy group undermines the rights of the underprivileged, wages war on them, and this leads to mutual destruction at the end. The same can be said of American imperialistic ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time of the film’s release. A wealthy nation looks to exploit a weaker nation for their natural resources (oil), wages war, and this leads to mutual destruction.
Another way in which Giant and Avatar differ is in the technology used in the films. Avatar uses many computer generated special effects whereas Giant does not. One of the effects used in Avatar involves performance capture technology. This allows the movements and facial expressions of the actors to be transferred to the computer generated characters, the Na’vi, in the film. Avatar also uses green screen technologies by digitally creating a background in the film, and digital compositing to create the Na’vi world and environment. Peter Bradshaw remarks on the special effects use in Avatar, “The digitally created world meshes pretty much seamlessly with ordinary reality in an undoubtedly impressive way” (Bradshaw). These newer techniques are not used in Giant.
Giant and Avatar also differ in their marketing techniques. Giant, at the time of its release, relied on word-of-mouth in order to draw viewers to see the movie. A particular movie during this time was not usually available at every theater. Avatar, conversely, employed a technique known as blockbuster. This involves heavily advertising the movie before and during its release, then allowing the movie to be seen at any theater nationwide. This led to huge grossing sales, and encourages others to see the movie since everyone else is seeing it. Bron Taylor comments, “ Indeed, no one’s films exemplify the blockbuster, money-making film genre more than Cameron’s…Avatar, which banked $2.8 billion within the first two years after its release, 73 percent of which came from outside of the United States” (Taylor). Moreover, Avatar used horizontal integration in marketing, and sold video games, action figures, and books relating to the movie.
Overall, Giant and Avatar both share elements of the western genera, particularly similar themes of overcoming the wilderness and maintaining ones independence. They also both share similar ideals, including overcoming discrimination, and the belief that money corrupts. Lastly, both films follow the Hollywood form; clarity, identifiable characters, unity, and unobtrusive craftsmanship. The films differ with regards to social context; Giant depicting the change in culture from the 1920s to the 1950s while Avatar depicts the counter culture with respect to American imperialism. They differ with use of technology, Avatar making full use of computer based special effects and Giant not, and marketing, Giant using a word-of-mouth technique while Avatar using the blockbuster and horizontal integration technique.
Altman, Rick. Film/Genre, British Film Institute Publishing, London, 1999.
Taylor, Bron. Battleground Pandora: The War over James Cameron’s Avatar
Bright Lights Film Journal. November, 2013.
Bradshaw, Peter. Avatar. Guardian News. 2013.
Classic movie review: ‘Giant’ (1956) Examiner.com. 2013.