Analysis: Avatar & Twilight – a critical comparison

Ben Vernel takes a look at two of the most successful movies of 2009 – James Cameron’s Avatar and Chris Weitz’ adaptation of the sequel to Twilight, New Moon.

More specifically, I’m going to look at the protagonists of each film/series and compare the way in which they both serve the storytelling and the viewing experiences of each movie. First, a disclaimer – I haven’t seen New Moon. There’s not a lot that could persuade me to, so I’m basing my analysis of the character Bella Swan on the tens of reviews I’ve read and the heaps of podcasts I’ve listened to that discuss and describe this movie. I have, however, seen Avatar. I saw it yesterday, in 3D (which I found to be extremely distracting and detracted from the experience rather than added to it).

Both New Moon (and the Twilight series in general) and Avatar are classic narratives, stories of romance and triumph-over-adversity. Both were big successes and both possess fervent fanbases and strident critics. Their main point of similarity, however, is the nature of their main characters. The similarity is particularly ironic when it comes to Avatar, because the point is thus: both Bella Swan and Jake Sully are ciphers, avatars for the audience to identify with. They’re nothing more than hollow outlines that the audience can fill in using their own personality and characteristics as the palette for their paintbrush.

Bella Swan is a bland and shallow character, a mask that the audience can wear over their own face. Jake Sully is the same – we know little of his background and his personality is cliche layered over stereotype layered over white guilt fantasy (for more on that last topic check out Annalee Newitz’ fantastic article When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”?). He’s a shadow of a character cast by each individual audience member’s own personality.

The story of the Twilight saga works because of the nature of Bella – it’s a female fantasy tale, being whisked away from her hum-drum life by a magical, muscular Vampire prince, and allowing the audience to put themselves in Bella’s place heightens their enjoyment of the film. Avatar is a male fantasy tale, an average joe thrust into a situation that seems difficult – even insurmountable – but eventually overcoming all odds to find love and a place where he feels at home. Sully and Swan are two sides of the same coin, and one of apparently very high value (both films were in the top 10 gross earners for the year). Is this really necessary? Excising any hint of backstory or deeper personality in favor of creating an video game-like, virtual reality storytelling experience? Perhaps not necessary, but for the mainstream, perhaps the key descriptor would be ‘safe’.

– Ben Vernel


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