Okay, so I finally got around seeing Avatar in 3D at the local IMAX. (Tickets are still selling out a week in advance– crazy!) By now, anything I say about it will be old news, but I’m still interested in analyzing it from a writer’s perspective. We all know it’s a beautiful movie, with amazing effects, and possibly the first film that seamlessly blends CGI and real action. It is, without a doubt, an incredibly well-made piece of cinema.
It is also, without a doubt, incredibly formulaic. I mean, is there anyone who hasn’t seen this movie before?
-An invading, technologically advanced force is engaged in a war with the natives, who embody the idea of the noble savage.
-The protagonist is one of the soldiers. He gets to know the natives, and falls in love with their culture. Also their women. (Well, usually only one woman.)
-The soldier’s commanding officer is an asshole who has no qualms about wiping out the natives.
-The natives’ fiercest warrior doesn’t trust the protagonist’s motives. He’s probably also in love with the woman.
-The protagonist learns the natives’ ways, and realizes that their culture and way of life need to be protected.
-He joins up with them, and helps them fight off the invaders.
It’s a story as old as time. Avatar wasn’t the first to do it, and I doubt that Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, the Last Samurai, etc. etc. were either. And it doesn’t just stop there, either. A quick search for “Avatar rip off” on Google reveals the following scandals-in-progress, in which James Cameron has apparently ripped off previous more obscure works:
Or, for a more general approach:
Do I think James Cameron purposely ripped anybody off when he wrote Avatar? No, of course not. James Cameron is like any other creative person: over the course of his life, he’s been exposed to thousands of potential influences. Some of these are other creative works: books, movies, graphic novels, ancient myths, and art of all kinds. Some are nonfiction: history, news stories, magazine articles, biographies, pictures, or conversations with friends. Some are his own experiences dealing with people, growing up, being married, working, and just living life. All these things reside in his memory, and collide off each other like ricocheting particles in his imagination, until a spark occurs, and he thinks: A ha! I’ve got an idea for a story!
Avatar treads ground that has long been tread by movies and comic books of all sorts, and so lots of similarities can doubtless be found– finding that two separate people have come up with similar names, or the same general story arc (particularly one this cliche) is hardly surprising. It may even be that James Cameron did read some old Soviet sci-fi stuff and a decade later, when coming with Avatar, unconsciously remembered some of it and put it in.
If someone were purposefully ripping off an existing work, chances are good they’d change the names, and muddle stuff around so it wasn’t quite so obvious. But really, that’s not how creative people work. Most of us who even dream of doing this kind of stuff for a living have so many ideas we couldn’t do them all even if we did this full-time; the last thing we need is to go through little-known works of fiction looking for obscure ideas to steal. I mean, seriously here. I think, in any case like this, the benefit of the doubt has to be given to the creator, because otherwise you’d have to do so much research to make sure you were being original that you’d never get anything else done.
Anyway, the point of this post wasn’t to defend James Cameron (as if he really needs “defending” by the author of a blog that about five people read). No, the point was actually to explore why he went with such a tired plot and storyline. I think he could have done a much better job of being original, and indeed, I read one article that suggests that the original draft WAS considerably more original, or at least more in-depth and interesting:
The article goes in-depth into James Cameron’s original scriptment, written after Titanic, and the title of it was “Project 880.” In it, the plot for Avatar is laid out in depth, with a lot of additional detail: there’s much more about Earth and its current state, there’s more about why Jake falls so in love with Pandora, there are several interesting characters who are left out of the final version of “Avatar” (including the Na’Vi guide who Grace is sleeping with, and a corrupt bioethics officer with a nice redemption arc that I think would have added a lot to the movie). Granted, turning that script into a film would probably have made for about a 10-hour movie, so maybe that’s why a lot of this got trimmed. Or is it that such a risk was being taken with the expensive graphics and technology that they decided to stick with a completely cookie-cutter plot that people knew and loved?
I think it was probably a combination of both these things. The Project 880 article makes me hope that now that the technology is proven, James Cameron will be willing to tell a more creative story in the inevitable sequel(s).
There’s no doubt that Avatar is a groundbreaking film. It’s just too bad that all the groundbreaking was in the special effects, and none of it in the story. Hopefully we’ll see a better balance in future Avatar films (and other films which will no doubt license the technology). We shall see.