On the one hand, people have complained about terrible writing, one-dimensional characters, and a plot that is plainly derivative from other movies.
On the other hand, people have compared the movie to Star Wars: Cameron has created a whole new world, using wholly new technology, that will change forever the way movies are made and the way we perceive our own world.
I think both sides in this debate are wrong.
Let’s take the Star Wars comparison seriously. Star Wars has vastly worse dialogue than Avatar. Try reading a transcript of each: it’s not even close. The epic badness of Star Wars’ writing is legendary. Avatar is merely standard-issue Hollywood writing – perfectly serviceable if utterly unmemorable.
One-dimensional characters? Jake Sully is hardly complex. But he’s Hamlet compared to Luke Skywalker. And Luke is the most complex of all the characters in the original Star Wars!
Derivative plotting? Yes, Avatar is pretty plainly lifted from Dances With Wolves, Ferngully, Princess Mononoke, etc. But Star Wars was not only practically hand-copied from Joseph Campbell, huge chunks of it are visually lifted from other movies. The ball-turret gunner scene? The race through the trench to destroy the Death Star? The look of C3PO? Again, I’m not going out on a limb here: George Lucas stole anything that wasn’t nailed down.
And the “spiritual politics” can’t be the problem with Avatar either – unless we’re willing to damn Star Wars in the same breath, as the two movies are close kin here as well.
So why did I find Avatar disappointing?
Because it did not create a whole new world – at least not for me.
Pandora basically looks like South America, with a few touches that recall coral reefs and fauna with a vaguely Jurassic Park look. And the reason people assume the Na’vi are supposed to be stand-ins for Native Americans or whatnot is that Cameron didn’t make them alien enough. Why, for example, is their social structure so familiar when they have cognitive abilities that are wildly different from those of humans?
Avatar is a science-fiction failure because Cameron didn’t grapple seriously with making a race of aliens, or an alien world. Science fiction abounds in authors who did so grapple – Frank Herbert, Ursula Leguin, Orson Scott Card, the team of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It’s not like it can’t be done. But if your eye is on the bottom line, it probably makes sense to stay well inside your audience’s comfort zone.
And then there’s Star Wars. No, there’s not much new realized there – but boy, does it all come together in a way we’d never seen before. The universe of Star Wars doesn’t make any sense at all; the plot and story are hackneyed; the writing is dreadful; huge chunks of the movie are stolen outright. But the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts: a persuasive and convincing whole. A whole new world. And images from that movie have become iconic: the first time we see Darth Vader; the droids huddled in the Jawas’ landcrawler; the bar in Mos Eisely; the spaceships! The Millenium Falcon, TIE fighters, X-wing fighters! These were new creations, things we had not seen, things that, in fact, made no sense at all when you thought about them, but that worked – that were and will be remembered.
Maybe it’s just because I’m not seven years old anymore, but I didn’t feel that way about Avatar. Avatar felt like someplace I’d been before. I mean, what have they got to match up against a TIE fighter? A six-legged horse with a USB port? That’s a failure – a profound failure – on really the only terms that matter for a film like this.