Movie Review: Avatar- An Astonishing Feat in Visual Technology Through a Blatantly Copied Narrative in Structure and Plot

Film has always been an interesting and free forum to experimenting with technology and bringing new ways to accentuate different aspects of storytelling. At first glance James Cameron’s new film Avatar is technologically stunning, which almost goes without saying, in the same way new technology astounded audiences for The Jazz Singer and Star Wars. It’s experimental display of special effects and being able to create a mysterious world of Native American inspired aliens and strange creatures is impressive to say the least. However, this is just the superficial layer of the film showing us what is possible rather than the using this apparatus to be coordinated with an equally creative and ingenious story. This is the core flaw to James Cameron’s film in more ways than one. While the narrative skeleton is heavily based on a named influence in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves the real problem is the unmentioned influence in Cameron’s work, which is a majority of the character and plot points are based on a 50s short story written by Poul Anderson entitled “Call me Joe.” A film that is over ten years in the making in the hands of a director that has every creative element in Hollywood at his disposal for a film that cost up to 500 million dollars (with marketing) shouldn’t be suspected of stealing unaccredited material. Avatar in this aspect of criticism will be greatly defended by the fan boys on how there are really only twelve stories that can ever be told just varied in delivery but that is thematically based and not in regards to a film’s plot structure. As a forum for displaying new technological achievements Avatar does indeed give the audience a visual pleasure fest while also bombarding you with blatantly leftist politics. What Avatar is not is an adventure that we are unfamiliar with which is devastating to it’s credibility as another original creation from its acclaimed director.

James Cameron has gotten a vast amount of acclaim from his pseudo-intellectual buddies that thrive inside Hollywood as being an inventive filmmaker and storyteller. While his achievements in special effects are noteworthy his originality in storytelling is far from being original. After the lawsuit in regards to his copying material from a science fiction author Harlan Ellison for Terminator it should have been obvious that Cameron wasn’t as creatively ingenious as originally conceived. Cameron has again stolen plot points from another relatively unknown science fiction writer to influence his script for Avatar. Avatar is about a paraplegic veteran who is chosen to continue his dead twin brother’s participation in an experimental project involving telepathic connection to an artificial alien body in order to understand and connect with the indigenous population. The film’s protagonist Jake Sully, played efficiently well by Australian actor Sam Worthington, becomes enamored with his new bodies ability and eventually makes his way into the alien race known as the Na’vi, learning their language and their culture which inevitably puts him on a path of becoming one of them. While this is occurring the military is acting as a corporation’s gun for hire to assist in the removal of a ridiculously named (and copied from The Core) resource called Unobtanium and, of course, humans are portrayed as rapists of the earth making it seem as though a hammer to the hand could be more subtle. What’s so inconvenient about this story structure is not the blatant knock off of Dances with Wolves with a man becoming one with the natives but rather the entire character’s background and story development is copied. In Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe,” a paraplegic telepathically connects with an artificial body that is designed to explore the surface of Jupiter and eventually becomes native as he spends more time in his new body. The similarities are far from coincidence since they are practically uncanny. It seems as though Mr. Cameron needs to reference another author for contributing to his work.

But films nowadays don’t necessarily need a good story to be enjoyable because we have stunning visual effects to keep us distracted. Berkeley Breathed, the author of the comic strip Opus, has commented on many occasions on how special effects are not so special anymore since they are now sole defining factors for many films. Special effects have made us numb to the wonders of film making by being the factor that makes the film rather than being an element, such as the music or editing, that you notice and helps guide the storytelling process along. It should be noted that the technology and the world that is created with these new state of the art CGI capabilities in Avatar are exceptional and is worth checking out for a cinematic experience but effects shouldn’t be the only contributing factor to a memorable time in the theater. The story has already been noted for being borrowed and copied but the dialogue is flat and the characters are a tad obtuse, if not lacking a great deal of exploration and development. Where there is indifference to nature Cameron sees evil and even goes as far to compare the shooting down of a really big tree to be as horrifying as the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Not only is this insensitive it’s just a misguided Rousseau/Emerson idealism of being connected to nature, something the Na’vi literally do with their hair follicles. The environmentalist and anti-imperialism message of Cameron’s political slant is overwhelming as well as preachy and really shows the stories intention for manipulative persuasion rather than through plot exploration and a thought provoking narrative.

If there is one way to see this film it would be highly recommended seeing it in 3D, which really immerses you into the world of Pandora which is the name of the moon Avatar takes place on. The depth of field and the potency of the images are greatly experienced in this format and explain why this film will get a vast amount of praise for its achievements. As a whole the film is generally well done, despite its story faults, and can be attributed to the performance and aura of Sam Worthington. While Worthington is occasionally dry he is aided by the progression of motion capture technology which brings this new creature to life not leaving you alienated in a world of wonder. The rest of the cast, digital or real, are able to guide this excessively long picture out from being boring and provides for quality entertainment that shouldn’t disappoint many. However, without Stephen Lang in the role of Colonel Miles Quaritich, who has a riveting villainous personality, the film would have failed tremendously considering that none of the soldier’s or the corporate leaders are portrayed as bad people leaving out an essential antagonist plot development. The film could have been drastically impersonal with the digitally created atmosphere but Cameron’s strength at controlling his visual experiments makes sure that doesn’t happen.

Cameron indeed has his strengths in making beautiful special effects that are impressive to say the least if not awe inspiring. Avatar has a world that is digitally unique and atmospherically memorable thanks to Cameron’s persistence and innovation in the realm of filmmaking technology. But his flaws as a storytelling filmmaker are also evident in this film since the narrative is borrowed, the major plot points are unaccredited from a known source, the undeveloped politics are manipulatively in your face, and the dialogue is uninventive and falls flat. Audiences will look back on this film as a step forward in the possibilities of what films can eventually portray for their stories but will never be remembered for its brave storytelling or inventive message. While some might say this was the point of the film there is no excuse from a director who could have any creative writer in Hollywood or elsewhere to develop a fresh and inventive story to accommodate the new technology. Unfortunately films are made to tell stories and when they fail to attempt something new in narrative or blatantly copy material without crediting the adaptation source then a vast amount of praise shouldn’t be given to the director even if the technology is state of the art.

Grade: B-

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2 Responses to “Movie Review: Avatar- An Astonishing Feat in Visual Technology Through a Blatantly Copied Narrative in Structure and Plot”
  1. Rob Greco says:

    Wow. Uhm, I didn’t know James Cameron took the narrative from a previous author, BUT this movie was amazing. Better then a B- in my mind. My opinion is that even if the ideas and characters were not Cameron’s original creations it was still the director that put those ideas on the screen. Stunning visuals, a story line (when compared to many other high budget films) that didn’t suck, and amazing action packed excitement. I saw this on IMAX 3D and it blew me away. If you haven’t seen it in IMAX and you think you could bare to see it again, it is worth checking out.

  2. octavarium08 says:

    I did see it on IMAX 3D and the experience is impressive. However, I’m a stickler for story and profound characterization, and Cameron lacks that in most of his films but definitely dropped the ball on this very predictable film.
    I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, I’m just saying I expect more given the budget, creative crew, and the possibilities with the technology. Sometimes I go back and regrade (nothing too drastic) but if I ever come back it might move up to a B but nothing more I have to say.

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