This review is, technically, not part of my "Cheap Critic" series since I actually coughed up the big bucks to see Avatar in 3D during its first run and it has not yet quite hit the local second-run cinema as I type. That all being said, it would fit rather nicely in the series since Avatar is at heart a remake of a 1970s-era movie that was never made for obvious technical reasons. More on that later, but first a public service request...
|P L E A S E|
|If, like me, you are a conservative or right-leaning libertarian, to enhance your enjoyment of the film and for the sake of other members of the audience, please remember to turn off your liberal bullshit detectors before you enter the theater. For SF films I usually set mine to the "Star Wars" setting -- its lowest level where it only goes off for the most egregious drivel -- but even at that level it went off three times during Avatar. After the second time I set it to vibrate but it still activated so violently near the end of the film that several California natives fled the theater believing an earthquake was in progress.|
For a lifelong science fiction fan of a certain age, watching Avatar is like a party where your best friends from college show up, all looking happy and well off, and you spend a couple of hours reminiscing about what used to be cool back in the day. Every now and then the doorbell rings and instead of another old friend you find a door-to-door evangelist handing out pamphlets about Gaea but you quickly shoo them off with "Not now, I'm having a party," and you get back into the groove.
You see, with the admitted, very notable exception of the film technology used to make it, there is nothing whatsoever new about Avatar. All the elements that make it up -- its plot, its themes, its visual style, its virtues and its vices -- can be traced to the popular science fiction and fantasy milieu of the mid-1970s. It is the product of sensibilities formed in the '70s finally given an outlet to express itself in film. Since I too am a product of those times, Avatar reminds me strongly of a lot of my favorite stuff -- things I have wanted to see on the screen for almost half a century; how could I not think it is swell?
Here are a few example of the kind of stuff I mean: To start with there is the visual imagery in the film. If you read what Cameron and his conceptual artists say about how it was developed you will hear about flying creatures modeled after sea life and floating mountains inspired by the Chinese Huang Shan mountains but that is just after-the-fact smoke-blowing; the truth of the matter is that they cribbed it all from progressive-rock album artist Roger Dean. Here's a link to an io9.com article about Dean's influence on Avatar -- "Did Prog Rock's Greatest Artist Inspire Avatar? All Signs Point To Yes" -- click on all the images and see what you think.
One of many Dean images that io9 finds similar to Avatar.
As for the plot, themes, etc. you can easily construct the screenplay for Avatar by cutting bits out of several novels from the '60s and '70s and scotch taping them together. You start with Harry Harrison's short novel, Deathworld, published in 1960, for the broad outlines of the plot. I'd outline the commonalities for you but that would constitute major spoilers, both for the book and the movie -- they are that close. Then, for the themes and some details of Na'vi civilization you throw in Ursula K LeGuin's short novel, "The Word for World is Forest", 1976 (based on her Hugo-winning Novella published in "Again, Dangerous Visions" in 1972), then to get the right tension between things technological and maqical add a dash of Andre Norton -- say, "Judgement on Janus" which she wrote in 1964 -- and borrow a dollop of Ann McCaffrey's Dragonflight -- 1968, from her Hugo-winning 1966 novelette, Weyr Search -- for the dragon-riding bits, and finally, for some of the military technology -- but none of the philosophy -- throw in just a pinch of Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel, Starship Troopers.
With the possible exception of Roger Dean I don't blame Cameron for not crediting his influences. It suffices to say that all of these sources had a huge effect on speculative fiction during that period and that Cameron is a product of the times. One hears Avatar criticized as derivative, and not without some justification, but it is derived from material from other media from forty years ago. If finally getting around to making the sort of film that has waited a generation for technology to catch up is to be derivative then I can't see what is wrong with it.
There are a few minor nits to pick aside from Cameron's very successful capturing of the pre-new-age, mildly cretinous liberal vibe of the '70s. Avatar obviously wants to be "hard" Science Fiction but, with Cameron's penchant for action rather than exposition, it lacks the Mr Wizard moments necessary to wrap a gloss of technobabble around its more magical elements. Cameron had the material (see the explanation of "unobtanium" in the Avatar wiki, for instance) but he just refused to use it. You could vastly improve the film's hard SF creds by having one of the "scientists" who our hero pals around with spend sixty seconds on the properties and importance of Unobtanium.
And, of couse, it would be nice if the script didn't suck in all the ordinary ways; none of the characters has any motivation for his or her actions -- the bad guys do bad things because they are bad and, conversely, our hero is heroic because he is our hero -- and they all appear to be as dumb as a pile of rocks -- their synapses apparently being dedicated to staying in character with none left over for anything like problem solving.
But, as I said, these are all nits. Films like Avatar require the willing suspension of disbelief for their enjoyment and Avatar only occasionally makes that difficult. It is great fun, especially if you are old enough to remember the 1970s. I recommend it highly but don't forget to turn off that bullshit detector so your ears don't whistle like a tea kettle and disturb other members of the audience.
A bit of random reading for making your own cut-and-paste script for Avatar:
Harrison’s Deathworld and Cameron’s Avatar from the Crotchety Old Fan
Full text of Deathworld by Harry Harrison - Project Gutenberg
Cover from Paperback Judgement on Janus by Andre Norton
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K LeGuin -- Wikipedia
The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey -- Wikipedia