A common joke about James Cameron’s Avatar is that it’s really just the lovechild of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Cameron’s Aliens (or, depending on your age, FernGully and Aliens). In Avatar, a disillusioned marine joins a group of natives to fight against the white occupiers. Only in this version, the natives are blue-skinned aliens rather than Lakota and the occupiers are space marines rather than Col. Custer’s cavalry. There’s a lot to like about Avatar, but unfortunately the story never moves beyond those cliches. In this case, the joke contains more than a kernel of truth. I actually believe a good retelling of a classic story can be just as interesting as a new or original idea (almost all of Disney’s animated movies draw upon older stories). Obviously, the concept of the “noble savage” have been around for a while (at least since de Montainge writings during the late 1500s), so I can’t claim that Dances with Wolves is entirely original. However, there’s a fine line between retelling a story and telling a cliche story, and I think Avatar too often does the latter. Cameron’s additions to the story are only skin-deep – literally. Despite living light-years away on another world, the Navi are almost identical to Western conventions of “noble savages” in pre-Columbian America, especially with the braided hair, the spiritual bond with nature, the egalitarian society, and the use of bows and arrows. There was nothing about their society that challenged the stereotype.
In theory, villains can act as a foil for the heroes, and a more complex villain can elicit more interesting reactions from the heroes. Unfortunately, the villains in Avatar, the human occupiers, are especially weak two-dimensional caricatures, led by the Greedy Corporation™ and the Fanatical Warrior™, both of which we’ve seen hundreds of times in other movies. They exhibit no remorse, no internal conflict (apparently only the “good guys” are allowed to feel remorse). I can’t even remember the name of any of the villains, none of who rise to the iconic levels of Darth Vader or Khan or even Lord Voldemort. Avatar manages to hit the right emotional cues, so audiences feel sympathy for the Navi and enjoy seeing them defeat the villains, but it never challenges its viewers.
Obviously, Avatar did not earn billions at the box office because of its story. Visually, Avatar is a delight. Even five years after the movie was released, its special effects are impressive. The Navi look photorealistic, even when next to live actors. The computer-generated plants and animals generally look like living organisms rather than cartoons. Cameron’s concept design and art departments must have had a lot of fun with this movie. But it’s not just about Avatar‘s special effects budget (which was large). Cameron’s ability to create stunning imagery is second only to Ridley Scott’s. Avatar contains dozens of iconic scenes. I especially love how the bioluminescent plants that glow at night. If the planet Pandora offered ecotourism vacation packages, I would definitely sign up. So, would Avatar have become the highest-earning movie ever without its special effects bonanza? Almost certainly not.
Five years later, science fiction fans seem dismissive of Avatar, despite Cameron’s big plans for a series of three sequels. Despite its box office success, its appeal seems broad and shallow rather than deep, especially compared to something like Star Wars. That’s because, although Avatar is a perfectly entertaining movie, it’s never a thought-provoking one. The film’s core messages – “don’t destroy nature”, “respect human rights” – are fairly uncontroversial and have been conveyed better in other films. I’ll always enjoy watching Avatar, but don’t find myself revisiting it all that often.