“I thought the cinematography was breathtaking, but the story was weak and derivative.” That seems to be the consensus critique of James Cameron’s Avatar. I think this critique misses two key points about storytelling. One: movies are not novels. Two: great storytelling is not necessarily about having an original plot.
For the record, I’m a word guy. I love novels, and will often read a couple in any given week. I also love movies and television shows that replicate the sophisticated wordplay of good novels. Atticus Finch’s closing argument, Lorelei Gilmore’s run-on pop culture references, Will Hunting’s dressing down of a pretentious grad student, Malcolm Reynolds’ pithy observations about life on the lam, Hynkels closing monologue in The Great Dictator – I can think of countless moments on large and small screens that have rivaled the awe I have experienced and the brilliant craftsmanship of a thought-provoking novelist.
Words, however, are not the only way for a moviemaker to tell a story. The clever minds at Monty Python built a creative empire by creating visuals whose humor actually undermined the words of the narrator. In his “Man with no Name” trilogy, Sergio Leone allowed the landscape and the wrinkles at the corner of Clint Eastwood’s eyes to carry forward the story. Michael Winterbottom’s controversial 9 Songs told the story of a relationship almost entirely through the two characters’ body language and sex life.
Music, landscape, movement, expression are all part of the filmmaker’s palette. In Avatar, James Cameron has chosen to tell a story by creating a fully-immersive, coherent world. For fans of science fiction, that alone is a huge gift. Unlike books in the genre, science fiction movies only use as much pseudo-science as is necessary to tell their traditional stories in non-traditional settings.
The most successful science fiction movies make this clear. George Lucas recreated World War II in space, even though dogfighting makes no sense in zero-gravity. Gene Rodenberry wanted us to focus more on ethnic, class, and religious conflicts than on the fact that a “universal translator” is an impossibility. The Wachowski brothers could not have asked their questions about identity and reality if they had allowed physicists to ask basic questions about the efficiency of using human beings as batteries.
In other words, if we look too closely at the world in which a typical science fiction movie is set, the story actually gets derailed. In Avatar, the world is the story. The ecology of Pandora is supposed to be completely real and breathtakingly alien. Its humanoid and non-humanoid characters are familiar enough that we can predict their behavior, yet foreign enough that we can watch them in wonder. Along with Jake Sully, we fall in love with Pandora – and along with him we feel it viscerally when greed and ignorance wound her.
The dialogue is secondary. Even the specifics of the plot are secondary, most especially when they are obviously silly (unobtanium? really?) or contrived (the only place you can get the rare ore is where the Na’vi live? really?). The story of Avatar is Pandora, and the way in which it swiftly and completely becomes our world too.
The plot that draws us into that world is hardly original, especially since it is a true story that residents of the Amazon would gladly tell us they are living out every day. This is not the unpardonable sin some of Avatar’s detractors would have us believe it to be. Some brilliant stories are completely derivative. The story of star-crossed lovers preceded Romeo and Juliet by hundreds of years. Surely Homer would recognize the plot of Oh Brother!.
Some stories are worth telling in new ways, so that new generations can hear them in their own language. We can never be reminded too often that there are people and places with truths we might not understand. We must constantly re-teach ourselves that power and selfishness can blind us to the destruction we wreak in our arrogance and greed
Quibble all you like about gravity inconsistencies and weak dialogue, James Cameron has crafted perhaps the most internally-consistent, immersive, extra-terrestrial world ever brought to life on the large screen. In so doing, he has made the atrocities of ethnocentric consumerism real in a way that a cleverly contrived plot alone would not have. For threats of mass destruction or genocide to be real to us, they must threaten our home. This is why the apocalyptic scenes of Terminator are so much more terrifying than the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope.
Avatar tells us how an alien land can become our home, and it does so by making Pandora our world, causing us to feel her wounds, and cheer at her defense. James Cameron did not accomplish this with brilliant writing or an innovative story, he did it by making even the tiniest details of Pandora as real and vibrant as possible. It works, spectacularly.