From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Avatar: In Praise Of Competence

It is a sad commentary on the state of science fiction films when a minimally competent script looks like genius compared to recent offerings. So it is with James Cameron’s Avatar.

The story: Human settlers have their hands full on the world of Pandora, where the atmosphere is inhospitable and the natives–blue-skinned giants called Na’vi–are hostile. But Pandora is rich in the valuable mineral unobtainium (ha!). A group of scientists, led by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), has devised a way of moving about on the planet, using genetically engineered Na’vi bodies (the avatars of the title), remotely operated by human “drivers.” Their goal is to establish relations with the Na’vi before the Big Bad Mining Corporation, backed by its own private army, runs out of patience and levels the place. Into this charged situation comes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic veteran recruited to fill in for his dead brother, who was slated to become an avatar driver. The scientists don’t want him there, while the Big Bad Corporation sees him as the perfect spy. Jake soon finds himself caught between clashing cultures, and must decide where his loyalties really lie.


I saw Avatar in a 3-D IMAX theater, so I got the full treatment. A sumptuous visual feast, yes. But I expected it to be. Cameron’s relentless drive to the edge of the technical envelope–and beyond–is an unquestioned strength of his. The bioluminescent forest of Pandora simply dazzles. The 3-D work induces buttocks-clenching vertigo in at least one scene. And the Wizards of Weta once again work their magic, making the Na’vi every bit as real as Gollum. But–and here’s the part that so many who are lauding the film’s technical virtues seem to miss–one grows accustomed to these cinematic wonders very quickly. The effects that represent such a huge expenditure of time, money, and resources amount to very little after the first fifteen minutes or so. There must be something else going on if the film is to hold up. To his credit, I think Cameron knows this.

But for all his pioneering technical work, Cameron has never been much for pioneering or profound scripts. Ask Harlan Ellison how original The Terminator is. Aliens and Terminator 2 are both sequels. The otherworldly sea-dwellers of The Abyss, who warn mankind to straighten up and fly right or risk total annihilation, owe a large debt to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Titanic rehashes the age-old tale of star-crossed lovers.

Now, I see nothing wrong with retelling a familiar story. I’ve done it myself. One might wish the author had expended just a little more effort, but maybe, in this day and age, even that is asking too much. Certainly the writers of Star Trek couldn’t be bothered to craft a script that made any sense. Nor did the makers of District 9, who apparently felt that the weightiness of the allegory was enough to carry the film. (It wasn’t.)

So here we have Avatar, with its White-Man-Meets-Noble-Savage plotline that was old when Frank Herbert appropriated it for Dune. The script is by-the-numbers, utterly lacking in twists or surprises.

neytiriConsider: Jake finds himself rescued by the beautiful alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who turns out to be the daughter of the Na’vi chief. Of course she is. Jake attempts to gain acceptance into the Na’vi tribe, but is opposed by the hotheaded Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso). Naturally. Jake undergoes several tests and trials to prove his worthiness, complete with montage. Check. And the principal antagonist, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is the Military Man Who Just Wants To Kill Everyone. He has all the depth of cardboard. But really–did you expect otherwise?

I could go on and on, cataloging the story’s deficiencies. And yet… and yet…

I can’t help myself. For all its flaws, the film is–well, minimally competent. Jake is given just enough depth of characterization to make his actions believable. The acting is solid across the board. Even Lang, as the cardboard villain, does the best he can with the material he’s given. The science fictional elements–for which any reader of SF will recognize numerous antecedents–are handled with nods toward coherence and internal consistency. That’s much more than I can say for Trek, District 9, The Matrix, and pretty much every science fiction film of the last several years. Cameron dutifully hangs pistols on the wall in the first act, and he fires them all. That you can see the ending coming half an hour before it arrives is perhaps a bit of a drag, but it’s better than leaving plot holes one could pilot a starship through.

I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been too beaten down by all the noisy nonsense of Avatar‘s predecessors. Or maybe it’s too much to hope for a fresh counterpoint to the same old song. Maybe we should be grateful that someone out there at least still knows how to carry a tune. Cameron is showing more respect for his audience than most of his contemporaries. That alone should be worth something.

Let us raise a glass, then, to competence. It sure as hell beats the alternative.

rotundoMatthew S. Rotundo is an award-winning author whose fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future Volume XXV, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Jim Baen’s Universe.  Though he lives in Nebraska, he has husked corn only once, and has never been detasseling, so he insists he is not a hick.

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