Avatar: Old Story, New Costume

By Michael Schilf · March 7, 2010


“Wow!” I whispered as the credits began to roll. “Wow!” I said again as I dropped my IMAX 3-D glasses in the collection bin. “Wow!” I repeated as I walked from the cineplex and out onto the top level of a Santa Anita parking structure. 

It was dusk. A cold, clean, brisk air wrapped around me as I stared longingly at the San Gabriel Mountains in the horizon, thinking of the Na’vi and the lush moonscape of their Pandora home: where mountains float in the sky, carnivorous flora glows in the dark, hexapodal animals coincide with the land, and erotic 10-foot-tall indigo warrior princesses literally fall out of trees as woodsprites float around like airborne jellyfish.

Standing there, staring, thinking, I was astonished that all I could say to myself was “Wow!”

I’ve been a movie lover my whole life, and I’ve also been guilty on more than one occasion of having a little too much to say. Words have always come easy to me, and my wife has learned to kick me in the shin under the table when I begin to monopolize a conversation at a dinner party. You’d think I would learn to be more concise when I open my mouth, but the chronic bruises on my legs would say otherwise.

But “Wow!”? That was it? That was all I could come up with? That was my entire analysis? Yep. And thinking back, I realize now that those three little letters were more than enough.

James Cameron’s Avatar is as simple as a children’s cautionary tale, as predictable as church on Sundays, as cheesy as swiss on rye – and a masterpiece.

Maybe Jake Sully, Cameron’s paraplegic hero, says it best: “Sometimes your whole life boils down to one insane move.” And the making of Avatar was writer-director-producer James Cameron’s Spruce Goose, his very own Manhattan project, an insane move that might even redefine cinema as we know it.

An explosion of eye-popping spectacle, Avatar marries “performance capture” technology, using cameras that Cameron himself invented, that connects human actors into a CGI world in real time, with state-of-the-art 3-D effects in ways that an audience has never yet seen before.

So, yes, when talking about Avatar, “Wow!” is my mantra.

In case you’re one of the few people in the universe who haven’t seen it, Avatar, which has already claimed the highest gross of all time with 720 million domestically and 2.6 billion worldwide, follows ex-marine Jake Sully at a mining outpost on a moon called Pandora, who is transported into an alien Na’vi body, or avatar, and sent to spy on the aboriginal natives, but he falls in love with the Na’vi princess, Neytiri, ultimately becoming one of the Na’vi and leading the fight against the humans who plan to destroy their land in order to mine the invaluable mineral “Unobtainium”.

But what about the naysayers that argue that we’ve seen this story before, that Cameron is a thief and a hack?

Sure, we’ve seen it before… a lot. It’s the 17th century tale of captured explorer Captain John Smith, who lives among the Native Americans and falls in love with the princess Pocahontas. It’s the post-American Civil War epic of Lt. John Dunbar, who is stationed on the western frontier, is accepted into the local Sioux tribe, and falls for the beautiful “Stands With a Fist”, ultimately fighting against the white man to help protect the natives he now calls his people.

And because we’ve see this story before, because it has a proven track record, because, simply put, it works on every level is precisely why Avatar has been so successful.

George Lucas, when asked about Star Wars, said, “A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”

And Avatar, even without the special effects, is definitely not a boring thing. The audience is involved; we hope and we fear Jake Sully will do the right thing, that Neytiri will take him back, that Col. Quaritch will get his just deserts, and the Na’vi will overcome their oppressors and be victorious.

So what if it’s the same old story? “One life ends; another begins,” explains Jake. Stories work the same way. The root of all the best stories are simple, and that’s why they continue to live on. They are reincarnated by wearing a new costume. The technology Cameron utilized to present Avatar’s world is just that: another costume, and a really cool one.

So it shouldn’t matter whether it’s the British Empire exploring The New World, American’s expansion into The Western Frontier, or a military mining corporation on the moon of Pandora in the year 2154. We will see this story again. We can count on it. Let’s just hope it’s wearing some new attire.

Consider Romeo and Juliet. How many times have we seen that story? Romeo and Juliet during the Gold Rush, Romeo and Juliet in the Mariana Trench, Romeo and Juliet on Mars… and what about Titanic, Cameron’s last record breaking film? Could it be Romeo and Juliet on a doomed Olympic-class passenger liner crossing the Atlantic? Maybe so. But does that mean Cameron is guilty of plagiarism? Shakespeare penned the story of the two young “star-cross’d lovers” over five centuries ago, but the plot stretches back to antiquity. Based on an Italian tale, translated into verse and retold in prose over the years, Shakespeare merely borrowed from what was told in the past, developed supporting characters, and expanded the plot. So should we call arguably the greatest writer of all time a story bandit as well?

No. Shakespeare was a smart writer and a tremendous tale teller. He understood, just as James Cameron does, that the oldest stories are everlasting because they are the simplest-seeming ones. The stories that are immortal – The Wizard of Oz, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn – are all the same: a brave, but flawed hero, on a quest with colorful people and places, struggling to overcome obstacles, ultimately discovering one of life’s simple and universal truths.

Clearly, Avatar is a very old story wearing a spectacular new costume, and it’s that costume that lives and breathes the “Wow” factor: a technological milestone that very well may change the way we go and see the movies. Birth of the Nation introduced the language of shots and editing, The Jazz Singer brought us the “talkies”, Citizen Kane advanced photographic style and nonlinear storytelling, Star Wars unleashed the big studio blockbuster and a new generation of special effects. Will Avatar be the next on the list to redefine the movie experience as we know it?

Only the future will tell, but many are already sold. As one fan put it, “Avatar is the first film of the rest of your life.”

Scripts from this Article