Avatar is a spectacular film whose main flaw is the perception that the plot is a short-cut recycling of a more familiar story. The protagonist is a member of a species who is invading the territory of a nature-worshipping people, who infiltrates an foreign culture, becomes accepted as one of their own, admits he was a spy, decides to ally himself with his new people, and attempts to fight off the greedy invasion force.
Dances With Wolves, the well-known 1990 Best Film Oscar winner, was not the first to use the fish-out-of-water theme, but did it most recently, most memorably, and with a great sense of tragedy. Because this has been so entrenched in our cinematic consciousness, it’s difficult to not see the overt similarities between Avatar and Dances, and feel that director and writer James Cameron took a short-cut to originality.
I chuckle to myself in writing that, despite the pervading feeling that it is true. What is also true – before I get back to the plot – is that all Cameron has done with Avatar is to create the most enthralling and unique movie-going experience I have ever seen.
The much-ballyhooed cutting-edge digital effects (presented in 3D, as I saw) are worth every accolade they have been given. It is a breathtaking experience -- yes a true film-going experience -- to be immersed in the picture that lasts 2 hours and 40 minutes, not once did I glance at my watch. You can have all the visuals you want, but you can’t get attention buy-in like that without some crisp storytelling. I can’t think of a throw-away scene or overlong scene that didn’t move the story along or add critical background information. In other words, Avatar almost feels a little tight.
Consider Dances told the epic journey of a man in search of himself on the plains of the old west, meeting alien cultures, identifying with them, and ultimately fighting with them and breaking from his own. Avatar has all that, and also has to infuse and explore an entirely new and incredible world, alien species galore, alien technology, and, oh yeah, the “Avatar” technology itself of embedding human consciousness in an actual physical body of an alien. In order to do all that Cameron’s imagination demanded, he basically had teams inventing the film techniques for the movie. Avatar defines the word epic, and given all that it sets out to do in such a short time frame, this movie is impeccably and spectacularly told.
In the age of DVD special features, it can be easier to edit some of the background and story-building from the main release. This gives the true film enthusiasts an avenue to see the director’s cut and also allow the average film-goer accessibility to the story without feeling that they have to wonder if they’ll be able to make it through without a hasty visit to the restroom.
Cameron has done this before with Aliens. I ultimately thought the thirty added minutes of footage was unnecessary and rightly cut from the theatrical release. The deleted scenes shown in the context of the film gave more substance to the story, but detracted ultimately from the pace. Inserting the scenes of Newt and her family on the planet before they stumbled upon the aliens gave you more background and connection (somewhat) with her, but delayed the entrance of the major baddies by a good 15 minutes. It felt way too long before anything really happened in the film.
The other most notorious case (to me) is what I have referred to as the Raping of Riddick, where central plot points were edited from the theatrical release of Chronicles of Riddick. As I wrote back then, the DVD restored the scenes, and the logic of the film without disrupting the the pace, resulting in one of the best films of the decade. (I was contemplating calling it one of the top 10 science fiction films ever, but then I started mentally trying to rank and catalog and just got too weary.)
I digress mightily, but Avatar’s plot feels a little short-cutted or cribbed because there just wasn’t enough time to tell all that needs be told in the space of a single seating. I can feel the gamble between the director telling his story and ultimately losing much of his audience and profit by making it overlong. This film is rumored to be the most expensive ever made and therefore needs repeat viewings to get the most return. Some sacrifices surely had to be made, but I can happily say that nothing that jeopardizes the cohesion of the film was removed.
Cameron embraces the Campbellian archetypes as George Lucas did. Reading such references as Myth and the Movies you will recognize many of the central characters from the hero’s journey in the tale -- "the trickster," "the shadow," "the hero”, “the threshold guardian”, and realize that the epic tales of the journey we love have used the same formula, tweaked, over and over again. This one is in 3D, is a true film adventure and awesome to behold.