I watched Avatar on Blu-Ray over the weekend. A great deal has been said about the largest grossing film of all time. The quality of its visual effects, however, have never been in doubt. Its high definition clarity absolutely mesmerizing on Blu-Ray, so much so you forget that you ever saw it in 3D, and wondered why you had in the first place. What surprises me most though, is that critics and individuals continue to lambaste the story, and specifically its simplicity and lack of originality…
Fundamentally stories involve a protagonist and antagonist, with hiccups in between to upset the apple cart; the eternal struggle of good versus evil the backbone to our literary and theatrical creations. Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, Middle-Earth vs. Sauron, Batman vs. the Joker; it is a principle that will remain until humans are incapable of putting pen to paper, or finger to key. So why is it then that we are so quick to highlight such predictability in Avatar?
Mother earth, rebirth and spirituality are well trodden concepts that have been adopted regularly. Square Soft entered the ring of cinema entertainment with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in 2001, and although failing miserably at the box office (despite a colossal budget of $135 million), many of the film’s concepts draw parallels with Avatar; Gaia and Eywa- our direct place in the world in comparison to nature. Egotistical antagonists averse to reason; Avatar’s Parker Selfridge and Final Fantasy’s General Hein. Alongside the reiteration that we as a race are all part of a larger un-earthly force, lacking understanding of preservation, being prevalent in both films. And while Avatar has drawn praise for art direction and James Cameron’s “vision”, many of his concepts are akin to Roger Dean’s famed works and can at times draw far too many comparisons between our own earthly creatures (“let’s add two more legs, that’ll make it look alien!”), while the protagonist Jake Sully is a cut-copy-paste of Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe”; the tale of a disabled man using an artificial body to explore the surface of Jupiter.
Despite these similarities, it must be acknowledged that there are very few concepts left (and notably in science fiction) that don’t draw influence from preconceived ideas. Harry Potter, for example, without J.R.R Tolkien would not exist; Rowling’s entire series revolving around fundamental creatures and ideas conjured up years before. And while Rowling has the imagination to develop a story, they are lacking in true originality. Is it discredited as a result however? Not particularly, and it certainly doesn’t make the books any less enjoyable.
The five highest grossing films of all time total revenue in excess of $7.5 billion dollars, with three of the five having simplistic, commercial stories understandable by a demographic far younger than their target (Avatar, Titanic, Pirates of the Caribbean). Yet The Dark Knight (despite its comic adaptations) and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (arguably slightly more complicated and buoyed by being sequels), have amassed a billion dollars each. However, it is through the execution of each of these five titles simplistic stories that has allowed for such riches. Good versus evil, triumph over adversity.
Where film critics may wish for story-lines equal to Infernal Affairs, a product of Avatar’s nature would never have achieved the commercial success necessary in order to claw back the $450 million dollars it took to make (including marketing), while no studio would have funded such a product if its story wasn’t as commercial as it is. In principal no media product could ever be commercially successful if its story naturally discourages the general public by its very nature. After all, James Cameron is certainly not averse to stories of complexity; The Terminator and its sequel are evidence enough. However, as a product of passion and years in the making, I have no doubt Avatar is exactly how it was supposed to be.
It may not have the most complicated story in cinema history, and its world lacking in originality, but in its execution James Cameron has achieved something truly wonderful. It is a spectacle that feeds the mind and one which leaves the viewer depressed when the credits roll, that you don’t in fact live on Pandora.
Are simplistic stories really ever a bad thing in any form of entertainment medium? I don’t think so, as long as the execution is flawless.
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