It’s making a ton of money, but James Cameron’s blockbuster has been accused of violating the essence of cinema storytelling.
4 Jan 2010 - 11:11 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 3:30 PM

It may seem absurd, even pointless, to attack a movie that has raked in more than $US1 billion in ticket sales worldwide and is being touted as a best picture winner at the Oscars.

But I think Cinematical's Monika Bartyzel is entitled to question a blatant flaw at the heart of James Cameron's Avatar: a weak, derivative plot.

She believes that while fans are dazzled by the sci-fi epic's visual beauty, most are disappointed with the storyline, which, as many reviewers have noted, borrows ideas and themes from Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai and Cameron's own Aliens and The Abyss.

“By buying into this whole love-the-pretty-visuals bend, are we helping to end the art of storytelling?” she asks. “Actions have a reaction. Money talks. Merge those two together and it seems like we're sending a loud and clear message to Hollywood that we don't care if the story sucks as long as everything looks pretty. It would certainly account for the never-ending barrage of crappy, big-visuals, big-action features.”

It isn't as if Cameron had to hammer out the script in a hurry: he spent the best part of 10 years nutting out his ideas until advances in technology enabled him to realise his vision. The production budget was enormous--reportedly more than $300 million—so why couldn't he throw more bucks into developing smart dialogue as well as characters that are more well-rounded and believable than the stereotypical villain played by Stephen Lang?

“If we can't expect 10 years to bring us solid storytelling, one of the most basic essences of cinema, that doesn't bode so well for Hollywood's cinematic future,” Bartyzel argues, reasonably in my view. “Long-gestating projects are a different cinematic beast than something like Transformers, which got a sequel quickly to capitalize on the box office, which was meant to be nothing but goofy spectacle. At least those popcorn flicks have the excuse of speed and fluff.”

Her column provoked a fierce debate among Cinematical's followers. “To say Avatar's story sucked is just stupid,” opined one blogger who calls himself Jewish Dave. “It was a classic story that yes has been done to death, and had its fair share of cliches, but it also had its differences from the stories it draws from. Just because something is derivative of other movies doesn't make it bad.”

A guy whose ID is Johnny Woods ventured, “I agree that the story was bogus, but I don't think it was simply the visuals that made this film great. What differentiates Avatar from Transformers, 2012, GI Joe, et al, is the creation and presentation of a completely fictional, yet well realised, world. It shows you somewhere you want to go, but can never be.”

I suspect many fans would agree with blogger Pingles, who said, “Sometimes I want a story and sometimes I wanna turn off my brain and watch some characters go through an eye-popping romp. Be great if we can have both but I don't mind the silly ones if they work hard enough to keep me watching.”