Good storytellers are gardeners. They take the seed of an idea and plant it within the mulch of their life experience. After a season of drafts and rewrites, the fruit of their labor is harvested and sold to the highest bidder or left to rot on the compost pile.
Great storytellers are dead trees. Their body is the shared experience that makes the story. Like the decaying remains of a tree, great storytellers are the culmination of every detail and character. And like the hundreds of fungi and saplings that take root on and around a fallen tree, their inspiration provides sustenance for an entire tangled thicket of fan fiction and media hype.
James Cameron is one of the American film industry’s great storytellers. It’s unfortunate he doesn’t chose stories that match his ability. Cameron’s most recent movie is just the latest example the inequality between storyteller and story.
As a vehicle for James Cameron’s story telling, Avatar is an excellent movie. Watch it in 3D and then again when it comes out on DVD. Cameron deserved the constant media attention he received in December 2009 before and after the movie’s release. His use of visual effects focuses on creating a rich environment rather than making arrows shoot out at the audience. He elicits excellent performances from each member of his cast. And his surreal moon, Pandora, feels logical despite the floating mountains.
Due to Cameron’s obsessive frame-by-frame attention to detail, every moment of corporate machination, interspecies discourse, and heroic sacrifice work together seamlessly. Like a dead tree where every scar on the bark, ring in the trunk and broken branch reflects movement through time, there are no gaps in continuity.
Cameron acknowledges each one of these movements as he blends them throughout his creation. He atrophies Sam Worthington’s muscular legs to make wheelchair user Jake Sully look believable. Cameron’s herbivores are bullish and to scale with the flora. His predators are few but populate the moon proportionately relative to their prey.
While Cameron is a great story teller, the story he tells is not that great. Avatar retells the classic cowboys versus Indians or, more accurately but lesser known, US Marines versus Hawaiians. All the right tropes of the American mythological landscape appear. All the expected morals play out sans a challenging twist to make a viewer reflect. Human alien hybrid meets alien girl. Cocky arrogant people get what’s coming to them. And Sigourney Weaver plays a classic fifth business – tough as nails from day one but a true friend to the end.
Ultimately, Avatar is an expected story. And an expected story is a lazy story. After watching it a second time, active viewers will see through the glare of bioluminescence and want something more. They’ll want something 3D filming promises but is so elusive not even a great storyteller can guarantee to deliver it: Depth.
(Twentieth Century Fox, 2009)