After 12 years and hundreds of millions of dollars, expectations are so high for Avatar that it seems impossible for James Cameron's latest film to live up to the promise of being a game-changer not only for 2009 audiences, but for the history of the medium itself. It certainly hasn't helped that Cameron has spent the better part of the last year proclaiming that it would be unlike anything anyone has ever seen.
Interestingly, however, what all of this hype may actually do is create the mistaken sense that Cameron's movie is truly unprecedented, bizarre, or otherwise unfamiliar in its form, structure and storytelling. The one thing that Cameron seems to understand best is that technological revolutions – one of which is essentially what he's staging here – are best packaged in familiar forms. In which case, we took a look at the movie and highlighted the top eight characterizations, plot points and ideas in Avatar that will immediately feel recognizable to his fans, much less moviegoers long since steeped in the conventions of contemporary moviemaking.
James Cameron's envelope-pushing technological advancements. While what Cameron actually does with digital photography, CGI and three-dimensional cinematography will go unrevealed by us – at least until after the movie comes out – the fact that he's using these technologies at all in not only the best way, but an arguably completely new way, is reflective of decades of personal innovations on film. For example, Cameron's use of CGI in The Abyss (particularly with the "water tentacle") was unprecedented in its sophistication, and his subsequent creation of a fully-formed CGI character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day truly changed what audiences could imagine on film.
Envelope-pushing technological advancements – within the movie itself. Cameron has always tried to front-load his films with advanced technological ideas, including mutant piranha fish, cyborgs, power loaders, and underwater breathing apparatuses. Here, he manufactures the avatar technology, which allows humans to project their psyches into alien proxies. Meanwhile, the rest of Avatar plays a little bit like a greatest-hits compilation of some of those on screen innovations, turning Aliens' power loader into a fast-moving weapon of war, and resuscitating the gunships he invented for Terminator and Aliens as the preferred mode of transportation for the human marines on Na'vi.
Collaborations with composer James Horner. It's arguable that James Horner made his professional breakthrough composing the score to Star Trek II, but Cameron fans (and moviegoers worldwide) will forever associate him with the pulse-pounding music he composed for the finale of Aliens, which went on to provide thrills in countless movie trailer in subsequent years. His work on Avatar feels like a mix of his work on both Aliens and Titanic, creating excitement and energy even as he underscores the nobility of the Na'vi (although thankfully without Celine Dion this time).
As advanced as the concepts are, stories filled with clichés and clunky dialogue. No one will dispute Cameron's mastery of the visual and conceptual aspects of filmmaking, but in terms of dialogue and character development, his films often leave much to be desired. In Avatar, Cameron crafts quite a few howlers or ham-fisted lines of dialogue, and embraces a number of boilerplate movie catchphrases (the most egregious of which is probably "you're not in Kansas any more"). Not to mention the story has been told dozens of times before in dozens of similar ways: scrappy soldier goes undercover in an alien (or foreign) environment only to fall in love with the culture he's investigating, ultimately facing off against his former superiors. Plug in Native Americans and you've got Dances With Wolves, or mobsters and you've got Donnie Brasco.
Both the military and corporations are intrusive, harmful forces. Whether or not this is cliché or just accurate storytelling depends on your feelings about the two organizations, but even squaring off against creatures like those in Aliens, Cameron's movies have always featured threatening corporate bottom-liners or military types with an agenda (see The Abyss) that does a lot more harm than good. That isn't to say that soldiers haven't served as sympathetic characters in his films, but as familiar scapegoats for the evils of the world, corporations and soldiers offer a well of villainous reference points that Cameron's returned to time and again.
Female characters that are more than a match for their male counterparts. The appearance of proto-feminist action hero Sigourney Weaver notwithstanding, Avatar features the latest in his series of feisty, formidable female leading ladies – this time Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who quite literally indoctrinates main character Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in the ways of the Na'vi, including teaching him how to survive and flourish in the wild. Additionally, Michelle Rodriguez plays a tough but thoughtful marine who befriends the scientists as she helps them navigate the planet's flora and fauna.
Star-crossed or unlikely romances. In Avatar, a human and a Na'vi fall in love, but Cameron has flirted with oddball couplings for decades: Sarah Connor falls in love with a rough-hewn soldier sent from the future by her own son. Ripley shares an unexpected chemistry in Aliens first with Corporal Hicks and later with the android Bishop, the latter of whom is almost literally the embodiment of the betrayal she experienced in Alien. In True Lies, the whole film is about two people who are radically and seemingly irreparably different finding common ground and rekindling their marriage. And of course in Titanic, Jack and Rose's short-lived love is a case study in relationships that transcend cultural and economic boundaries.
The transformative power of alien cultures on human experience. Quite frankly this could extend negatively to the alien race that decimates the human colony (and later, the marines) in Aliens, but Cameron has always had a fascination with the impact that alien and unfamiliar cultures have on humankind. The Abyss is an obvious predecessor for Avatar's fascination with foreign creatures, demonstrating how these creatures' curiosity – even as a byproduct of their own cultural values – can seem threatening, but it ultimately serves as a liberating and enlightening force that puts us in touch with other cultures and the world around us.