The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

James Cameron: Tree Hugger? A Script Review of Avatar

Written by: Jonathan Lipman, CC2K Staff Writer

Image James Cameron’s Avatar, if ever made into a movie that remotely approaches the 170-page “scriptment” I have just finished reading, will bomb.

Notice I don’t say it will suck. It might be entertaining, in a big-spectacle way, as nobody does spectacle like the King of the World. It might be an intrriguing pop-sci-fi flick, full of boundary-pushing visual concepts, something else that Cameron has certainly shown he is adept at. It might be ripe for merchandising and do well overseas, as it has quirky aliens that carry a sort of Euro/anime/Native American sensibility about them.

But when it comes to U.S. box office, it will tank. No one will go see it.

Because it’s an eco-fable. Another movie telling us not to destroy the environment. And those … always … bomb.

First things first. I am an environmentalist. So I’ve got no argument with this message. I like this message. I talk about it a lot.

So does Avatar. “Avatar” is a term from Hindu mythology, and it represents any human or corporeal manifestation of God on Earth. In the 1990s, cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson co-opted the term to mean the representation of yourself that you take into a virtual reality.

In Cameron’s film, our hero Josh Sully has his own custom-grown avatar, and it’s a beautiful blue alien.

Josh is a cripple living in your Standard Issue Dystopic Earth #56. This is the Earth with unmitigated dense urban sprawl, lots of steam pipes, formed protein for lunch, and major income disparities. Cameron takes pains to say explicitly that the environment has been ravaged, and the last lion living outside of captivity has just died in Kenya.

Josh’s legs no longer work, the victim of a war no one remembers.

Josh gets approached by your typical Scary Corporate Guys in Suits and the SCGS tell him that he can go to the planet Pandora (no, no problems there, why do you ask? The name? We thought it was cute) around Alpha Centauri if he plays along.

Seems Josh’s recently dead brother was participant in a program to communicate with the native species there, the Na’vi. The Na’vi, crazy unsophisticated, non-industrialized savages that they are, don’t like to talk to us humans. So the SCGS have figured out a way to genetically splice humans and Na’vi. Then the human who is DNA-linked can psionically control the genetic hybrid. The hybrid becomes the controller’s avatar – an embodiment of him or her self.

Cameron – clearly a science fiction fan who has done his homework – spends a lot of time in the scriptment explaining why there’s a need for interstellar trade and why this major global consortium has do to things this way. with a small colony on the planet staffed at least partially by natives, rather than just shipping in a huge factory run by Earthlings. None of this is gonna make it onto the screen, I’d bet. Nobody will care. It’s an interstellar colony, and the Earthlings are outnumbered, that’s all you need.

The Na’vi are very tall and thin and blue and have dreds. Their fingers have no bones, they can just beautifully bend. They must be done by CGI.

When we get to Pandora, it’s clear that the entire thing will be CGI. In fact, the entire movie can be shot on one studio soundstage, and then shipped over to ILM. It’s gonna be 90 percent digital cartoon, which is another reason it might very well bomb. Some movies of that ilk have done well, but many others have been rejected by audience as expensive cartoons lacking veracity.

Cameron has created a fantastical alien world with magenta grass and floating mountains that crash together in the sky. There are some cool alien creatures like the manticore, which is a giant panther/scorpion. and a slinger, a ridiculous predatory cat-thing that actually throws its own head at you. Really, it’s great. It’s right out of a Borris Vallejo painting or a Larry Niven novel. But I don’t know if people will buy it.

I could get away with describing the rest of the script as Dances with Wolves meets Pocahantas. However, for those who have read this far, enjoy the spoiler magic:

Josh – through his avatar – goes out to meet the Na’vi. The Na’vi teach him to LOVE THE PLANET. Meanwhile the EVIL COLONIAL LEADERS tell Josh to stop messing around and help them RAPE THE PLANET which, for some reason they don’t understand, has continued to ATTACK THE COLONISTS LIKE A VIRUS. Josh and his fellow controller, Grace Shipley, urge cooperation and restraint, but the colonial leaders DON’T LISTEN and sure enough, Josh and Grace decided to GO NATIVE and help the Na’vi and the planet in a CLIMACTIC BATTLE against the colonists.

Basically, it’s the story of the European colonization of America. Except the Native Americans win because Gaia rises up and helps smack the Pilgrims in the tuchus.

It’s entirely predictable and obnoxious and most Americans – being descended of ass-raping European colonists – will probably feel a little cheesed off. Cameron’s not exactly subtle with the analogy, the last battle is called the “Battle of Big Rock-Candy Mountain,” not all that far from Custer’s “Battle of Little Big Horn.”

The twists and turns are expertly paced, of course, because Cameron knows how to make a damn movie, and the all-CGI action set pieces he has sketched out have serious wow-potential. There’s a battle of aliens on flying manta rays vs. soldiers in Iron-Man style battle armor.

But the movie has the fatal flaw of being liberal Hollywood preachy at the same time that it insenstively slams the disabled and the overweight. Josh, the cripple, and Grace, who is described as dumpy, are portrayed as never possibly happy or fulfilled in life until they get a chance to inhabit the smooth, wonderfully athletic and no doubt sexualized alien bodies of their avatars. Take that, fatty.

And these preachy movies always bomb. Fern Gully. Waterworld. Pocahantas.

I guess Day After Tomorrow, which focused around a sudden cooling of the Earth in response to global warming, did OK. But as my wife pointed out, Day After Tomorrow wasn’t really an eco-fable, it was a disaster movie. It wasn’t out to moralize. It was just about Jake Gyllenhaal running away from wolves.

The one exception, of course, is An Inconvenient Truth. But I think that movie, being a documentary, drew on its explicitness and veracity. People went to see it not despite its message but because of its message. They went to see it as a political statement, as citizenship. You can’t make an argument that going to see a Hollywood splatterfest is some sort of public service. Plus, Inconvenient Truth had an amazing special effect:

“Hey, did you want to go see Inconvenient Truth?”

“Yeah! I heard Al Gore is actually interesting and engaging.”

“Fuck OFF!”

“Seriously. They say he’s an effective and powerful voice for his cause.”

“Jesus Christ. Where the fuck was THAT in 2000?”

“Beats me. Let’s go see if he lights his farts on fire or something.”

Ain’t no bendy fingered aliens gonna match that.