The Trouble with Avatar

By John H. Foote Seeing James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time was an extraordinary sensory experience, as the director put images up on the screen that truly were breathtaking and unlike anything we had seen since Star Wars (1977). In fact those images were so incredible audiences tended to overlook the obvious, and painful weaknesses in the storyline, which when seeing the film on DVD become all too apparent. It is a classic case of style over substance, which is fast becoming the trouble with American cinema.

Where have all the stories gone?

In 1990, Kevin Costner directed Dances with Wolves (1990) a powerful and handsomely made western about a Civil War hero given any post he wants after an act of madness turns into an act of heroism. He chooses the prairie, wanting to see it all before its gone, knowing the whites are coming and coming in massive numbers. There alone, he finds homself befriended by the Native American Indians, thought to be savages, who are camped close by. Initially it is a tentative relationship that blossoms into a deep love and friendship, so much so that he becomes one of their tribe, a most loved and trusted member. He becomes fascinated with their discipline, their conection to the land, their lack of waste, killing animals only for food, and then using every part of the creature for something useful, be it the hide for blankets or the leather for clothing. He falls in love, sees the men as his brothers and finds a deep connection with these people.When the whites come, he chooses to side with the Natives, and becomes one with them.

You with me?

In Avatar (2009) we have a man who chooses to journey to Pandora, a five year journey he undertakes to see the universe and follow his brother’s work. There he encounters the natives, who are connected to the land and creatures, and not at all the savages he has been told they are. He connects with them, falls in love and when the humans move in and declare war he sides with the aliens and is one with them.

Still with me?

Cameron has never been an original writer, the screenplay for Titanic (1997) was terrible, though the visuals were astonishing. He reminds me a great deal of Cecil B. Demille, a showman more than a filmmaker.
Demille could fill the screen with spectacle and stunning images such as the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), but the storytelling was always suspect. Same as Cameron, remarkable visuals, but the story is almost weak.

So the right film won the Oscar for Best Picture, and those who think Avatar should have won are dead wrong. Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009) is a work of art, and demands to be seen. Avatar does too, but for pure enjoyment, nothing else.

It’s a good movie…not a great one.

John H. Foote
Film Critic/ Historian


Doing our best to bring you "The Pulse of New Hollywood®." Follow us @hollywoodnews

Follow us

Breaking Hollywood News   



  • May 14, 2010 | Permalink |

    Oh, John, John, John, John, John….
    I agree that Avatar was nothing particularly original, but then again, neither was Star Wars (swords and sorcery in space – save the princess from the dark tower and defeat the black knight).
    To say, however, that Cameron’s storytelling has always been suspect while only mentioning Titanic is shortsighted at best. Aliens is deemed by many as the greatest sequel ever made, and even if it isn’t, its narrative is the perfect continuation from the original Alien. That is not my definition of ‘suspect storytelling’.
    I have been an absolute fan of Cameron’s since I was 12 years old – despite the Titanic years – and he has always delivered. To single Cameron out in this day and age is just nitpicking and he gets a lot of that because he makes so much money from fare designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
    People talk up the derivative, and in many cases, cliched work of Quentin Tarantino, and the question must become: How is his use of story and technique different to Cameron’s? They both take an idea they like from a film they’ve seen and work it to the nth degree…
    I’m at a loss as to how so called ‘people in the know’ can differentiate when there isn’t an original filmmaker working in Hollywood.

  • May 14, 2010 | Permalink |

    I agree with SlaveToTheWheel.

  • May 14, 2010 | Permalink |

    I didn’t see Avatar and I’m not old enough to remember seeing Star Wars, but I know more people went to see the original Star Wars than saw the big blue monsters and I’ve seen Star Wars lots of times and even the rererelease and special edition. I saw it as a kid on a screen and I doubt Cameron’s film comes even close to it.

  • May 15, 2010 | Permalink |

    Let me see if I got this straight. You’re a professional critic, right? At least from your credentials above, that is what is implied. I would expect from a professional critic to bring something to the table that is an original perspective, a critique that points out flaws or praise that the casual film enthusiasts may overlook. That is the value film critics add to the cinema experience.

    And the theme you chose was to do a stare and compare with Dance with Wolves? Really? This has been done a bazillion times over, it’s so beyond exhausted from critics that it is officially beaten to a paper thin pulp…….. and this was done back in December. And here you are writing this lame theme in May……… I repeat, in May. This is incredibly lazy writing.

    I find it ironic that you are criticizing a director for his lack of originality using a critique vehicle that has the rubber on it’s tires worn down to the rim.

    So, what value do you add?

  • May 16, 2010 | Permalink |

    Some movies, such as “Avatar” and “Star Wars” have such a connection to the audience that they are more impotrant than a category at the Oscars can recognize.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.